Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Song Exploder Dissects Music's Modern Masters

There are many layers to a hit song that may not stand out as fans hear music from even the most well-known artists. A listener may catch on to the drums, a vocal, or a guitar riff, but it is rare to dissect the separate components of every hit that comes out. Music fans usually just appreciate a song in its complete form. The fascinating podcast Song Exploder excels at taking apart a track and digging into the creative process of a wide variety of musicians.

The podcast is created and hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway, although the musicians are typically the only voices heard in each episode. As Hirway interviews each artist, the podcast includes isolated parts from a select recording and the musicians explain the origin of each part. Most episodes are between 15 to 20 minutes in length and provide an interesting takeaway about a song. While certain technical aspects are explored, at no point does the podcast overwhelm with studio minutia.

At times the musicians’ explanations can be exorbitant (the seven-year process to create Solange’s “Cranes In The Sky”) or focus on the happy accident (the Lumineers’ microphone clipping during “Ophelia”). Song Exploder will also delve into what did not make it on to the song. The Lumineers had recorded “Ophelia” with the help of the E-Street Band’s horn section. Their efforts were ultimately withheld from the final take because of how the horns changed the tone of the music. You can hear some of the horn section’s contribution on the episode and listen to how their addition altered the band’s traditional sound. Hearing the different cuts of the same song encapsulates why Song Exploder can be interesting for music fans. It highlights the experimentation that can occur in the studio and allows for insight into the creative process.

To date, Song Exploder has already focused on high-profile artists like U2, Michael Kiwanuka, Solange, and Gorrillaz. While most of the song choices are hits like Phoenix’s “Ti Amo,” the podcast also looks at less obvious choices as well. The Black Key’s Patrick Carney was not interviewed for any songs from his Grammy-winning band, but about his instrumental theme for the Netflix series Bojack Horseman.

The most recent episode featured St. Vincent, who discussed her new single “New York.” St. Vincent not only broke down the evolution of the track, but commented on how her affinity for swearing found its way into the song. In a way that is typical of Song Exploder, she also credited the contributions of other artists, such as Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff. Guests like St. Vincent help make the podcast unique. Even though it is more customary to watch a documentary that analyzes the recording of a classic rock album like Pink Floyd or The Beatles, Song Exploder profiles work from both established and rising musicians. This allows for the feeling that you are listening to the construction of a classic from a well-chosen roster of contemporary masters.  

Prior episodes of Song Exploder can be found at:

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Game Night: A First Reaction To “Eastwatch”

This post contains spoilers for the Game of Thrones episode “Eastwatch”

The plot twists of the Game of Thrones episode “Eastwatch” may best be defined by the question, “Wait, what?” A pregnancy, dissension in the North, a clandestine scheme to sneak into King’s Landing, and an ultra-unlikely mission to kidnap a wight were just a few of the many surprises of the season’s fifth episode.

A week after ending an episode by teasing the possible death of Jaime Lannister, “Eastwatch” did not waste any time in bringing back one of the show’s principal characters. While he and Bronn survived the battle, they may have wished they had sunk to the bottom of the lake. The episode made one thing clear: Daenerys Targaryen does not plan to conquer Westeros through benevolence. She attempted to make the survivors of the Lannister army an offer that they couldn’t refuse: bend the knee and pledge allegiance or die. Her execution of Randyll and Dickon Tarly provided an interesting conundrum for Tyrion and Varys that may play out in future episodes. Despite the danger that they represent, Daenerys’ overwhelming love of her dragons is blinding her judgment in ways that channel her father. Ultimately, her advisers are coming to terms with the fact that they may be trying to install a crazy cat lady on the Iron Throne.

Following the opening scenes, “Eastwatch” devolved into a bit of a soap opera that muddied the progression of the season. Cersei’s pregnancy was certainly a shocking addition to Game of Thrones. The fact that her brother Jaime will be announced as the father of the child not only makes the prospective gender reveal party awkward, but indicates her intention to double-down on her depravity. This change to the show is certainly unexpected and will be interesting to monitor.

Another intra-family drama to follow is the tension amongst the Stark children that has been put into motion by Littlefinger. After six seasons of following a disbanded family that was strewn throughout Westeros, watching the lack of unity between Arya, Jon, Sansa, and Bran has been uncomfortable. The repeated inclusion of Game of Thrones’ creepiest character, Littlefinger, has become frustrating to watch. No one trusts him, yet he is still in Winterfell. Why he remains in the Starks’ home makes little sense and is part of the deviation from the previous bond between the Stark children. Is Sansa becoming Cersei or is Littlefinger’s scheme a diversion from the show’s creators?

The most surprising story came from the scheme to kidnap a member of the army of the dead to bring Cersei into the fold. By sneaking into King’s Landing, Tyrion’s meeting with Jaime was an interesting scene between the two brothers, but the evolution of the scene was unexplained. How did Tyrion sneak into the Red Keep and how did he contact Bronn?

For a show involving dragons and zombies, the banding together of Jon Snow’s crew, Wildlings, and the Brotherhood Without Banners is one of the least plausible ideas that the series has ever devised. The idea of the Dirty Dozen trekking north to confront a massive army of the dead to bring back proof of life is flat-out nonsensical. All will likely be forgiven in the next episode, because this adventure has the potential to deliver some excitement.

One small nugget in the episode came from the most unexpected source: Gilly. After learning to read she dropped the news of Rhaegar Targaryen’s annulment from his wife to Sam Tarly. While Sam did not comprehend the impact of the news, the scene sets up for future truth bombs regarding Jon Snow’s origin. A cool part of "Eastwatch" came through Gendry's use of a warhammer. That instrument was also the weapon of choice for his father, Robert Baratheon, and was a brilliant choice. 

This season has been filled with fan-pleasing moments at every turn, but this episode was by far the most confounding. For a show known for bewildering revelations, “Eastwatch” included some of the least credible plots yet. There was a lot to digest in the episode. How Game of Thrones is steered from this point will be crucial to the credibility of the writers’ room.

Two Philadelphia Bands With Big Albums Out In August

Philadelphia is home to an eclectic group of rock musicians ranging from the hazy brilliance of Kurt Vile to the adrenalized guitars of Timothy Showalter’s Strand of Oaks. August will witness two important albums from artists in completely different stages – The War on Drugs and Mondo Cozmo. After signing a major label deal in advance of their newest record, Adam Grandiuciel’s band is cementing their status as one of rock’s preeminent groups. Mondo Cozmo is at the crossroads of a unique adventure. The group’s Josh Ostrander is a journeyman musician who is seizing the opportunity created by a life-altering hit and riding a wave of next-level success.

The War on Drugs - One of the biggest bands to come out of Philadelphia in recent years, The War on Drugs are releasing their fourth studio album, A Deeper Understanding, on August 25. In 2014 The War on Drugs released Lost In The Dream, a masterpiece anchored by great songs like “Red Eyes,” “Burning,” and “Under the Pressure.” The album redefined their career path and led to a deal with Atlantic Records.

The War on Drugs have already put out four strong songs ahead of the new record that may be teasing another contemporary classic. The 11-minute track “Thinking of a Place” is a reflective piece with Pink Floydian components. “Strangest Thing” is the epitome of a slow-burner anthem and should be a highlight of their upcoming tour. The fast tempo of “Holding On” almost belies the emotion of some of Granduciel’s deepest lyrics. Some indication of just how much The War On Drugs’ profile has been elevated may come the touching video for “Holding On.” The idea of the video was conceived by actress Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones, Breaking Bad), who is dating frontman Adam Granduciel, and stars Frankie Faison (The Wire, Luke Cage).

The War on Drugs will kick off their world tour at the revamped Dell Music Center on September 21 as a part of ex-Philadelphia Eagle Connor Barwin's Make The World Better Foundation

Mondo Cozmo - After experiencing a long journey with two different bands, Mondo Cozmo frontman Josh Ostrander may finally be on the cusp of something big under his new moniker, Mondo Cozmo. After fifteen years with the bands Laguardia and Eastern Conference Champions, Ostrander found transformative success as a solo artist in Los Angeles in late 2016. While in L.A., his single "Shine" caught fire and landed on top of the Billboard Adult Alternative Single Charts in January 2017. The song that was knocked from the number one spot? The Kings of Leon's "Waste A Moment," which is tied for the second-most weeks atop the Adult Alternative chart.   

His debut album as Mondo Cozmo, Plastic Soul, was released on August 4. While “Shine” is a gospel-style track sung with a Dylan gravel, much of the album is closer to U2’s Achtung Baby. The main constant of Plastic Soul is a collection of songs with a tremendous amount of energy. That vitality may be reflective the excitement of a musician who is grasping the moment. Ostrander’s disjointed path to the top of the charts is best channeled through the impassioned song “Thunder,” where he sings “Come on love, turn me around/it’s been a long [f-ing] year that I can’t wait to leave behind.”

Mondo Cozmo is currently in the midst of an international tour that will stop by the Union Transfer on September 13. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Game Night: A First Reaction To “The Spoils of War”

This post contains spoilers about the Game of Thrones episode “The Spoils of War”

After six seasons of following major characters who have existed in distant storylines, one of the pleasures of this current installment of Game of Thrones has been watching these actors finally converge. The episode “Spoils of War” contained a series of high-level interactions and one cliffhanger that continued one of the show’s most enjoyable seasons.

The fourth episode spent significant time with the Stark clan’s reunion. Sansa and Arya had not seen each other since the first season, yet both have grown in ways that neither could easily describe to one another. While Sansa’s evolution into Lady Stark could be predicted, Arya’s change has been the most unexpected and difficult to explain. Her swordplay skills have gone beyond a childhood hobby. Watching Arya prove her mettle as a trained soldier was important for her character because she was able to show off her abilities to her sister. Despite arduous journeys, both sisters are currently in roles that they were destined to attain. This episode was one of the most satisfying for both characters.

A part of Season Seven that is gradually becoming annoying is Bran Stark’s transition into becoming the Three-Eyed Raven. Bran’s journey has always been at a slower pace than the rest of the Starks, but unlike Sansa and Arya his newfound career is less defined. Although he will most likely play a sizable role throughout the next two seasons, Bran is currently behaving like a moody teenager in the gifted program. Bran’s scenes have become some of the most laborious on the show and he is in desperate need of a breakout moment.

One of the biggest interactions of the season has been Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen’s time together on Dragonstone. “Spoils of War” briefly seemed as if it would take the monarchs’ time together to a new level, but ultimately took a more reserved path. Daenerys has begun to know Jon as more than just a pesky usurper and her understanding of the threat beyond the Wall is now much clearer. This episode also showed that she trusts Jon and respects his abilities as a solider. It was also the most significant step forward in their alliance together.

The best part of the episode, and perhaps the most exciting part of this season, was Daenerys’ ambush of Jamie Lannister’s column as it returned from Highgarden. While the battle was significantly briefer, certain sequences were reminiscent of the Battle of the Bastards. Watching Daenerys unleash her dragons on the Lannisters was a thrilling moment as she delivered a devastating blow to Cersei. The most impressive scenes of the battle came from the incredible skills of the actors portraying Dothraki riders and the close camera work that followed them, Jamie, and Bronn. This show continues to produce these scenes in a way that reinvents what we expect from a television series.

The stunning final scene is a cliffhanger of the Jon Snow variety. It appears to be too obvious that Jamie was killed while trying to commit an act that was both brave and foolhardy. How could a one-armed man who is weighed down by armor possibly survive drowning? Game of Thrones has already saved Jon and the Hound after their characters appeared to be gone. This prediction has one week to fail, but it seems to be more likely that Jamie is next on the list of characters to make a narrow escape.