Friday, April 8, 2016

The Micro-Review Series - A

Here's the first round of micro-reviews, beginning with bands whose names start with the letter A.

A Flock of Seagulls (1979-1986)
This British group was started in the late 70s by hairstylist Mike Score, his brother, and two friends who eventually formed the proper line up: Ali Score, drums; Paul Reynolds on guitar; and Frank Maudsley on bass. They fell into the New Wave genre really well and, like their contemporary Gary Numan with 'Cars,' they're probably best-known for their massive hit 'I Ran (So Far Away).' I recall first hearing and noticing the song while eating at Boston Pizza. Of course, they had a repertoire of other songs (like 'Space Age Love Song') and more than one album, but all of that was overshadowed by their aforementioned hit. This was the beginning of the era for music videos, and 'I Ran' shone through with its atmosphere and dizzying video. They definitely had talent - I've given both their self-titled debut and The Story of a Young Heart a listen - but the public was too impatient to give them any lasting attention thanks to the fact they couldn't seem to raise the bar higher than they did with that one song. Moving to the States didn't help, and as a result Mike Score is the only musician left over, performing on his own - probably okay as long as he doesn't have to sing that 'dreadful' song.

"I Ran (So Far Away)" (1982)

Taken singularly, without the iconic lens and the listening reaction, the song is a pretty simple composition (A major, G major, F major, G again...) that fits well into the electronic, New Wave style of the time: Long, unusual, synthy-sounding intro, synthed strings held forever, echo-y vocals and simplistic hooks. The bass is very edgy and choppy; I listened to the individual instrument tracks once, and found the keyboard soft and never-ending, the drums deep and distant, and the bass plucked hard, as if the strings were sharp and jagged and over-driven. You don't hear the bass well, really, other than the high notes Maudsley plays. The guitar is my favorite instrument in the song. It provides an active, involved accompaniment that gives the song its character (while the synths give it its atmosphere).
I find the first lyrics kind of funny: "I walked along the avenue. I never thought I'd meet a girl like you." That first line is the most mundane counterpart to the second half, of meeting the girl. It would make more sense to me if he'd said "I walked along the Riviera" or "I walked along the sandy beach." Avenue only sounds nice if it were Sunset Boulevard in L.A. He might as well have walking along a dusty side street in an industrial zone. Anyway, I like the song for its simplicity and for being, like 'Cars,' something of a pioneer effort in the genre of early 80s New Wave. And it does have its iconic status. The video is the result of simple low-budget ideas - and more or less, it works. Other than the fact you can see the camera in the mirrors, and the waveform effects during the guitar solo look kitschy.

"You Can Run" (1982)

This is one of the tracks off of their debut, self-titled album. It's a good guitar-driven track and it makes great use of its musical elements. The only thing I don't particularly like is its boring title and lyric - "you can run but you can't hide." I feel like even then, that line was overly used in pop-culture already. But anyway, this shows their talent and their musicianship somewhat and sounds solid. Plus, it isn't an eternal track of impossible-to-hear lyrics, synth effects, and progressions that are impossible to follow or make head or tail of, like 'Space Age Love Song' or 'Telecommunication' or their other similar tracks.

"Story of a Young Heart" (1984)

This is the lead-off from their third album, and their best song in my opinion. It sounds soft, deep, melodic, and both happy and sad at the same time. I love Score's yearning voice in the verses and the bass guitar's melodrama in the chorus. It sounds extremely versatile, which is a huge contrast to its sound in 'I Ran.' The guitar is also greatly played in a soft, distant style while the keyboards aren't too overwhelming. The two instruments mix together very well. The introduction is a bit unprecedented - just a tom drum pattern played on what sounds like the 80s-style hex pads drummers always included at the time - but the keyboards come in and elevate them well. Drawbacks are the everlasting chorus - "this is a story of a young heart" - and lyrics that tend to come back to that idea over and over during the verses ("the story in your eyes is the story of a..." you get the idea). Ali also tends to add additional drum bits that aren't necessarily required, which makes me wonder if he felt undervalued or under-used (or bored as he forever drummed the chorus). But the little bridge with the keyboard notes are awesome, including the following guitar/keyboard solo, and the entire thing makes me think of a dark, cloudy, rainy spring day, very romanticized. It sounds soothing over all, as if it were raining outside. It's synesthetically very grey and dark to me, or grey-blue, and I actually think of a girl that was in my high school photography class eight years ago.


Ace of Base (1990-Present)
One of the greats to come out of Sweden, they probably made it the most commercially in the early 90s with their album Happy Nation. This was chiefly thanks to singles like 'All that She Wants' and 'The Sign,' which sound similar stylistically and have great stylistic elements. I haven't really paid much attention to them other than the two songs, which were radio features in my young childhood. I remember swimming in a kiddie pool in my backyard one afternoon while 'The Sign' was playing on a small cassette player, and I remember visualizing a stop sign in response to the song. In summary, the band did a follow up called The Bridge in 1995, covered Bananarama's 'Cruel Summer' in 1997, did a compilation at the turn of the millennium, released a fourth album, and then went on hiatus, returning now and then to do shows. In my mind, as well as probably most other peoples,' they are an early 90s outfit in style, sound, and culture. You can't think of the first half of that decade without hearing the heavy bass drum sound of their drums, off-beat piano, keyboard riffs, and loud female vocals.

"All That She Wants" (1992)

This song went somewhere partly because, apparently, the record producer the band wanted couldn't get the damn demo tape of it out of his car's player. This song was the birth of Ace of Base's sound and style: small keyboard riffs, staccato, off-beat piano chords, and drums that are pointedly hard on the bass. Really, I find the bass drum in Ace of Base songs similar to a metal pole with a foot-wide diameter pounding the ground. But maybe that's just me.
The piano is the star of this song for me. I love the inverted C sharp minor chord. It makes the song seem rainy to me. C sharp minor, A flat minor, F sharp minor. Then there's the great, sinister bridge including sax that follows C sharp, G sharp-B-C-C sharp. The song ends on this four-note progression. The minor piano chords set the appropriate tone for the lyrics: Cold, distant, dismissive. Like the female subject, after a night of passion. Any drawbacks? I don't really see any.


"The Sign" (1993)
Not as distant as their first single (and not exactly as highly regarded by me) this is a much more cheery song that continues to define the style they made for themselves at that time. This song sounds more reggae to me, partly due to the higher-pitched drum bits here and there (but again, there's that louder bass drum) and the bright opening keyboard riff is probably one of the most 90s sounds to hear. It actually makes me think of swimming and pool water, probably thanks to hearing it while swimming in my backyard (not to mention I took swimming lessons at that age as well). The bass guitar has a bigger role in this song, and it's picked a bit faster as it would be in the style of reggae. This song probably gives me childhood nostalgia more than anything else; it's familiar and returns me to a semblance of those original synesthetic images and colours (obviously years of smearing a veneer of other influences and re-imagining have changed it somewhat). The chords are brighter. I haven't tried figuring them out, but I can guarantee that some are major chords while most are, like their first song, minor chords. I like the song, and I would listen to it, with no real drawbacks that I can think of. It's a familiar sound, and exactly how Ace of Base does and should sound to me - them and the early 90s.

After The Fire (1974-1982)
This is a group that, like so many others, is largely known for a one-hit wonder. These guys have been around since 1974, which I didn't expect when I double-checked their active time-period on Wikipedia, and in quickly skimming the article, it appears they had localized success in London with a sound similar to bands like Genesis and Yes. Had Gary Numan not been scheduled to play on Top of the Pops the same week ATF had been (causing their appearance to be cancelled - their change to New Wave keyboard-style music was one too many with Numan also on the bill) they might have made it to a point where more of their music could have had more exposure (and more than one mere one-hit-wonder from them might have appeared on my list). They took Falco's hit single, "Der Kommissar," and translated it, loosely, to English, re-recording the music and expanding the song a somewhat. It was good, but by that point they'd exhausted their patience with each other (and probably the patience of the record company) and called it a day. Too little, too late. Like Sublime, but for totally different reasons, they broke up right as they were finally getting attention.

"Der Kommissar" (1982)
Falco, an Austrian artist, came out with this in 1981. The original is basically, I would say, a short, simple commercial pop song using a synthesized honky-tonk piano melody with a well-produced guitar riff. This sounds cleaner than the ATF version, which itself sounds somewhat less glossy and more rough. I think the novelty of the song - in English or German - is its catchy chorus. I remember hearing it for the first time properly in 2010, probably off of a TV show that chronicled 80s one-hit wonders. I liked the bombastic "wha-ohs' in the chorus; the vocals made me think of rambunctious teens having fun, blithely without regard for consequences. The fun seemed infectious. Later, I got a lot out of the keyboard sound ATF used. The progression is simple: D, CBA...GA. "Don't turn around, wha-oh..." the organ-style staccato notes hit D major and A minor alongside this, and there's an overlying riff of chords that I haven't ever properly laid down (one is definitely a sustained D major though). In the final chorus, everything breaks off for a keyboard/organ solo that sounds flashy but not, when I think of it now, really necessary. I liked it back then.
The problem with ATF's version is its length and repetitive verses. There's this guitar riff that plays in both versions - it sounds good, but ATF decided to repeat it twice over two different sections of the song. This makes it go on forever. Same goes for the bridge. They aren't really adding anything new other than minor keyboard elements that aren't worth it (not when they get a whole prelude of a proceeding verse). As a result it gets really boring, and the singer only has enough lyrics for half of these musical interludes. Speaking of the vocals, they sound like too much swagger was injected into them, so that the lyrics sound somewhat silly in singer Banks's tone, kind of contrived.
What's funny about 'Der Kommissar' is that this song took on three separate incarnations: First as its German original, then as an expanded British New Wave version, then finally as an American pop version by singer Laura Branigan. This happened each successive year since its first release, from 1981 to 1983. Branigan's producers wrote new lyrics for the song, and the instrumentation was re-worked, a new key chosen, but it's essentially the same thing, down to the repetitive guitar riff. Even the random "Chucks!" survived each version, unaltered, in the same language, in the same yelled manner.


Alanis Morissette (1991-Present)
I don't want to get to much into her history going from the past to the present - she's something of a celebrity now - but she had an interesting start in a TV show produced and filmed right where I grew up, called You Can't Do That on Television. I've seen pieces of it on YouTube, and I'm always proud when I see it referenced on American sitcoms, because it really must have had an effect on the cultural subconscious if writers in California and New York are putting jokes or references from an Ottawa-based local kid's show into their nationally-televised sitcoms. She featured in five episodes as a kid, and then she moved into music in her late teens, starting a recording career around the turn of the 90s. She wouldn't make much impact until 1995, with her smash hit 'You Oughta Know,' which came off of her first internationally-released album Jagged Little Pill. Ever since she's managed her success, releasing albums and touring worldwide. I remember seeing her play the part of God in the film Dogma. But in terms of music, while I can listen to most of the singles released on that first big album, I largely have a preference for just a few of them. I am happy, though, that other than Eight Seconds, and a few other tiny acts, there's a successful, internationally-known musician that actually hails from this policy-transfixed government town.

"You Oughta Know" (1995)

This is a great 90s rock song. The guitar is edgy, the bass is frantic but deep, and Morissette's vocals are tough and speaks volumes. You don't want to be on the receiving end of those words, which are vengeful to the extreme and just nasty. They have real power that you rarely ever see, at least in that sense, from a female vocalist. How often to you get a female-sung song that's vengeful, and I mean powerfully vengeful, as in you've made the worst mistake in wronging her, and she's going to hunt you down and kill you? And this was 1995, coming from a 19-year-old kid. It was no doubt pioneering and something of a breakthrough for all of those silenced women who'd been cheated on - they now had something to listen to, to relate to. Of course there were probably songs about cheating sung from the female point of view then, but I doubt any of them had any rightful anger in them.
I like the song for, well, everything. I like Morissette's powerful voice and quick lyrics; I like the hard, rocking guitar, and the jumpy bass - Flea's trademark style. The drums have this tinniness to them, as if the treble was high, but I just think of that as a 90s drum sound almost similar to the drums in Chumbawumba's 'Tubthumping.' Any drawbacks? Not really. It has a soft beginning, an angry, ranting middle, and a very vengeful climax. I would be lying if I didn't say that part of my like of the song is pride in where she comes from. Like, hey, we're not doormats who only understand the word "sorry." If you fuck with us, this is what you might expect. At least when it comes to treating our women right.

Amanda Marshall (1995-Present)
Another Canadian artist, she probably fell into the genre of easy listening pop. And like a lot of diverse Canadians, she was mixed-race between caucasian and Trinidadian. My mother had her debut on cassette tape and often played 'Birmingham.' I often wonder if the cover of the album was photographed on the beach at Sandbanks Provincial Park. Anyway, she had some minor hits off of her debut, but they all paled in comparison to 'Birmingham' which went much further. Following that, she released a couple of additional albums into the 2000s, and then stopped - a trajectory that I find is similar to a lot of briefly-heard 90s acts. I've heard a few of her other later songs ('Everybody's Got a Story,' 'Sunday Morning After,' etc.) but when I think of her I largely think of 1995 and her notable hit of 'Birmingham.' I do hear her played at Wal-Mart often - usually it's 'Sitting on Top of the World' from 1997, which is just okay in my opinion (fine music; just not to my taste or interests).

"Birmingham" (1996)
My original review

While I do have an original review linked above, it mostly details what I visualize thanks to the music. Why do I like this song? Part of it is childhood nostalgia, but it's also the musical elements: The airy piano, the vocals, which in voice remind me of a maternal aunt, the deep bass, and the sax. The acoustic and electric guitar bits. It's an easy-paced song that has a lot wealth of sound on its landscape. You can't really hear through it, it's solid. There's a string section that really helps that on for the choruses, and the musical progression meshes well with the story: anticipation and yearning for the pre-chorus build up, bright hope and opportunity in the chorus. It always resolves on a bright D. The piano-driven intro played to a drum machine is very bright and makes me imagine a sunny morning during breakfast. The notes revolve around the root and median notes of C major and D major played together back-and-forth. As for the chorus, it gets interesting (at least on piano): D major to A minor 7, then a G/C chord before resolving back to D major. The A minor 7 puts the musical direction with her vocal melody; she is on the 7th of that chord in voice.
I can't really find any drawbacks to it, really. It has an intro, verses, a chorus, bridge, everything you'd expect, and none of them are drawn out. The extra musical elements - the acoustic, the sax, the strings - all elevate it and keep it interesting from beginning to end. It's bright and chirpy but hopeful and yearning as well. It's a great debut hit.


"Let it Rain"

This is a much darker, more negative song. It was also released as a single, though it didn't get as much attention as 'Birmingham' did. It's a good song to listen to on a late fall night with leaves and rain and chills. Marshall's voice shines well in this song. It's another easy-listening type of thing where her voice is just soothing and gentle to listen to.
I don't know the chords - I've never been as interested in it as something I absolutely like, this is just a good enough song to listen to apart from the rest of her discography - but if I heard it I would pay attention. It's sad but redeeming and hopeful.

America (1970-Present)
I don't have too much to say on this band. There are some songs in my list that I added because if I wanted to listen to them again, I would have a place to find them, as well as a record that I like it enough. With this band I like their song 'You Can Do Magic,' which with 'magic' in its title is one of numerous songs with that title (and one out of two others by other bands that I like). I haven't looked into America other than to see that they originate from England. Despite this, they aren't really English considering they came from an American Air Force station in London. Like Bob Siebenburg and Stuart Copeland and many others, they're American musicians based in the U.K. Maybe that's why they called themselves 'America;' they're highlighting their national roots. They're still going today, apparently, releasing albums and everything, which is pretty amazing for any kind of band. Longevity isn't easy to acquire in the music industry (or any other attention-based industry).

"You Can Do Magic" (1982)

I heard this in Wal-Mart. I just found it catchy. It's an easy-going song that gives off hints of paradise with its musical hooks and spells. It actually kind of sounds like a song produced and sung by a band based out of the tropics rather than the U.K. I don't know why, but it gives off that impression to me. It sounds like it's based in E minor, and it's got somewhat of a glossy production to it - it sounds pretty clean. It sounded so remastered and digitally cool that when I first heard it on YouTube I thought it was a recent song, but that's probably partly due to the version that was uploaded to YouTube - maybe it came from a digitally remastered CD. The whole thing was written and produced by Russ Ballard, who partnered up with the band to produce it (and 'Jody') for their then-next album View From the Ground. The lyrics almost sound forceful: "You know darn well when you cast your spell, you get your way..." etc. I like the background acoustic in the verses and the general progression. There's some obvious sound effects present to capture the essence of the lyrics, probably a crash cymbal in reverse put together with a 'ding' from a microwave perhaps. No real drawbacks in my opinion - the lyrics are interesting from beginning to end, except for the whole "then I saw you" cliche in the first verse. And the distracting images in the video below (but I embedded this one to highlight the cool, precise production or remastering).


April Wine (1969-1986)
I'm not a big April Wine fan. I've heard a few of their other songs, and they don't really do it for me. They're soft rock-type things that work but they don't do it for me except for their song 'Say Hello' from 1979. I hear 'Tonight is a Wonderful Time to Fall in Love' and 'Rock'n'Roll is a Vicious Game' all the time on the radio; one sounds like a repetition of the phrase 'oh yeah' over and over, and the other doesn't do it for me. But they've endeared over time and have proven to be a solid Canadian rock group. When I put the time period next to the band, I should say I'm only including the classic heyday period; April Wine started up again in 1992 and continues to this day, probably with additional musicians.

"Say Hello" (1979)

This track is likable right from the echo-y drum introduction. I think I like it because of its guitar sound. It's a simple song, with a simple riff and simple lyrics. Simple is always more popular than complicated regardless of the circumstance or media. Also, unlike all the other April Wine stuff I've heard, the vocalist's voice sounds entirely different - did someone else sing on it? I don't really like Myles Goodwin's voice as it has an effeminate sound to them that's probably unique to my ears. I wasn't too sure if I was listening to a guy or a woman when I first heard 'I'm on Fire For you...' or whatever it's called. This song in contrast is a simple 'take me on, say hello.' The vocals almost get comically high-pitched during that chorus, which I kind of like. No real drawbacks that I can think of - I like the guitar sound, the drum rhythm, and the vocals. You don't have to keep count of the phrase 'oh yeah' sung at the end of virtually every line.

Asteroids Galaxy Tour (2007-Present)
So far this is the most recent band to show up here, and the first Danish one as well. But to me they're no different from Alanis Morissette or America - I really only like one of their songs, and I wouldn't be surprised if I'm not alone in feeling like said song is the only one of theirs to break anywhere big.
They're still touring and writing, obviously, but I'm only familiar with 'Around the Bend' which made it big thanks almost entirely to the marketing department of Apple, Inc. It sounds almost psychedelic with its guitar/horns fusion of pop, and with that comes real likability.

"Around the Bend" (2007)

It was thanks to a cousin of mine that I was able to figure out the name of the song and the band. We were on the beach in Algonquin Park in 2009, and they had a speaker playing their music. They played this song while I was recording video with my camera, so when you look at the digital camera-filmed beach video, the song fades in and out almost dreamily as ambient sound. It fits the scenery and occasion well.
What strikes me highly with this piece of music is its fusion of horn section, guitar, and messy but dancy drum rhythm. The progression is simple and nice, if not derivative (right down to its key of F sharp major). Like Hanson's MMMBop, it celebrates friendship, though it's lighter and sunnier (Hanson wrote a cautionary tale about taking it for granted; Asteroids Galaxy Tour just sung happily about it). It's a very nice fusion of musical elements, which makes it stand out above all the digital sampling and auto-tuning that runs the music billboards today. There's a little keyboard providing riffs as well.
Drawbacks - really, the only one that I can see that's almost daunting at first is just vocalist Mette Lindberg's vocal registers. She goes up really high a couple of times. I had to listen to it at low volume for the first little while to get used to them. She sounds like a little girl throughout the song, which makes it seem more endearing. "I'll stay forever..." You just have to get used to her very high-pitched range. Otherwise, great song.


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Well, that wraps it up for bands under the letter A in my list. Eventually I'll put together my micro-reviews for artists starting with 'B.' Hope these were interesting.

Red Cloud
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