Tag Archive for the library

The Library: Freakshow by Midnight Syndicate

The Library is a recurring feature at Sketchy Details where I suggest songs that should fit into anyone’s music collection.

I went to a terrible horror convention two weeks ago looking for content. Instead, I came home covered in bruises from a show floor that was way too crowded for the crowd they let in. I couldn’t even spend ten seconds talking to a friend/interviewee/former employer in a booth before someone would try to shove me out of the way.

 The Library: Freakshow by Midnight Syndicate

Midnight Syndicate Carnival Arcane

The exception to the horrible traffic was one booth. I recognized their signage immediately. The Midnight Syndicate people made the trip over to Jersey to sell albums at a horror convention. They lucked into the one booth that was not directly in the path of show floor traffic. It was a quiet oasis where you could browse without being shoved and hear the sound of the person directly in front of you. They took advantage of the opportunity and engaged everyone who stopped by in conversation.

In case you don’t know, Midnight Syndicate is a music group practically synonymous with Halloween. They create atmospheric soundtracks. Some of their themes include masquerades, cemeteries, and mental asylums. Instead of just linking screams and rattling shains, they compose orchestral music with hints of special effects woven in.

Their latest album is Carnival Arcane and I have to agree with the man at the booth: it probably is their best release yet. The concept is a slightly twisted old-fashioned carnival. They pay a lot of attention to the freak show, the clowns, and the poorly constructed rides. The whole thing works so well as a collected unit that they won the Rondo Award for Best CD. That horror awards group has a refined palette. They nominated a huge collection of horror essays I was featured in a few years ago (Horror 101).

The accolades go beyond the horror and Halloween community. Their song “Freakshow” was nominated for the 2012 Great American Songwriter contest. Though there are other songs on the album that I prefer, it’s easy to see how “Freakshow” had the crossover appeal to breakout in a mainstream competition.

After some moody sound effects at the beginning, a piano begins to play a slow version of what was assuredly a much more upbeat midway march in the past. Now it is but a lilting waltz gliding past the faded midway posters. Even that beauty is fleeting when falling lines of chime and a honky tonk piano invade. It’s all downhill from there. A ghastly choir and an out of tune whistler come in again and again to ruin any chance of recovery.

The result is hypnotic. This is not the song of the freakshow itself. It’s the siren song of the carnival barker begging to you see pay extra for the fiji mermaid and shrunken heads. You want to turn away but you can’t. The repetition and movement have you trapped. It would be so lovely if any number of things happened. Instead, it’s intentionally ugly and all the more worthwhile for going there.

That is why you should add “Freakshow” to your music library.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

The Library: “When in Rome” by Nickel Creek

The Library is a recurring feature here at Sketchy Details where I take an in-depth look at a song I think could fit in nicely with anyone’s music collection.

Nickel Creek was an acoustic folk trio comprised of Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins. The group, sadly, disbanded in 2007 to pursue outside projects. However, the four albums of progressive acoustic music, or Newgrass, they released are some of the most intriguing albums of original folk music to come out in recent memory.

nickelcreekwheninrome The Library: When in Rome by Nickel Creek

Nickel Creek came across as relaxed and effortless because of their technique.

Their biggest crossover single was “When in Rome,” a moody bluegrass track all about tone. The lyrics are rhetorical and broad. The band questions the disillusioned state of a sick man and teacher before wondering how the dead respond to the contemporary world. If there is a flaw in the song, it is that the lyrics are perhaps a bit too driven by angst and lacking in focus. The song is focused on what society has become without speculating as to the cause or reach or the problems.

Good thing the draw of this song is not the lyrics but the underlying composition. Nickel Creek, at their absolute best, are incredible instrumentalists. It’s hard to think of another contemporary mandolin player who matches the technical skills and artistry of Chris Thile. The mandolin is not an easy instrument and Thile makes it look like child’s play.

Sara Watkins is a beautifully expressive fiddle player. Her technique brings out the sweetness of the instrument without becoming too flashy. There’s a time and a place for raucous passages of fast finger work and Watkins chooses not to push too hard.

Sean Watkins serves as a strong foundation for Nickel Creek. He rarely gets to show off as much as Sara or Chris, but what he does is solid. The band rarely uses actual percussion, which means the guitar becomes the foundation of everything.

Together, the trio forms a tight ensemble of relaxed and accomplished musicians. Their approach to music is effortless, even if their compositions are complex and inventive. Too many instrumentalists use the difficulty of a song as an excuse not to engage with an audience. Nickel Creek just felt natural and relaxed on record or in person, making it easy to connect with their music.

“When in Rome” is no exception. The driving pulse of the song is not the slap on the acoustic guitar but rhythmic interplay between the mandolin and the guitar. The composition builds to an explosion of counterpoint at the chorus. Chris Thile takes one melodic line as the vocalist, Sara Watkins takes another on the fiddle, and Sean Watkins pulls the whole thing together on the guitar. Even without Sean and Sara’s vocal harmonies and Chris’ mandolin playing, “When in Rome” would be a solid composition. With it, the effect is enchanting.

Will you be adding “When in Rome” to your music library? Sound off below.

The Library: “Rumour Has It/Someone Like You” from the Cast of Glee

In The Library, I recommend songs that I think would be a great addition to anyone’s music collection. This time, we’re talking about one of the most skilled mash-ups I’ve ever heard.

Glee gets a lot of flack for its music arrangements. I was beating that drum all throughout the first season for various sites (ghostwriting, though an occasional feature would pop up). It’s not that the arrangements are bad. They just, early on, had a bad habit of taking the edge out of some great songs–theater and music industry alike–to essentially push as pop factory hits.

Season 3 has seen a lot more depth, grit, and narrative purpose to the song choices. This is a huge step in the right direction for the show. I’ve actually been trying to convince people who would tell me I was stupid for skipping weeks of the show in the first season to give the show a try again. It’s actually functioning as musical TV like the pilot at this point.

On the mash-up week, new glee club The Troubletones did a phenomenal mash-up of Adele songs. It is as good as Adele’s remix album (from DJ Mick Boogie, who turned strong blues/pop into club-ready dance anthems), which is just another testament to the strength of her songwriting. Current hit single “Someone Like You” is blended seamlessly with “Rumour Has It”–a song that’s getting club and airplay without officially being an official single.

The Library: “Pop Goes the World” by The Gossip

Sometimes, you just need something good, fun, and poppy. Sometimes, you want something more than just a pop song. On this edition of The Library–the essential guide to songs that should be in your music library–we’ll look at a song that accomplishes both of those wants.

The Gossip is a dance-rock/punk trio. They make music that is just plain fun to listen to. Combined with lead singer Beth Ditto’s provocative stage performances and powerful soprano voice (this girl can sing), the band has slowly built up an international following that seems to know no boundaries. They’re at home at a tiny nightclub, a huge indoor dance concert, or an outdoor punk/rock festival.

“Pop Goes the World” is one of their more instantly accessible dance tracks. It’s a throwback 80′s party anthem with a message. The synth is as dirty as it gets and the drum loop uses a lot of Latin percussion sounds that crossed over into mainstream some thirty years ago.

The Library: “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” by Elton John

I’m not in a very good head-space right now. I just walked through my parent’s neighborhood. It’s depressing. The people I grew up in front of–friends, family, police officers, teachers–lost everything during the hurricane. If you don’t follow my Twitter (why not? it’s fun), you haven’t seen the photo they took of the bottom of their hill.

20110828115401 The Library: Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word by Elton John

That road is one of the major roads in the town. Everyone with a house at that level was forced to evacuate their home Sunday morning. Part of the next town’s dam broke because of the heavy rain and heavier winds, flooding low-lying streets and pooling in this neighborhood. The water rose for hours after this photo was taken, rising about another two feet before the weather calmed down and the drains were able to start routing the water away. The roads slope down to right below my parent’s house. Foundations gave way, cars were destroyed, and houses were filled with water through to the first floor. It’s a disaster.

I walked around the neighborhood and couldn’t even say anything to these people. I think I was in shock. The streets are lined in stoves, water heaters, dishwashers, couches, clothes, instruments. bookshelves, computers, and everything else that was ruined in the rain. All I could think of was this song. It’s a great song that you should have in your collection and, conveniently, gets into my psyche pretty well right now. At least the general sentiment does.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

The Library: “Little Sparrow” by Dolly Parton

On this edition of The Library, we take a look at a modern Bluegrass song that doesn’t rely on the updated instrumentation of the Newgrass and fusion movements.

I know that country, in particular Bluegrass, is not a genre for everyone. What people think of when they see the word “Bluegrass” is an antiquated form. It’s banjo, mandolin, fiddle, maybe a guitar, and a folksy vocal. Personally, I love it. Even the stuff that creaks from age engages me. This style typically has great harmonies and particularly strong singers. When you’re working in a genre that is all about variations on common themes told through musicianship, you can afford to make sure you have the best musician you can get for every part.

Beginning in the late 1990s, Dolly Parton began to experiment with this traditional country form. She did some truly amazing things with it. Her voice and candid lyrics were a perfect match. Plus, with all her years working in the recorded music industry, she had access to the best of the best acoustic musicians to work with.

I believe the essential Dolly Parton Bluegrass track is “Little Sparrow.”

The Library: “Time Stood Still” by David Yazbek

Deja vu: the feeling that you’ve done something before. How is it that, when this series of posts is only in its infancy, I can dare to suggest that you should absolutely have two songs from the recent flop musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in your music library? Easy. I don’t want to send you off on a backwoods path to the Carrie: The Musical bootleg recordings to insist you download “And Eve Was Weak” for your music collection.

In truth, I believe “Time Stood Still” is one of the more compelling recordings to come out of a NYC show in a long time. It’s the perfect combination of performer, concept, style, and execution. Everything about it drives me wild.

The song opens with a recording of a pop song. It has that great grainy production quality that sets it apart from everything else in the song. About 25 seconds in, Lucia (sung by Patti Lupone)–a woman recently released from a mental hospital–giddily starts singing along as if no one else could hear her. As soon as she starts singing, it switches from the recording to the live orchestra. It’s seamless.

The song just has a great pop groove.

The Library: Sun Ra and His Intergalaxtic Arkestra “Pink Elephants”

Do you like jazz music? How about playful spins on well known pop-culture songs? What about artists who assume crazy public identities and refuse to break from character in public? No, I’m not talking about the early pre-major label deal work of Lady Gaga. I’m talking about Sun Ra and His Intergalaxtic Arkestra.

Sun Ra developed an musical, literary, and personal philosophy based on his public persona. He claimed to be an Angel from Saturn. He believed in peace above all else. His music was controversial for incorporating electronic elements into a traditionally acoustic form, though he had a devoted following from the 1950s until his death in 1993. He toured with an “Arkestra,” an intentional mispelling to add to the expansive mythology of his character

My favorite album in their collection is a cover of Disney songs called Second Star to the Right. They do “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “I’m Wishing,” and “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” among others. It’s a great introduction to what Sun Ra was about. You’ll recognize the songs, but they’ll be presented in a very different way.

Today’s track for The Library does not come from this album, but a connected project.

The Library: Mahalia Jackson’s “Summertime and Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”

When I started doing The Library posts, I set out to suggest tracks that I thought would fit in any music fan’s library. Today’s selection is a little bit different.

Mahalia Jackson is The Queen of Gospel. As far as I’m concerned, she has one of the most beautiful voices ever recorded in the history of music. She performed gospel music her entire life and eventually gained a wide audience as an in-demand live gospel vocalist. She also stuck to her morals, performing only Gospel music and refusing gigs in any venue she deemed inappropriate.

Mahalia’s voice is that rare mix of control, emotion, and beautiful dark round vowels. It’s smooth as molasses and sincere as young child’s letter to Santa Claus. She did not do any excessive vocal histrionics because she did not need to. When the voice is that strong, it’s enough to just sing the song and sing it well. It’s the kind of style that inspires a singer to better themselves.

The Library: “Bombs Over Baghdad” by Outkast

I believe “Bombs Over Baghdad” is the best song Outkast ever recorded. It’s smart, it’s witty, and it’s an instant party starter. It is essential for any music fan’s library.

Just look at some of these lyrics:

Weather man tellin’ us it ain’t gon’ rain
So now we sittin’ in a drop-top, soaking wet
In a silk suit, tryin’ not to sweat
Hits somersaults without the net
But this’ll be the year that we won’t forget

It’s rap by way of stream of consciousness narrative and it drives me wild.

Just give it a listen and add it to your collection. No need to create an argument for a song this good.

I’m actually on the road today. I’ll try to get up something more substantial later tonight. No guarantees.

The Library: Karen O & The Kids “All Is Love”

Sometimes, you just need a song to cheer you up. I think there are only a few songs that can help you get into a better mood under most circumstances. Karen O & The Kids’ performance of the Karen O/Carter Burwell-penned song “All Is Love” is one of those songs.

This whole song just screams joy to me. Even in the opening moments, the plucked guitar pattern just sets a mellow, happy tone for the entire song. It’s a sweet and simple electric lick that has just enough sense of mystery to draw the listener in.

From there, the song goes with much faster strumming on an acoustic guitar with just a hint of distortion. It’s a fine choice as it matches the less trained sound of The Kids. There’s a raw energy in these kids that is not uncommon to see in a school music class or summer camp. The kids are having fun singing the, putting everything they have into singing it loud, if not necessarily right.

Karen O’s vocal is surprisingly sweet to encourage participation.

The Library: “Babooshka” by Kate Bush

The Library is a recurring feature at Sketchy Details where I recommend a song that I think would be a good fit in anyone’s music library.

This week, the recommendation is one of my favorite pop songs of all time. “Babooshka” by Kate Bush is a great narrative song with a story that is still edgy 31 years later. The story goes like this: a woman is convinced her husband is cheating on her. To catch him, she assumes an alternate identity to seduce him. By the first chorus, we know she is successful. We also know that she doesn’t realize that she might have changed over the years. The second verse describes their first meeting in person. Once again, we as the audience are given information that the wife doesn’t know: he feels that she has “freezed on him.” He didn’t stray; she pushed him away. She sacrifices everything she has to convince herself of a paranoid fantasy when, in reality, her husband is only drawn to the mysterious woman because she is just like his wife when they first met. He knows he has met her before but he can’t place her until she reveals her true identity.

The vocal performance on this is just aggressive enough to sell the concept.

The Library: “My Crazy Heart (Original Show Opening)” by David Yazbek

The Library is a new (hopefully) weekly feature for Sketchy Details. In it, I will write about a particular song that I believe should be in your music library. It could be old or new, musical theater or CHR, classical or post-modern. It’s a recommendation of strong music you might have missed along the way.

This inaugural session of The Library is dedicated to the amazing work of David Yazbek in composing the score to the short lived Broadway musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. There was a horrible reception to this show when it played its first few preview performances cold in NYC. The show opened on Pepa (Sherie Rene Scott) lying in her bed. Somehow, the bed caught fire and all of the women in the show wandered into her bedroom to sing “My Crazy Heart.” The staging was so confusing, the song was scrapped from the production. It was re-written as a ballad sung by a different group of characters halfway through Act I. It’s heartfelt, but not nearly as stylish as the original version.

Thankfully, the original version of “My Crazy Heart” is available as part of the Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown Original Broadway Cast Recording.