Why TV On the Radio’s “Careful You” Is My Favorite Song of the Moment

I listen to a hell of a lot of music.  A metric crapton of tunage.  Even I’m amazed that I can remember half of what’s in my own collection, let alone remember the various songs I hear on the car radio or whatever station I happen to be streaming.  Lately I’ve been listening to RadioBDC (the online station created from the ashes of Metro Boston’s WFNX and owned by Boston.com) to get my head around more of the popular alternative rock again.

And every now and then, a track pops out at me that makes me take notice.  This happened in 2002 with Interpol’s “PDA”, in 1994 with Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”, in 1988 with The Church’s “Under the Milky Way”, last year with Dutch Uncles’ “Fester”.  I can’t always say what it is that catches my ear–it could be the mix, the mood it creates, or even the dynamics of the song.  The song could be fast, slow, ambient, or loud, doesn’t matter.  It may not even click with me the first time…it may just happen to hit me at the right moment when I’m doing something else, or happen to be in a specific mood.

Such is the case with TV On the Radio, whose Seeds just dropped a few weeks ago.  I’ve been a fan of them since 2004 when they released their murky, weird debut Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. Not exactly a huge fan, as their earlier albums, while fantastic, are sometimes a bit hard to listen to, especially during writing sessions.  Seeds, on the other hand, is a much lighter affair, with poppier and catchier songs and a very crisp production.  And I absolutely love it.  [And it passed the test last night of being a great writing session soundtrack.]

So what is it about “Careful You” that I love so much?

On the surface, it’s no different than any other semi-electronic rock track out there by someone like, say, Bear in Heaven.  There’s echoey reverb, there’s a wobbly synth riff underlying the entire song, and the lyrics, while creative, are also economic in use.  It’s a love song, a plea made at the moment the relationship could go either way: don’t know/should we stay/should we go/should we pack it up and turn it around?  And he states his case right off the bat: Oui, je t’aime, oui, je t’aime/à demain à la prochaine. [Roughly, “Yes, I love you, tomorrow and the next (day).”]  The chord progression is simple but effective: a muted Eb/Db/Cm/B/Eb on the verses, and a ringing Eb/Bb/Db/Eb on the chorus.

It occurred to me after maybe the third or fourth listen: this is is a Beatles song, isn’t it?

Those chords are straight out of the Please Please Me songbook–that Cm-B-Eb passage in the verse is very much something Paul or John would have enjoyed back in ’63.  Tunde Adebimpe’s delivery of the lyrics are fantastic too, alternating loud and soft.  Verses, quiet: line 1 is given on beat, line 2 is double-time, line 3 is off the beat but never wavering far, and line 4 brings it back to the beginning, on beat.  Chorus, loud:  line 1 is high and on beat, line 2 descends triple-time (and phrased to drop the last beat), line 3 is triple time but ascending, with line 4 carrying the entire theme: I will care for you/oh, careful you.  John and Paul would have been amused by that wordplay.

Sonically there’s a lot of interesting bits going on in there as well.  Very low bass notes only show up on the chorus.  David Andrew Sitek shows up with his chiming guitar during the chorus, hitting only four high notes — Eb, F, F, Eb — but with the tone (deep reverb) and direction (ascending when the chords descend, and vice versa), it adds more energy to the section of the song.  Kyp Malone adds background harmony vocals throughout as well, but very sparingly, singing on octave in lines 1 and 2 of the lyrics, and only venturing into true harmony on lines 3 and 4.  His high-register delivery is often delicate, underscoring the lyrics as well.  There’s an odd sound drop too, right under the line things will never be the same, where we lose all music for those last few words.  If that’s intentional, it definitely works to drive the point home.  Finally, the coda holds the only change in melody: a repeating Gb/F/Eb line repeating with a sampled Tunde singing “no no no”.  It doesn’t so much fade or stop cold but falls apart, leaving us in the air–we have no idea if this relationship will be on the mend or not.

“Careful You” a wonderfully written, brilliantly produced track, and even if I’m not paying attention to all the bits and bobs that make up the track, it’s still an absolutely lovely song.

Coming Soon: End of Year Review and Compilation

Well hi there!  Sorry to keep you waiting.  Things have been busy here in Spare Oom with various projects, but I can see clarity at the end of this crazy tunnel, so we shall expect to see an update here soon!

Considering it’s now December, this of course means you’ll be seeing all sorts of End of Year Best-Of lists from all the music blogs and sites, and this one will be no different.  We’ve seen some really great albums in 2014, and I’ll be going over a few within the next few weeks.  I’ll also be creating my end-of-year compilation, which I will also share with you once it’s finished.

Thanks for waiting!  See you soon!

Songs from the Big Chair

Tears for Fears’ sophomore album Songs from the Big Chair was released in February of 1985, when I was just finishing eighth grade and heading to high school. It was released right about the same time as the debut of classic rock supergroup The Firm, the Visionquest and Breakfast Club soundtracks, John Fogerty’s Centerfield and Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required, during a high point in mid-80s pop and rock chart radio. [Granted, the college crowd was offered Hüsker Dü’s New Day Rising, Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising, Killing Joke’s Night Time, and The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder at the same time, so they weren’t left out of all the awesomeness!] This album fast became one of my all-time favorite albums of the 80s.

Various reissues and remasters later, this week the band offered a newly minted, multi-disc version of its classic album, and it’s a sweet one. I downloaded the super deluxe version from Amazon ($38 for digital only, much more if you want the full physical version).

I’d been familiar with the band via the “Change”, “Pale Shelter” and “Mad World” singles on MTV and radio a few years previous; they weren’t huge hits, but they were memorable enough (and they fit into the new wave sound MTV was pushing around that time) and a second album was anticipated. In the US, the first single was a bouncy, summery “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, and the single was a huge hit. It was soon followed by two more hit singles: the epic “Shout” and the lovely “Head Over Heels”. But what about the rest of the album? It goes from bluesy (“I Believe”, a UK single) to spooky (album closer “Listen”) to twitchy (“Broken” and “Mothers Talk”), and there’s also an absolutely wonderful lengthy jazz track called “The Working Hour” (featuring a fantastic sax solo from Will Gregory, who years later would become half of Goldfrapp). It’s a solid album from start to finish.

On a more personal note, this album has a tie to the beginnings of my writing fiction. By 1985 I was taking much inspiration from the music I listened to at the time, creating Miami Vice-style scenes for my Infamous War Novel, and Songs from the Big Chair was one of the earliest, longest and heaviest in rotation at that time. I borrowed the energy of many of its songs and instilled them into the book. The two twelve-inch remixes of “Shout” became framing scenes for the beginning and the end of the novel. Around the same time I also wrote a short story based around “The Working Hour.” Both the book and the short story have long been trunked, but my love for music and letting music inspire my writing came from this time, and from this album.

The newest deluxe edition, to commemorate its thirtieth anniversary, is more complete than the 2006 special edition remaster, containing numerous b-sides, remixes, BBC recordings, and demos. A cheaper and shorter edition is also available with just the album, singles and remixes, but it’s well worth checking out.

All Saints’ Day

This was a completely random buy at Nuggets Records in Kenmore Square, early in my freshman year at Emerson. I knew the track “Greater Reward” from its video on 120 Minutes around that time, and wanted to try the band out. They’re quite hard to pin down, as they’re too lo-fi for IDM, too nerdy for darkwave, and just too weird for general electronica. Their sound definitely changes from album to album, as they tend to be more experimental than melodic or danceable.

However, Rotund for Success is most likely their poppiest and catchiest album, and well worth checking out. It also includes the singles “Greater Reward” and “Big Car”. You can listen and buy it (for $5!) here at their Bandcamp page.

Fly-By: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going

Oof–Sorry for the huge gap in updating, folks! It’s been one hell of a crazy month and a half, as I’ve been quite busy with all sorts of things:

–As you know, Q4 tends to be all sorts of wacky in whatever job you’re in, and my job is no different. There’s only so many hours in a day, and unfortunately WiS had been squeezed out of the equation.
–I’ve been focusing primarily on my newest fiction project Two Thousand;
–I took part in Inktober and got nearly to the end before it too got squeezed out, but not before it re-awoke my long-dormant love for drawing. I now own some pretty nifty art pens that I shall be using more often.
–I’ve also been squeaking in some extra personal journaling that’s putting a lot of thoughts and ideas into order.

So! What does all this mean? Where am I going from here? What’s the plan, Stan?

Okay, let’s see what we have:

1. Some semblance of scheduling for posting. At present I’ve scheduled the weekends for WiS and WtBT updates, as I seem to have more time then.
2. A wider range of things to post about. I’ll still be talking music here as always, but I think I’d like to, shall we say, expand my palate. Talk about different genres other than my beloved college radio or stuff wot I listened to while writing.
3. Maybe utilizing the internal editor a bit more. Certainly I try not to write epic posts about whatever I’m in the mood to write about, though that doesn’t always happen. I tend to write very beefy articles by default. I’d like to try shorter passages as well. [This would also give me reason to write more articles during the week, as I wouldn’t be spending nearly as much time on them.]

I also have a few other ideas floating around…maybe another Blogging the [band] series? New Release reviews? Bargain Bin Finds? About Collecting Music? Request Line (suggest I write about a band/song/etc.)? We shall see.

There’s also the fact that I only got about halfway with my Britpop Meme posts before I got sidetracked. I promise I shall continue that as well.

Thank you for your patience! We shall (hopefully) have another update this weekend!

Jonc’s Britpop Meme Part 2

More pictures taken for my #joncsbritpopmeme hashtag over at my Twitter feed during our London vacation.  It so happened that I took many with my camera and not my phone’s camera, and thus more (and sometimes clearer) pictures will show up here.  As before, click on the pictures to embiggen.  Enjoy! :)

Trafalgar (Square)

Trafalgar (Square)

Trafalgar. Trafalgar Square is a lovely open area with tons of walking space and views, and a short walk from many other things to see. This was taken from the steps of the National Gallery looking southwest–basically looking at Nelson’s back.

Your lovely eek and your lovely riah

Your lovely eek and your lovely riah

Piccadilly Palare. Piccadilly Circus is right up the street from Trafalgar Square, and let me tell you, it’s a complete mess as far as foot and car traffic is concerned. [For my Boston friends–think the worst parts of Harvard and Kenmore Squares, multiplied. For the rest of you, think a smaller but equally tourist-heavy Times Square.] The plus side is that there’s a ginormous Waterstones Bookstore there that’s worth getting lost in.

St Martin in the Fields

St Martin in the Fields

St Martin in the Fields. Okay, it’s not exactly a lyric or Britpop reference, but any classical section of a record store worth its salt sells releases either recorded in this church or by its Academy. Taken from the same portico where I took the Trafalgar Square picture. It’s actually pretty amazing how many famous locations are in this spot–the National Portrait Gallery is around the corner, the theater district on the Strand is up the street, as is Whitehall Street, 10 Downing Street, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey. You can easily hit all these stops in a half a day like we did.

On Sunday nothing opens late, the clock across the river chimes

On Sunday nothing opens late, the clock across the river chimes

Big Ben. Walking down Whitehall, it’s kind of interesting to come across the House of Commons because you’re busy looking at all the other government buildings in the area, when suddenly you’re at Parliament Square and OH HEY there’s all the famous buildings! The House of Commons itself is quite impressive in its Gothicness, and the clock tower makes its presence known as soon as you turn the corner onto Bridge Street. And yes, I did hear the chimes as we were walking down the street. Big Ben’s pretty damn loud, actually.

So why do you smile when you think about Earl's Court?

So why do you smile when you think about Earl’s Court?

Piccadilly Palare (again). Post-con, we stayed for a number of days over in Earl’s Court/Kensington. It’s an absolutely lovely area. The hotel was a bit pricey, but I adored it. Earl’s Court Road is filled with all sorts of stores, pubs and whatnot, and its Underground station is perfectly situated. Also note–that police box in the lower left corner behind the walk signal is indeed painted TARDIS blue on purpose. [Side note: the hotel has rooms both in its main building and its interconnected neighboring building, and it immediately reminded me of my years in Charlesgate and the 126-130 Beacon block of Emerson College’s former Back Bay ‘campus’. Our room was in the basement, in which we had to walk to the back of the building, take the rear stairs (or the elevator), take a corner and go up a short set of stairs, enter the basement of the other building, our room being on the left with the one window looking at the dead end of the mews.]

(I don't want to go to) Chelsea

(I don’t want to go to) Chelsea

(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea. Actually, I do! Chelsea’s a little neighborhood right down the road from Kensington/Earl’s Court and was a lovely little area with many things to see and do. And we happened upon the football club grounds completely by accident!

More pictures and tunage soon! I promise I won’t take nearly as long to post next time!

U2’s Songs of Innocence: High Expectations and Low Opinions

Let’s get my first thought out of the way:

Music fans are a fickle lot.

Hear me out–I’ll admit right now that I’m one of them. I too have been one of those fans who brushed off a new release by a band because I couldn’t help but compare it to one of their previous successes and find myself less than impressed. The Cure’s Wild Mood Swings. Ben Folds Five’s Whatever and Ever Amen. Depeche Mode’s Exciter. Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile. REM’s Monster. And pretty much anything U2 recorded after Achtung Baby. See a theme here? Hell, even the reviews for The Beatles (aka the White Album) were mixed at first.

Granted, follow-up albums are damned hard to live up to for musicians, just like follow-up novels are for writers. How do you top your success? Do you even want to top it? Would you rather move laterally and go in a different direction? Take a chance and write/record Big Awesome Release: Part II? It’s the reason we have the “sophomore slump”, with a band trying to follow up their ridiculously popular debut with something, anything they can think of.

In the case of U2, they’ve pretty much been a sore subject for some fans. You’ve got the original fans who’ve loved them since War or earlier, and see The Joshua Tree as their crowning achievement. You’ve got the fans who love the original 80s output but felt Rattle and Hum was their Let It Be, where they disappeared down their own navels and lost track of themselves. You’ve got the fans who heard Achtung Baby and thought that it was what the 90s were supposed to sound like. Anything after that…? You’re either a passive fan, a completist, or just have bad taste. After the dithering Zooropa and the electronica misstep of Pop, they just lost all relevance and became that band VH1 played incessantly. They’d become music for yuppies.

And of course, there’s the ubiquitous Bono, rubbing elbows with all the leaders of every country on Earth. Fans started to despise him just for being the bearer of peace, trying to be the next coming of Jesus or something. Didn’t bother me any, but I guess for some, the higher you go, the more irritating you get.

Another admittance: I actually liked Pop at the time. Sure, it really hasn’t aged all that well and it has many weak spots, but I liked what they were trying to do with it. I also have a bit of a prejudice with the album, because it was one of the many I played incessantly while writing The Phoenix Effect at the time. It holds a place in my heart because I relate it to my writing sessions down in my parents’ basement all those years ago. It was also the tour in which I FINALLY got to see them live, after my sisters had gone to see them multiple times on their bigger tours.

But after that? It took me awhile to warm up to their music. I did like All That You Can’t Leave Behind, but there was something missing that kept me from outright loving it. It may have been that it was a decidedly introspective album; instead of the blistering and sometimes overbearing rock, it focused on melody and ambience. “Beautiful Day” is an excellent song, but can anyone else remember another track from that album, aside from that one about Bono’s dad? Thought not. And the follow-up albums took longer and longer to come out–four for How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, five for No Line On the Horizon, and five for the new one, Songs of Innocence. We had some greatest hits compilations popping up in between and an odd cover/duet with Green Day doing an old Saints track for the Super Bowl. If they weren’t taking time off or working on their own personal projects, they were selling out. They’re not relevant because they take too long to release new music. They’re not popular anymore because they haven’t recorded Achtung Tree II. Your mom and dad like them now. You just can’t win, I guess.

I bring all this up because of all of the noise that’s surrounded U2’s newest release this past week. They’d hinted for a while now that a new album would be forthcoming sooner or later but never gave any specifics, but this past Tuesday they surprise-released the new album in the most amazing and unexpected way: completely for free (for a limited time) for anyone who has iTunes. In fact, you already have it on your iCloud, all you need to do is download it, no strings attached. Apple and U2 are basically saying “here, have fun!”

And just as unexpectedly, there’s a shockingly large amount of music listeners and non-fans who are absolutely incensed that it was given to them for free “without permission”.

This is rich, coming from a music era that got nailed pretty damned hard a few years back when you could pretty much download any album for free through filesharing sites and fans felt no guilt in doing so, but I digress.

To put it bluntly, again: music fans are a fickle lot. The overwhelming response (not including the typical “U2 Sucks” and its varying iterations) seems to be that people are angry at being forced to take an album they don’t want. To be honest, it’s no different than the sample mp3s you find when you upload your new mp3’s software, or the prepackaged apps you find on your Samsung phone. It’s there for your use and download if you want it. No one’s forcing you to listen or play around with it. I can understand the frustration for those who set their iPhones to constantly sync up with whatever’s on their iCloud and suddenly find an album there, but that’s easily rectified with a few steps. As far as I know, one album won’t make a significant dent in your data plan. No worse than buttdialing or forgetting to disconnect from the internet and leaving it on all night.

Part of me wants to think that this is part and parcel of social media’s penchant for righteous indignation at the drop of a hat. [Sure, some indignation is justified, I’m not talking about those instances.] How dare you give me something I don’t want? You’re trying to take over my phone! You’re pushing a product at me that I despise! You can’t tell me what to like! And so on. It’s what I call surface emotion: the instinctual reaction to something we don’t like, and treating that as what we perceive to be the truth. Apple and U2 forced an album on me, so therefore they must suck and be the most horrible company and band in the world. It’s gone so far that even established music reviewers see the album with a tainted eye, immediately thinking of it as craptastic drivel. [And how dare Bono even breathe the name Joey Ramone, let alone use his name in a title of a song! Blasphemy!]

Sure, that may be stretching it a bit, but in the process, this indignation is obscuring the honest personal review of the album. Personally, after a few listens I feel this is one of their best late-period albums. In fact, it’s probably on my Top 5 of 2014 right now, right up there with Beck’s Morning Phase and Interpol’s El Pintor. I say this now because I’ve listened to music closely and intently for so long now that I’m able to listen to a band’s release on its own merit now. The record may not be up to the standards of its predecessors, but taken on its own it’s an excellent release. Songs of Innocence holds vibrant energy that’s been missing or not completely present in their past few albums. The melodies are more memorable this time out, and the production work is tighter and cleaner than many of their previous albums. [And “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is an excellent opening track–the mix of Irish reel and lyrics about hearing punk for the first time is a brilliant move. Take that, Sasha Frere-Jones!]

No band can, or should, be expected to consistently “top” themselves, nor should they feel the need to hit it out of the park every single time. U2 has been a top-selling band for nigh on thirty years now. I think it’s time we take them at surface level instead of as the gods we think they think they are.