Blog; information, ideas & random musings.
It’s been a long hiatus but starting next week I’ll resume posting album reviews on commonswiftband.com. The first time around I reviewed half a dozen bands submitted through this post on Reddit, and will attempt this approach again. Here is the current post on Reddit. My intention, as stated in both posts, is not to review popular music that already garners a fair amount of critical writing and attention. I’m interested in reviewing very independent/underground/garage music, the type of music that doesn’t get a wide audience, with the hope of helping out a few fellow artists by trying to give detailed and thoughtful criticism, and maybe helping them find a few new fans.
Here is a link to the movie I mentioned a few weeks ago that we composed music for. The subject matter is a little depressing, but we’re really pleased with how it turned out. Also, we included a new version of Phoenix. I think it might even be stronger than the original. What do you think?
Listening to music, the place of the critic, and a review of the Monks of Mellonwah's "Stars Are Out EP"
About six months ago I started writing a review of the Australian band The Monks of Mellonwah’s “Stars Are Out EP”. Partway through the review, I couldn’t go on any longer. I was suddenly very uninterested in writing about their music, which frankly wasn’t that bad, but nevertheless I was just wiped out by the experience of listening to it. Let me explain.
I often wonder how other people listen to music. I’ve talked about this with friends and family members, and have even interrogated a few strangers, and what I have found is a fairly consistent set of answers.
There are those people that listen to music and think about the structure/composition of the music, mainly musicians themselves, but not always.
There are people that are interested in the stories of the songs, faithfully listening to every word, hanging on each syllable; the ideas forming something akin to a mantra, an extension of their experience.
The third group listens to music and cares about how the songs make them feel, only nominally interested in the actual music, often this seems to be manifested in listening to a particular style of music exclusively, or seeing music only as a “mood” tool and not an art form.
There are also those who listen to music with an appreciation for all three of these attributes.
Finally, there is the rarest breed that not only listens for the composition, the storytelling, the emotion, but also is hoping for that special something, a uniqueness in sound and expression that separates and elevates an artist from the march of repetitive mediocrity. The best artists are typically the last kind of listener, some get lucky, but most have worked hard to establish a unique perspective of the world and a way to express this perspective that is equal unique.
So when I talk to people about how they listen to music, I am hoping for a response that I rarely receive. Hopefully that doesn’t seem as pretentious as I think it does, because I often am not listening as critically and thoroughly as I can. It’s hard to be that thoughtful at all times but frankly it should be hard. Artists will spend years crafting a three minute song, putting hours and hours of meticulous work (at least good artists will), and it should take a fair amount of work for the listener to unpack everything in the song, to understand some of the depth of what the artist created.
Yet when music is discussed, most people dismiss music critics saying that musical taste is all opinion, and all music is valid, or equal, and that no one opinion really matters more than another. This is patently false and really quite ignorant if you think about it for one second. Yes, there is an inherent level of subjectivity with music, because everyone who listens to a song can interpret it in different ways based on their own experiences. However, there are elements of songwriting that are consistent, in the same way that an art critic can critique the technique of a painting, or a professor can point out incorrect grammar in a paper, so can music critics or music listeners in general critique a song or album.
There are structures used in music to express certain things, and if they are used in a proper way can express great nuance and power, and when used sloppily or in a boring, non-inventive way they can absolute expose the song as bad, or at the very least irrelevant. This is also very true with lyrics, which at their best are wonderfully crafted poems, and at their worst are juvenile jingles that don’t belong on hallmark cards or 3rd grader’s Facebook status updates.
So, what does this have to do with The Monks of Mellonwah? I’m just not sure what type of listeners they are. Listening to their music I can tell that they clearly do listen to a wide range of music from the last 50 years, and have enough musical talent to pull from an equally wide range of musical styles, however I can’t tell how deep their own appreciation and knowledge of music really is.
The four-piece alternative rock/indie band from Sydney, Australia has certainly listened to their fair share of music. From classic blues, to Jimi Hendrix, Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd, Southern rock, to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to Muse, Eastern Conference Champions, Smashing Pumpkins and Jet the diversity of influences can be heard in every song from The Monks of Mellonwah.
Rarely are these influences blended together seemlessly. Instead each track on the Stars Are Out EP represents a fairly distinct shift in style, bouncing from one complete sonic package to another. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact I was very eager to hear how the next song was going to surprise me as each track was ending. This is, after all, an EP which doesn’t have the same implied consistensy or cohesion as a full-length album. An EP in my mind is designed as an advertisement for a band, a teaser showing off the strengths of a band and hinting at the direction of their next full length album, and frankly the Stars Are Out EP highlights the strengths and flaws of The Monks of Mellonwah pretty well.
The first track “Fire in the Hole” sounds reminiscent of Jet or Eastern Conference Champions, mixed with some good old southern rock. It’s straight 4/4 time throughout with familiar growling guitars, a hooky chorus, and the perfunctory bridge solo. It’s well put together for sure, being very polished, and having that manicured feel of a song that has been constructed very carefully. It’s simple, energetic, easy to listen to, and fun. The musicianship is very high, especially the drummer and the lead guitarist, who exhibit very nice control and feel, but the overall song is structurally predictable, and the vocals are too far back in the mix and not that interesting anyway.
Second track is “Swamp Groove” which moves away from a 70′s throwback sound into a more 90′s era sound akin to Smashing Pumpkins. It still has a very safe structure. (Again, I question how they listen to music) The entire song seems to be a variation on the root chords. However, there is a very nicely played guitar solo, and another positive for this song are the vocals, which are richly sung as this is clearly in a better range for the singer, and the oohs and aahs are a nice touch. It has a theatrical quality that never gets fully explored, but was very enticing, and gives me hope for things to come. I think this might be the high water mark of the album for me, as it feels like the most personal and fully synthesized of all of their songs.
“Stars Are Out”, their third song is a departure from their previous rock sound, and is essentially a straight pop song with weeping guitars and moody cry-singing. It’s very well executed again, and could easily be a successful song.
“Stampede”, their fourth song takes another hard right turn going into a funky kind of rock song, slamming a guitar riff out of the 80′s against a heavy funk beat and funk vocal styling. It’s an interesting fusion sound and actually seems like a comfortable place for the Monks of Mellonwah, as the vocalist sounds at home, and the simple yet bombastic instrumentation fits smoothly.
Their fifth song “The Calling” brings in a pop-punk sound, akin to the Black Parade, with synth shrills, droning guitars, and a thinly veiled anxiety. It’s driving, well done, and predictable.
“The Neverending Spirit” is a piano heavy piece, with a very catchy, well constructed piano riff that still feels like a pop song. It does have more inventive guitar parts, and the strange dissonant tones really bring the song together. I feel if they stuck with more songs like this and “Swamp Groove”, they’d have a much more interesting and unified album.
All of their songs seem fully realized as what they are, sometimes that means they are fully realized pop ballads, or southern rock anthems, and sometimes, as is the case with “Swamp Groove” they create something really unique.
Overall the album is very well produced, although the band doesn’t have in my mind a very cohesive sound yet. The musicians on their own are all very talented, with the one exception being that I found the vocalist to be weak. This is partly due to the fact that he was often mixed back in the mix, but when he was farther forward it wasn’t particularly interesting or original. Also, the lyrics are rather poor, feeling like a word-magnet game of rearranging pop song lyrics from the past 30 years. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of depth with these songs, and that’s unfortunate because they really are good musicians, and “Stars Are Out” is a very well produced EP.
Now I don’t want to sound too harsh. In general, all of their songs are individually strong as singles, some more than others, but the EP as a whole leaves me unsatisfied. It feels almost like a mixed tape. You can certainly hear all of their influences and the styles certainly do build an intersting mix of sounds, however I’d like it better if I felt the fusion of these styles more as opposed to feeling like I was being jerked from one style to another.
And this all comes back to what type of listeners the Monks are. Their music doesn’t sound like the music of artists meticulously deconstructing what they listen to, picking apart every element, and using this analysis to create something that expresses a deeply personal expression about the world. It sounds like music made by fans of certain musical styles, without as much work put into figuring out what is their personal style.
I would like to point out that although I associated the Monks of Mellonwah with these criticisms of music listeners and musicians, they are not the only band that makes me feel this way. It is very common that a band puts music out that is either not fully formed, or somehow feels like something very fundamental is missing. Maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise as it is easier and easier to make and release music, and the number of bands around the world today is staggering. And that’s also not to say that this is anything new. If you listen to music made in previous eras, you’ll find even more musicians that are lacking something. So I guess what I’m saying is, I value cerebral artists that are trying to do something challenging, artists that have something unique to say, artists that maybe haven’t found their perfect expression, but artists that are interested in the complex understanding of what that even means. I only wish that more musicians and normal listeners would take more time to critically consider what they are hearing.
Also, since people have asked for the lyrics for this song here you go:
Wait for the train to slow
and take the stairs from below
She’s waiting on the bench for you
From dessert to dust, from your desk to dusk
half a world away my legs sink in snow, too deep to know
the coming bairn in her
And in my empty room
all that I’ll ever know
through smoke red eyes
now the worldly lies, come clean again, scraping off
Now this will rest behind
in the sun it’s done
Once in the open it cannot hope to live
Sorry for the delay in posts (although I’m pretty sure no one is actually read this). It’s been almost half a year since the last time I posted any new content here, and even now I’m struggling to think of material that I absolutely feel compelled to share.
First off, there are many reasons why I haven’t been posting. The lack of energy and concentration I’ve been feeling was caused initially by being rather sick for a few months, however, recently it’s simply a symptom of my time being filled by other pursuits.
Another factor is that I lost interest, after barely starting, in writing reviews of new albums. I may find the inspiration again, as I’m still listening to a lot of new music, but for now I’m going to hold off.
However, over the last six months Al, Brian, and I have been working hard on the new Common Swift album, which is shaping into a very exciting project. We’re still going to have guitar, keys, and drums at the core of the sound, along with our dual tenor voices, and will still play around with time signatures and other structural song elements, but we’re also looking forward to having a more diverse sonic landscape with this album.
The last album, These Safe Homes and the Passing Spirit EP were written with performance in mind primarily, so we limited ourselves to the instruments we could use in a live setting. For this album we aren’t holding ourselves to these restrictions, and have been working with brass, auxiliary percussion, synth, prepared piano, electronic beats, accordion, and recordings of found sounds including a grandfather clock. The focus is on creating an exciting and deeply personal musical expression for an album, and we’ll figure out the live performance later.
Who knows where all of this playing will take us, but its been an exciting journey so far, and although we are a long way from it, we are really looking forward to sharing this album with the world.
Other projects that Brian and I were working on were two films by Arizona film-maker Austin Tyler Lee which have been released this spring.
The first film is “Peaks”, described as “brothers Nathan (Mat Vansen) and Alex (Ron Ferguson) struggle to keep their lives and responsibilities in focus after their mother’s suicide. Forced to live together, Nathan, an empathic painter, and Alex, a busy sales representative, find each other existing on separate worlds. Bound by blood and sorrow, their lives are intertwined, and they depend on each other in ways that neither can communicate to the other.”
Peaks was written by Austin Tyler Lee and the music was scored by Brian and myself. In the film we craft a new version of the song “Phoenix” from These Safe Homes, which is softer, slower, and more sorrowful. We’re very pleased by the way the film’s score turned out, and once it has been loaded online by Infinity Awakened Productions we’ll let everyone know about it.
The second film that we worked on is a music video for our song “Desk to Dust” off our 2011 Passing Spirit EP. We think it turned out really well, and we’ll put a link up to it on our YouTube page later today.
Common Swift has once again been played on The Epileptic Gibbon podcast music show. Ever since we found out about this podcast last year we’ve really enjoyed listening to it, and really think that any serious music fan will appreciate the breadth of unique and original music that the podcast features. The host is knowledgeable and passionate about the music he plays, and helps to show that appreciation for truly original and complicated music is not dead in our time. Here’s a link to the website.
Recently I’ve been writing music reviews, with the intention to be as honest to the music and critically accurate as possible. To this goal I’ve tried to write in length within my reviews, so as to not be misunderstood. I’m also hoping to approach each new album with a fresh and clear mind, which can certainly be difficult. It’s easy to allow other songs that you have heard recently to impact how you consider songs you are reviewing. If, for example, I’ve spent the last hour enjoying “King of Limbs”, and then I start listening to a band that shares sonic elements with Radiohead, I’m likely to notice those similarities more easily, and this will surely impact how I appreciate the band. This is obviously unavoidable, but it’s interesting to keep in mind as you engage in analysis on any subject, whether that is music or politics.
One dimension of this “unconscious association” is where or how you first find out about a particular song. For example, when my mom, who does not share my exact musical tastes, suggests something for me to listen to, I’m not expecting very much. If the song turns out to be decent, I may find myself enjoying it more than I probably should. Likewise if a band mate suggests a song, I’m probably going to have much higher expectations, and am more likely to be underwhelmed by what I hear. This is true, even though the song that my band mate recommends is more likely to be a song that I actually enjoy. I don’t know if this is at all interesting to anyone else, but it does help me to remember the subjective nature of all things.
Be on the lookout for more reviews in the next few weeks, and also some news about Common Swift related videos.
“In early 2011 Egg Leggs was born. Even though they didn’t have an official band name until while in studio, they kept their priorities straight and continued making music. The first few months were rough trying to find their niche, locking themselves in a five foot by five foot room working for hours. Through the early stress and beginning foundation their sound finally found itself.” This is what Egg Leggs wrote to describe themselves, and after listening to their first album, “ELEP”, it’s easy to hear the obvious passion for what they are producing, and also the rough edges that come along with a young band making an album quickly. There are definite signs of inspiration, and Egg Leggs is certainly a very musically playful band that isn’t afraid to grab influence from any genre that they feel speaks to them to try and craft truly original and inventive songs with some success.
ELEP opens with a slick vocal sample accompanied by stripped down stuttering drums that pulse organically and have just the right amount of space left for the vocalist, who has a very versatile, albeit unconventional voice which is capable of punk-inspired shouts, falsetto crooning, Isaac Brock style sing-talking, and a fairly wide emotional range. It’s one of the best elements of Egg Leggs and in the first track the vocals get to shine and the lead singer shows some excellent nuance. After settling into the smooth electronic post-punk sound Egg Leggs transitions to an alternative indie rock sound more similar to The Shins than Modest Mouse, and from there continues to jump between styles; punk, electronic, indie alternative, folky blues, and straight progressive rock. The whole experience is very modern and well composed, with the transitions feeling intentional and gave me high hopes for this album.
Unfortunately my hopes were dashed quickly by the next track which felt slapped together. Between the reggae inspired bass line and the early 70’s psychedelic guitar riff very little musical elements felt as originally inspired as the first track. The vocals still sparkle in their own unique way, breaking the mundane smoothness with emotional rawness, but the structure of the track is fairly uninspired, which was quite a let-down from the first song which really felt unique and complex.
From there the album continues down this more traditionally structured path, with songs that rarely vary from conventional structures and don’t have quite the cohesiveness or originality of the first track. There are however some real moments of inspiration to be discovered in most of the remaining tracks. Bridges features nice falsetto singing with the strained exasperated yelling coming in and out. New American Dogma was actually a very enjoyable track in the style of Modest Mouse or Bright Eyes circa 2002, even though there is nothing really new in this track musically or instrumentally.
The final track Anagnorisis finally breaks the pattern of non-progressing music, although it travels in very safe directions, with an anthem like quality to it. The track has a nice guitar riff, although it never reaches the heights it could have, given the space it was granted in the song. It’s somewhat reminiscent of something Annie Clark might choose for her guitar solos which is most assuredly a good thing. It’s an ending to an album that leaves me with more questions than answers. The first song feels like a true fusion of ideas and the ending guitar track shows that there is substantial creative potential; however in the middle are some very stale choices and ideas that feel half-baked.
The production is good and these are clearly solid musicians. Lyrically it seemed to me that Legg Eggs is wanting to weave a web of sneering cynicism, and they succeed in capturing the spirit of this if not the content with lines like “And I am blackened by false truth.”, and “Disappearing friends mean nothing if they’re running from the ones that they love.”. The issue here is that the content is missing. With lines like these I’m expecting a revelation about man, or at least about the songwriter to follow, but I don’t feel that depth or investment here. In some tracks it seems like the vocalist is rambling, or at least not choosing his words precisely.
This feels to me like a young band that has room to grow, but as they advance in their musicianship and songwriting abilities they have the potential to make a really important album. With its genre-fusing style, and sometimes raw emotion, there are moments of ELEP that are truly captivating, and there is a sense that the fractured nature of its composition makes a statement on the nature of musical genres being constantly in flux.
Overall though this is a great first entry, and I’m exciting to see what they do next.
You can find Egg Leggs full album here: http://eggleggs.bandcamp.com/album/elep