Encores 2 by Nils Frahm, and the Joy of Live Music

It’s difficult to unpack my feelings about Nils Frahm as an artist. I remember, a few years back, hearing rave reviews about one of his albums. I can’t recall which album it was. I listened to it, and it reminded me of the type of “scholarly” music that is being produced at every college music department with an electronic music program in the country. It didn’t strike me as anything special.

Then I listened to The Noise Pop Podcast, or maybe it was Switched on Pop, and one of the hosts was overwhelmed by Frahm’s 2018 album All Melody. So I listened to that, and I felt about the same.

Maybe it was a sign that I was cynical, jaded, or just plain old. Or maybe Frahm and I went through similar music educations. Maybe he was the most successful version of all the dudes making quiet, semi-ambient electronic music at all the schools I attended. Although, glancing through his wikipedia, I don’t see any references to universities. So maybe that isn’t the case either.

But as of last year, my general feeling toward Frahm was a qualified “meh.”

Still, when I saw he was playing at a club that was walking distance from my house, I had to buy tickets. I invited my friend Brian along, and we caught him at The Ritz in San Jose.

It was at that concert that my feelings toward Frahm changed.

The Ritz is a fantastically intimate venue. It’s compact enough to reach out and touch the performer from the front of the audience. It’s small enough to only hold maybe two hundred people standing.

Frahm had an absolutely massive setup. He had several antique organs, numerous synthesizers, and enormous old fashioned amps the size of small cars.

But he had no band and there was no opening act. He came out alone. He performed alone, and the show was about him and his music. It was pure, and almost sacred in its tone at first. But as it went on he got more and more loose.

Frahm has a charming on-stage personality. Between each track he talked about his music and his writing process. He opened up his soul a little bit, and opened up about his music a lot. He got more talkative as the show progressed, until by the end he was talking about chord progressions and audience expectations. For people with a little bit of musical training, which I suspect was most of the audience, it was a magical night where we jointly worshipped at the altar of music.

On January 25th, 2019, Frahm released a new EP titled Encores 2. Does it feel like his show? Would his magical show change the way I perceived his music?

No. The album is more slow, quiet sonic meditations that owe a great debt to Brian Eno. It’s still an enjoyable album to listen to while at work, or on the train, or perhaps while making dinner.

But if you get the chance, you should definitely catch him live.

Remember Nina Simone

I recently read But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman. The premise of the book is to predict the future by looking at how past predictions were wrong, and how they could have been right. As usual Chuck Klosterman takes on sports and culture, with some random asides about The Real World.

The most compelling section was where he tried to predict the future of Rock. He looked back at music of the past, pointing out that most people remember one person from each era of music. So most people know Bach from the baroque, Mozart from the classical, and Beethoven from the romantic era. He made the interesting point that surviving history is about being recognized by people who know nothing about the subject, rather than by people who are specialists. Specialists can name several playwrights from the 1500s, for example, but most of us can only name Shakespeare.

In the domain of rock, he said The Beatles are the logical choice to represent rock music. Still, he pointed out that it’s easier to remember a single individual whose story relates to the art itself. So Bob Dylan or Elvis Presley might emerge rather than The Beatles. Then he pointed to arguments for various rock musicians and why they might turn out to be true.

It was all very interesting, but it just got me thinking about jazz. In one hundred years, who might emerge to represent all of jazz?

Nina Simone at the piano

The obvious choice is Duke Ellington. His career spanned most of jazz, even though he retained his own distinct style throughout. He was influential as both a composer and a band leader.

Another choice might be Louis Armstrong. He invented the jazz solo as we know it today, and he performed a few of the most popular jazz tracks ever recorded.

After them, the waters get more murky. Benny Goodman made jazz popular music. Miles Davis sold more records than even Louis Armstrong. Marian McPartland brought jazz into the home long after most people had given up on it. Heck, maybe Johnny Costa will be remembered for his role as the music director of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.

I think that it will probably be a composer. Prior to the late 19th century, the only recorded history of music was written down on paper. This is why we remember Mozart the composer, rather than the people who performed his music. We still tend to think people who write music are more important than people who perform it, even when we have recordings of great performers. That’s a big reason why it will probably be Duke Ellington who is ultimately remembered.

But this strikes me as wrong. Jazz is the first music that is truly a recorded music throughout its entire history. If humanity is around in one hundred years, then jazz recordings will still exist. So couldn’t it, perhaps, be the greatest performer who survives?

Also the focus of jazz is on the improviser. Jazz is a kind of folk music, where the performer subjugates the composition to his own interpretation. So perhaps the greatest interpreter of jazz will be remembered.

In either case, it has to be Nina Simone. No other performer expressed the full range of human emotions in a single performance. Even Louis Armstrong tended toward jubilation in his performances. He never reached the depths that Nina Simone explored in I Loves You Porgy or Willow Weep for Me.

There are two arguments against Nina Simone. First, that she was closer to a pop singer than a jazz singer. Second, that she isn’t known for her compositions.

Nina Simone wasn’t a pop singer. That’s what we would call her today because her category no longer exists. She was a cabaret singer. When she was unfairly rejected for a scholarship to study classical piano at The Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, she supported herself by playing popular music in bars and restaurants. She would sing and play whatever songs were on the radio. It was a very demanding job, and playing those songs night after night is what molded her into the greatest interpreter both as a vocalist and a pianist.

To the second objection, that she isn’t remembered for her compositions, I can only point to her unforgettable performance of Mississippi Goddamn, a composition of her own. With a cheerful piano accompaniment, and a melody that pushes the piece forward, she managed to write and perform a song that defines courage. The music is a beautiful, confident show tune that carries lyrics about one of the worst tragedies in American history. The effect is a better expression of the black experience in this country than any other performance in jazz.

So please, remember Nina Simone.

Here’s my playlist of Nina Simone’s best tracks to help her cause.

Book Review: Life of a Song

I recently had the chance to read Life of a Song: The fascinating stories behind 50 of the worlds best-loved songs. It’s a concise collection of fifty Life of a Song articles from the Financial Times. As I rarely have a reason to visit the FT website, and I only occasionally catch the Life of a Song podcast, the book was a great opportunity to catch up on what I’d missed. Regular readers may find nothing new in the book, but for pop fans and die-hard listeners, the short collection is definitely worth a read.

Life of a Song: The fascinating stories behind 50 of the worlds best-loved songs

The book consists of fifty articles from the regular Life of a Song column collected into book form. Each article takes on a different, well-loved tune from twentieth century popular music. Songs covered include ‘My Way’, ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’, ‘1999’, ‘La Vie en Rose’, and ‘This Land is Your Land’. There are only a few songs in the list that I didn’t know off the top of my head, including ‘Song to the Siren’, and ‘Rocket 88’. The articles usually include some remarks about the songwriter, often quoting them about their creation. Then they cover the journey from composition to hit recording, and usually mention other interpretations that followed the hit.

Each article appears to be less than 1000 words. As you might expect, that’s a lot to cover in that much room. So each article is pretty topical, relating a single anecdote about it, and only touching on the rest. For instance, in the article about ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, the author relates the recording process that shaped the final sound.

On take four of the remake, serendipity strikes. Session guitarist Al Kooper, 21, a friend of the band, walks in holding his guitar, hoping to join in. He is deemed surplus to requirements, but Dylan decides he wants an organ in addition to piano, and Kooper volunteers to fill in. He improvises his part, as he would later recall, ‘like a little kid fumbling in the dark for a light switch’. And suddenly the song turns into the tumbling, cascading version that will become the finished article.

There’s two pieces of information that you need to know about this book in order to enjoy it.

  1. It is a collection of short articles by many contributors.
  2. Those writers are almost entirely arts journalists, rather than trained musicians.

This book was written by a lot of authors. I counted fourteen contributors, each of whom appears to be an English journalist. This can lead to the book feeling somewhat disjointed. Each author is comfortable talking about their own domain of the music industry. Some interpret the lyrics, others relate interviews with creators, others pick up on business maneuvers behind the scenes.

In the introduction, David Chael and Jan Dalley write that the book “is not about singers, or stars, or chart success – although of course they come into the story. It is about the music itself”. If you are a musician, this may leave you expecting musical analysis, lyrical breakdowns, or at least comparisons to similar songs. The book “is about music” in as much as it tells stories about musicians, but it is strictly an outsiders perspective. There’s no illusion that the writers were part of the culture of the song, or involved themselves with the people in the story. A reader shouldn’t expect that in a collection such as this.

My favorite article is the one about ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’. That song has so much soul, that it surprised me to learn that the original title, given to the tune by its white songwriter, was ‘Midnight Plane to Houston’.

The soul singer Cissy Houston… decided to record its first cover version… But the title irked. It wasn’t the collision of Houstons – singer and subject – that bothered her, but one of authenticity. If she was going to sing this song, she had to feel it. And, she later said, ‘My people are originally from Georgia and they didn’t take planes to Houston or anywhere else. They took trains.’

Ultimately, Life of a Song is a great book to read on the way to and from work, or to sit in your book bin next to your favorite chair. It’s a book that can be read in lots of small chunks, and each chunk reveals a little bit more about a song than the recording.

Now if you don’t mind, I need to catch a plane to Houston.

Other Music of 2017

On computermusicblog.com I did my year-end roundup of the best EDM of 2017. Like any of these lists, it’s a very opinionated list. In this post I want to mention a few other albums I really liked that didn’t make the cut.

There are a few albums that I really enjoyed this year, but weren’t really striking in any way. They were enjoyable to listen to, but they didn’t stand out. Biggest amongst them is probably the new album from Odesza. It’s a fine album, but it nothing in it is unexpected. For me, one of the biggest surprises of the year was the amazing live show Odesza put on to support a relatively mediocre album. Another album that was good, but not great, was Float bySlow Magic. I really enjoyed listening to The Invincible EP by Big Wild, but in the end it just sounds kind of generic.

There are a few other albums that I discovered in 2017, and listened to a lot, but were actually released in previous years. I somehow missed Braincase by Electric Mantis when it was originally released. It’s a dope album of instrumental trap. Also great is the Kindred Spirits EP by Jai Wolf. I managed to see Jai Wolf twice in concert this year because he was coincidentally playing at events I wanted to see. His pure, old-fashioned turntable mastery absolutely dominated festivals crowded by much bigger names, and his EP is worth a few dozen listens.

Last up are the albums that BARELY missed the cut. There were hundreds of great albums released in 2017. Even focusing on EDM exclusively leaves more great albums than I could possibly list. I listened to Full Circle by Oliver probably twenty times. It’s great for getting psyched up for a hard job, or just for getting your hips moving. The new album from Giraffage is also great. It’s an album that really lives up to his previous releases. It feels mellow, sexy, and fun all at the same time. When I saw him live in San Jose, the show was filled with college kids, and that made me feel old. But I think it’s an album that has wide appeal to all listeners to EDM.

And that’s all the other albums from 2017 that I want to talk about.

Okay, obviously that’s not true. I loved so many more albums. LCD Soundsystem made a triumphant comeback. Bonobo released a very solid album earlier in the year. Bonnie and Clyde were the darlings of the internet for a week or two. I thought Sofi Tukker was over-hyped, but then they were terrific live. BVD Kult released a pretty paint-by-numbers pop/EDM track that I absolutely adored. Vitalic released a disappointing album. Jerry Folk released an album that I have very mixed feelings about. Some people from YouTube released some really good music. And someone named Andrew Applepie made a bunch of music that is actually really great in a quirky kind of way.

There was so much great music in 2017. Looking forward to 2018, there is a lot to be pessimistic about. Vladimir Putin seems intent on starting a war. Trump and the Republicans seem intent on destroying democracy in America. But still, it’s going to be a great year for music, and for human culture generally.

I love Pandora, but where is the discovery?

I have been a loyal Pandora subscriber since the month they started offering subscriptions. I love the service. I will continue subscribing forever, even if it’s only to keep my perfectly tuned Christmas music station.

But Pandora is not serving its audience very well, and that annoys me.

I probably listen to Pandora over five hours a day on each work day, and probably an hour or two on days off. When I tell someone I use Pandora, they inevitably ask me, “why don’t you just use Spotify?” More and more, I feel like they have a point.

In the past, I have preferred Pandora because it enabled discovery. It allowed me to create stations that would play music that I liked, but I had never heard. As a person who has spent decades of his life listening to and studying music, one of the main things I like about a piece of music is that I’ve never heard it before. In the past two years or so, I feel like this aspect of Pandora has dwindled or disappeared.

More and more, I feel like my Pandora stations primarily play the tracks that I have already voted for. Admittedly, some of my stations have been around for over a decade, so I have voted for a lot of tracks. When I vote for a track, however, it isn’t an indication that I want to hear that track every time I turn on that station. A vote is an indication that I want to hear tracks that are similar to that track.

But this is just too rare lately on Pandora. I hear the same Ellie Goulding tracks that I voted for last year. I hear the same Glitch Mob tracks that I’ve heard for the past six years. I still like that music, but I would prefer to hear something else. Why not play another track off the album that I voted for? Why play the same single track over and over?

“But why not click the ‘Add Variety’ button?” The ‘Add Variety’ button adds a new seed to that station. I don’t want to change the type of music played by the station, I simply want it to play OTHER music that falls within my already-indicated preferences.

What really irritates me, is that this doesn’t seem like a hard feature to implement. Why can’t a user tune the amount of new music they hear? Why can’t we have a slider that we can control with our mood? If the slider is set to 1.0, then we are in full discovery mode. Every track played will be one that we haven’t voted on. If the slider is set to 0.0, then every track played will be one that we HAVE voted on. In this way, Pandora could act like Spotify for users who like Spotify, and for people like me, it can act as the best shuffle on the planet.

As a programmer who has worked with large datasets, search tools like ElasticSearch, and written lots of web applications, I know that this isn’t a difficult change. It might require one schema change, and less than ten lines of new code. But it should be implementable and testable in under a week. Design might take longer, but here, I will design it for you.

pandora discovery slider
pandora discovery slider

And seriously, Pandora, I will implement this for you if you are that desperate. My current employer will loan me out, and even without knowing your code base, I could get this done in a month.

So come on, Pandora. Serve your audience. Stop making me explain why I prefer Pandora over Spotify. Add a discovery slider. Today.