Thursday, June 05, 2014

One month later

Welcome to Night Vale celebrated their one-year anniversary with climaxes of many plot lines, including Cecil's courtship of Carlos, the Apache Tracker, and the city underneath lane five of the bowling alley.  And, in symmetry with the very first episode, the Weather is provided by author Joseph Fink.  His "Sunday Morning Stasis" has echoes of "Our House" by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, though with more complex poetic design and a different style presented for the bridge.  The verses are sung with a doubled voice effect, with background vocals added for the chorus.  But the voice becomes singular for the bridge, with the acoustic guitar much more aggressive.

The Sunday morning stasis is both the sleepiness and comfort after a night of fun, and the feeling of a long-term relationship that depends upon stasis to keep going.  Within the bridge the singer is alone, imagining what it would be like if he left, and not liking the potential results.  While the relationship could be Carlos and Cecil, it could also be the relationship between the podcast and the audience.  A year has passed, yet audiences have not tired of this rather quiet podcast based on community radio. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

2+2+3 = Math Rock!

In the 24th episode of Welcome to Night Vale, the Mayor goes into the Dog Park, and returns to announce that she is stepping down at the end of the year.  The weather for this episode is purely instrumental, "Biblical Violence" by Hella.  A good example of math rock, much of the piece is in the asymmetric meters of 7/8, 9/8 (2+2+2+3), and 11/8, though the closing drum solo in standard 4/4. 

The form is created by shifting grooves established by the guitar and drums, with no real melody. 
The opening section has a lopsided feel, with two big beats followed by a rushed 1.5 beats, filled by slightly frenetic drums on that second "half" of each measure.  The guitar groove is a neighboring figure between I and IV in D major.  This section ends with a sustained chord under some drum spurts, with unclear or asymmetric meter of a different pattern than previous.

The second section is even more uncomfortable, with an insistent F# in the guitar that is interrupted by more flourishes in other notes, while the drummer seems to be in a different rhythmic country.  This country shares borders with the guitarist, and there is a decent translating dictionary, but they speak decidedly different languages.  This repeated one-measure groove moves on to a third section in 11/8 that has gaping holes to create the asymmetry.  The drummer has decided to move to another country that is also on a different world, playing around with small rhythmic ideas completely at odds with the guitarist's groove.  The second section comes back again, and then the first section, creating a large arch form:  ABCBA. 

The magic is that after the Tower of Babel feeling of the B and C sections, the return of A no longer feels lopsided, but rather like a welcome stability as the two musicians cooperate on the groove in a clear tonic expansion.  This desensitization to asymmetry makes me wonder about the purpose of the song title.  "Biblical Violence" is evocative, either as a confluence of positive and negative energies or as a condemnation of the violence done in the Bible or "inspired" by the Bible.  As our culture produces more depictions of violence in ever greater degrees, we are desensitized to the lesser forms of violence, perhaps the more biblical forms of violence? 

The song is not over after the arch, but rather introduces a fourth section, D, that has a new asymmetric feel, before returning to the C section and the B section.  Rather than finishing with another return of the A section to create a variant of the arch form, stability is established in a fifth section.  This last section is in 4/4, with the guitar establishing a straight-ahead groove between I and vi chords, with a heavy emphasis on the bass line.  The drummer solos over this groove, not fighting the meter but not helping to establish it either.  There is always a sense of remove between the two musicians, though a deliberate one.  Is biblical violence an act of aggression against the misunderstood other, through a lack of communication?  Even this last section is misleading, as a very short coda returns to the violence of the D section as a teaser for an abrupt ending. 

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Camping can be a bummer

Episode 23 of Welcome To Night Vale is "Eternal Scouts," about two local Boy Scouts who become the first to ever achieve the rank of Eternal Scout, a cause of celebration and despair.  The Weather for this episode is John Vanderslice's "Too Much Time," in which he wakes up from camping on the beach, and bemoans his lost love.  I'm including two different performances of this piece.  The first one is the studio version used in WtNV.  The second is an arrangement done with Magik*Magik Orchestra.  I find it interesting how the orchestral sound brings out different aspects of the music. 

The first thing I noticed about this song is the melisma at the end of the first and third lines for each verse, on "and," "[for]ever,"  "and," and "and" respectively.  This oscillation between scale degrees 6 and 7, with that little pause after the first note to make some of the words almost stuttered as it transitions from "sand" to "and" or "mat" to "and"gives a plaintive tone to the piece right away.  We know that the singer is not happy to be out on the beach.  The choruses continue the plaintive sound with the faux sobs "ah ah oh."  

The original, with synthesized string sounds have more unclear harmonies.  The brightness of the sounds, combined with the reverb causes a bleeding between chords and clashes of overtones within the chords, so the tonic chords feel less settled than in the orchestral version.  The dynamic flatness of the studio version makes the singer seem less disappointed, perhaps because the recording techniques create an extra boundary between the singer and the listener.  He becomes less real, with more artificial emotions.  The live performance is still restrained, the singer is resigned to his fate.  But the emotion seems more present, even if the strings are rather rigid in their rhythms.

Why is it that so many pop/rock/indy tunes avoid minor keys when they are about sad subjects?  That is still a powerful trope across almost all cultures, so why avoid it?  Perhaps it is too easy, or perhaps playing in minor keys is too hard.  There are groups like the Gregory Brothers who shift the modes of popular songs, showing the power of modes to affect mood.  Perhaps artists like John Vanderslice want to temper the emotions being expressed, to make them more nuanced.  

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Joss Whedon is a badass"

Sorry for the break, the end of the semester is nigh.  I have been feeling the pressures of grading, administrative tasks, and getting  smacked onto my ass by a virus.  But the next Weather in the WtNV sequence is fascinating.  "Winifred" by Seth Boyer is about a character from Joss Whedon's TV series, Angel.  The song is sung from the perspective of Wesley, her on-and-off-again lover.  He is lamenting her death at the hands of a demon who created a hole in the world (hence the motto of the song).  This is a fascinating re-appropriation of filking within a supposedly separate science fiction setting.  Do people from Night Vale regard Winifred as a TV character, or as a real life scientist who got zapped by Illyria (All Hail Illyria!)?  The episode of WtNV is "The Whispering Forest," released exactly a year ago.  It mentions nothing about demons or physicists or vampires, so the Weather has a less direct connection. 

The lyrics have an inconsistent POV.  The verses are sung about Winifred in the third person, as Wesley tells someone else (who?) first about her character, and then about the actions being taken by Angel and Spike to save her.  The chorus and the bridge address Winifred directly, and occur after she has died.  All the sections share the same key, though the chorus emphasizes the major mode much more, whereas the verse starts with a circle of fifths on the minor sixth chord and destabilizes the final tonic chord with added sixths that make the cadence slightly deceptive.  The bridge features secondary dominants that also create a curious whimsy to the lyrics, "Oh, you silly Winifred, getting yourself cursed like that!" [Paraphrased.]  Is Wesley in denial about Winifred's death?  When he himself dies, he asks Illyria to pretend to be Winifred, so this could be possible.  (I haven't watched the whole series, I'm not an expert on this by any means.) 

There are also interesting instrumental connectors between the sections.  Each verse ends before the musical phrase itself completes, as if the singer gets lost in thought.  The guitar continues on to transition to the chorus.  Each verse also starts with an introduction, establishing the chord progression for the verse.  Are the verses flashbacks?  That would explain the shifts in POV.  the instrumental breaks are the musical equivalent of the wavy lines:

Thursday, April 24, 2014

C Pop!

Dengue Fever provides the Cambodian weather for episode 21 of Welcome to Night Vale.  "Sni Bong" roughly translates from Khmer as "Love You."  The verses are sung in Khmer, the chorus is sung in English.  I wonder if the podcasters deliberately chose an Asian language band for an episode about traveling to Europe.  It could be a commentary on the obtuseness of Americans who treat all foreign countries as the same.  Or it could be deliberate surrealism, suggesting that Cecil's version of Europe isn't like Europe at all. 

The song combines funk, Asian pop, disco, rap, and smooth jazz in a very lush sound.  To my ears it is somewhat cheesy, hitting typical tropes for each of these genres.  Chromatic planing from IV - #IV - V, the lonesome sax solo for the ending, the exotic scales as interjections, none of these are used in particularly unique ways.  The rap is also rather uninspiring, and the lyrics (at least in the translation provided by the band) are also on the shallow side.  She loves a boy, and wants him to dance with her.  They are both beautiful, but he is shy.  The music makes her out to be a siren, trying to seduce him with her oohs.  Perhaps the rap is a desperate attempt, since the singing isn't working to get him to dance with her.   Maybe she should switch to a more contemporary sound.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Weather calls for scattered innuendo

Robin Aigner provides the Weather on the 2013 April Fool's edition ("Poetry Week") of Welcome to Night Vale.  I'm not sure who is singing the male vocal part in "Get Me Home."  My guess is Larry Cook, the bassist in Parlour Game, her backing band.  This cute duet is reminiscent of "Baby It's Cold Outside", though without the counterpoint of that classic. 

The harmonies are basic 12-bar form: I - IV - I - V - I.  But the rhythms are rather interesting, sliding the lyrics at unpredictable points into the previous or next musical grouping.  And each subsequent verse adds lines to the V chord, as the woman talks herself into staying out later. That is, until the last verse as a repetition of the first verse.  The woman reverts back to a 1:00 am deadline, whereas the man stays with the 4:00 am deadline.  The length of the last verse suggests a slight compromise.  1:00 is twelve bars long, 2:00 is sixteen bars, 3:00 is eighteen bars, 4:00 is twenty bars.  The last verse is fourteen bars, so maybe 1:30? 

There is plenty of sexual imagery, from organs/sax and keyhole/key to driving a car and a charging bull trying to penetrate the bull fighter.  But like "Baby It's Cold Outside," there is still a chastity projected on the part of the woman, that she knows what he wants but also knows exactly what she will allow.  She emphasizes "get" as her highest note, to demand that he respect her wishes.  But then again, she does slide into "home"...

The following lyrics have the male part in normal font, the female part in italics, and group singing in bold.
I'm told that you're pretty, you're told that I'm cute,
Let's go for a ride, I'll show you a thing or two
Let's paint the town and have some fun
We'd be a pair, just get me home by one.

I know a place where we can relax
You'll wear a skirt, I'll wear some slacks
There'll be some organs, there might even be sax
We'll say goodnight, I will be blue
I'll stew for a while into Saturday too 
to fall asleep happy, just get me home by two.

Well I got a car I drive like a pro,
You should see me in action, check out my mojo
I'm/He's romantic, a dance king Romeo
I'm fond of you, you seem to like me
I got a keyhole, you got a key
Let's take it on slow 'til we are a we
I'm fond of you, just get me home by three.

I swing you around on a Saturday night
You're the belle of the ball, I'm a bull at a bull fight
Why say "Adios" when we can be dos?
I might want less, you might want more
You say "Let's a-nuzzle," I say "What for?"
You show me a backseat, I show you the door
I like the sofa, you like the floor
I'll stay for a cuddle, just get me home by four.

I'm/You're told that you're/I'm pretty, you're/I'm told that I'm/you're cute
Let's go for a ride, I'll show you a thing or two
Let's paint the town and have some fun
We'd be a pair, Oh we'd be a pair
Just get me home, I'll get you/me home by four/one.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bar Mitzvah or human rationality?

I've been looking forward to analyzing the Weather of the famous double episode of Welcome To Night Vale.  In the "Sandstorm," a storm engulfs both Night Vale and Desert Bluffs.  The double episode gives us the perspective from both towns' radio hosts, who end up trading places briefly through a portal.  Both episodes use the same music, "Eliezar's Waltz," composed by Larry Cardozo and Ron Fink, who is likely related to the podcast creator Joseph Fink.  However, the Weather is performed by two different groups.  The Night Vale weather is by the Ventura Klezmer Band, a traditional klezmer band in the Los Angeles area.  It is a very traditional sounding waltz, one that would fit in very well at a Jewish wedding or Bar Mitzvah.  There are no lyrics, though a female vocalist does sing the Yiddish syllables "Lie lie lie."  This could be taken as nonsense, or a play on the similarity to the English word "lie."  The other version is by the New Age band Disparition, which also provides the theme song and background music for all the episodes of WtNV.  While the melody is recognizable, it is no longer a waltz.  Electronic instruments, with heavy distortion, reverb, and other effects, play in a standard 4/4 meter, though with a lot of hemiola and other syncopation.  Many of the sounds are atmospheric, while others are more percussive, like a standard drum machine and the melody on a sort-of-vibraphone.  The harmony is also much more confusing, unlike the clear minor key of the klezmer version. 

In the second episode, Cecil discovers that the Desert Bluffs radio station is covered in blood, a strange distortion of the gentle happiness suggested by the Desert Bluffs announcer, Kevin.  In the first episode it seems like Desert Bluffs is the nicer version of Night Vale, but by the end of the second episode it is very unclear which town is "good."  Which one is the distortion of the other, which one is the "normal" one?  The klezmer sound is Night Vale's, and the old fashioned music fits with Kevin's observation that the NV radio station seems very old and out of date, much like the town founders, who are still alive after hundreds of years.  If that is the case, then Desert Bluffs is the strange distorted version, murky in its electronic modernism.  It is heavily capitalistic, which fits with the modernist music performed by colder electronic instruments rather than humanly imperfect acoustic instruments of a klezmer band. 

Eliezer is the first name of an artificial intelligence theorist, Abraham's steward, Moses' second son, and a prophet of Israel.  The name translates as "Help of my God" from Hebrew.  The connection to klezmer music makes sense, but it is intriguing to think that the Night Vale folks might have been alluding to the theorist.  Besides artificial intelligence, Eliezer Yudkowsky works on human rationality.  What does it mean to be sane?  He also writes about the Singularity.  The question of whether Night Vale or Desert Bluffs is rational makes for an interesting waltz.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Cost of Religion

Eef Barzelay wrote "Jews for Jesus Blues" as the leader of Clem Snide, shortly before the alt-country band broke up in 2005 (they reformed in 2009).  As the Weather for "The Traveler," the 18th episode of Welcome to Night Vale, this song explores the negatives of being saved.  The country elements of the song (shuffle beat in the snare, slight twang to the voice, banjo) sets up the expectations for a typical country revival song.  But Eef's view of religion is more complex, as indicated by both his birth in Israel and the title of the song.  The narrator of the song was trying to fill the perceived emptiness of his life.  He did so by being reborn in Jesus.  But he regrets this action, and the reason for this regret is unclear.  The title might suggest that it is because he went against his cultural heritage of Judaism.  The third verse says "I don't wanna suffer and I don't wanna die / I want the clouds parted in endless, blue sky / But someone up there has a different plan / Now that I'm saved, I wish I was damned."  God has a different plan than his vision of eternal life with no suffering and strife.  He thought he would be free of his sins, but instead he feels guilty.  Is it the work that is demanded, that we all must love one another as we love ourselves?  This love requires effort, and perhaps suffering. 

Between the second and third verses, a very distorted electric guitar solo clashes with the country music tropes.  It is like a parody of a slide guitar solo.  Is this the feeling of a Jew stuck among Christians, not exactly fitting in?  There is also a Hammond organ sound in the background of the third verse and the coda, coming to the forefront as the singer stops abruptly.  It is rather disturbing, with very heavy tremolo and a kind of distortion at the very end.  Did he stop himself out of shame, or was he interrupted by death?  Either way, it is an upsetting moment.  Religion isn't easy.

Monday, April 14, 2014

B-girl Ballads

Mystic was the Weather in the "Valentine" episode for the first year of Welcome to Night Vale.  Her rap, "Neptune's Jewels," is a valentine to a love on a pedestal.  The chorus states that he is the one that she would do anything to keep happy.  In the second verse, Mystic makes it clear that her attraction is more than physical, more than sexual.  "It's the way you make me wanna live instead of die."  Backing vocals make some of Mystic's raps melodic, especially "But you put a new hue in my blue, added a perspective to my concrete views..."  This is a great phrase on learning to trust her emotions.  The melodic chant makes it sound like a quote, perhaps that is a saying of her (potential) lover's.  The language in general has an interesting juxtaposition of street slang and polished poetic imagery:  "I would fly into a merciless sun steal you the sky 'cuz you're the one."

The introduction is also interesting, with mysterious vocals that I (and my family) can't figure out.  Are the purposefully vague murmurs representative of her previous confused loves, or her initial hesitation before falling head-over-heels for Mr. Perfect?  Either way, the whole piece makes a nice Valentine.  Won't you be my Sade tape in the coldest spring?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

I Can't Be the Wounded Man

I had intended to write my next post on music from Night Vale yesterday, but I'm glad something kept me from doing so.  For I read the final third of John Green's Paper Towns this morning, and realized what was keeping me from feeling a strong connection to Barton Carroll's "Those Days Are Gone and My Heart is Breaking." 

The narrator begets a child, but "couldn't stick around" and never even remains in contact with the mother or the child.  This attitude, the lack of responsibility for the child is foreign to me.  I immediately start judging him as a bad person.  It is easy to treat him as a one-dimensional character, just as several characters in Paper Towns realize that they had been doing the same.  Yet ultimately I know that we are all people trying to live the lives we have been given.  I don't know what kind of life the singer had before he left his town.  It implies he had friends, but these friends are abandoned (or abandon him).  He had a mean streak, and a rage over being held back from what he thought he deserved.  I did not grow up with similar feelings.  I grew apart from friends, and I've had feelings of being held back.  But ultimately I always felt the responsibility was on me, and I couldn't imagine abandoning my children.  I don't have the same wounds that the singer has, just as Quentin doesn't have the same wounds as Margo.  I haven't read Walt Whitman's poem, "Leaves of Grass" but Quentin interprets it as showing that while we all are connected, we can't truly know one another.  I don't think that is true with everyone, but there are people that I cannot relate to.  This is not their fault, and I need to remind myself not to judge harshly because of this.  The song's narrator has clearly grown as a person, no longer filled with rage but rather with regret.  He no longer feels held back by others, recognizing that he needs to put in the work to make connections and to earn his keep. 

The melody is very repetitive, within a major pentatonic collection of notes.  But the third line of each stanza is performed very quickly, within a single measure, which changes the flow.  There is a lot of space after this third line, setting up the fourth line as a different end-rhyme (AAAB). These unpredictable rushes and pauses can exhibit the narrator's nervousness in trying to reconnect with his old friend.  He knows he has made many mistakes, and needs to come clean in this attempt to reconcile.  Perhaps this is a first, easier step towards making things right with his son.  The last stanza eases the rhythm of the third line and doesn't rhyme as exactly.  Besides bringing things to the present day, the last stanza changes the refrain from "Those days are gone and my heart is breaking" to "Those days are here, and my heart is waiting."  He is thinking about the future, I think he is trying to fix the damage he did to his son and his ex. 

So maybe I can find connections with this wounded man.  There are plenty of mistakes I need to repair, even if not at the level of abandonment.  I can understand the nerves, and the relief once a hard step is taken.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


I'm torn on what to do.  The Weather in episode 15 of Welcome to Night Vale is a song by Tom Milsom, who has been accused of statutory rape.  This puts me in a similar situation as fans of Woody Allen who believe the accusations of rape levied against him.  Does one separate the art from the artist, condemn the art because of the artist, or account for the bad aspects of the artist as well as the good when considering the art?  There are plenty of jazz, classical, and rock musicians who have done horrible things, from Wagner's anti-Semitic remarks and Gesualdo's murders to James Brown's alleged abuse of his third wife.  Yet I still appreciate their music.  So I will analyze "A Little Irony" by Tom Milsom, while condemning the acts he is alleged to have done.

This is a love song, from the perspective of a mad scientist.  Unlike Jonathan Coulton's "Skullcrusher Mountain," Milsom's scientist has listened to the voice in his head (his little irony?) to kill everyone, including the girl he fell in love with after freezing her. 

The scientist is apparently an accomplished pianist (and British), giving himself a florid introduction.  The first verse and chorus stay solely with piano accompaniment, as he contemplates freezing the world to keep it from getting worse.  The rest of the band joins in as his heart starts beating in the second verse, a rather on-the-nose example of text painting.  Another example is the pause on "stop" in the first verse.  This effect (and the whole world-freezing) might have been influenced by Joss Whedon's Doctor Horrible.

Milsom's chord progressions are rather interesting.  The whole piece is in E major, with  plagal cadences at the end of each stanza of the verses.  The chorus oscillates between I and vi chords, I suppose demonstrating the uncertainty of the mad scientist to share his love/oops-sorry-I-killed-you thoughts.  More interesting are the F# major chords that come between the vi and IV chords in the verses.  These major II chords fit better as semi-tonal voice-leading - the E and G# slide up to F# and A#, the F# and A# slide down to E and A - than in an functional sense.  The second and third verses add tonicizations of the vi chord, and the bridge weakens the only dominant chords with deceptive resolutions and chromatic planing. 
Verse 1:  Time should stop moving / And never go beyond today / If we could find a way to stop / The world would be okay

If I'd thought about it sooner / It wouldn't have been downhill / But I'll make the best of what I've got / While I've got it still

Chorus: Do you wanna know / A little irony about me / I don't know if I should say / This little irony about me

Verse 2:  But it's funny 'cause my heart has started beating / It never has before today / It must be something in the way / She looks at me

She started screaming / Before I made the earth stand still / Of all the people I could kill / It had to be


Verse 3: But it's funny because love was just a Feeling / Irrelevant before today / But now I've gotta find a way / To make her real

Freezing / Was just for me to get away / But now I need to learn to stay / And make her real

Bridge:  When all the world around me / Moved so unpredictably / A moment never lasted long enough / For me to see the reason why

Love never came to me / It moves unscientifically / But now you're trapped and I can Find a reason now to ask you one more time

Coda:  But you'll move me more forever / Than you ever could before today.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Lieder Ohne Worte

Just this morning when attending the weekly school recital hour, I recalled that every bit of Weather on Welcome to Night Vale that I had analyzed was text-based.  I wondered if an instrumental work would be coming up, I couldn't remember from my binge-listening last fall.  And Night Vale delivers, with a piece by the daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra.  A 2007 article on describes this group as around 60 musicians, including rappers, DJs, and singers.  The piece on Welcome to Night Vale, "Movement 1: Invocation of the Duke," sets up a latin beat with low saxophones, percussion, and some subtle record scratching.  The repeating eight-bar bass line hovers around scale degree 5 of a harmonic minor scale, occasionally jumping around to grab some additional notes, but never resting on tonic.  Over this beat, two violins trade eight-bar solos.  The first entrance is rough, the rhythms don't quite fit the 4+4 phrase that the bass line has established, but after this rushed entrance the rest of the solos continue the latin beat on the harmonic minor scale.  The augmented seconds give an exotic feel to the solos, along with the continued avoidance of tonic as a resting point.  Right at the Golden Ratio of the chronological duration (63 out of 102 seconds), the violin solos stop and the brass starts playing a riff that slowly gets louder and more ornate, with high trumpet shakes and sustained string chords.  By the end, I wasn't sure whether I should be hearing the E major chord as the dominant of A minor, or as its own tonic.  That rotation of the A harmonic minor scale results in the E "arabic" scale, also called the Phrygian Natural 3 scale, or the Dominant b2 scale.  One live performance by the Orchestra does pair this song with "Reap What You Sow," which is in the key of A minor, so that reinforces the feeling of "Invocation of the Duke" as an introduction.

Presumably the Duke that is being invoked is Duke Ellington.  Another track invokes The Clown, probably a reference to Charles Mingus.  The podcast episode is "The Man in the Tan Jacket," who is a character that no one can clearly recall or describe.  This haziness fits with the tonal ambiguity of "Invocation of the Duke," unclear whether it is an introduction or a stand-alone piece.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Busker Power

Mount Moon is the busking name of Wesley Bryon, in honor of the Pokémon location.  Despite what Welcome to Night Vale claims, he is not the New Jersey-based indie rock band with the same name on Band Camp.  However, he has renamed himself as Jazz Casual.  Bryon's voice is captivating, using rough vibrato during the chorus to portray his frustration and passion.  He hugs his small guitar, and grimaces as he sings in an androgynous register over the tinny strings.   The form is straightforward, with some interesting chord choices while staying diatonic and functional.  Each verse  has two stanzas set as periods, and the chorus is also set as a period. 

Some of the words are hard to make out from his singing, I wouldn't have caught all of them without help. That is a shame, as there are both interesting poetic devices and neat juxtapositions at play.  One that does come out clearly is the "know/no" homophone pair in the chorus.  This song fits well both for a busker playing in the subways, and as the Weather for "The Story of You" in Welcome to Night Vale.  That episode tells the story of a day in the life of a person (not Cecil), who doesn't really know himself, having been removed from his previous life.  The narrator in this song is disconnected from his mother, is not proud of his accomplishments, and is feeling the weight of mortality.  The chorus has a defensive element, which fits with the shaky voice and high-strung guitar, as he realizes that he won't succeed in life, and is feeling judged by all the people around him.  The person in the episode rebels by taking something from the desert.  Perhaps Bryon's character will also rebel.

Verse:  There once was a time that we knew damn well we’d be wise beyond our years

now we’re old and it seems we’re getting dumber.

There once was a rhyme that would bring peacefulness to both of our ears

but this music lets us know that we’re not getting any younger

My mother would not be proud of my mouth

but I can get a sense out that is sacrilegious without sounding like a sailor.

Every time i go home for the holiday and tell her how it’s been.
 see the hurt, it’s obvious I have failed her

Chorus:  But you don’t know, 
no you can’t go where I’ve been.
And I don’t know
, no I’ll never get where I’m going

Verse:  ‘Cause ever day I hear somebody saying something like "Yeah, I just got back from China, backpacking and feeding food to children."

I have never strayed too far away from this east coast where I remain
in my heart I am so envious I could kill them.

And I am running out of time to do the things that I said I was put on this earth to do by God and His heaven.
Seems that I believed in something then. Dear Lord what happened to my head. Now the days go by so fast that I lose time because I don’t sync it

Chorus (2x)

Monday, April 07, 2014

Pretty dissonance

I'm struggling right now with how to teach my Popular Music class about dissonant and consonant harmonies.  They already have problems with identifying the tonic of a piece, and this is really pushing them.  The Weather for episode 12 of Welcome to Night Vale has a very clear example of dissonant harmonies in Anais Mitchell's "Of a Friday Night."  This would have been a great blog post to publish last Friday, but I didn't even start listening carefully to the piece until Saturday morning, so that serendipity was already lost.  I instead did a bunch of biking and decided to wait for Monday to post this.

The stark piano introduction sets up a cluster of notes against oscillating B and E bass notes, sounding like an homage to Erik Satie:

But this is both simpler, and more complex.  The right hand doesn't move, filling different roles against the two bass notes.  The first chord is a B minor triad with an added ninth, that half-step clash in the top two notes.  When the left hand moves to an E, the right hand creates an E13, a seventh chord with extensions of the ninth and thirteenth.  But this chord is missing the third, so it is ambiguous in quality.  Given the context of the minor tonic chord, and the remaining half-step clash in the upper voices, it is likely to hear this second chord as an E minor seventh chord with the added ninth and thirteenth, so a iadd9 - iv13 progression. This is denied by the melody, which uses a B Dorian collection of notes, so the E chord gets an implied major quality.  This is important, because that E major chord takes over as tonic in the chorus, providing a bright contrast for the good old days against the darkness of the ghost town.

The bass line gets embellished, and the meter changes from a weak 3/4 to a clear 4/4, yet with the same progression as the voice enters.  This shift in meter is odd, and doesn't happen again in the song.  Is the introduction the real ghost town, and the 4/4 beat the remembrance of a remembrance?  This gets a little Inception-y, but as I interpret the lyrics, there are at least four time periods referenced:  1) when the poet is a young man; 2) when the poet is old, but there are young men filling the streets; 3) the present time when the town is empty; 4) the future for which the narrator is waiting.  So the introduction represents time period 3, the B Dorian verses represent time period 2, and the E major chorus and bridge represents time period 1 and the potential of time period 4, suggesting a cyclic nature to time.  Hence the two oscillating chords, with the static upper notes, the dissonances that change without changing.

I love the pause and drop of Mitchell's voice to a low G# on "midnight writer" in the chorus and the little chromatic notes on "young men" and "those" in the first two verses.  I'm not positive what midnight writer means, the pause could suggest that the narrator is censoring herself, or to emphasize that it is important that the night life was filled with writers/creators/memorialists.  The chromatic bends portrays the old poet's aching memory of his own youth, and the narrator's aching desire for joy to fill her own life.

Friday, April 04, 2014

What the hell?

What is this?  The weather in episode 11 of Welcome to Night Vale is "Cigarette Burns Forever" by Adam Green.  After looking at pictures of him, you would think a song with this title would be tortured, gritty, perhaps emo.  Instead, we get lounge singer stylings of lyrics that at first listen seem very trivial. The rhyme schemes are very basic, aaaa for each stanza, and aabb for the pseudo bridge.  Many of the rhymes use the same word - her and her, or other and other.  The chord pattern also seems basic:  I - iii - IV - I repeated for the first stanza, followed by another I - iii - IV - I and I - iii - IV - V for the second stanza.  This seems like the verse, though interestingly the normal pattern of having interior phrases ending on V and ending phrases ending on I is reversed.  The third stanza ("The sidewinder drinks and gambles") is the beginning of the next verse, but this verse is only one stanza long, ending again with the V chord.  The fourth stanza uses the same set of progressions as the third stanza, but has a slightly different melody, so I call it a pseudo bridge.  This is followed by the last stanza as the last verse, with the same paired progressions.  This means the first stanza stands alone as an introduction.  The rest of the song establishes the idea of one stanza per verse (or bridge), with the chord pattern I - iii - IV - I, I - iii - IV - V.  And yet it is the beginning of a song that normally establishes patterns and expectations, so which verse is the normal one?  That is confusing enough, but the lyrics also baffle me: 
Cigarette burns forever
The message is spliced together
Now I would never let her
But where did people go to get her

You took me to the private party
And swore that they would not card me
Drive careful less they hear ye
When all the time they learnt to fear you.

The sidewinder drinks and gambles
The gold digger strikes his damsels
But when I lost the magic sandals
I said some things I could not handle.

Going 90 off my star
So is flashing by as the flame retards
Don't you wanna be some other
And all the people have to drug each other.

I fell into a life of leisure
I saw to a path of pleasure
Don't it make it that much better
To find a cigarette burns forever
 What does this mean?  The first stanza feels like an interruption, or the continuation of a previous conversation/idea.  The second stanza has more narrative sense, except the tense is messed up in the third line.  And what in the world are the magic sandals of the third stanza?   Drugs?  Sanity?  Seven-league boots? Each stanza has some element of non sequitur or absurdism, and there is no continuity from one stanza to the next.

Is this a work of staggering genius, a hipster Finnegan's Wake? I listened to another of Adam Green's works and it has the same lounge singer vibe.  Is he being ironic?  Or is this pretentious crap?  I feel the latter right now, but the words are still digging at me, making me try to figure out what they mean.  I think the music itself is lame, even when considering the slightly interesting formal design. 

Thursday, April 03, 2014

That's poetry, man!

A woman's voice is finally heard again on Welcome to Night Vale, in the Weather to Episode 10.  Poet Rachel Kann lays down the beat with reversed drum sounds and the devil's interval for the bass line.  This isn't exactly a rap, closer to beat poetry in the style of Mike Myers:

Except it is better.  Kann's voice is shared by other women (I think her own voice overdubbed), but she is being authentic in her beliefs and in her art, unlike Myers' deliberate veil of hip indifference.  The beat underneath Kann's poetry is cool, and her speaking voice stays level, but her words are enthusiastic about her thoughts, about her art, about her life.  She genuinely wants to find true love, and believes she will find it.  She finds the glory in the moments in her life, like earl grey tea and Otis Redding.  I wouldn't call these small things, and she doesn't either.

Kann's poem is about balance, which allows polar opposite categories to exist.  The bass line is ominous, and the reversed drum beats create a disturbing soundscape.  But the beat is predictable, and fits well with the horn line.  The rhythm of the words avoids sing-song predictability, but still stays within the meter of the beat.  Right before Kann starts talking about succeeding in her love (3:25), the backwards drum sounds stop.  First the beat is kept by bongos and wood clicks, and then the drum beats are presented in regular direction (3:41).  The clarity balances the disruption of the starting drum sounds, just as the poem ends in a cyclic repeat of the opening lines. The doubled voices almost sound song-like, without presenting actual sustained pitch.  The bass line also drops the tritone, keeping only the lower note.  Perhaps the "fixing" of the drum beat and the loss of the devil's interval shows a journey of Kann's narrator/poet.  Maybe at the beginning she was intimidated by her knowledge/lack of knowledge, but in reminding herself of all the beauty she knows she turns around to a joy in her knowledge.

UPDATE:  Rachel Kann tweeted me to let me know that the producer of this track is Tack-Fu. Props to him.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Accordions! With Clapping!

I just noticed that the wiki dedicated to Welcome to Night Vale claims that the music on the show is not the weather, but rather Cecil's own personal music collection that he plays during the Weather.  But this doesn't make sense, as the radio station doesn't broadcast anything else along with the music.  Plus, it appeals to my sense of the absurd that the weather is indicated by the music played, just like the news in Jonathan Lethem's Gun, with Occasional Music. The Weather in episode 9, "PYRAMID", is stormy but with an accordion-shaped rainbow at the end.  Jason Webley is a gravel-voiced sailor, preaching the end of the world with a hopeful rebirth.  The accordion plods through regle du octave progressions over bass drum and hand claps, giving this sailor a sea shanty as his "Last Song."  He gasps along through the chorus: "And we say that the world isn't dying / And we pray that the world isn't dying / and just maybe the world isn't dying / Maybe she's heavy with child." as if he can barely get through the prayer.  He's joined in the outro by his drunken buddies on those lovely nonsense Irish syllables, but they also die out, leaving the accordion to wheeze through to a final cadence.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Ted Gioia is right!

About three weeks ago, Ted Gioia wrote a blistering critique of music criticism.  In it he complained, correctly, that music critics have stopped writing about the music itself, instead writing about the social underpinnings of music in a very trivial manner.  In response to this complaint, composer Owen Pallett has written three articles for Slate, supposedly using theory to explain the music of Katy Perry, Daft Punk, and Lady Gaga.  While I appreciate Pallett's musicianship, he has a very limited view of music theory which resulted in purposefully stilted analyses.  In Tweets he admitted that these articles (or at least the first one) were meant to be ironic, proving Ted Gioia wrong. 

This is unfortunate, as there are many analytical tools available to make meaningful statements about pop music, without exploding in jargon or losing respect for the genre.  Pallett failed in both these regards, doing the worlds of music criticism, music theory, and popular music a disservice.  In my series of analyses of music from Welcome to Night Vale, I hope I have been showing appropriate ways of analyzing popular music.

I'll continue now with the Weather from episode eight, "This Too Shall Pass" by Danny Schmidt.  While this song shares a title with one by OK Go, it is very different.  Danny Schmidt is a singer-songwriter, whose song starts with a distinctive Spanish vibe before shifting to a more country/folk feel from the jingle bells, fiddle playing, and banjo-like guitar picking.  The minor mode with continual shifts to the relative major and the haunting violins remind me of the theme song from Firefly.  The rhythm is interesting, sudden little rushes at the beginning of each stanza followed by a pause before the rest of the lyrics arrive in a quick stream.  Schmidt's twangy voice gives humbleness to his lofty ideas about the hugeness of the universe and the smallness of mankind within it.  He touches on religion, the biology of self-interest, and mythology, all in service of showing how time keeps going with or without us. The melody has moments of static monotony, followed by sudden shifts in contour, keeping it from becoming too predictable while obeying many of the tropes of the genre.  The song fades out, which is both appropriate to the subject matter, giving a sense of eternity yet dying away to nothing.