Friday, August 21, 2009

#131. 'Helps to make the days seem shorter'

Midlake "Young Bride"

As the decade progressed I found myself becoming more and more focused on the production and arrangement of songs than on their lyrics. If I had to guess I'd say it started around the time I got into a heavy post-rock phase, as there weren't many lyrics to focus on there so the interest came solely from the instruments and their interaction. Once I started listening to all music with that in mind it became clear that the real make-or-break element of a song was the composition itself as opposed to the lyrics and over all tone. A good song is more easily ruined by shoddy arrangements or bad production choices than it is by questionable lyrics basically, and few great songs get there without some sense of how to work the pieces you have at your disposal to your advantage.

I'm not talking about complexity here, at least not in the 'all members must be virtuosos' sense, just a working knowledge of how to allow the elements of a particular piece to intertwine. If it's done right it's not intrusive to the song as a whole but adds a few more layers to the overall composition. A good arrangement is like good production in that it's never overly obvious but plays a large part i nthe structural integrity of the songs. These background elements of the music can take what are at their heart simple musical ideas and re-cast them in such a way that they sound anything but. Midlake's "Young Bride," for instance, isn't too complicated if you look at its parts in isolation, but the way they get folded together makes for a truly exhilarating song in the end.

It starts with a mournful violin figure over some pretty acoustic guitar arpeggios. As the song continues the same violin figure recurs in different environments and adopts a variety of moods, all sad but all different. If you want a crash course in how arrangement can make or break a song there's a lot to look at in "Young Bride," starting with the way the simple addition of a fairly simple but driving bass line and a drum pattern that's heavy on the 2 and 4 makes the initially mournful violin take a noticeably more positive tone. The different instruments in play shift in and out of the mix at various times, and each time one returns the tone is changed in subtle but unmistakable ways. When the drums pick up the tone is less morose. When the bass fades back in it makes the song more pounding and insistent. The lightly distorted guitar that comes in for the chorus adds a darker edge to the song that goes away as the violin comes back in. None of these shifts are jarring and none of the instruments get shortchanged in the process as each is playing its own simple yet interesting idea. This is the complexity I'm referring to, the way that all the elements of the song are integrated in ways that differ from simply layering the instruments atop each other in a static manner. The result here is much more dynamic and noteworthy than most indie-pop form the decade.

Coming up tomorrow: How to make a song about heartbreaks sound like a warm, fuzzy blanket.

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