Looking back over the first five weeks of this fantastic blog feature, I realized I’d been keeping things pretty gloomy. To be fair, I like creepy, subdued music, so it’s not exactly surprising or accidental. On the other hand, some kinds of work demand music with a little more action, a little more presence in the room. So today, I picked out some of the more upbeat techno and electronica tracks from The Short List and called them “Thumpers.”
I’ve never cared for that term (nobody does), but I’m not sure how else to put it. These things thump. I guess that means a strong backbeat, pulsing rhythm, sorta dancey, whatever. These ten tracks all live roughly in the same world, but they cover a lot of ground. I threw them in a playlist at the bottom, but here are each individual tracks for you as well (Please watch the Chemical Brothers’ video in full).
Best if you work in: the Getting Shit Done business.
1. Patrick Cowley: “Journey Home”
Patrick Cowley was a pioneer of electronic dance music in San Francisco in the 1970s, through to his death in 1982. If this is the first time you’re reading his name and this music does anything for you, please dig deeper. His sound might seem elemental or hackneyed to modern ears, but that’s only because his influence was that significant (the same way Steve Ray Vaughn fans might find Robert Johnson simplistic). His album School Daze is mandatory listening for anybody interested in seminal dance music. It’s a double album compilation of music Cowley wrote to score two gay porn films in 1981, Muscle Up and School Daze. It's possible you'll hear evidence of it, the music is pretty carnal and sexy and slightly playful in that porno-humor sort of way. Even if you don't hear that, this is a great track for getting things done.
2. The Field: "Sequenced" Don't know if you've noticed, but I really like repetition in music. And this track, from Swedish producer Axel Willner (why would you possibly use a stage name with a stunner like that?), is about as repetitive as it gets. If you don't like the first minute, you probably will not like the following 14.
3. Jon Hopkins: "Sun Harmonics" This song is the reason I wanted to make this list. It's the closing track from his widely-celebrated 2013 album Immunity. The album more than deserves the praise, though at times it's almost too pristine, too well-made. Hopkins spent the mid-2000s working with Brian Eno on (not great, over-produced) Coldplay records so maybe that tells you something. Either way, this song is a beauty. Side note: this British producer Jon Hopkins is not the same as the 19th century philanthropist and hospital-founder Johns Hopkins.
4. Moderat: "Milk" How did you pronounce this band's name? "Moderate" or "mode-rat"? Just curious. Anyway, they're something of a supergroup comprised of two big-leaguers of German electronica: Apparat and Modeskeletor (I guess that's how they got the name). There are three albums to date, of varying quality, but this track is an undeniable gem (also check out "New Error" or "Seamonkey" if you like this).
5. Biosphere: "A Circular Path"
Every plate of spicy wings needs its celery, and "A Circular Path" is this playlist's celery (please nominate this for Analogy of the Year). It's a little creepier and more ambient than the others on here, but it's nice to have a change of pace when you're putting in work. (No video, sorry).
6. Chemical Brothers: "Star Guitar" In addition to the song's contagious mood and sound, "Star Guitar" is one of my favorite music videos of all time (directed by Michel Gondry). Watch it please.
7. Dominik Eulberg: "Der Tanz der Gluehwuermchen (Rone Remix)"
If you don't listen to electronic music, this song might sound like a cartoonish parody of the genre. It's kind of by-the-books mainstream IDM (Intelligent Dance Music, a nauseating genre-term if there ever was one). But it's expertly produced and at times, downright beautiful.
8. μ-Ziq: "Johnson's Q-Fab" This guy's name is pronounced "music" which is pretty annoying and I don't know why. But he's a terrific producer, a good step-two into 90s British IDM if Aphex Twin was your step-one. It's more restrained than some of the others on this list (it's another celery song), but just as mesmerizing.
9. Giraffage: "Moments"
With Patrick Cowley, Giraffage is the only American on this list (why are Europeans so good at this kind of music?). He's also the artist on this list I've discovered most recently, so I'm in the midst of a pretty serious Giraffage kick at the moment. This was the song that kicked it all off. It's energetic but oddly kind of sweet in a way that thumpers usually are not. I also just really like the name "Giraffage."
10. Aphex Twin: "Xtal" What would a Music To Sweep To mix be without old Aphex Twin? "Xtal" is one of his earlier tracks, from his Selected Ambient Works 85-92 release (the predecessor to the album that inaugurated this blog, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II). Thumpers are generally direct and confident, that's what you get with a strong backbeat, but "Xtal" delivers a refreshing alternative to that mood. It's a lot wetter (reverb-wise) than what you might expect from tracks like these, and the result is thoroughly gratifying. If you're a later-era Aphex Twin fan, you might want to spend some time with this one.
Those who don't regularly attend Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concerts may not have given much thought to the ongoing PSO strike. But, with the announcement today that Elvis Costello has canceled his Nov. 1 appearance at Heinz Hall, the orchestra's home base, the strike may have more resonance for rock n roll fans.
Costello released the following statement:
I regret to inform you that our "Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers" concert at Heinz Hall cannot go ahead, as I am unwilling to cross an AFofM picket line during the current strike by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
I hope that the dispute will soon be settled honorably and amicably and that The Imposters and I will have the opportunity to perform at Heinz Hall before too long. We send our apologies to ticket holders and all our friends in Pittsburgh with thanks for your understanding and support of live music wherever it is heard.
Respectfully. Elvis Costello.
According to a press release from Drusky Entertainment, who booked the show, full refunds will be granted to originals form of payment, and cash purchasers will receive a refund check. For questions, please call the Heinz Hall box office at 412-392-4900.
This week’s MP3 comes from Blue Soul Ten, a project of composer/producer Claye Greene which blends jazz, soul and electronica. Stream or download the chill-wave-y track “Daydream,” from the new record The Fearless Warrior, below, and learn more about Blue Soul Ten here.
Switchfoot’s performance at Stage AE on Oct. 12 started early. It started during Relient K’s opening set when Jon Foreman, Switchfoot’s lead singer, ran on stage for the end of the last song, “Deathbed.” At this, a look of surprise came over the face of Matt Thiessen, Relient K’s frontman.
Photo by Caleb Murphy
If you snapped a photo of Foreman and Thiessen singing together on that one mic, both with big smiles, that would be a frame that could represent the rest of the show.
Switchfoot’s message is unity. Many times during the show, Foreman stepped across the space between the stage and the front-row barrier to touch people’s hands. During their fourth song, “Gone,” he encouraged audience members to lock arms with the person next to them and sway with the music.
Snap. Another frame showing the love-thy-neighbor atmosphere the band brings.
A little later, all five band members huddled around Foreman’s mic, Chad Butler (drums) on the snare, Tim Foreman (bass) singing, Drew Shirley (guitar) on acoustic guitar and Jerome Fontamillas (keyboard) on accordion. The five of them had their arms around each other, singing, “Hello hurricane, you're not enough. Hello hurricane, you can't silence my love,” in honor of Haiti, which Hurricane Matthew recently devastated.
Snap. A frame showing how they’ve become a band of brothers, standing up for the broken.
Soon, the lights went off and Foreman was walking around stage with a flashlight, singing, “I'm looking for America. America, where are you?” This led into, “The Sound (John M. Perkins’ Blues).” With a guitar riff that could be mistaken for one of AC/DC’s, the lyrics go, “This is the sound of a heartbeat. This is the sound from the discontented mouths of a haunted nation.” All the while, footage from the Civil Rights Movement played on the screens behind the band.
Photo by Caleb Murphy
Snap. A frame yearning for redemption.
Multiple times throughout the night, Foreman stepped down into the crowd, high-fiving as he pushed through the sea of people, singing with those around him. While crowd surfing during the song “Love Alone Is Worth The Fight,” Foreman garnered a chuckle from people during a break in singing.
“Sometimes I wonder how I get to these places,” he said as people’s hands held him above heads.
Snap. A frame showing trust in your fans to carry you through the air.
Soon after, Relient K decided to repay the favor and crash Switchfoot’s set. Foreman welcomed Thiessen and Matt Douglas (Relient K’s drummer) to the stage to sing the end of “Live It Well.”
“Life is short, I wanna live it well,” they all sang. “And you're the one I'm living for.”
Snap. Another frame that shows people bonding over music.
As the night wound down, confetti shot out of cannons from either side of the stage, cities of bubbles floated around the packed room, and Foreman kneeled in front of a half disco ball during “Float.”
And then, right before playing the very last song of the evening, “Dare You To Move,” Foreman put into words the atmosphere of the room.
“This is one of those nights,” he said. “You just kind of don’t want it to end.”
I remember my excitement seeing Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love for the first time as a tween. After films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia, I was jacked up for Anderson’s next move: more John C. Reilly, more Aimee Mann, more frogs. But Punch Drunk Love delivered none of these things. I’ve watched it again and enjoyed it as an adult, but at the time, it gave me the heebie-jeebies.
If you don’t know the story, it’s about a super lonely guy played by Adam Sandler who buys large quantities of pudding in order to take advantage of a frequent-flyer mail-in promotion (apparently a true story, by the way), ends up in trouble with a skeezy phone sex line run by an also skeezy Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and falls in love with a sweet, shy woman played by Emily Watson. Some of it takes place in Hawaii.
Anderson called PDL his attempt at a romantic comedy, but it’s about as funny as There Will Be Blood. This was one of Sandler’s first forays into drama (aside from the rousing emotional climaxes of most of his movies, “I love you, Dad”) and despite his success portraying Barry’s rage, it adds up to something overwhelming and unpleasant (at least my first time around). A big part of the film's unsettling effect is due to the score by Jon Brion.
Brion, a veteran music producer (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Kanye West, Best Coast, Spoon), was Anderson’s go-to scorer before Jonny Greenwood became the guy (There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice). Brion's also known for his memorable scores for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I Heart Huckabees, and recently, the opening theme for comedian John Mulaney’s Netflix special The Comeback Kid (the song is not on YouTube, but I encourage you in the strongest terms to watch it. The special is great; the song is better).
In some ways, Greenwood’s music for There Will Be Blood might be more fitting than what we get in Brion's score; Blood would echo Barry’s precarious highs and lows, his self-hatred, his love of a good deal. But what we get in this score is not a reflection of Barry’s story but a dreamy, hallucinatory counterpoint.
In retrospect, it makes sense that Anderson would make the jump from Brion to Greenwood, like Fugazi following Minor Threat. Brion is closer to a traditional film composer, or at least he plays with more traditional themes; his work is concrete, maybe a little twisted, but familiar. Greenwood is closer to Bernard Hermann, the legendary composer behind scores like Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver and Psycho. His stuff is abstract and seems to take more inspiration from dissonant classical music than traditional film scores. Greenwood is showy and big, Brion’s music is small and personal.
“Overture,” the opening theme to PDL, encapsulates what Brion is going for off the bat. It starts wheezing and atonal, then drops into a cutesy orchestral waltz, weaving through the themes with overdone strings and one adorable oboe. It’s schmaltzy as fuck, but purposefully so. This is the music of Barry’s imagination, and the dude is pretty schmaltzy, his dreams of giving and receiving love are pipe dreams, so it makes sense that the strings have to reach so far.
The atonal, amelodic stuff is pretty fun, too. “Tabla” and “Hands and Feet” feel like Barry waking up from his flights of imagination, back into his head, which, if I’m reading it right, is a pretty shitty place. Anderson said some of the more abstract noises in the score are recorded from the warehouse where Barry works, which totally makes sense, as it is also a pretty shitty place.
Once the story arrives in Hawaii, we’re treated to some interesting takes on traditional island music. “Moana Chimes,” a steel guitar song from Hawaiian composer Benjamin Rogers, gets a great rendition from Brion, who slows it down and coats it in sleepy, lo-fi production. “Waikiki,” another classic Hawaiian song, also gets some creepy treatment, mixed and panned with what sounds like an inattentive audience not watching a singer sing. “Healthy Choice” sounds like music written for elevators, by elevators.
Hawaiian music is fitting for PDL. I’ve never been, but I assume it’s weird to live in a place that’s so commodified and idealized in the greater world’s imagination. It is cartoonishly beautiful and it’s got the uke-music to match, but that perception seems a little phony. Like idealizing a crush from a distance, projection leads mostly to disappointment. Brion’s choice to utilize Hawaiian styles while subverting it with the production is some seriously smart scoring, man. Well done.
Punch Drunk Love, as well as a few other Brion gems I added to the list, makes great work music for all the reasons listed above. I think good work music needs varying levels of sincerity and meaning, to keep your interest. So music that's pretty on the surface and rotten underneath is a good place to start. Or maybe listening to Punch Drunk Love is just an opportunity to roll around in the schmaltz for a while and enjoy some seriously twee tunes. Who knows. Either way, enjoy.
Best if you work in: novelty plungers, phone sex, pudding manufacture
If you have any suggestions, comments, complaints or want to share your own work music, send to email@example.com
For the full playlist of Music To Sweep To, go here.
Back in July we talked to now-Atlanta-based rapper/activist/all-around-badass Blak Rapp Madusa, who was in Pittsburgh to play Ladyfest; tomorrow she's back in town to host an exclusive pre-screening of her new documentary, Her Time to Shyne, which explores the impact of hip hop on the lives of black women, and the role of the genre in combating racism, sexism and the patriarchy. Pittsburgh-based artists I Medina, Anqwenique Wingfield and Vanessa German, among others, are featured in the film.
A press release for the screening describes the film as an examination of ”the evolution of Black womanism and shares the growth of amultidimensional movement that expresses itself through literary, visual and performance art." Through interviews with black women artists around the country, Madusa aims to bring attention to the important work of these artists, while also sparking social change.
This week's MP3 comes from lo-fi indie-punk band Rue. The four-piece, lead by Laura Lee Burkhardt, just released a new song, "Reversed." It's a highly catchy tune, full of odd musical turns and pleasantly unexpected vocal patterns. Give it a listen (or five, if you're me) below.
This week’s Music To Sweep To (really should have gone with BroomTunes) is the instrumental work of Andrew Bird. There are exceptions, but overall I’m not a huge fan of Bird’s non-instrumental music (I didn’t mention this to him when we spoke last week, nor did he ask). His aesthetic is naturally pretty, but for some reason when he sings, it tips the scale from pleasantly sweet to saccharin, from moving to cloying.
I pretty much wrote the dude off until 2012, when I heard his music in the audiobook for David Sedaris’ Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls. Unlike Sedaris’ earlier audiobooks, which were scored with painfully goofy MIDI jazz tunes, Owls had this heavy, thoughtful score that was well-suited to the author’s sweet, cynical sense of humor. It’s a pretty brilliant matchup actually, and about halfway through, I started to have a bunch of those cornball moments that make you go “What is this?”
"This" was “You Woke Me Up!” from Bird’s instrumental album Useless Creatures.
Useless Creatures was released as a bonus album alongside his non-instrumental record Noble Beast in 2009. It wasn’t his first foray into instrumentals — his albums often have one or two — but Creatures felt and feels like it’s discovering or offering something new. I can’t think of any vocalist whose music is altered more by the addition of their voice. These would not be the same songs with Bird singing and it’d be difficult for him to even try. These songs aren’t built for it.
Of course, all of this (falsely) assumes that instrumentals are just non-instrumental songs with the vocals muted. Listening to “Hot Math,” it’s hard to imagine Bird finding a chorus in that thing. Because, of course, it wasn’t intended to have one. This is a longwinded way of saying that the two sides of Andrew Bird’s music, ones with vocals and ones without, are really profoundly different experiences. I think it’s rare to be so drawn to select songs in an artist’s catalog and so off-put by the rest. It’s like loving Aerosmith, but only the songs sung by Joe Perry. It never happens.
So…I compiled my favorites from Useless Creatures and other instrumental gems from his catalog. Most recently, he released an album called Echolocations: Canyon, which was recorded, mostly improvised, in Coyote Gulch in Utah. He’s planning to record more location-based instrumentals in the future, so maybe he has been getting my letters. Enjoy.
Best if you work in: spelunking, fire lookout, park maintenance
Since I just used quite a few words detailing my dislike for the dude’s voice, I’d like to undo it now with this great (non-instrumental) cut from his latest album Are You Serious.