This week, I express my frustrations with award shows after finding out that my childhood friend was recently nominated for 2 MTV Video Music Award as a co-director of the stunning music video for Irish singer-songwriter Hozie's 'Take Me To Church'. We also admire the confidence of indie rockers Foal in delivering their latest slice of arena-funk What Went Down, and soak up the wisdom from hip hop grandmaster GZ on his 2005 chess-themed concept album.
- The video of the Congolese man shedding tears of joy after having finally found the name of a Taiwanese song from his childhood can be found on Youtube here.
- The two-time MTV VMA-nominated music video for Hozier's 'Take Me To Church' can be found on Youtube here.
- Foals' 2015 album What Went Down can be downloaded from iTunes here.
- GZA's 2005 album 'Grandmasters' can be bought from Amazon here. Try other streaming sites for digital copies.
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Welcome everybody to another episode of Musicology With The Eagle. I am your host, The Eagle, and this week I’d like to open our ninth show with a heart-warming story of a man finding something very dear to him after decades of it being on the tip of his tongue.
I recently discovered this Youtube video which shows a Congolese taxi-driver weeping with joy after two of his customers identify a tune that has been eluding him since his childhood.
The song in question was a gentle Taiwanese pop-song lullaby which he first encountered many moons ago with his mother back in Congo. One day, they had walked into a local Chinese grocer and heard the gorgeous melody playing over the PA system. His mother loved it so much that the owner gave her the tape to keep, and it soon became a cherished treasure in their family. It didn’t matter that the song was sung in Chinese, or that they didn’t know anything about who sang it – the meditative melodies still had a universal profound effect.
Naturally, the man came to closely associate the song with his mother, and after emigrating to South Africa, the tape was tragically lost. Soon after that, his mother passed away, and the man was left heartbroken, having lost one of the strongest memories of his mom.
He has been working for 20 years as a taxi driver, and every time he received an Asian customer, he would hum the song to see if the person could help him identify it, but to no avail.
But two weeks ago, his first ever Taiwanese passengers gave him a breakthrough in his search, correctly recognizing the song as one of their own. The musical manhunt was over, and the couple let him hook up their phone to his car’s stereo so that he could joyfully sing along to the unlikely hit.
Have you ever to search for years to find a special song that you’d lost, or never got the name of? Let me know your story, I’d love to hear it!
It’s almost been a week since the recent MTV Video Music Awards, and the hangover from the glitzy, garish event still continues if you take even a passing glance at music headlines. Over-the-top host Miley Cyrus made a ton of controversial costume changes, there were beefs between the biggest female pop stars, and Kanye West announced his ‘not-sure-if-he’s-actually-serious’ presidential bid for the 2020 US elections.
I used to follow the annual event semi-religiously, starting when our national TV broadcaster somehow showed a delayed broadcast of Eminem, Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg taking the stage in the 1999 spectacle, and peaking in the late-2000’s, as host Russell Brand’s string of appearances launched his career in the USA.
But my days of anxiously downloading the previous night’s escapades are long gone, and for the first time this year, I could say the same for another one of music’s biggest nights: The Grammy’s. Award shows are getting long in the tooth, and amidst falling viewership, the producers of these events are amping up the celebrity drama to cater to a younger fanbase seemingly focused more on style than substance.
Now this is all sounding very much like the rant of an old man or disgruntled 30-something who feels depressingly out of touch which with the modern pop world. But I’m not that old! It really wasn’t long ago that I was tuning in with interest, hoping to see who took home which of the big awards. But the shift has happened quicker than you think, and I’m talking on micro-levels.
Look, a quick caveat regarding the VMA’s – this show has long been associated with showmanship and performance, so I’m not expecting some austere, stuffy formal event. But when the focus becomes less of the awards themselves, where airtime is cut down for the actual presentation of the awards so that another Tweetable performance can be stuffed in – then we are losing sight of the music. Or at least some of it.
This is why I started to move towards the Grammy’s in recent years – not just for the sense of history and respect between older and younger artists, but because of the sheer diversity of music on display and being awarded. I’m definitely not the biggest fan of modern-day country music – I’m more of Johnny Cash outlaw – but I kinda appreciate now that almost every year, you can get to see some of those stars on stage, performing and getting duly awarded for their efforts in that genre. You could at least learn or be exposed to something new.
For all the attention being devoted to Kanye’s quotable sign-off about his presidential ambitions, he actually made some valid points during his rambling 13-minute acceptance speech for the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. Using an example of Justin Timberlake and Cee-Lo Green of Gnarls Barkley at the 2007 Grammy Awards, West decried the idea of pitting the top artists and musicians against each together for an award that should instinctively be a subjective one. Why the incessant need to appoint a "winner" within a group of people who are already living their dreams and didn’t sign up for a sporting event? I quote:
“I still don't understand awards shows. I don't understand how they get five people who worked their entire life, one, sold records, sold concert tickets, to come, stand on the carpet, and for the first time in their life be judged on a chopping block and have the opportunity to be considered a loser.”
One point he didn’t raise was the lack of focus on those behind the scenes, whether it be the producers or engineers making the records, or in the case of MTV Video Music Awards, the people that direct and film the videos. Granted, Taylor Swift giving the mic to her director Joseph Kahn was a surprising moment of limelight-sharing on the night, but I get the feeling that it’s becoming the exception rather than the norm.
I know this because I personally know someone who was up for an MTV VMA this year, and he used to run around the garden with me playing cops and robbers, or sit next to me for hours playing video games. My childhood friend Conal Thomson, along with his co-director Brendan Canty, directed the brilliant, harrowing music video for Irish singer-songwriter Hozier’s debut hit-single ‘Take Me To Church’, which was nominated for both Best Rock Video and Best Direction at the awards. I found this out only hours before the event, and suddenly my interest zeroed in on this award-show-within-an-award-show. Like a sports fan supporting his local team, it became more than the event itself – this was a success story that him or I could’ve scarcely imagined back when we were kids.
Their small production company, Feel Good Lost, got the rare opportunity to work with Andrew Hozier-Byrne when he was still a struggling musician, and before he received widespread international fame, much of which could be attributed the video’s popularity.
The black-and-white short film follows the relationship between two men in a same-sex relationship and the subsequent violent homophobic backlash, including a lynch mob attacking one of the men’s homes and a horrifying beating that leaves the protagonist’s fate unknown by the end of it. It takes a bold stance on discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the lyrics imagine Hozier’s lover as a religion, full of frustrating hypocrisy.
But even at an award show which had an award for ‘Best Video with a Social Message’, there was no space for Hozier and his unlikely lads from Cork, Ireland. According to my friend, they found out the industry or ‘professional’ awards are released online after the main event, and the Best Rock Video winner was already announced during the pre-show. How confusing, and how anti-climactic. So even if they had won, who was going to hear their speech? What were they even doing there then? The situation reeked of disrespect for the underdog, and for the art-form – despite the life-changing opportunity that they had to attend such an event.
Looking at the list of performers from the night, it seemed that Hozier – whose voice evokes a male Adele, mixed with the vulnerability and emotion of Jeff Buckley, and the mystery of Justin Vernon of Bon Iver – wouldn’t have fitted into the pop extravaganza. The only semblance of a ‘rock’ performance was Tori Kelly, a singer-songwriter herself, who briefly stood onstage with a guitar and delivered some soulful and melodic middle-of-the-road pop-rock. Preaching to the wrong choir.
So next time you hear about an award show, and you want to sigh with frustration at all the popstars’ antics, think about those nervous-looking men and women in the crowd perhaps feeling out-of-place and overwhelmed. They could be ordinary people, about to step on a world stage under extraordinary circumstances. It’s time to find a local team to support.
This week, we have a new album from British indie rock band Foals called What Went Down.
It’s been a long, steady rise to the forefront of British guitar bands, and having been a fan of theirs since the math-rock days of their 2008 debut Antidotes, it feels surprisingly deserved for Foals to be displaying such confidence and assuredness on their 4th album.
It’s evident in how quick it took for the band to lay it all down: just two months at a 19th century mill in southern France called La Fabrique Studios. Foals headed directly into the studio following the ‘Holy Fire’ tour in support of their last album, and frontman Yannis Philippakis claims the energy from the live shows carries over to the new tracks, saying “We were playing like a ruthless, elegant machine.”
I was fortunate enough to see them twice on that tour, and for the pitstop they made at Ramfest in Cape Town, South Africa, I was right on the stage barrier, mere metres away from the crash and thunder. It’s not like they’ve ditched any of the fiddly intricacies of their early work – rather that they’ve mastered a sort of arena-funk which incorporates grislier guitars and a surging, propulsive rhythm section less inclined to stop and start on a dime.
I think that they are now seen as the ‘feeling person’s alternative’ to most mainstream rock groups coming out of the UK, and the spacious production and all-purpose longing that has crept in since their second album Total Life Forever has allowed Philippakis to perfect his throaty howl, bringing his vocals and lyrics more to the forefront.
You could perhaps trace this back to one of the biggest songs from that album ‘Spanish Sahara’, but I think the blueprint for Foals and Philippakis’ current performance is based on two hit singles from their 3rd album, 2013’s Holy Fire.
Firstly, you have the heavier ‘Inhaler’ template, most tangential to what we’ve come to expect from Foals, but whose highly-charged, fierce aggression populates the title track of the new album. It gives a claustrophobic feeling to proceedings, and choosing to record at La Fabrique Studios allowed the violent, maddening atmosphere of the Saint-Remy-De-Provence area to seep into the music. This is the place, after all, where acclaimed painter Vincent Van Gogh came to recover and be inspired after having sliced off his own ear. When Phillipakis repeatedly screams “When I see a man, I see a lion” at the song’s thrilling conclusion, it sounds like a panic attack put to tape.
The second template that has emerged is songs tapping into the lithe, funky pop grooves of the highly-danceable ‘My Number. We see this in varying shades across the new album, fizzing out of the crisp second single ‘Mountain At My Gates’, or slowly unfurling in sultry fashion on ‘Birch Tree’, accompanied by light synths and warm melodies.
Those are the two extremes one can expect, and Foals slide effortlessly between them, whether brewing a pensive storm on ‘Albatross’, or being caught in the middle of one with ‘Snake Oil’, its twinkly bridge is a brief respite from the booming deep guitars.
But if you want to have a taste of almost everything Foals have to offer, then best to take a bite out of the sublime ‘Night Swimmers’, whose persistent drum pattern, nerdy guitar noodlings and synthetic bursts of brass harken back to their beginnings.
It comes as no surprise then that producer James Ford had his fingers in this pie, he being a member of Simian Mobile Disco, and having produced for the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Florence & The Machine, and indie-pop sister trio HAIM. The balance between sonic intricacy and pop sensibilities results as a dead heat in this horse race, with Foals winning yet another accomplished album.
For our retrospective this week, we bring you words from a hip hop genius: GZA.
The founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan has long been associated with lyrical dexterity and dazzling vocal rhythms, boasting some high-profile appearances on the nine-member group’s debut album, 1993’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
Like fellow New York rapper Nas, his magnum opus solo debut has proved to be an impossibly hard act to follow. 1995’s Liquid Swords is a quietly intimidating masterpiece of hip hop, and probably the best Wu-Tang solo project of all, alongside Raekwon’s Only Built For Cuban Linx. GZA’s cerebral, nuanced rhymes weaved gritty stories with elaborate metaphors, and showcased a penchant for two Wu-Tang lyrical staples: martial arts and chess.
So that’s why I’m sidestepping the easy option, and zeroing in one of GZA’s later albums that builds a concept around one of his biggest passions and inspirations.
2005’s Grandmasters is a collaborative album between GZA and DJ Muggs (of Cypress Hill fame) that expertly blends the games of hip hop and chess to reveal that the strategy, planning and execution involved in both are not much different.
The title ‘Grandmasters’ also works on two levels: in chess, grandmaster is the highest title a player can attain, and once awarded, is held for life. Here we have two ‘grandmasters’ of the hip hop game – one behind the turntables, one holding the mic - explaining the rules and pitfalls to everyone willing to listen.
Bringing in Muggs to produce the album exclusively is a move that harkens back to the old-school Wu-Tang style of the early-90’s, where de facto leader RZA controlled all aspects of the Clan’s empire, including the making of their music. His trademark ghostly beats and chopped-up disembodied vocal samples laid the blueprint for what fans came to expect from a Wu-Tang record, and Muggs makes his presence felt in a similar vein, laying down a murky, dramatic, head-nodding backdrop that leaves lots of breathing room for GZA’s densely-saturated raps. Despite the ‘versus’ in the title, there is nothing adversarial between these two, and the synthesis is remarkable.
I make a note of this because in GZA’s previous two albums, 1999’s Beneath The Surface and 2002’s Legend Of The Liquid Sword, the often-bland production would undermine the deft wordplay, and some of the collaborations were a bit cringeworthy and misplaced.
So structurally, GZA is back in film-noir news-reporter mode, and instead of the 70’s kung-fu flick samples that open or close early Wu-Tang songs, we have actual chess players discussing chess strategy and giving instructions and moves using algebraic notation. I never said that this was going to be a normal hip hop album!
Each of the songs allude to and incorporate chess slang and situations:
Early on, we see ‘Destruction Of A Guard’ set the scene for a vivid account of crime and brutality, with a cinematic scope and a soul-stirring vocal sample.
‘General Principles’ and ‘Exploitation of Mistakes’ introduce the ground rules and common errors, and each brings the chess theme sharply into focus. The former muses on the reliance of chess principles to navigate hip hop and life. For example, in only the first four moves of a chess game, there are over 318 billion possibilities. In almost every instance, it’s impossible for a player to consider more than a tiny fraction of choices. In order to narrow down the choices to ones worthy of consideration, players must rely on chess principles to make their decisions, and GZA expounds the values of hard work without sacrificing integrity, embodying and respecting true hip hop culture, and being aware of the possibility of betrayal in this brilliant hip hop parable.
The latter of these continues this evaluation of life principles with an excellent case study of a killer who was finally caught because of his mistakes, and the detailed analysis is almost forensic in its depth.
Sometimes you just need a posse cut with some Wu-Tang regulars to release some tension, and ‘Advance Pawns’ ticks all the boxes, with piercing digital orchestration and textbook fluid verses traded with RZA and Raekwon. Speaking of members of the Wu-Tang, we also have a tribute to the then-recently-deceased Ol’ Dirty Bastard on the song ‘All In Together Now’, name-dropping the original name of the group and including a classic unpredictable and crazy intro from the ODB himself. It’s particularly moving, knowing that the two were cousins in real life.
But this doesn’t compare to one of the most smartly-written songs on the album, purely for its audaciousness. ‘Queen’s Gambit’ sees GZA go all the way to incorporate all 32 NFL football teams in a suave sex tale where he seduces - or perhaps is seduced by - the most powerful player on the board. Make sure to check the lyric sheet for this one and marvel at how manages to fit them all in, over only the most laid-back of beats.
Nowadays, the GZA’s genius isn’t just limited to making records, and he’s using his status in hip hop and thirst for knowledge to empower those around him. Not only has he founded a non-profit called Science Genius, which engages high school students with science using hip hop, he has appeared on famous astrophysicist Neil De Grasse Tyson’s ‘StarTalk’ show engages high school students with science using hip hop. Look out for his forthcoming science-themed album Dark Matter for empirical proof of that.
Well that’s about all we can fit in for this week. I hope that you’ve enjoyed the variety of musical edutainment we had on offer this episode. Keep searching, keep listening, and keep enjoying the wonders that music has to offer. I am The Eagle, and you have been listening to Musicology With The Eagle. See ya next time.