Song Exploder presents Inside Music

A new tool for exploring songs from Song Exploder and Google Creative Lab:

What if you could step inside a song? This is a simple experiment that explores that idea. See and hear the individual layers of music all around you to get a closer look at how music is made.

You’ll have come across the idea of exploring songs by breaking them down into their component tracks. Inside Music uses spatial audio for a VR-esque feeling. It’s open source, too.

The neural network will name your next band

Janelle Shane:

An important part of starting a new band is choosing an appropriate name. It is crucial that the name be unique, or you could risk at best confusion, and at worst an expensive lawsuit.

The neural network is here to help.

Prof. Mark Riedl of Georgia Tech, who recently provided the world a dataset of all the stories with plot summaries on Wikipedia, (enabling this post on neural net story names) now used his Wikipedia-extraction skills to produce a list of all the bands with listed discographies – about 84,000 in all.

I gave the list to the Char-rnn neural network framework, and it was soon producing unique band names for a variety of genres. Below are examples of its output at various temperature (i.e. creativity) settings.

Come for the funny names, stay for the bizarre shark influence.

Smash Mouth’s ‘All Star’ as a musical fractal

Interesting bit of music theory/mathematics by Adam Neely:

Neely takes the notes of Smash Mouth’s ‘All Star’ and speeds them up around 1,000 times according to their relative pitch frequency. In short, each note in the original melody is made up of all the notes within itself, just sped up by different amounts. The result is self-similarity: a musical fractal.

‘All Star’ has been elevated from dorky throwaway tune into first a similarly dorky meme and then a core component of several interesting works. Neil Cicierega’s mashup work is a prime example, to the point where I can’t hear Modest Mouse’s ‘Float On’ without internally singing “Somebody once told me the world is gonna roll me…”:

Phil Elverum and his wife’s passing

An elegant, desperately sad piece by Jayson Greene in Pitchfork about Phil Elverum (The Microphones, Mt. Eerie) and his wife Geneviève’s death from cancer last year.

On the effect of the disease on their mutual creative outlook:

The sickness cast a similar pall on Geneviève’s creative urges. “When she lived, our house was very much taken over by both of our projects all the time,” Elverum says. “Neither of us had real jobs, so we just stayed up late and spread our crazy art things all over the place. But when she got sick, it all seemed so shallow all of a sudden. She didn’t care so much about her previously sacred practice of drawing all those hours. Music and art was very far from our minds for the past couple years. It still is. This new album is barely music. It’s just me speaking her name out loud, her memory.”

Elverum began writing and recording only two months after she passed away in their house. His work is traditionally hushed and introspective—albeit often punctuated with extreme noise—and his new work, unsurprisingly, continues in this vein:

The resulting album, A Crow Looked at Me, sounds like an Elverum work. The music is low and murmuring. His voice is hushed and conversational. The theme of impermanence can still be felt. But the difference between this album and everything else he’s done is the difference between charting a voyage around the earth and undertaking it. It is a profoundly detailed dispatch from grief’s rawest place—the moments still inside the blast radius, when your ears are ringing and you feel the shock of mortification slowly spreading to new corners of your existence every day.

Unlike many works about grief, though, there is no glance towards redemptive larger meaning, which makes it all the more bracing. “Your absence is a scream saying nothing,” Elverum sings on a song called “Emptiness Pt. 2,” drawing the word “scream” out until it is a more like an ambient hum, the buzz of a newly barren existence. Listening to it is like pressing your hand against ice and leaving it there.

On Elverum’s new life with his two-year-old daughter:

“My default mode right now is to throw open the doors and windows. I don’t know where to draw the line. Even just having you here, upstairs, showing you Geneviève’s journals: Is that over a line? But that’s how the songs are written, too: ‘Here’s everything. Look in here. Look at me. Death is real.’”

“My daughter is like a tether back to the functional world, and I’m aware of how helpful that is,” he says. “I have to cut up the broccoli; I can’t be weeping. And yet, sometimes I am weeping, and she’ll come up to me and say, ‘Papa crying!’ And I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I’m crying right now, I’m sad. It’s fine.’ And she laughs and goes back to her Legos.” With that, he heads upstairs and goes to sleep. He needs a full night’s rest, because tomorrow is another full day.

I’m yet to listen to the new album (if this were a Kottke post, it’d be tagged with ‘crying at work‘). Some of Elverum’s earlier work had a pronounced emotional effect on the younger me, particularly the album The Glow, Pt. 2:

Grief and trauma have always been themes in Elverum’s work. The lyrics of the song above stand out to me, some 10 years after first hearing them:

I could not get through September without a battle
I faced death
I went in with my arms swinging
But I heard my own breath
And I had to face that I’m still living
I’m still flesh
I hold on to awful feelings

My friend Kevin has the right idea:

20 years of Either/Or

It’s 20 years since Elliott Smith released Either/Or and, like any good Smith anniversary, there are a few things to catch up with.

Firstly, the expanded edition was given a 10/10 rating by Pitchfork and declared ‘best new reissue’:

By the time Either/Or was released in 1997, Smith was no stranger to the cynical machinations of the post-grunge major label gold rush. A year prior, his former band Heatmiser had been put through that very ringer, an experience captured in Either/Or standouts “Pictures of Me” and “Angeles.” Either/Or sounds like the work of somebody who has zero interest in either conforming to or directly transgressing the “commercial” sounds of the day. It’s too ambitious to read as “lo-fi” and too gritty to read as straightforward pop classicism. Thankfully, this 20th anniversary remaster doesn’t smooth out too many of those rough edges—if anything, it brings the unique sound of the record into even clearer focus.

Jeff Weiss writes on why Either/Or is his ‘break glass in case of existential crisis’ album:

Some people need happy music to buoy their serotonin. Not me. I want dirges so emotionally raw that they’re too severe for normal occasions. I need a “break glass in case of existential crisis” album. Elliott Smith never fails to feel your pain yet avoids melodramatic whining and gothic cliché. He discovered a way to make the softest music sound hard.

There is no “best” Elliott Smith record. Chances are your favorite is the first one you heard. For most of us, that’s Either/Or, the album released 20 years ago last month, the one that Gus Van Sant fell in love with and used to soundtrack Good Will Hunting. It’s what led to Smith’s surreal performance at the Academy Awards and set him on a path to cult stardom. It’s what led to his move to L.A., the major-label deal with DreamWorks, the story that ends with him fatally stabbing himself in his Echo Park apartment with an 8-inch kitchen knife.

I think I bought the record a year after its release in 1998 and was immediately floored by the guitar and vocal arrangements. John EE Allen of Happiness notes the drums on the record, something that often goes unmentioned or even unnoticed:

I’ve always particularly loved the drums on Either/Or—they sound so unhinged, whether they’re doing the muggy simmering thing or distorting like crazy and being played half to death, or that honky snare note in “Alameda,” or the songs (there are a couple) where they crash in just inordinately late. There’s something so heartfelt about the way they’re played. And how, despite them, it’s still at its crux a “guy with an acoustic guitar” record. And it closes with a song as beautiful and hopeful and unaffected as “Say Yes.”

While Jeff Terich calls Either/Or ‘a statement of artistic freedom and cautious optimism‘:

Perhaps more than any of Smith’s other records, either/or is the album in which the Portland singer/songwriter becomes a Rorschach test unto its listeners. You might hear an artist working through his doubts and pain. You might hear a statement of independence. You might even hear something that sounds like Paul Simon. I hear an someone overwhelmed by possibility, celebrating the freedom of being his own artist with some of the most creative and beautifully written music of his career. I hear something honest and genuine, with more than a glimmer of hope.

Fans of Elliott Smith will enjoy Say Yes, a podcast from Louisville Public Media. Guests have so far included Gus Van Sant, Jack Black, Mary Lou Lord and Ben Gibbard. It’s interesting whether you’re a newcomer to Smith’s work or a super-fan; interest is assumed, but not detailed prior knowledge of his work, and even those like me who’ve seen the film, read multiple books, countless articles and oral histories about Smith will be entertained and informed by the guests’ anecdotes.

The podcast features some delightful piano arrangements of Smith’s songs by Joshua Piper, a.k.a. heavypiano:

As a side note, over the past few years I’ve been increasingly enamoured of Alex G, a Philly-based wunderkind who’s about to release his 8th album in what seems like about 6 weeks. I hear a lot of Smith in him. Here’s where to start with Alex G, courtesy of Pitchfork.

Music and the creative process

Cabel Sasser (co-founder of software house Panic) also makes music. In Stagehand: The Music, he discusses the process of writing the main theme for Stagehand, a game produced by Panic colleague Neven Mrgan and friend Matt Comi.

I only know two ways to write songs: sit at a piano and see what comes out, or install a songwriting background task in my brain and see what comes out. The second one means I make sure that as I’m walking around or doing whatever, I’ll just be noodling around ideas in my head.

Sasser’s piece shows it goes from humming/scatting a few seconds’ worth of a tune into Apple’s Music Memos app:

Through the arrangement and recording:

To the final piece, which you can buy.

It’s a fascinating story of how to nurture a germ of an idea all the way to completion, not least because of Sasser’s acknowledged inability to do it all himself:

There was no way I was gonna be able to put a “live” version of the song together by myself. I’m basically musically illiterate, don’t know instrument ranges, can’t write music, don’t know any players, have no studio experience, etc.

I was also fascinated by the methodology (there’s no other word to use) used by Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo to build songs. It involves semi-plagiarism of chord progressions, anagrams, morning pages, syllable counts, databases and democratic band arrangements.

Not necessarily what I would have expected from the writer of Pinkerton, an album that soundtracked my late teenage years, which I rather hoped had arrived fully-formed in his head. Perhaps it did and his process has changed since then. Or perhaps that’s overly romanticising the idea of creativity.

In any case, Cuomo’s approach is an interesting example of using a process and a structure to foster the creative process, and there’s something to learn from it. (I’m somewhat reminded of Frank Chimero’s How to have an idea, which he seems to have removed from his site, so here’s a copy.)

Lastly, an anecdote about where the “where do we go?” breakdown in Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child o’ Mine came from:

In his autobiography, Slash tells us the true history of the “where do we go” breakdown — credit goes to Spencer Proffer, a music producer that the band was considering for their album. Proffer was the one who thought that the song needed a breakdown after that guitar solo — the only question was what it would sound like. And then, Axl started thinking out loud, as recounted by Slash:

[Proffer] was right . . .  but we had no idea what we wanted to do there. All of us sat around the control room, listening to it over and over, devoid of a clue.

“Where do we go” Axl said, more to himself than the rest of us. “Where do we go now? . . . Where do we go?”

“Hey,” Spencer said, turning the music down. “Why don’t you just try singing that?”

And so became that dramatic breakdown.

My musical activities these days mostly consist of trying to find 10 minutes in the day to spend with a guitar: half-remembering songs I’ve learned before and playing around with whatever else pops into my head. It’s disjointed, unproductive and ultimately unsatisfying. An approach like Sasser’s or Cuomo’s might yield more interesting and enjoyable results.

3 Alveston Place: The epicentre of British music

David Beer on the inauspicious Midlands address that’s likely to evoke nostalgic memories to anyone who bought music in the ’90s (and probably earlier):

3 Alveston Place, Leamington Spa is an address that is likely to ring a familiar tone. Anybody who bought their music on vinyl, CD or tape is almost certain have come across this address. These formats usually carried a second-class free-post card that was almost always made out to the same address — with the band or singer’s name added at the top. The card invited you to write your details on the reverse before posting. Returning the card registered you for postal updates. The slow speed of this all seems quaint on reflection.

What is at this address now? If you’re around my age, and you sent away for information, you won’t want to know.

Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues”

Evan Puschak, who you may remember made ‘How Donald Trump answers a question‘, made this video about the complex and sublime Steely Dan song “Deacon Blues”. Interesting even if you don’t like Steely Dan or aren’t a musician.

Reminiscent of Hrishikesh Hirway’s Song Exploder. Here’s my favourite SE episode, deconstructing MGMT’s “Time To Pretend”. Having listened to the podcast, I can’t unhear the “Dancing Queen” references:

Mike Nesmith: the coolest Monkee

Sean Nelson (this Sean Nelson?) writes for Pitchfork about The Monkees’ Mike Nesmith:

In the same proportions that the Monkees are equivalent to a “real band,” Nesmith’s coyness is roughly similar to when Neil Young deigns to play a few gigs with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, or when Brian Wilson shows up for a Beach Boys tour. Nesmith is the lone figure in the group that even its detractors will admit is cool—the quality that has always eluded the Monkees, no matter how acceptable they have become among music snobs.

So what made Nesmith stand apart from his three fellow cast/bandmates? How did he manage not to allow the two years he spent on a low-rated kids TV show about a fake rock band define the 48 years that followed? How, in short, did Michael Nesmith become the one Monkee it was acceptable to dig?

A nice appraisal and it gives me an opportunity to embed a Nesmith-helmed Monkees song, which I will never turn down.

The title of Nelson’s piece—”Michael Nesmith: The Closest The Monkees Ever Got to Cool”—is a backhanded compliment and, I think, unwarranted. Just try not to pay too much attention to Dolenz goofing around in that video (particularly around 1m 20s).

See also: Nesmith discussing 15 Monkees songs with Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz.