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.  

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