(Revision) Blog Series Part Two: Get out of my head, Earworm!

blog-series(2)In the first post of this series, we established that repetition is a contributing factor to creating earworms.  We also concluded that since popular songs are played the most frequently across various forms of media, that they are the most likely candidates to become earworms.  Billboard.com compiles various charts which determine the top selling (and thus most popular) albums and singles for various genres of music.  The Billboard 200 calculates weekly album sales from across the country and then ranks them from the highest sellers, to the lowest.  Album sales can be attributed to the amount of promotion the record receives and the amount of radio play songs from that album get.  The most popular songs receive more radio play; often receiving multiple plays per day, and sometimes even multiple plays per hour.  This helps to generate even more album sales, which in turn creates more radio play.  Like a dog chasing its tail, album sales determine popularity, and popularity generates album sales.  Popular songs are also more likely to appear in advertisements, movies and television shows, giving them an even greater opportunity to become earworms by adding a visual stimuli to the music.  Most recently, YouTube phenomenon like “Gangnam Style” and “The Harlem Shake” show how a song’s popularity can transcend different media formats.

So what goes into making a pop-song?  Are some songs just destined to grab the attention of the listener, or is there a specific method behind writing a pop-song?  If we can find a pattern within the writing process and production of popular songs, we can further break them down to see if individual characteristics of the song itself can help create earworms.  Brandon Davids, author of the blog series “Creating a Pop Song” did extensive research to determine if there was indeed a pattern that could be found in pop-music.  Davids consulted the ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) charts which keep records of the highest selling singles and albums in various genres in Australia.  Using the top selling singles from 1960, through to 2011, Davids was able to use data regarding song length, tempo, song form, and chord structure to find averages and common occurrences in the most popular songs in the 52 year range.

Davids found the average tempo of the selected songs to be 116.53 BPM, with the most occurring tempo (or mode) being 128 BPM.  The average and mode running times (length) of the same songs were calculated to be three-minutes forty-six seconds (3:46) and three-minutes twenty-five seconds (3:25) respectively.

A song’s tempo can play a significant role in its ability to become an earworm if it is in sync with a persons heart rate.  According to Edward R. Laskowski, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at the Mayo Clinic, “A normal resting heart rate for adults, ranges from 60 to 100 beats a minute.”  If the tempo of the song can match, or even double a persons heart rate, than there is a good chance that the song could get stuck in your head.  Think about going for a run.  You are probably more likely to listen to music with a higher tempo while running, and perhaps even at times find yourself running to the beat of certain songs.  As your heart rate goes up, your body seems to sync with the music.  This syncing could definitely correspond to the creation of earworms as your body is creating a pattern which could later be triggered as a memory.

The common length of a song; however, has been determined over time by the radio stations that play pop-music.  If you want your song to get radio play, you are going to have to cut it down to a radio-friendly length.  This can be shown by artists releasing “radio edited” versions of their songs.  The common belief is that these radio edits are merely for editing out profanity and vulgar language from a song and today that has become the more common place, but a radio edit is also useful when a producer feels that a song could be a hit, and wants to get it as much air time as possible.  It is not uncommon for producers to take out entire verses of songs just to get them to the desired radio-friendly length, in hopes of maximum repetition.

Being a musician, I am very interested in seeing what effect, if any; the structure of a song plays on creating earworms.  Is there a particular order in arranging the verses?  When should the first chorus come in? How often should the chorus repeat? Do I really need the middle eighth or “bridge”?  Davids found that among the songs listed in the study that the most common song form is as follows:

Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Middle-Eighth (Bridge)-Chorus-Chorus

Having four choruses in the song can create a lot of repetition, as they are typically the same lyrics repeated over the same chord progression.  The verses and middle eighth serve as breaking points between choruses, and the middle eighth, itself breaks up the structural pattern (verse-chorus-verse-chorus) of the song. This breaking of repetition suggests that there may be a certain amount of repetition that we can endure before we simply just turn a song off.  If this is the case, then song structure plays a very important role in creating earworms.  Too much or not enough repetition within the song can cause the listener to disregard the song, or forget about it completely.

Key and structure tend to go hand in hand during the song writing process.  From a songwriters point of view, finding a progression and key that fit the theme of the song is just as important as structuring the song in a way that can maintain a rhythmic flow.  Davids noted that “the majority of the number one pop songs selected were written in a major key (82%) and that although there was a broad displacement with regards to a song’s key signature, the keys of ‘E’, ‘C’, and ‘F’ were the most common.”  The key of “C” contains all natural notes (that is no sharps – or flats depending on how you look at it).  The key of “F” contains one sharp, and the key of “E” four.  I can understand how it can be perceived that writing a song in a major key can attribute to it becoming an earworm.  Songs writing in a major key generally project bright and full tones.  However, I don’t feel that it is completely necessary for a song to be written in a major key as not all earworms are happy and upbeat songs (REM – Losing My Religion is currently playing in my head and serves as a contrast, being a song written in a minor key that has become my earworm).  Major keys may be a commonplace in the writing of a pop song, but individually as an attribute, the key in which a song is written should not be considered a determining factor with regards to earworms.

If we look back through both posts in this blog series, repetition plays a large role in how a song becomes an earworm.  Memory triggers, a person’s emotional state, and being in a low affective state, such as daydreaming, are also contributing factors, as well as how a song is written and composed.  To date there is very little scientific data to support why certain people get earworms.  The length of a song can make it radio-friendly, and help create earworms through the repetition.  But not all earworms are short, radio-friendly songs.  A song’s tempo can resonate and sync with your heartbeat which gives it the ability to trigger memories, or even create new ones; however, there are times when slow and melodic songs can embed themselves in your brain.  A songs form focuses again on the repetition aspect of earworms; however, it also shows that there could be such a thing as over repetition.  There is no rhyme or reason as to why we get earworms.  If we look at the repetition of a pop-song, and what goes into creating a pop-song, we can see how different aspects of the song can help increase its ability to become an earworm.  Whether you like it or not, music has the ability to get stuck in your head.  We may never know for certain why it happens, or how to stop it from happening? The first two posts in this blog series have looked at and addressed some possible reasons that earworms occur, but before we get into finding out if there is a way to stop them, please allow me one last opportunity to present you with your very own earworm!

The Original Theme Song to America’s Funniest Home Videos

Advertisements

Blog Series Part Two: Get out of my head, Earworm!

In order to move forward we must assert that since repetition has already been established as a contributing factor to earworms, then the most popular songs are the most likely candidates to become earworms.  The popularity of a song is determined by record sales.  This can be attributed to the amount of promotion and radio play a song receives.  The most popular songs receive more radio play; often receiving multiple plays per day, and sometimes even multiple plays per hour.  Popular songs are also more likely to appear in advertisements, movies and television shows.  Phenomenon like “Gangnam Style” and “The Harlem Shake” are examples of how a song’s popularity can transcend different media formats.

So what goes into making a pop-song?  Are some songs just destined to grab the attention of the listener, or is there a specific method behind writing a pop-song?  Brandon Davids, author of the blog series “Creating a Pop Song” did extensive research to determine if there was indeed a pattern that could be found in pop-music.  Davids consulted the ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) charts which served to keep a record of the highest selling singles and albums in various genres in Australia.  Using the top selling single from 1960, through to 2011, Davids was able to use data regarding song length, tempo, song form, and chord structure to find averages and common occurrences in the most popular songs in the 52 year range.

Davids found the average tempo of the selected songs to be 116.53 BPM, with the most occurring tempo (or mode) being 128 BPM.  The same process was done with regards to the average and mode running times, being three-minutes forty-six seconds and three-minutes twenty-five seconds respectively.  The tempo of these songs could be significant in their ability to become an earworm as they are more likely to sync with the normal resting rate of the heart.  According to Edward R. Laskowski, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at the Mayo Clinic, “A normal resting heart rate for adults, ranges from 60 to 100 beats a minute.”  If the tempo of the song can match, or even double that of the normal resting rate, than there is a good chance that the song is likely to get stuck in your head.  Think about going for a run.  You are probably more likely to listen to music with a higher tempo while running, and perhaps even at times find yourself running to the beat of certain songs.  Your heart rate goes up, and your body syncs with the music.  This syncing could definitely correspond to the creation of earworms as your body is creating a pattern which could later be triggered as a memory.

The common length of a song; however, has been determined over time by the radio stations that play pop-music.  If you want your song to get radio play, you are going to have to cut it down to a radio-friendly length.  This can be shown by artists releasing “radio edited” versions of their songs.  The common belief is that these radio edits are merely for editing out profanity and vulgar language from a song and today that has become the more common place, but a radio edit is also useful when a producer feels that a song could be a hit, and wants to get it as much air time as possible.  It is not uncommon for producers to take out entire verses of songs just to get them to the desired length.  This all goes back to the repetition attribute of earworms.  The more often you hear a song, the more likely it is that you are going to get that song stuck in your head.  If radio stations want shorter songs, than shorter songs are the most likely to be in heavy rotation.

Being a musician, I was very interested in seeing what effect, if any; the structure of a song plays on creating earworms.  Is there a particular order in arranging the verses?  When should the first chorus come in? How often should the chorus repeat? Do I really need the middle eighth or “bridge”?  Davids found that among the songs listed in the study, that the most common song form is as follows:

Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Middle-Eighth (Bridge)-Chorus-Chorus

Having four choruses in the song can create a lot of repetition, as they are typically the same lyrics repeated over the same chord progression.  The verses and middle eighth appear to serve as breaking points between choruses, breaking up a constant repetition that would undoubtedly become annoying.  Again the middle eighth breaks up the initial pattern of verse-chorus-verse-chorus, which suggests that maybe there is a certain amount of repetition that we can endure before we simply just shut it off.  If this is the case, then song structure plays a very important role in whether or not a song has the ability to become an earworm.  Too much or not enough repetition within the song can cause the listener to turn it off, or forget about it completely.

Now that we have the structure of a song deduced, does the key of a song, or its chord structure have any part in developing earworms.  Davids, again, found that “the majority of the number one pop songs selected were written in a major key (82%) and that although there was a broad displacement with regards to a song’s key signature, the keys of ‘E’, ‘C’, and ‘F’ were the most common.”  The key of “C” contains all natural notes (that is no sharps – or flats depending on how you look at it).  The key of “F” contains one sharp, and the key of “E” four.  I can understand how it can be perceived that writing a song in a major key can attribute to a song becoming an earworm, as a major key will project bright and full tones; however, I don’t feel that it is completely necessary for a song to be written in a major key as not all earworms are happy and upbeat songs (REM – Losing My Religion is currently playing in my head and serves as a contrast, being a song written in a minor key that has become my earworm).

If we look back through both posts in this blog series, repetition plays a large role in how a song becomes an earworm.  Memory triggers, a persons emotional state, and being in a low affective state, such as daydreaming, are also contributing factors, as well as how a song is written and composed.  To date there is very little scientific data to support why certain people get earworms.  The length of a song can make it radio-friendly, and help create earworms through the repetition aspect discussed in the previous post in this series.  A song’s tempo can resonate and sync with your heartbeat which gives it the ability to trigger memories, or even create new ones.  A songs form focuses again on the repetition aspect of earworms; however, it also shows that there could be such a thing as over repetition.  There are many outlying factors in regards to why we get earworms and whether you like it or not, music has the ability to get stuck in your head.  But how do we stop it?  Is there any way to prevent an earworm from happening?  I hope to address alleged prevention techniques and ways to stop earworms in the next post in this series.  We have looked at and addressed some possible reasons that earworms occur, but before we get into finding out if there is a way to stop them, please allow me one last opportunity to present you with your very own earworm!

Blog Series Part One: Get out of my head, Earworm!

blog-seriesWe have all had it happen at one time or another, a song seemingly on repeat, continuously playing in our heads, but why?  What causes a song to get stuck in your head?  Why do only certain songs find their way into your head, while others just float on by?  Is there something special within these songs or does is it purely by chance?  And most importantly, how can we make it stop?

If you are anything like me, than the phenomenon known as “earworms” are part of your daily routine.  The term “earworm” has become the generally accepted term for a piece of music that gets stuck in your head, as Kathy Wollard, the author of Newsday’s “How Come?” column states, “Like the earworms wielded by a diabolical Ricardo Montalban in ‘Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan,’ musical worms enter our ears and burrow straight into our brains. The reason seems to involve the human brain’s love of patterns, and its dogged compulsion to fill in musical blanks.”  Wollard’s description of musical worms burrowing into our brains may seem to ask more questions than it answers, as she has not done any scientific test to confirm this to be fact.  However, Wollard paints a vivid and invasive image with regards to how an earworm takes over to fill in the blanks when the brain is less active.  I had planned on illustrating how earworms affect me by inserting parenthesis throughout this post, containing the current song playing in my head.  After only a couple of sentences; however, I realised that this could get quite tedious and distracting as I have already cycled some five songs in my head.  Don’t get me wrong, earworms aren’t always bad, as periodically I will catch a song in my head that I really enjoy.  For the most part though, I find myself humming along to a song that I not only dislike, but have very little familiarity with (the most recent of which being Carly Rae Jepsen’s ”Call Me Maybe”).

So what causes earworms?  There are many theories floating around with regards to earworms.  Carl Nierenberg, a health columnist for NBC News recalls a study in the journal “Psychology of Music” which specifies in the origin of earworms.  According to Nierenberg, researchers collected data from an online survey, which identified four main triggers for earworms.  “The most common one was music exposure, either recently hearing a tune or repeatedly hearing it.”  The other three triggers included: memory triggers, a person’s emotional frame of mind or “affective state”, and having a “low affective state” which can be the result of a daydreaming or drifting off.  As I pointed out in an earlier post, “The Motion Picture Soundtrack: How Music transforms Films,” music can help to create or trigger emotional connections.  Nierenberg’s analysis attempts to show, that when a person is in an emotional or relaxed state, they are more likely to be subjected to earworms.  Looking back this seems to be a fairly accurate assessment, at least in part.  The idea of an idle mind needing stimulation seems like a valid reasoning for earworms.

A similar study was done by James Kellaris, a professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati, who found that nearly 98% of people experience earworms.  Among those surveyed it was also found that “musicians and those inclined to worry are particularly susceptible to worm attacks.”  The consensus of this study is similar to the study in the “Psychology of Music” journal.  Both studies suggest that individuals with less active minds who are overly emotional and are exposed to music are the most likely to have songs get stuck in their heads; however, Kellaris’ study does not mention any findings regarding repetition, whereas the “Psychology of Music” journal listed it as the most common trigger for earworms.

Is repetition that big of a factor regarding earworms?  Robert Ferris, the author of “Why That Song Gets Stuck In Your Head” lists the results of several experiments conducted by Ira Hyman, a psychologist at Western Washington University who studies memory, and is an authority on repetitive memories and “intrusive thoughts” like earworms.  Hyman lists seven possible causes of earworms, one of which being repetition.  “Though we all have our tastes in music, popular songs seem to have a better chance of sticking in people’s heads.  Probably because you have heard it several times.  What sucks is when people dislike the music they hear on repeat – for example if they work in a department store or coffee shop.  Even the songs they dislike – when heard over and over – stand a good chance of getting stuck in their brain.”  Hyman reflects on the fact that popular songs are going to be heard more often, regardless of whether you like them or not.  The more popular the song is the more likely you are to hear it.  This is due to the fact that they are going to get more radio play, and are more likely to span different genres of music and radio station formats.

If we combine the findings of both surveys, and Hyman’s experiments, we are able to create a more plausible reasoning behind earworms; however, there are still other aspects of music that should be looked upon and considered when talking about earworms.  A song’s tempo, pitch, arrangement, frequency, or lyrical phrasing could all have an effect on why certain songs become earworms.  Either collectively or individually, each of the previous attributes have the ability to shape a song so perfectly, that we have no choice but to hear it over and over again in our heads.  I will further break down how a song’s tempo, pitch, arrangement, frequency and lyrical phrasing, will impact it in a way that it becomes an earworm in the second post of this series.  As well as looking at what methods there are, if any, in getting a song out of your head.  There is no doubt that music has the ability to get stuck in your head, whether you like it or not.  Hopefully, we are now a little bit closer in understanding why.

The Motion Picture Soundtrack: How Music transforms Films

Copyright: The Breakfast Club

Music and movies go hand in hand.  A particular song or score, placed at the perfect moment in a movie can transform any scene into something that sticks in your mind forever.  The musical aspect of film does not only apply to an individual scenes, but also to entire movies.  Whether it is the powerful opening to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or the comical images in Office Space; as the three Initech employees physically assault a photocopier that did nothing but give them problems, set to Geto Boyz’ Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangster, the music in movies can help to create impactful powerful impressions.

Movie soundtracks also have the ability to establish timelines.  The soundtrack to Forrest Gump for example, helps to keep the flow of the plot by using relevant and well known music to help the audience establish the time frame.  It also creates a nostalgia for the viewers who grew up in the times depicted on the big screen.  Even if you didn’t enjoy the premise of the movie, the music that was used in the film still found a way to trigger an emotional connection.

One of my favorite movies is Garden State simply for its soundtrack and its use of it in the film.  The story isn’t all that provocative, and the acting is slightly better than average, yet when it comes together as a complete package, the movie speaks to me and opens up emotions I don’t keep on the surface.  I am not alone in feeling this way about Garden State, as a HopkinsCinemAddicts columnist said “Garden State is known for it’s popular soundtrack, and often times its viewers come away from the film deeply moved solely because of the music’s emotional collaboration with the film’s content”  The choice of songs, along with the impeccable timing of their use creates a meaningful experience that stays with the viewer.

Reality Bites captures the trials and tribulations of growing up in the nineties with Lisa Loeb’s StayRomeo & Juliette perfectly chose Radiohead’s Talk Show Host to accompany an already impactful and pivotal scene, bringing all of the emotion to the forefront and creating something unforgettable.  A Clockwork Orange — the most extreme and controversial example — uses the classic 1952 Gene Kelley song Singin’ in the Rain to completely contrast a horrific scene which includes robbery, rape, and murder.  Music has the ability to enhance, shape, and distort the visual images, giving a complete and powerful experience to the audience.

More recently, movies like 28 Hotel Rooms, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Great Gatsby have all been acclaimed for their ability to use the proper songs, or scores, at the right time throughout their entirety.

The right song, at the right time can shape how you watch a movie or how you feel about a certain scene.  This is the case with the closing scene to Cruel Intentions.  I am not a fan of the movie itself as the story didn’t speak to me and the cast appeared to be chosen based on appearance, but the final scene before the closing credits was incredibly powerful and to this day, commands my attention.  So it goes to show, that the music used in movies can make something spectacular out of mediocrity.

Bittersweet Symphony; Closing credits to Cruel Intentions

When did Rush become cool?

Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins induct Rush into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:  “When the f— did Rush become cool?” – Grohl

After 45 years and 20 studio albums, the Canadian band Rush, finally reached the pinnacle among rock royalty in April of this year,  when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  The three-piece band from Toronto, Ontario did not reach stardom overnight, nor did they take the conventional path of writing pop-friendly records.  Rush wrote music that appealed to them, drawing from influences that span the musical spectrum.  From blues and rock, to new wave and British progressive rock, Rush pushed the limits, often re-defining what a rock-and-roll song should sound like.  Being true to ones self as an artist doesn’t always lead to an exorbitant amount of fans, as was the case early on for Rush; however, the true independent artist will typically collect a rich cult following, and a very unique and loyal fan base.  Today Rush has both.  The die-hard cult followers and the masses.  At the 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony this became abundantly apparent, where Jeff Giles recalls “[Rush fans] outnumbered and drowned out everyone else in the building.”  With songs like “Tom Sawyer” and “Closer to the Heart” it is easy to see why loyal Rush fans are filled with excitement.  This induction has been long overdue for these Canadian rock legends to take their place among the greats.  The music speaks for itself.

But why has is taken so long for Rush to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  In 45 years, they have more than met the eligibility requirements:

To be eligible for induction as an artist (as a performer, composer, or musician) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the artist must have released a record, in the generally accepted sense of that phrase, at least 25 years prior to the year of induction; and have demonstrated unquestionable musical excellence. – Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The truth of the matter is that many critics never thought too highly of Rush, and despite all of their success (37 albums certified Gold/Platinum), they came into fruition as a band when being a Rock and Roll critic was taking off as a serious business.  Jeff Miers, a News Pop Music Critic for The Buffalo News, and an admitted Rush fan, quotes a statement from the Senior Editor for Rolling Stone magazine David Wild.  Wild comments that “Technical proficiency is not a valid reason to induct an artist, and Rush really hasn’t done anything unique.”  This was a pretty common consensus among Rock and Roll critics as Miers shows later in his article, stating:

The party line has suggested that the only true route to authenticity in rock is the one that leads back to African-American forms – the blues, principally, but also to the general notion that raw, primal, simple music is the heart of rock, and should remain so. Any music that attempts to rise above its station and largely abandon the blues as the bedrock of its work is frowned upon by the critical establishment.

Despite the lack of love from the critics, Rush endured the test of time, staying true to themselves, by creating innovative and inspiring music. Their songs have not always been popular, and their music has not always been pretty, but Rush has found longevity by creating some of the most iconic Canadian rock anthems, all the while influencing thousands of other bands.  Whether you like them or not, you cannot deny the furious guitar riffs of Alex Lifeson (or his harmonic acoustic melodies either for that matter), the intense and powerful percussion skills of Neil Peart, or the booming and intricate bass playing (not to take anything away from his simultaneous keyboard work) of Geddy Lee.  Rush, truly is deserving of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Rush performing “Spirit of Radio” in Toronto 2003 (I was in the front — stage right)

Analog Vs. Digital: How we listen to our music

VinylBefore I get started with this post, I assure you that there is nothing ironic about this discussion.  I am not going to give you some hipster take on how vinyl is superior because of the ‘warmth of the sound’, or how you can ‘feel the music’.  Instead, I hope to show slight nuances between the analog recordings found on vinyl records, and the digitally compressed recordings found on CD’s and MP3’s.  Although I do prefer listening to albums on vinyl (mostly an intrinsic and tangible aspect of the physical record and listening to an album as a whole — the way the artist wanted it to be heard), I do not discredit the convenience and portability of the digital format.  There is a time and a place for both technologies and as a music lover and a slight audiophile, I feel now is the time to embrace both the analog and the digital processes respectively, in the environments for which they were intended.

I would like to start by showing a Youtube clip from LaylaLaneMusic where the performer (Playing an acoustic cover of The Beatles’ Here Comes The Sun) switches off between an analog recording and a digital recording throughout the duration of the song.  If you cannot hear a difference at first try turning your speakers up or listening through headphones.  If you still cannot hear a difference or even that much of a difference, try clicking on your speaker icon and watching where the levels peak during each form of recording.

The differences may seem subtle, but the digital recording seems to resonate more, with less fluctuation of the levels, maintaining a constant level of output as opposed to the analog recording which has peaks and valleys.  These peaks and valleys are the ‘warmth’ that are often referred to when discussing the values of analog recordings and vinyl.  However, the speakers on your computer or in your ear-buds don’t have the capacity to produce a high-level output.  Johnathan Wyner further explains the differences between the analog and digital recording processes in his video blog on YouTube.  To help further visualize the analog and digital technologies, I have included a screen shot of a wave form.  The top is taken from a vinyl album, and the bottom is taken from a CD.  Both are the same track, from the same album.  The only difference is the format in which they have been produced.

blog2a

The peaks and the valleys of the top (white) track illustrate why analog is preferred by audiophiles and music ‘purists’ alike.  It has more to do with what is shown in the bottom track (purple); however, that deters most people from embracing the digital future.  The digital version of the song is not only without the peaks and the valleys shown in the analog version, but it has been so compressed and clipped that it appears to come at you like a wall of sound.  Constant loudness.  This is essentially meant when speaking about the ‘warmth of the sound.’  Sound is a waveform, recorded or not.  Our ears pick up frequencies of reverberation and convert those wave forms into what we perceive as sound.  In the digital format, the wave forms have been so compressed that they only resemble the impression of what the sound is supposed to sound like.

As I stated earlier, this is not intended to bash digital formats of recording and sound production, but merely to show the differences in quality and why one might be preferred over the other.

blog2bDigital music (MP3 players, Pandora, etc.) serve a very useful purpose today.  Imagine going out for a run or driving in a car trying to keep the needle on your turntable from skipping.  There are times when it is necessary to sacrifice quality for convenience and for the most part, as stated earlier, most ear-buds are not made to produce a high-quality sound so there isn’t much quality being sacrificed to begin with.  Not to mention that there is a constant push to find the next best codec, where the digital process will be compressed enough while maintaining enough of the integrity of the analog qualities to render them almost interchangeable.  Greg Milner, a columnist for a number of music and technology magazines, writes in his most recent book Perfecting Sound Forever:

The CRC (Communications Research Centre Canada) is one of only a handful of places around the world that are equipped to conduct the kind of rigorous tests that determine how successfully a codec fosters the illusion of everything while delivering just enough. (Milner 358)

For music lovers and audiophiles alike, the analog recordings found on vinyl will always reign supreme, however technology should not be dismissed simply because it is not ‘pure.’  The convenience serves an important purpose in today’s society, and the digital format in itself is quite impressive.  However, I will remain content to sit back, relax, and listen to the hiss, clicks, and pops, of my turntable, getting up every 20 minutes or so to change the album side, dropping the needle once again, and returning to my musical bliss.

Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze; how Kurt Vile re-invents the wheel.

Kurt Vile - Wakin' on a Pretty DazeIt has been almost two years since the critically acclaimed Smoke Ring for my Halo — Kurt Vile’s fourth studio album — was released.  Since that time, Vile has been a busy man; touring the country, writing a follow up album, and even collaborating with his former band; The War on Drugs, on their most recent record (Slave Ambient).  Vile also joined The War on Drugs on their concert tour for a few select shows.  Vile, determined not to simply be a flash in the pan and cement his legacy as a constant in the indie rock world, delivers an impacting blow with his fifth studio album Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze.  Being tagged with the task of completing an equally distinguished follow up project, Vile not only meets his critics (and fans) expectations, but continues to transcend his craft.  With Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze, Vile manages to completely break the mold, creating yet another masterpiece by finding brilliance in simplicity.

The opening track, Wakin’ on a pretty Day immediately sets the pace for the record — a bright and melodic tone, taking its own shape and creating its own path — while the layering of guitars accompany an uplifting drumbeat.  Instantly, we can hear how Vile has grown as a songwriter, setting a deliberate tempo right from the start.  The record defines itself with the opening track, laying out the forthcoming journey; should you choose to embark, establishing right from the very start that we [the listener] are in for an exciting ride.  Vile’s lyrics help to contrast the feelings associated with the broadening accompaniment, as he uses unique phrasing techniques which seem to create pictures from words.

Jayson Greene from Pitchfork.com notes that “His [Vile’s] sound– warm, unhurried, and spacious– doesn’t demand close focus, but one of the joys of being pulled into Vile’s lonely, contented universe is in discovering that he is muttering sharply self-aware things to himself.”  This couldn’t be more apparent in the albums fourth track Girl Called Alex, where Vile’s ramblings enhance the dark and distorted melody, which features multiple layers, all of which seem to be fighting to be at the forefront.

Too Hard, the seventh track on the album, brings out Vile’s folk roots and influences, with hints of Bob Dylan and Neil Young developing throughout the track.  An acoustic guitar plucking a bright and beautiful melody is drowned with layers of electric guitars, some sliding, some distorted, all of which acting to contrast the simplicity creating dark undertones.  John Robertson, a writer for Uncut Magazine, captures the mood of this song, stating:

Amid strong contenders, though, it is probably “Too Hard” (a folky fingerpicked  number on which Jennifer Herrema supplies croaky backing  vocals) which is probably the album’s best and most moving song, in which Vile  reflects on trying not to party too hard, and on how, since he now has the right  motivation to meet his responsibilities, avoiding temptation isn’t too hard  either. It’s a maturely arranged song about rising to adult challenges, growing  up, and ultimately doing the right thing. It’s a case of strong words being  softly spoken, and it’s extremely impressive.  “There comes a time in every  man’s life,” Vile intones sombrely, “when he’s gotta hold tight to the heart of  the matter at hand…”

The final two tracks; Air Bud and Goldtone compliment each other by bringing the album full circle.  In Air Bud, Vile uses multiple vocal tracks to establish depth, manufacturing a natural sounding reverberation, while at the same time looping several guitar tracks, digital effects, and a multitude of various noises and pauses creating a warm and relaxing melody.  The six minute, 30 second journey this song takes us on relies on its musical accompaniment as the verses — all two of them — are repeated throughout the song, serving to break up the musical interludes.  Vile allows the musical accompaniment of the song to develop, without forcing any excess lyrics.  The repetition of the verses throughout this track serve in an opposite way in which we have grown accustomed to hearing lyrics.  In Air Bud, the lyrics set up the musical transitions (as opposed to the opposite – musical transitions differentiating verses and chorus’), breaking up the instrumental interludes that tell the story.  Much like the opening track (Wakin’ on a Pretty Day),  Air Bud resonates through you making it almost impossible to not bob your head in agreement.

As Vile demonstrated throughout the entire album, Goldtone (the albums closing track) serves as the final contrast.  A simple guitar riff is again surrounded by layers of digital effects, reverb, and delays, giving way for a chance of lyrical dominance.  Goldtone manages to take all of the underlying tones from the whole of the record and combines them methodically creating a very passive and relaxing song, all while at the same time forcing you to listen to each musical aspect both individually and collectively.  A very unique, but effective way to close out this record.

Related articles