This Christmas, I Am Definitely Listening to Fleet Foxes

What is a ‘Christmas-y’ sound?

What is something that sounds like snow falling? That lulls you into that fireplace-glow warmth? For me, it is Fleet Foxes. I mean, who can deny a hot cocoa, low lights, acoustic guitars, choral voices, and tons of reverb on these long December nights? I mean, I can’t.I tend not to make generalisations, but I really have to say, the Fleet Foxes are an amazing band. For one thing, they are very musically talented. But, they know exactly how to use their talent to produce perfect results. Listening to this band is not like listening to many other bands, it is listening to a sound. The cohesion between instruments, the part writing, the melodies, the rhythms, the harmonies – everything flows and intermingles wonderfully. In the era of power-pop and glam, of consumable songwriting and marketable one-hit-wonders, Fleet Foxes adeptly disregard the formulaic methods and means by which modern mainstream is made to sink into their sea of soundscapes. Undulating vocal waves and washes of guitar carry you far and wide.Fleet Foxes formed, shockingly, in the American northwest. Robin Pecknold and Skyler Skjelset are the two founding members of the band, meeting in a high school in suburban Seattle. Influenced by the likes of Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Neil Young, and Brian Wilson, they began songwriting straight away. Pecknold became the main voice of the group, writing in mostly a mid- to late-'60s pop style. The two musicians were joined by various others, and with the help of producer Phil Ek, they began to work on their first self-released, self-titled EP in 2006. Local media began taking notice of the band after its release, and it received good reviews in Seattle tabloids. The EP inherits much from Wilson in its vocal style, and from Dylan in chord use, voicing and instrumentation. The originality of sound achieved, however, is striking.From the beginning, instead of just sounding like a '60s knockoff band, the Fleet Foxes were already steeped in a sensuous and swimmingly serene sound. In 2008, after much online exposure, mainly through Myspace, their digital word-of-mouth exposure got them a record deal to Warner Music subsidiary label Sub Pop. With this step up, they began working on their second EP, Sun Giant, with little expectation. Pecknold later explained that the group just wanted an album to sell on their US and European tours (even though this EP was as well received as the previous). But the time had come. After extensive touring (for a young band), they pulled forces together to create their first full-length album: Fleet Foxes.This album was considered by many to be a masterpiece. From Rolling Stone to The Guardian, it received rave reviews. With comparisons to bands such as Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Beach Boys, and Animal Collective, the group was well received and welcomed into the popular American music scene. Sonically, this was a natural progression from their EPs. Choral harmonies, majestic guitars, hypnotizing drum rhthms, with an overall '60s vibe (yet still completely original), the Fleet Foxes were on the right track for musical success. After much more touring, the band released their second album, Helplessness Blues. This, yet again, was a masterpiece of universal acclaim.Except for some people. I suppose some had had enough by this point. NME wrote an excellent view for this album, arguing that ‘[Fleet Foxes] peddle the same sort of fake-rustic rootsiness that seems to be colonising our era: all these flatpack off-the-peg dreams of Ruritania that iPad-stashing mid-lifes have taken up as a counterpoint to their rabid technophilia. They lull you in with their flawlessly polished music and hey-nonny-nonny you into a hypnagogic state, with the aim of making the world safe for the bland, the dull and the wi-fi enabled.’Clearly not everyone is keen on Fleet Foxes. Helplessness Blues continues the natural progression that they have kept up since their first EP. If you are immediately seduced by folk-indie-pop soundscape and rustic textures, then Fleet Foxes are for you. But if you consider pastoral neo-folk pop, eclectic rhythms, choral voicings, and seamless production to be nothing more than ‘canoeing music,’ then don’t even go for it. I am partial to the former. I readily appreciate any band that tastefully manages to design and produce their own, iconic sound; any band that has a sound in their head that performs it perfectly.While I can’t speak for Fleet Foxes, all I can say is good work, and keep it up. Their pioneering songwriting and arranging are not for all, but even so, on the long, late nights of this cold December, I think they’re at least worth a try (by that I mean I think they’re awesome and you should definitely listen to them). Hot cocoa is good for the soul in these dark months – even if you think they are the Starbucks ‘soy-latte’ of music as some term it, they’ll still warm you up and get the job done.Listen, and watchMichael MeliaImage - Shiretoko-Shari Tourist Association

A Guitar Gallery

Guitars are the life-blood of rock-and-roll. But what are these guitars exactly? This is a virtual tour of the most famous (and recognisable) guitars that you should know. They make the music you love, after all. Ever since the 1950s, these guitars have been around creating music crossing many genres. Rock, of course, but also blues, funk, jazz, reggae, progressive, and everything in between. The electric guitar is a staple of our time. In efforts to become a more educated music listener, here's a sample of the most influential and highly sought-after guitars that have changed music history for good. This is not just a fad of our times; these guitars have had such long lasting impacts in how we write, produce, and hear music that it's worthwhile to get to know them sooner rather than later. 

Gibson Les Paul

Fender Stratocaster

Gibson Flying V

Gibson SG

Fender Jaguar

Gibson Explorer

Fender Telecaster

 

Fender Jazz Bass

 David Hershaw Image 1 - Nicole HensleyImage 2 - DelhovynImage 3 - Professional photographerImage 4 - Steve Ford ElliotImage 5 - StratmattImage 6 - CasinoKatImage 7 - Lukasz KrolImage 8 - GibsonImage 9 - J cImage 10 - Get directly downImage 11 - Zng ZngImage 12 -MadisonandfifthImage 13 - manu_gt500Image 14 - ShipguyImage 15 - Theodore Lee

Norah and I

My life in her musicIn February 2002, an unknown twenty-two-year-old torch singer released her debut on a modest jazz label. It was the start of a majestic journey. After all, how could anyone resist when she asked ‘Come away with me’?Angel-voiced enchantress Norah Jones, today proclaimed as the best jazz lady of her generation, started her career taking the world by surprise. Come Away With Me was certified a diamond album in 2002, selling over 20 million copies and earned Jones five Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best New Artist. The album remained on the Billboard charts for over a year and it was ranked 54th on the list of the 100 Best Albums of the decade by Rolling Stone – a feat that is even more stunning considering the lack of pop star hype surrounding her name and the fact that only one song on the album, beautiful “Don’t know why”, has received major airplay. Even though some attributed her success to a post-9/11 desire for soothing music, that seems to be stretching too far a very clear fact: no one else sounds like her.Three more successful albums followed: Feels Like Home was released in 2004, Not Too Late, in 2007, the same year she made her film debut in My Blueberry Nights starring alongside Jude Law, and more recently, in 2009 came The Fall. All gained Platinum status after selling over a million copies in the US alone. Billboard magazine named her the top Jazz artist of the 2000-2009 decade.To me Norah was a revelation. I first read about her in a kids’ magazine when I was about 12 years old. It was the summer of 2004 and she had just released Feels like home. I hardly knew anything about jazz – in fact, I was obsessed with Britney Spears – but the same afternoon I found myself taking my dad by the hand and walking into the record store. The moment I got the album in my hands, I opened the case and took out the lyrics booklet. It had the strong smell of recycled paper. When I went back home I locked myself in my room and listened to the first song, “Sunrise”. It was like nothing I had heard before. Only, I wasn’t sure I liked it. I called my brother, who was 10 at the time, and he pretty much just told me off for throwing daddy’s money away for this trash. But I was a weird geeky kid. I had to live up to my reputation. So I listened to the whole album once. And then innumerable times again. I took the album with me to summer camp. I would watch the sunset from my open tent with Norah Jones on my Sony Walkman. I remember I felt proud of myself for discovering this new genre. That’s when Norah became part of my life.Norah was playing on the background when I first fell in love. After one more afternoon daydreaming in my room, my mum said: “We could hear your ‘honey’ music again. Uh oh… Someone’s in love...” I probably just blushed and tried to deny it. Norah would also sing me to sleep. Rosie’s Lullaby and Not Too Late were the two final tracks on her third album. Every night throughout my high school years I fell asleep to Norah’s calm sweet voice. Then this summer I saw a friend’s band perform Don’t Know Why. When it ended, they dedicated it to me. I dare say I almost cried. When I was younger I would play this game where I would think that my life was a movie and I had to come up with a soundtrack. With this embarrassingly girly music, Norah had virtually given me music for a lifetime…Elena GeorgallaImage - Yaffa

Come on America, Pass the Jam!

What are jam bands anyway?Phish? The Grateful Dead? Galactic? Widespread Panic? Umphrey’s McGee? STS9? Soulive?Jam bands. One of the oddest genres of music in the 21st century. Odd because it is so peculiar – drawing such a large, but rather isolated audience that remains as one of the most dedicated audiences in commercial music. But it is an odd one. I was a part of it. They are dedicated. Religiously. Seriously. And pretty random. You run across jazz aficionados, folk lovers, hippies (real ones), hippies (fake ones), hipsters, college students, seniors, middle-aged couples, and literally everyone in between. Calling themselves ‘Deadheads’ or ‘Phishheads,’ they proclaim their enthusiasm for their favourite jam band not only by telling you the ‘best concerts’ they’ve been to but by showing off merchandise: T-shirts, wristbands, headbands, necklaces, tattoos, hats – people live and breathe jam bands.So let me give you the idea of jam bands from an insider’s perspective, a musician’s perspective. How do we make jam? What makes jam… jam? There are essentially three key elements to jam bands… Live Performance: Live to Play LiveLive performance comes first and foremost for any jam band. As we pioneer further and further into the age of  digital producing technologies, jam bands prefer to stay true to their live performances. They don’t overproduce, overdub, or autotune. They prefer real, down-to-earth, face-to-face contact with their audience where their performance and musicality come first. The live performance for jam bands is not just a place to play what they’ve written in studio either. It is a lab. It is a space of creation. Most jam bands enter the stage with preset songs, but with huge gaping holes that are spontaneously filled with improvisation. Borrowing from jazz performance, jam bands incorporate extensive live improvisation (the act that is proverbially called jamming) into prewritten songs. This is the very evocative and emotional aspect of jam bands. This is where they stand out.The special characteristic of playing live is, however, that jam bands are not only aural – they incorporate synesthesia. Phish is the prime example of this. A concert is not just a sound experience, but it heavily incorporates light, movement and colour. The mood is set by the total combination of music (music theory, harmony and dissonance), guitar tones, lyrics, crazy effects and strange sounds, and lights that create any atmosphere. Flashing bright lights act as eccentricity and speed, and slower lights bring the mood down to match the slow groove of the band. Phish is noted for having a ‘fifth member of the band’ – their light engineer. This encapsulates the point that jam bands play an experience. Not just a show. Not just a record. Not just a radio snippet. But a holistic atmosphere of sound, colour, light and movement. Musical EclecticismFocusing on the sound, most jam bands embody myriad genres into their music. Crossing everything from folk, jazz, rock, metal, classical, baroque, 21st century avant-garde classical, blues, reggae, funk, disco and pop – jam is an eclectic genre. Just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here are a few links to some diverse sounds in the genre.Folk, bluegrass, acoustic? Try The Grateful Dead.Rock of all kinds? Try Phish.Funk, blues, jazz and New Orleans spice? Try Galactic.Drum and bass cover of Eleanor Rigby? Go for Soulive. Approach to MusicJam bands have an interesting tendency when regarding their musical material. Unlike many other genres in contemporary music production, jam bands don’t mind if their live material is bootlegged and distributed for free. Yes they still produce and sell studio albums. They even record and sell most of their live shows. But they see free distribution of their music as unproblematic. There are other bands in given genres that give their music out for free (at some point in time – à la Radiohead’s In Rainbows), but jam bands are unique insofar as this phenomenon is more or less genre-wide. Click here to heck it out if you’re interested. There are plenty of other sites to plunder, but this is a good start. Jam on! To be honest, I’d rather not say much more about these bands. I think most of what needs to be said is here, and the rest is in the music. The bands I listed at the top are a great introduction to the jam world. Below is a link to each one (and more) with some music for your enjoyment. Try it out. But just a warning… once you get it, it’s hard to let it go. Jam fans are some of the most devout for a reason. The Grateful DeadWidespread PanicThe String Cheese IncidentBlues TravelerGalacticUmphrey’s McGeeSTS9Phish Michael MeliaImage - Omasz

The Best Music of All Time

What makes the best music... well... the best?I would never think of doing an article like this. Because of the simple fact that this is, probably, impossible to quantify. Considering the vast divergences in music – genre, time period, technology, theory, goals, audience – it is extremely, extremely difficult (if not dangerous) to attempt to come up with an answer. So why don’t we narrow it down a bit? How about – the best ‘album’ of all time?That’s more reasonable. This presumes a certain time period (i.e., 20th century) with a designated region, genre (arguably) and audience (i.e., America and Europe, rock & roll (arguably), and people therein). This is less unreasonable than before, although it is now much less dramatic. For all intents and purposes, we will be focusing on rock & roll music here – as it is demonstrably the largest, fastest developing, most reflexive music of the 20th century. If there is any kind of music that demonstrates the moral, social, political and economic development of the generations in the 20th century, what else could one choose but rock?But from this standpoint – where can we go? What could possibly be the best of hundreds of thousands of albums produced in this time period and why? When Rolling Stone publishes an article saying that an album is ‘the most important rock & roll album ever made’ – you know they’re on to something. Love it or leave it, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band may very well be the best album of all time. (As a disclaimer: this article isn't a comparison between albums and makes no claims about what is 'best' outside of what Rolling Stone has claimed; rather this is meant to be an in-depth exploration of the album that is already widely considered to be the best, or one of the best, of all time in attempts to find out why).You may be wondering – ‘What is to like?’ Well, many would respond… everything! Consider the many facets of an album – obviously the songwriting, sound, lyrics, instruments and musical expertise. But, this doesn’t take into account the concept of the album, the studio work, recording techniques, theoretical exploration, and originality in the time period. And for all of these purposes, it seems that Sgt. Pepper’s is an exceptionally outstanding case. What makes this album the best of all time? Let’s find out.ConceptBy 1967, the Beatles were an international phenomenon. Touring constantly since 1963, they were exhausted after four straight years of Beatlemania. Band members discuss in interviews how awful touring had become during this time, as they could hardly hear themselves playing. The audience (constantly, at every show) screamed whenever the Beatles were onstage, which meant that the band could hardly hear what they were playing. Musically, Ringo Starr recounted that the band was slumping musically, simply because they couldn’t play well together live anymore. Ringo recalled often having to read the movements and mouths of his bandmates to figure out where they were in a given song.Thus, the album came out of this hectic and frustrating live atmosphere. After a short break from touring, the band was reconvening in 1966 to begin recording for Pepper. On a flight back from Kenya, Paul McCartney had the idea that they produce an album featuring a ‘different’ band (to escape the never-ending Beatlemania craze). This concept was quickly adopted by all members of the group, where for the album they would embody this new persona, demonstrated in the title track, reprise, and ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’. This was a strange and revolutionary idea that would open up new doors for future bands to explore the idea of a ‘concept album’ (especially progressive rock). It was one of the first albums that coherently encapsulated a band’s history, ambitions for the present, and future goals and aims. It was a total break from their previous work, and a paradigm shift that was perfectly executed in songwriting and sound.SongwritingPepper is a continuation of shifting away from their earlier pop songs. Although still incorporating many of the same techniques and song ideas, Pepper took their pop style and fused it with new genres – including Indian classical music, psychedelic music, European classical music, and even vaudeville carnival music. ‘Within You Without You’ is composed by George Harrison. His expertise in sitar and other Indian instruments offered revolutionary song ideas to the album. This song was written in Indian script so other Indian session musicians could play along, and afterwards it was arranged for a Western strings section and drums.‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, written by Lennon, is a lyrical masterpiece. The imagery suggested in the song is impeccably psychedelic and vivid. Bright colours, imaginative scenes, and that ridiculously catchy chorus combine to stand as an icon for the psychedelic generation. ‘Fixing a Hole’, by McCartney, is much more of a pop song than the previous two, but its unique inclusion of a harpsichord makes it an off-the-wall classical pop style. Harpsichord, electric guitar, and classic early 60s Beatles backing vocals fronted by McCartney’s snappy lyrics create a truly individual piece of work. And of course, ‘For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!’ is a stand-alone classic piece. The attempt to create a ‘carnival atmosphere’ was well executed with bizarre Victorian-era lyrics and strange combinations of fairgound organs and calliope music (using steam through large whistles) speak for themselves.These songs alone aptly demonstrate the unusual and completely unique composition that Pepper had in terms of songwriting. Not to mention the title track and reprise as good ‘banging rockers,’ and of course ‘A Day in the Life’ as one of the best songs written in the 20th century. The crazy 24-bar orchestral sections and the banging final piano chord (with ten hands on three pianos, and a harmonium) provide an unbelievable ending to an unbelievably written album.Conclusion?The Beatles recorded their first album, Please Please Me, in only ten hours. Pepper reportedly took 700 hours. The sheer amount of production involved in the album turns the great and groundbreaking ideas in songwriting and presents them in a gaping, orgiastic soundscape of epic fantasy. Crossing old genres, utilising new concepts, bridging cultures, exploring new and weird technologies, this album is more than just an album. It is a period piece that captures the eccentricities of the late 60s in flying colours. It is a piece of musical, cultural, and historical import. So, is this the best music of all time? Well… that’s always going to be up for debate. Is this the best album of all time? Arguably – under the conditions stated above – yes, it is.Is it a great album that profoundly shaped modern music? Is it a great album that carried a revolutionary generation? Is it a great album that pushed technology and culture to its ends? Yes, yes, and yes. Its always fun to listen to music, but it is fascinating to consider music as a deep-running cultural force that has many real-world implications. Give it a listen. It might just ‘turn you on’… Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) (2009 Stereo Remaster)Videos:Part IPart IIPart III Part IVPart V Michael MeliaImage credit - exquisitur

Modern Music and Artistic Integrity: Wots Uh The Deal...

An opinion on Pink Floyd, EMI, and artistic integrityA relatively recent court ruling prevented EMI, Pink Floyd’s record label, from selling off the band’s individual tracks, instead effectively forcing the label to sell the whole album. The ruling was especially interesting (as interesting as a court case can get, that is) because Pink Floyd argued that EMI was infringing upon their artistic integrity.And they won on that point.This presents several interesting issues, especially fascinating is the concept of the album as a holistic work. First of all, Pink Floyd were not always the high priests of the wholly integrated and complete album. An especially interesting work by them is Atom Heart Mother, which consists of five tracks, which have essentially very little to do with each other, except that they all follow a summer-like theme. (When I edit my photos and choose those that best represent summer, I usually listen to that album for inspiration. For some reason, people see that as a really sublime form of art). At the same time, however, albums such as the The Wall simply work much better when listening to as a whole, even if the individual tracks themselves work better.Some time ago, however, I was listening to a Seattle-based radio station (as every normal British resident does), and there, all of a sudden, came on ‘Comfortably Numb.’ This is a quite well known Pink Floyd track, the one off  The Wall with a trademark psychedelic feel to it. Anyway, for myself a Pink Floyd fan, this could provide potential reasons for an outrage. After all, they are ignoring the album as a consistent product and all that jazz. But, at the risk of hypocrisy, I check my iTunes play counts, and see that ‘Comfortably Numb’ has over twice the plays of the song before it. Slightly trying to justify it to myself, I realise in the end that it is just an awesome track, and there is nothing wrong in listening to it individually.Now those double play counts do not include live recordings. In live recordings, the whole concept of the coherent album seems to kind of disappear.  'Comfortably Numb' is well, kind of lonely. It doesn’t have the same neighbouring tracks at all in the live albums. Likewise, even Roger Waters’ In The Flesh live album contains a single track from Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking, the album essentially being a real-time short story about a hitchhiker. So it is very easy to exaggerate the album as a complete work. In fact, it is very easy to exaggerate the artistic value of anything in any sort of art. Except that then you sound pretentious. And are generally wrong. In fact, if there is an objective wrong in art, you have reached it.So, I have already shamelessly admitted that even if the album is a holistic work of art, there is nonetheless much to be gained from listening to individual songs. Think of it as analogy to literature. You should know the whole story or collection of stories, but you might enjoy and reread one chapter more than others. So, as long as you know the story in general, feel free to enjoy the individual bits of it. Or, if you don’t want to be acquainted with the whole story, one chapter suffices. But, in reality, the whole case hinged on what I will label as transition tracks. For example, ‘Happiest Days of Our Lives’ (which, curiously enough, can be individually downloaded from iTunes), starts and ends rather spontaneously, following out of ‘Another Brick in the Wall (part one)’ and following into part two. Thus, when listened to by itself, it just sounds bad.That’s like taking out a single page from a book, and selling it. No author could possibly like that. Likewise, this is a reason why Pink Floyd (except for the live albums) should not be listened on shuffle. It is, in fact, an experiment that I would not even undertake for your sake, dear reader. And that’s saying a lot. At the same time, however, maybe the definition and boundary of a track has been pushed a bit too much. I wrote above how ‘Happiest Days’ integrates two other tracks. What if all three of them were simply repackaged as a single track and sold that way? They would be much more consistent both musically and story-wise. And a good balance would be achieved between artistic integrity for the whole story and consumer demand. And now, if you will excuse me, having solved this issue, I’m off to apply to EMI as a consultant. Lukasz KrolImage credit - oddsock

Behind the Sound: Album Art

Welcome to a visual journey through the past 50 years of album art Often, when thinking of music, it is easy to jump straight to the tracks. However, one of the crucial artistic aspects of albums released since the mid 1960s is the album artwork. Artists would (and still do) regularly hire out artists to devise a clever,  interesting and insightful album cover that matches the music. Let's take a moment to appreciate some of the greatest album covers as works of visual art in and of themselves. Here is a selection of the most distinct album covers from the last 50 years. The Velvet Underground & Nico, The Velvet Underground (1967)  Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles (1967)  Atom Heart Mother, Pink Floyd (1970) Who's Next, The Who (1971) Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd (1973) Houses of the Holy, Led Zeppelin (1973) Animals, Pink Floyd (1977) London Calling, The Clash (1979) Elephant, The White Stripes (2003) Daniel Halasz  Image 1 - oddsockImage 2 - exquisiturImage 3 - oddsockImage 4 - oddsockImage 5 - Shemp65Image 6 - oddsockImage 7 - Shemp65Image 8 - rzrxtion (pronounced resurrection)Image 9 - dwhartwig