The Musical Imperialist – Understanding Music

I know a little about music but not a great deal. I often find myself driving in my car and a song I really like comes on. Take tonight, one of my all time favourite songs is ‘Me in Honey’ by REM. From the first strains of Kate Pearson’s vocal introduction to when Michael Stipe begins singing, that song affects me. I immediately begin to feel my mood lift and the song makes me smile.

Other music, like jazz, where the singers scat it makes my ears bleed. I can’t stand it. I also can’t stand music that is over-produced and sounds too smooth. I really don’t like R & B or boy band type music. It doesn’t do a thing for me.

I am curious about why certain songs affect me the way they do. Another example of a song that really works for me is ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ by the Rolling Stones. The opening guitar has effects me much in the same way as the REM song. There are many songs that do the same thing. Some new songs like Dan Mangan’s ‘The Indie Queens are Waiting’ starts off with him singing and then the harmony of a female singer[1] comes in and I melt. I feel the same way about the  Indigo Girls and their harmonies – they touch my soul.

I am pretty sure that there are reasons why people like certain kinds of music. I wonder if there are some mathematical reasons. Or maybe it has something to do with cadence or iambic pentameter. Anyone have any ideas?

[1] I don’t know her name.

Music Imperialist – Richard Shindell – Part 1

Richard Shindell

I first heard Richard Shindell when I was shopping at Suzanne Bell’s in Vancouver. I heard him as part of a folk super group called Cry Cry Cry. Together with Lucy Kaplansky and Dar Williams they released an album of cover songs. The song I really liked was ‘Cold Missouri Waters.’ It was a song written by James Keelaghan originally. The harmonies in this song provided by Dar Williams and Lucy Kaplansky are fabulous. They covered not only other artists’ songs but each others as well. Dar Williams’ version of ‘The Ballad of Mary Magdalene’ written by Richard Shindell is great. She brings another level to that song that surpasses the original.

Richard Shindell is a master storyteller in his songs. Shindell’s first album, Sparrow’s Point, came out in 1992. It has one of his most popular and lasting songs: ‘Are you Happy Now.’ This song is quite interesting, it is your typical break up song but it is done in an upbeat way that is almost cheery. My favourite version of this song is on the live ‘Courier’ album. Released in February 2002, this is my all time favourite album. It has many of his best songs live. Unlike many artists, Shindell’s music is fabulous live. He has outstanding acoustic guitar skills and makes great harmonies with Lucy Kaplansky who provided back up vocals on this album. There are two US Civil War era songs: ‘Courier’ and the outstanding ‘Arrowhead.’ Arrowhead is a captivating song about a young man who goes to fight in the Civil War and he ends up helping the cook. The song tells his story of how he loses the arrowhead the cook entrusted him with and the eventual loss of the war.

‘Fishing’ is another amazing song about how illegal immigrants are treated in the US. Basically, the man written about in the song is being asked to provide information to the government about others or they will go after his family. He also references Canada and a ‘lake in Ontario.’ Another outstanding song is ‘A Summer Wind, A Cotton Dress,’ a song about unrequited love really speaks to the experience many people have when they are attracted to someone but unable to act on it for whatever reason.

What makes Richard Shindell’s music so fabulous is how he weaves stories in song that speak to the human condition. Whether the story is historic or current he finds a way to speak to his listeners. This ability coupled with his fabulous guitar work and strong vocals makes him one of the best singer-songwriters around. Check back for part 2 on Richard Shindell!

The Musical Imperialist

Once upon a time, during my misspent youth, my best friend Joe and I went on a couple of long road trips. It was always my car, so it was generally my music that got played. It was actually Joe who christened me the ‘musical imperialist.’ When we drove long distances, I suggested he play one tape (Ok, it was the early 90s and I had an old car) and I would play one tape. The kicker here was that he wanted me to like what he was playing. I told him it didn’t matter if I liked it, he could just play it. Finally, he would give up because I hated everything he played. You have to wonder who was the real musical imperialist?!?

Anyway, I have a long history of imposing my music on other people. I am sure Deb will tell her story about how I tried to get her to like Ani Difranco to no avail. So, in the interests of continuing my long and sordid history of music imperialism, I thought I could use my blog to further my unholy mission. I have decided to make the ‘Musical Imperialist’ a somewhat irregular feature here at Dispatches from the Swamp. In the interests of learning about new music, I am going to open up the blog for guest posts for anyone who wants to profile some music they like.

Before I launch in and profile an artist or band I like, I thought I would discuss the type of music I like and what makes me like a song. Generally speaking I like folk or, as it is now called, singer-songwriter. I like artists who do not have perfect voices. I actually prefer a little edge. Artists like Celine Dion or anything over produced makes my ears bleed. I even go so far to like some artists who can’t really sing like Neil Young and Phil Ochs. I love music that says something. Love songs are great but I prefer a little dose of politics with my music.

In my next post in this series, I will pick an artist or band I like and talk about why it is that I like them. I will look at the albums they have put out and what, if anything, I know about the artist/band. Don’t forget about the offer! If you want to write a guest post let me know!