Songwriters’ block

August 12, 2010 at 11:47 am (Music)

I love music…admittedly, not creating or performing it myself, but talking about it, listening to it, criticising it and philosophising about it. I obsess over reading lyrics (the digital revolution, while so good in so many ways is not helping my liner notes addiction!), hearing the stories behind the songs and picking up the cultural references.

I think that like most first loves, a love of music originates in adolescence, when identification, understanding, belonging and, well, let’s face it, other desires are so pressing and important. Professing fandom of a particular band or song is one of the quickest ways to identify yourself as part of a certain group…whether it be the cheerful pop princesses, the shoegazing indie crowd, the outrageous metal fans or even the intellectual classical collective. Sure, given most of our first CD purchases or first concerts, our tastes take some refining before we finally find the genre or the scene that truly ‘gets’ us, but I’d bet that most of us will always have a soft spot for that first embarrassing LP, tape, CD or download (age dependent) that made us leap around our bedrooms like a crazy thing.

The thing about music is, there are so many good songs out there, so many things that make you listen and hear the passion that went into writing it. But what is it that elevates a song into an obsession, into something that makes you hit repeat as soon as the closing chords die down? I think when it comes down to it, it has to have a certain frisson, something that hits a nerve, evokes a memory or desire. This can come from a particular chord change, a certain gasp or breath in between the words, a set of lyrics that put things just so…anything that causes a physical reaction in the listener. A lurch of recognition in the stomach, a thrill of pleasure in your chest, a pang of sadness in your eyes.

The glorious joy of it all too is that you can’t necessarily break it down and separate the elements that make it great. It has to have that magic combination of lyrics, melody, and that old indefinable cliché ‘soul’ as well as hit that personal spot in your heart, or come along at a particularly memorable point in your life to work…no wonder songwriting is such a difficult business. I’ve long admired anyone who can cobble a song together, words and music, who can orchestrate something original, yet familiar, something you can anticipate yet still be surprised by.

I must confess, as a writer, I’ve been tempted to try and bottle words into a song structure, but for me it’s like trying to trap a firefly in a jar. Bad teenage poetry was the only inevitable result. I may have once compared my broken heart to a flaccid beach ball…and then Tim Rogers steals my idea and puts it poignantly, perfectly into his simple, naked folk song. I love that I have learned words and concepts like leit motif and epiphany from songs, just the same way that books have taught me things or changed the course of my referencing and reading.

My CD collection is almost a barometric chart of my life. Like Rob in High Fidelity, I can sort it biographically and tell you that I was going out with a sweetly sensitive soul at the time I got into Weezer, with an apparently 12 year old skater boy who bought me Limp Bizkit’s disc for some reason (is it surprising that relationship didn’t last?:)) and that I was dedicated to RRR while driving to university when I found The Posies, Manic Street Preachers and even Soul Asylum. I can always predict writers block or a bout of depression when I find that I have not thrilled to any new songs or bought an album for a while, or made a mix tape for someone who I am eager to share my discoveries with.

And I love hearing about other people’s song stories, no matter the genre, age or sort of song. You can’t criticise someone’s musical taste when it’s something they love, something they are passionate about and something that means something to them (well, I know people do, but they are the oft-bemoaned music snobs and I have no time for musical snobbery…I know too well that you can’t help what you like sometimes, even if you suddenly realise you’ve been caught lip-synching to Justin Timberlake*)

So with that…my top 5 songs for lyrics, stories or educational value :)…a little mixed tape to get you started…will try to resist the urge to add and edit this madly after hitting submit. Mixed tape regret is a music lover’s constant companion!

Rolling Stones: Wild Horses

Placebo: Nancy Boy

Brand New: Play Crack the Sky

Manic Street Preachers: From Despair to Where

Maximo Park: Graffiti

*Note,  example only 🙂

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Musings on music

March 3, 2007 at 12:40 am (Music)

I’ve had something of a UK music fix over the past couple of weeks.

First up in the last week of January, Lucas and I went to see Muse at Festy Hall in Melbourne. Every time I go to that venue, I appreciate its size. It’s mid size, but on the floor you really are never too far away, even if you’re cowering at the back of the crush, like all self-respecting elderly concert-goers do. (Even if they do bring their Doc Martens out of retirement for such occasions). The stage is on the long side of the rectangle too, which seems a bit wrong, especially for the people in the wings who would have a fairly extreme angle to view the band, but all up, it’s a cool venue. I like to think about the thousands of stomping feet the to which the floor has reverberated before encores. Ah if only the walls could speak!

Muse seemed to attract a bit of an older muso crowd (no rhyming pun intended there). I wondered a bit if Muse are the new Floyd, or maybe Queen? Or do they have to be a new something? I was curious to see if they could replicate their huge album sound live, but just looking at the stage setup gave me thrills. The plain, unstained piano, the huge screens, behind giant plastic tubes and the massive light setup (along with these oversize balls lurking behind the crowd in the wings) all indicated this was going to be large. And indeed it was. The sound was simply AMAZING. For Muse anyway…for Ground Components, who were supporting, the sound was painful. I couldn’t figure out if it was because they weren’t any good, or if it was because their mix was so treble-y that it felt like my ears were bleeding.

Muse opened with the opening track from Black Holes and Revelations (I love it when bands do that, you get the same sense of anticipation from when you put the disc on the first time) and the crowd just went into a trance. It’s incredible to think that three people make that symphonic noise. Matt in particular has a hard working guitar tech, rushing over and changing guitars and retuning and moving things. Don’t envy his job. Highlight for me had to be Time is Running Out and Plug It Baby (the first Muse tune I got into, which I have to confess to Napstering back in the halcyon days of such things…I have since bought the disc though!). Matt left his guitar moaning against the speakers after the first break, and the stomping feet and lack of house lights made it pretty clear an encore was forthcoming. They teased us with some piano balladry, before finally finishing with a monstrous version of Knights of Cydonia. The giant balls descended on the crowd (and were burst pretty quickly, showering confetti everywhere), and huge neon signs spelled out the falsetto refrain…’You will never take me alive…’ etc etc. Basically, you couldn’t top that, the crowd were exhausted and slack from the intensity.

Snow Patrol’s show was a contrast in a few ways. For their show I decided I hated Festy Hall, for its heat, for its age and its uncomfortable seats. We took the seating option (well, ok, it was the only option left when we decided to get tickets) and felt like parents to the insanely young Greys Anatomy crowd. Compared to the serious Muse crowd, this group of fashion victims and concert virgins were total lightweights…I mean, who wears stilettos, or even wedges to a gig? Anyway, we were there for the band, right?! Kim, Briedy and I were sitting to the left of the building and towards the back, but like I said, Festy Hall is small enough for these not to be unreasonable seats.

Again, the sound for the support bands (Red Riders, Howling Bells) was noticeably poor, which just made Snow Patrol sound amazing when they came on. They also just looked bigger than the support bands, when they strode on, all in black, strapping Irish (are they Irish? the accent was devilishly beguiling, to be sure 😉 ) lads, with booming deep voices. I know comparatively few Snow Patrol songs, so this probably contributed to me being less engaged in this show than the Muse one, but it was a good, competent show. Chasing Cars is a gorgeous song, and I love Hands Open and they both sounded fantastic live. The singer is right into between song banter, which I am a fan of (otherwise, just get the live DVD and be done with it!) and the general stage set up was really effective. The ceiling was dripping with condensation though, and the occasional asthmatic wheeze from the vents only served to make us feel hotter in between gusts.

Add these two bands to seeing Placebo (same venue!!!) in September, and I think that gives me the UK trifecta. I think for that I win a warm beer and a Union Jack dress.

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