I focus this week on two new releases from vastly-different solo projects (Tame Impala and Fort Minor), and revisit a troubled, yet fun album from a legendary rock band (The Who).
- Tame Impala's 2015 album Currents can be downloaded from iTunes here.
- The 360° music video for Fort Minor's single 'Welcome' can be found on YouTube here (make sure to view it in Google Chrome for 360° effect).
- The Who's 1975 album 'The Who By Numbers' can be downloaded from iTunes here.
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Hi there everyone, and welcome to the third episode of Musicology With The Eagle; I am your host The Eagle. Now this week we've got a really interesting show for you and I want to start with a new little segment called ‘Word Of The Week’, where I'll unpack a word or phrase that is used to describe the music or music production so we can all have a better understanding of what something means when we read it in an interview or hear it used by people like myself.
So this episode’s ‘Word Of The Week’ is a ‘scratch vocal’. Now a scratch vocal can be seen as a vocal track that gets recorded without any intention of keeping it or using it in the final production of the song. Musicians often use it as a guide when recording rhythm parts, such as drums or percussion, and sometimes wordless phrases or gibberish are used if lyrics haven’t been finished yet.
The first time I ever heard the phrase used was on the second album for Queens Of The Stone Age called Rated R. The seventh song on that album is called ‘Quick And To The Pointless’, and it's a short, gnarly beast of a song. Now one of the first things long-time Queens Of The Stone Age fans will notice is that the song is missing the regular croon of lead singer Josh Homme, and in his place we have this howling lunatic – who is in fact the band’s bassist at the time, Nick Oliveri. His manic, insane performance was originally intended to be a scratch vocal, but the band liked it so much that the recording actually became the final version of the song. What was amazing to find out is that the drums, bass, guitars, vocals, everything was simultaneously recorded in one take. It was accidental, it was theatrical, and in some places brilliant - but it was a scratch vocal that somehow made it into the big league. Now you know.
For our first segment of music news this week, we have the release of the latest album by psychedelic indie rock gods Tame Impala. The album Currents is their third album that they've released once again to great commercial and critical acclaim, and long-time fans such as myself have been watching the development of the album with great interest.
This is because Tame Impala is not in fact a band, but is a solo project of an Australian musician from Perth named Kevin Parker. So the relationship between his live bands that he has recruited together over the years and his maverick role in the studio - where he writes and records all instrumental parts themselves - has definitely evolved in sound and shape since the project's first two albums, Innerspeaker and Lonerism.
Kevin’s not the first artist that's had to balance this relationship; some others that have had both a studio and live incarnation include Nine Inch Nails, Lenny Kravitz, Prince, and Stevie Wonder. Now that's pretty incredible considering Stevie's blindness since birth, but he's been able to record drums, piano, and pretty much any instrument that doesn't require him to play strings. Prince’s extensive recording output continues to remain a mystery and Nine Inch Nails has always been the product of the tortured mind that is Trent Reznor. The common thread that runs through these sort of artists is that it's a very isolationist way of working, and with Kevin Parker and Tame Impala, it's been no different.
The first two albums were introspective voyages into the depths of his mind, and with songs like ‘Solitude Is Bliss’, it's hard not to see his approach to human interaction. But as Tame Impala’s popularity has grown in the past few years and they’ve begun to headline bigger events and festivals, new opportunities have opened up - particularly with famous producer Mark Ronson, who opened his eyes and ears to new ideas outside of indie rock and more in the realm of pop and R&B. Ronson recruited him to help with three songs on his 2015 album Uptown Special, and each of those songs showed a more disco-tinged production and was a great showcase for Kevin's velvety vocals, very reminiscent of John Lennon.
Coupled with extensive experimentation and reinterpretation of songs when performing live with the band, Kevin began to see himself more as a producer and brought that approach of personal transformation to the studio. Now this was seen in the first song that was released from the album earlier in 2015 called ‘Let It Happen’. With its finger-snap production and sweeping synths, the song weaved in and out of various tunnels of sound, and although it was different, it still felt like a natural progression for Tame Impala. This was also seen with the next song that came out from the album ‘'Cause I'm A Man’, which has a more R&B element to it.
Excitement was at fever pitch. The festival season had begun in the Northern hemisphere, and the band made a notable appearance on the main stage at the Coachella Music Festival - which was a big step up from the Outside Theatre which they had performed at two years ago in 2013; a gig that I myself attended. And with this sort of attention and stage time, you strike when the iron is hot and the album was due to be released in May to coincide with these headlining spots. But the night before the album was due to be mastered and presented to the American record label, two songs were still unfinished and Kevin was just unable to nail the vocal takes and iron out the lyrics.
But fortunately the label allowed more time, which is a rare thing in the industry nowadays; there's always the bottom line and marketing and all things are going into it. Pushing the release date back to July seems to have paid off for Parker the perfectionist, and cements his reputation as a psych-pop shaman of sorts, mastering different genres and moods. Lyrically, he’s also opened up a lot more and a lot of his vocals now are not so buried in reverb and delay effects, allowing his falsetto voice to carry some incredible melodies. Such as on the stunning break-up ballad ‘Yes I’m Changing’ and the self-described “dorky white-boy funk” of ‘The Less I Know The Better’.
Now Kevin’s been at pains to explain in interviews that this album is not necessarily a break-up album - although he did break up with his long-time girlfriend Melody Prochet, who he helped produce her debut album Melody’s Echo Chamber in 2012. What he’s also taken on is the inevitable backlash from fans that are not willing to accept the change in sound, particularly to sound that is more pop-ish and seen as mainstream. He believes that melodies don't necessarily belong to any genre and it’s the production that guides it, and to quote:
“But if I can convince a few die-hard rock fans that Eighties’ synths can fit over Seventies’ drumbeats; if I can help them to look outside the square of traditional psych-rock, then at least one mission is accomplished”.
Personally, I’m impressed with the direction that he has taken - although I am fan that loves the fuzzed-out guitars of old, I would also begin to get tired of having Lonerism Part Two, Part Three, Part Four. It wouldn't seem right for an artist of this calibre to stay stagnant and not ‘Let It Happen’, so to speak. So for now I'm keen to see how these songs translate to a live sitting, and the ripple effect Kevin Parker’s DIY approach and genre-mashing could have on the music industry.
For our next segment, we have a new release from Fort Minor - do you ‘Remember The Name’? Well I do, because it's one of my favorite hip hop artists. Now they've returned from a ten-year hiatus - which is a long time in anyone's books - and they're doing it with a one-off single named ‘Welcome’. So no further music in the pipeline, folks.
This is because Fort Minor is a hip hop side project of Mike Shinoda, whose is best known as the rapper and co-vocalist of nu-metal-slash-alternative rock group, Linkin Park. He started this project in 2005 after Linkin Park had finished their Collision Course collaboration album with Jay-Z, and he had some ideas that he wanted to continue further in this hip hop realm. Instead of making it a strictly Mike Shinoda solo album, he decided to collaborate with lots of rappers and singers that he was either friends with or knew in the industry, and produced one mixtape and one album that really strayed from hip hop stereotypes.
This was not just lyrically; Mike performed all the instrumental parts - except for strings - and wrote all the music himself. Unlike our friend Kevin Parker in Tame Impala, this was not done to shut him off from other people, or have a singular creative vision, but was actually an act of independence to show that he could pursue a project alone and not with a band behind him. The results were really inspiring for people who thought rock and rap often sound too corny when put together. This was particularly evident on the choice of samples from the We Major mixtape.
Now mixtapes – in a hip hop sense - are seen as a way of drumming up interest in an upcoming album or just the artist themselves, and there are less issues with having to get clearance to use samples of famous songs of other artists. So that means songs from rock artists such as Guns ‘n Roses, Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Hendrix, The Doors and one of my favourite bands Bloc Party were used in some way as samples in this mixtape.
In terms of collaborators across the mixtape and the album, Mike was able to draw on a great ensemble of rappers and singers. In terms of the rappers, he had the duo Styles Of Beyond, Celph Titled, Ghostface Killah of The Wu-Tang Clan, Black Thought of The Roots, as well as Lupe Fiasco and Apathy. To sing some of the hooks, he got famous R&B singer John Legend to contribute, as well as the then-unknown singer named Holly Brooke – who changed her name to Skylar Grey and she has become better known for her work with Eminem and Dr Dre.
So although this was a solo project, there were a lot of people backing him up in what he did, which makes the latest song ‘Welcome’ all the more different. It really is the purest distillation of what Fort Minor is because Mike has no one assisting him on the hook or rapping a verse. It's just him on the drums, piano, and guitar while he organises a stirring orchestral production; mainly with a church organ hook as well as a piano that sort of feels similar to ‘Where’d You Go - one of his big hits from The Rising Tide in 2005.
Lyrically the song is about outcasts and not fitting in, told from an outsider hero. Now Mike has always had some criticism levelled against him for his rapping style and his role in his main band Linkin Park. When they first entered the nu-metal scene in the late Nineties/early 2000’s, they were genre-defying and people questioned whether his raps needed to even be in Linkin Park’s sound. This was something he actually addressed in his debut album The Rising Tide on the song ‘Get Me Gone’.
It's been a fight to get respect either from the rock community or the hip hop community, right from the start of his career. In the Linkin Park setup, I always found his raps to be quite serviceable: not amazing but they do enough to vary the sound of the band. I would say personally in their past two albums, I've not been a fan of his sing-song style of rapping, and it feels a bit tacked-on and uninspired. Fortunately he doesn't resort to that style on this new song ‘Welcome’, but it's definitely a case of ‘the sum is greater than the parts’ that are put into it. You particularly notice that in the second half of the song where it all just clicks together and it's quite inspiring.
But what I find more interesting with the release of this song is the multimedia aspect of it. The video was released as a 360-degree video; when viewed in Google Chrome, people could actually pan around the video and it was not a static experience. The video is filmed in Venice Beach in California, and Mike says that he chose the location because lots of freaks and outcasts are there - not meaning that in an offensive way, he just feels that as well. Having personally visited Venice Beach before, I can agree with him because there's so many artists and people from a variety of different communities in one place.
In the video, which was filmed with four GoPro cameras, he and a number of artists spray-painted a 25-metre long mural made up of individual pieces that would be used to have personalised, autographed, single covers. Even with just the video in mind, this is a great technological step forward and the days just sitting idly watching a video from an artist are maybe over. We can start to have these interactive videos where every experience is always different because you can choose to focus on different things in the video. Maybe it plays more to Mike’s philosophy that he is an artist maybe more than just a rapper or singer, etc. A quote from him regarding this says:
“Fort Minor has always been my outside outlet as a solo musician and a painter, and a way for me to build confidence in myself”.
And for that, we should commend him, and make him feel welcome.
For this week's retrospective, we're looking back to 1975 to The Who's second-to-last album The Who By Numbers. Now for me, it's one of my favourite albums by them, and although there may be better ones - such as Who's Next and their debut The Who Sings My Generation - it just really speaks to me a lot more than the others because it's a lot more honest and personal.
By that point in the band's history, they had become known as a very ‘concept album band’ and couldn't really delve into the personal because of having that style. That's why The Who By Numbers functions as a Pete Townshend confessional album; it’s got a lot of dark humour and he was wrestling at the time, with having turned thirty years old, whether he was too old to be playing rock ‘n roll and struggled with a lot of writer’s block as well.
These are all ingredients for what could be a very dark and gloomy album, but I think it is very full of life and a declaration of virility and youthfulness because they get a great blend of electric and acoustic guitars that you don’t find on any other Who album. It’s stripped down, no orchestras or synths – it’s as raw as you could get in the excess of the mid-Seventies. And therefore it's the least dated-sounding of all The Who albums.
Although there is no specific concept, the songs still go together really well. On the surface, it’s a fun but not too weighty way of dealing with middle age. The topics that the thirty-year old Townshend covered included relevancy and friendship in ‘How Many Friends’, addiction in ‘However Much I Booze’, libido and frustration in ‘Dreaming From The Waist’, and a little bit more introspective songs such as ‘Imagine a Man’ and one of my favourite Who songs of all time, ‘Blue Red and Grey’ - which he plays on a ukelele and has some really smart lyrics about finding happiness, such as ‘And so you see I’m completely crazy/I even shun the south of France’.
But what was pretty amazing to find out is that this album almost wasn't even recorded. It was marred by numerous breaks due to boredom and lack of interest from the band. Pete Townshend said in an interview that they often would play cricket in between takes of songs and would go to the pub early leaving the famous producer that they’d brought in, Glynn Johns, and bassist John Entwistle to hold up the ship.
And they are maybe the reason why this album even exists, because Glynn Johns has a notable reputation from classic rock artists throughout the years. He was the producer for The Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ sessions before he was scrapped in favour of Phil Sector; he produced Led Zeppelin’s debut album; he’s worked with The Eagles on their early albums; on Eric Clapton’s Slowhand album. So he’s got a good credibility and John Entwistle was always the calm centre on stage - as well as off stage - and as Keith Moon caused all the crazy antics that was known for, and Roger Daltrey had his anger issues, and Pete Townshend wrestled with his own demons, John Entwistle surprisingly kept the band on the straight and narrow.
For an album grappling with middle age, it's quite funny to think that the band has actually carried on in some form or another for forty years after this album - although two of its original members have died. But they are currently celebrating the fiftieth anniversary with a tour. And by ‘they’, I mean Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, with a backing band which interestingly enough includes the son of Ringo Starr of The Beatles - his name Zak Starkey – one of the best session bassists of all time, Pino Palladino, and Pete has included his brother Simon in recent years on backing guitar and vocals.
For a band that once wrote a song that stated “I hope I die before I get old”, it's quite ironic that these eldery mod-rockers are still going for it, decades after their prime in whatever incarnation they can muster up.
Well that’s a wrap for episode three. I'd like to thank you for tuning in to our podcast. If you’ve got any suggestions or any feedback you’d like to give, please leave us a comment on Soundcloud or on our Facebook page, or even iTunes – where there is a rating system. I am The Eagle, and this has been Musicology With The Eagle. See you next time.