Songs that got me into music

Songs that got me into music: Kevin Manthei – Nancy Drew original theme, 1999

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Listening to full albums was beyond my patience as a 7-year-old, but I’d hum what I heard in my video games obsessively. Most often, these were songs from HerInteractive’s Nancy Drew PC games, based on the teen mystery novels dating back to 1930. Nancy’s detective formula was a perfect match for the story-centered point-and-click genre, resulting in a refined alternative to the chaos of action games. My fondness of the ND music predated almost all of my other early musical interests; I’ve enjoyed plenty of ‘canon’ VGM since then, but I still think this music deserved higher recognition.

Kevin Manthei, a relative unknown beyond a few TV themes, made the first 25 (!) soundtracks. His melodies stuck with me for years and I revisit them regularly to this day. Every game had a different setting, so Manthei tackled anything that fit. He’d go from springy pseudo-classical to circus music and French lounge but he retained his strong melodic sense throughout the whole series. I discovered several of my favorite sounds through this, like vibraphone, cello and hammered dulcimer.

This striking theme song packs danger, intrigue, drama, a hint of sadness and (of course) mystery into a single minute. With it’s multi-shaded mood, elegant styling and that old-software-game warmth, it well-represents the unique spirit of the early ND games.

I plan to make a proper post/list about ND music in the future – until then, you can hear more at this Youtube channel.

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hidden treasure

Bibio – Silver Wilkinson, 2013

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More like this – Bibio’s Green EP, Goldfrapp’s “Clowns

I love a good electronic+folk mixture, and this is one of those precious examples of where it works in album form. Silver Wilkinson is an ideal spring-time album due to this, recalling fresh morning air, vegetation, grassy fields and other pleasant outdoor imagery very nicely. Bibio decorates the songs with a spacious reverb and emphasizes the most organic possible sounds. Nature FX, grainy sound quality and other details add to the effect. Like a lot of my favorite guitarists, he makes regular use of effects and layering to expand the instrument’s range. Some songs will come close, but it’s far from your usual twangy ‘chill-out guitar’ mush.

Several critics and fans deemed Silver Wilkinson unfocused with the way it shifts in sound at semi-random points. I do agree the flow could be better, but I felt it’s this variety that helps it work as an album. For instance, I like how it begins with these reflective guitar-based pieces, but if every song was like this, it could get stale. His understated knack for synths helps keep it interesting at very least, as in “Business Park” with it’s jagged techno drama or “Look At Orion”’s odd vortex of reverb and sampled voices. At some points he also blends the synths + guitars in a more subtle fashion, like “Dye The Water Green”’s instrumental fade-out.

As much as this album escalates, few songs lack that refreshing springy mood Bibio does best. With “Mirroring All”, I can almost feel that misty outdoor air through mere listening. I could say the same of Bibio’s own favorite “Dye The Water Green”, a haunting melody contrasted with some luxurious guitar shimmers. With the single “Curls” sounding a lot closer to this than his recent ambient/drone work, I have a good feeling about the incoming Ribbons album.

♥︎ – “Dye The Water Green”, “A Tout a L’Huere”, “Mirroring All”, “Business Park

 

Anniversary · Songs that got me into music

Songs that got me into music: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Zero” (It’s Blitz!, 2009)

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Part of a new series where I look back at the formative songs that made me obsessed with music in the first place. The next entries will have a more chronological order.

My first memory of Yeah Yeah Yeahs is when I saw the iconic video for “Zero”, voted by Spin and NME as song of the year. It was a fresh, exciting, neon-lit burst of energy; the tempo and lyrics imploring to ‘climb, climb, climb’. The contrast of mellow cool with exhilarating heights was key to the appeal of the It’s Blitz! album itself. It’s been close to a decade since I overheard my older siblings play the CD, yet somehow it’s just as great as I remember hearing it again now.

It’s Blitz! is an album of twin strengths; an ideal blend of a punk/rock base with electronic flourishes. Uproarious synth-rock fusions take turns with rich, idyllic ballads. Each of the ten songs have their twists, adding up to one of the most well-rounded albums I know. “Soft Shock” shows this duality best in both its music and title: electric but therapeutic, it’s a lullaby with a groove; while “Runaway” is an ambitious pseudo-gothic ballad going from soft, lonely piano to a thundering string peak. Some uptempo songs even invert this pattern, like “Heads Will Roll” with its murky ‘Shut your eyes / you realize’ interlude or “Dull Life”’s haunting guitar shifting into a bold and determined chorus.

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Every member added something distinct; Karen O balanced grit with tenderness more seamlessly than ever, Nick Zinner blended his guitar fuzz with a host of sleek, icy synths and Brian’s drumming added thrilling momentum. The synths brought fresh twists to their sound and helped build on the balladry “Maps” did so well.

Something about It’s Blitz! sounds all this time later, even if it makes such a great time capsule. Maybe it’s the less obvious execution of the electro-pop influence: while I can enjoy most forms of this, including the kind synthwave that lives and breathes flashy eighties kitsch, It’s Blitz! doesn’t sound that ‘eighties’ to me in the end. I don’t know if it’s the critics overstating on the mere fact they dared to include synths (as expected for critics of the time + guitar snobs in general) or the sheer personality of the album.

Ten years on I’ve realized how much It’s Blitz! influenced my taste: the love of synths, fierce rhythms, genuine attitude, mixing beauty with distortion. While their debut remains incredible, it sometimes overshadows the accomplishment of their third album. With today being its tenth anniversary, It’s Blitz! is overdue for celebration.

 

List

8 (more) interesting lesser-known instruments

To continue from my 6 interesting lesser-known instruments list from a couple of years ago, here are 8 more!

1. Laser harp

Laser harp must be one of the most unusual and far-out electronic instruments. It’s played by moving one’s hands over bright laser-shaped lights to trigger MIDI commands; protective glasses and gloves are required to play it. Jean-Michel Jarre is known to use it in most of his concerts post-1981. (Clip)

2. Fairground organ

Fairground organ (or band organ) is an automatic mechanical organ that plays songs from music rolls, which is paper with holes punched in specific spots to indicate the music’s notation, similar to a player piano. They most often provide music for carousels.

They imitate a full band in addition to the lead organ – together with the music rolls, this makes it comparable to MIDI keyboards’ capacity to emulate other instruments. In fact, many modern fairground organs use a MIDI interface instead! (Clip)

3. Qanun

Qanun is a Middle Eastern zither instrument with a somewhat haunting tone and a total of 78 (!!!) strings. (Clip)

4. Hammered dulcimer

Hammered dulcimer is a percussive string instrument played by hitting the strings with mallets; the resulting sound is often sinister and medieval. (Clip)

5. Marxophone

Marxophone is a fretless zither with similarities to piano and hammered dulcimer. The player presses the small grey levers to make them rapidly strike the strings. (Clip)

6. Tonbak

Tonbak is a prominent drum in Persian music. It can be played through direct full-handed hits, knocks, hitting the sides or edges and rapid finger-tapping. (Clip)

7. Clavichord

Clavichord is a European keyboard similar to harpsichord and closely predating the clavinet. (Clip)

8. Daff

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Daff is a large Middle Eastern frame drum capable of very intense rhythms. It’s played with one hand holding it and another hitting it both on the rims and at the center. (Clip)