Songs that got me into music

Glass Candy – “Computer Love” (Cover of Kraftwerk)

Few albums show me the range of colors and emotions in a synth like Glass Candy’s B/E/A/T/B/O/X. Johnny Jewel seems to pry out the richest analog tones possible here. It’s a masterful dance album that fills each corner with glitter, but never without melody or feeling. If you wonder why I got so obsessed with synths, look no further than here (and The Knife, but that’s another story).

“Computer Love” demonstrates with a heaven-sent take on my favorite Kraftwerk classic. You’d think seven minutes would wear it out. Instead, Johnny makes decadent variations on their melodies over and over, finding new sweet spots in the harmony. I could listen to that same echoing synth for much longer; it’s like a magnet. The almost operatic fluttering later on takes it to a whole new place.  B/E/A/T/B/O/X is a decadent album already, but “Computer Love” is a true journey. When I listen, I’ve entered some haven of digitized bubbles and flowers.

With this fountain of synths backing her, Ida No could douse her face in it. She gives that falsetto title-drop the pure frozen longing it needed. Critics labelled her goofy and ‘detached’, but songs like this show a warmer, gentler side to her that’s just as prominent. She has a barbie-doll glamor that makes a closer fit for a song like this. Ralf Hutter has his charms, but he’s not a big love-song type.

Something about this cover takes the loneliness further. With how they sequenced B/E/A/T/B/O/X, “Computer Love” provides a refuge in the face of paranoia (see “Candy Castle” and “Digital Versicolor”). The way I hear it, this version doesn’t wish for love alone, but for relief in general. It searches the ends of Earth, science, and fantasy for this.

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Songs that got me into music

Cocteau Twins – “Pandora” (Treasure, 1984)

I learned of Cocteau when I overheard “Amelia” from my sister’s room.  “Amelia” was interesting, but Liz Fraser’s singing baffled me at first.  “That’s their whole style”, she said. This seemed too ‘weird’ for me. But that was when “Pandora” came on, which changed my mind the second it hit that chorus. Before I knew it I was obsessing over dream pop and all things ‘atmospheric’. Like the Banshees, CTs showed me an atmospheric density I hadn’t thought possible before.

The melody’s rapid syllables could become too much, but Fraser’s voice makes it sound easy and free. Add guitar wash from Atlantis and her most angelic falsetto and every note feels like a fountain. For all I knew, they were playing those drums from under a well.

“Pandora” is one of those rare songs with a therapeutic quality, where I wish I could take a nap in it. I pictured a happy-sad farewell in some aquatic world, where someone watches their friend journey off. It’s somewhere between this and the purest daydream.

Complex emotions like these are part of Treasure’s power. It will evoke such grand, sublime images and feelings across time and space, but never one at a time.

Songs that got me into music

Siouxsie And The Banshees – “Into The Light” (Juju, 1981)

‘A racket that mixed up Blondie with Siouxsie And The Banshees’; said one critic on Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Who were the Banshees?, I thought eight (!) years ago. Soon I found “Into The Light” on my sister’s iTunes by fluke and it blew my mind within seconds. I knew nothing about the new wave scene and the endless creativity within yet, so you could imagine my awe.

The song resembled a campfire with Siouxsie as the enigmatic storyteller. The guitar sizzled over Budgie’s drums like wood covered in flames. With this band, guitar worked more as the portal to their surreal worlds than a tool for beefy riffs. John McGeoch’s ‘Gizmo’ effect pedal played a big part in this. “Into The Light” has a raw instinct for sure, but they didn’t look past melody; it’s an agitated beast. Likewise, something vulnerable lies in Siouxsie’s defiant voice. Her lyrics insist on rhymes with ‘light’:

Our hearts entwine / a new horizon

Remember when / bleached into white

Your time again / kept out of sight

Standing in the light

I never wanted to be right

Now I’m attracted by the light

And blinded by the sight

What is this light? ‘I never wanted to be right’; it’s confessing something, it sounds defeated. Genius suggests a light-before-death scene, fitting the cosmic images though not confirmed. Either way, I couldn’t ask for a stronger delivery.

Key to Juju’s impact was how it found Siouxsie between her punk roots and later refinement. She reached a raw desperation (especially live) that wasn’t quite the same with earlier and later periods. As it took one jam-based take to record with improvised lyrics, this song came from pure impulse. It told me that spontaneous bursts can birth the best inspiration.

Go here for my Siouxsie gateway playlist if you’re unfamiliar.

Songs that got me into music

Songs that got me into music: Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, 1st movement

 

The local Target used to have these panels where you clicked album art images to preview their CD. 10-year-old me went for the pretty-looking ‘landscape’ photos every time, which led to something called Beethoven’s Moonlight

So this downbeat piano faded in and hypnotized me. It had such a unique mood: teetering in and out of a shadowy dirge, relaxed but deep in thought. Like night-time, it’s shrouded in mystery but not inherently ‘evil’. Moonlight is antique mansion music, something a ghost pianist would play as everyone sleeps. Or maybe it’s a balcony’s view of the night sky. Somehow this movement suggests so much in a simple waltz rhythm.

Following my obsession for the melodic piano pieces in ‘creepier’ Nancy Drew games, this was the next root of my interest in gothic music (what with my  blog having ‘Moons’ in the name). Playing the CD often, I thought I’d be a ‘classical person’. As you might guess, I was quick to change course, but I regain that curiosity now and then. I just wish I knew more pieces like this one.

Years later I’d find a great synth version by cult library/TV composer Alan Hawkshaw.

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.

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.