Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Building a Great Album: Side 2

I'm calling it side 2 even though you don't have to flip over a CD or tracklist... yet somehow a lot of albums are still structured to have similar highs and lows to what you'd get on a tape or vinyl record. Because it works: it's a way to sustain listeners through an hour of music from a single artist. I'm sure their are other ways to structure it (for example, making an entire side of a record a single song)

I'll Believe in Anything - Wolf Parade. Saw this song performed live. Wow.

By the way, while I'm on the topic... http://www.music-map.com/ is a great site to visit if you like an artist, and want to find more like them.

4. Somewhere in the second half, there needs to be one (or more) song that is absolutely awesome, to hold together the second half. If the album is front-loaded, I'll lose interest. Arcade Fire's albums suffer from this: too many of their second halves (side twos) are a little undifferentiated, and the resulting effect is an impression that their albums are all about ten to fifteen minutes too long. The side two anchor can bring something a little different than the opening trio, it's a good place for a piece that sprawls (on the first half, it's better to keep things tight) ... but it has to kick ASS in its way.

Some great standout second-half anchors - you'll notice that a number of these are the emotional climax of the entire album, and others are the emotional counterpoint that contrasts the tone of the first three tracks:
Ball and Biscuit (White Stripes: Elephant)

What is the Light and Waitin' For A Superman (Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin)
When Doves Cry (Prince: Purple Rain) (click the link fast. Prince has a record of removing his songs from Youtube)
Runaway (Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy)
Hallelujah and Lover, You Should Have Come Over (Jeff Buckley: Grace)
I'll Believe in Anything (Wolf Parade: Apologies to the Queen Mary: best track on the whole album)
So Come Back, I'm Waiting (Okkervil River: Black Sheep Boy)
2 Eyes 2 C: (Suckers: Wild Smile)
Maps: (Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Fever to Tell)
Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust)
Lonely Lonely and When I Was a Young Girl: (Feist: Let it Die)
Tracks thirteenfourteen, fifteen: (Modest Mouse: This is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About - only a stunning climax would have been able to balance an album with so many massive dynamic swings, but these three do it.)
Share (Cymbals Eat Guitars: Why Are There Mountains-the two songs I mentioned in this post are the only two really good songs on the album, in my opinion, but their placement shows me the band knows something about shaping an album. I'll give their next one a try.)

Scythian Empire (Andrew Bird: Armchair Apocrypha)
Broken Drum (Beck: Guero)
If You See Her, Say Hello and Shelter From the Storm [not on Youtube] (Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks)

5. A satisfying closing. This is one of the reasons I really hate rereleases, bonus tracks, and special editions that add tracks (especially alternative versions of songs we've already heard) to the end of the original album: because the final word of an album shouldn't be messed with. And if a track wasn't good enough to be part of the original album statement, it doesn't deserve a place on a disc with the original album.

Many bands put their most sprawling track last (Desolation Row, A Day in the Life), some sail off into the stratosphere (Purple Rain - Prince: Purple Rain; All Is Full Of Love - Bjork: Homogenic; Dragon's Lair: Sunset Rubdown - Dragonslayer; My Body is a Cage - Arcade Fire: Neon Bible), or at least somewhere (The Happy Birthday Song - Andrew Bird: Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production Of Eggs) and others end with a gentle sigh that almost deflates (I Saw a Light - Bat For Lashes: Fur and Gold, Mothers of the Disappeared - U2: The Joshua Tree), and others are a little bow to tie off the emotional dramatics that came just before (After Hours - Velvet Underground: Self-Titled; Her Majesty - Beatles: Abbey Road; Space Travel is Boring - Modest Mouse: This is a Long Drive...) but when it finishes, you know it's finished, and the journey is complete.

Radiohead are the best at putting a final song in that drifts off and leaves the listener exactly where they want them. While the rest of their albums are so good it's not always easy to say they're the best tracks on the albums (though some are contenders) but they're all gorgeous songs, and perfect closers. Wolf At The Door and Four Minute Warning (Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows, part II) are favorites.  Tom Waits ties off his albums (which fly in every direction) with his final songs, which is very important to restore unity after switching across genres, themes and emotional tones as much as he does - "That Feel" from Bone Machine, "Anywhere I Lay My Head" from Rain Dogs, and "Come On Up To The House" from Mule Variations are three finishes that complete the arc of their albums, and "Fawn" is a perfect, sad little bowtie.

Other great closing tracks:
Bird Gehrl (Antony and the Johnsons: I am a Bird Now); Pitter Patter goes my Heart (Broken Social Scene: You Forgot it in People) Filmore Jive (Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain)

Bird Gehrl

On the flipside, NEVER EVER put your worst song last, because that's the closing impression I'll have of your album. From Here We Go To Sublime, by The Field, has a closing track I find really languid and dull compared to the excellent rest of the album, and particularly compared to the superlative track "Silent," which is the chillest bliss-out I've ever heard. It uses a different sound vocabulary than the rest of the album, and is considerably slower, so that the album ends in an anticlimax... and not in a good way (as in Bird Gehrl, above, or "One road To Freedom" a nice bring-down at the end of Ben Harper's "Fight For Your Mind," after the stormy "God Fearing Man"

Following the template
Antony and the Johnsons - I Am A Bird Now
White Stripes - especially Elephant
U2 - The Joshua Tree
Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy... though the closing track isn't as great as some of the others.
Rain Dogs - Tom Waits (one of the greatest songwriting albums in my collection)
Songs by Leonard Cohen (his gorgeous debut album)
Bjork - Homogenic
Built To Spill - Perfect from Now On (second half high points; Time Trap, You Were Right)
and it doesn't have to be classic, indie, or obscure, either:
Barenaked Ladies - Stunt

Filmore Jive - Pavement (a band whose sound checks none of the boxes that usually make me like a band... but which I keep coming back to again and again, because their songs are just ... great.)

The other way to make an album is to make one that's strong from top to bottom -- no tracks particularly stand way out... but there also isn't a weak one in there, either. This is hard to do, because if the songs are too similar, it's boring, but they have to stay within the vibe. These consistent kinds of albums are the best for listening while you're working or driving, and they're really satisfying.
Avett Brothers: I and Love and You
Most Wilco albums, other than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Most albums by "The National" -- which is why they grow on you so much. High Violet is an especially good example of this, because they even manage to have some standout songs... without having standout songs.
Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavillion
Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks
Bon Iver: Self titled
David Byrne: Grown Backwards

Back to the first post.  Back to part 2.  My posts about Bliss-outs.  About K-pop. About REAL Korean Music.


wetcasements said...

I think it's interesting that the EP format has made a bit of a comeback in the myspace/youtube era.  A band that can't really afford to record 10-12 strong tracks can manage to put together 3 or 4, upload them, and let the buzz roll in.  Off the top of my head, bands like Sleigh Bells, Black Kids (who disappeared as quickly as they emerged), that chick who nearly got laughed off the stage recently on SNL -- they all got the ball moving with 3-4 independently produced tracks.

I'm no purist myself.  If a band wants to make a great LP, good for them.  There's plenty of good ones still being made.  But for dance music and hip-hop, the single has always defined those genres.

Personally, I listen to a scary amount of music on youtube when I'm at work.  I think it's the 21st century's version of the mix-tape, and I'm totally spoiled by the fact that I can listen to pretty much anything at any time.

roboseyo said...

I'm totally cool with the EP experience -- The Tallest Man On Earth, Bill Callahan, and Animal Collective have all come out with EPs I liked quite a lot recently; it's a great way to generate buzz, kind of like publishing some short stories before trying to sell your novel. And since the iTunes generation is so filler-averse, there's no benefit in releasing an album with 5 good songs and 7 filler tracks: just do a 5 track EP, until you have 12 tracks worth of something to say.

You're right that Youtube has spoiled us, though. I remember back when I'd have a line or a lyric in my head, and have to listen to the radio for days to hear the song.

I disagree about Youtube being the new mixtape -- at best, it's iPod shuffle PLUS -- I can listen to anythign I want, but who bothers to put together a Youtube playlist that works the way a good mix tape did? Most Youtube playlists I see boil down to "All 45 videos that came up when I searched Phish Live Drum Solo, including repeats that I didn't remove from the list"

wetcasements said...

I'm old enough to remember reading the TV schedule on a Sunday to see if any bands I liked would be performing live on late night talk shows or SNL that week.

Yeah, those days are long gone.

Utumno said...

I feel bad posting such a short reply to such a long effort-post, but if you like that Wolf Parade song, you might consider checking out the original version of it (sung by the same guy but in a different band). Totally awesome in a different way.


Matt said...

I do miss making mix tapes a lot. It was nice that my tape deck could adjust input levels, so you could get everything, whether from cd, lp or vcr, all at the same volume level. Sometimes I'd just record the radio show I did in university for part of a tape (I remember one that started with Pulses from Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, flowed into Tomorrow Never Knows by the Beatles, but forget what came after that. Another started with Crawl by the Wedding Present and then Lip by His Name is Alive, and then maybe Wish I was Skinny by the Boo Radleys, but again, forget the rest. I know I have a notebook somewhere in Canada with tracklistings for all the tapes I made. I wouldn't mind looking at it now...

A lot of the ones I made earlier on would always start upbeat and then go through highs and lows til (usually) ending with something slow at the end (say, Nick Drake or Blue Moon)

Later on I'd make mix tapes like I'd do my radio show - mix different styles of music together in such a way that they flowed together naturally. Like starting with Midnight Minuet by Raymond Scott and then going into Sunday morning by the Velvet Underground.

I believe side 2 of one mix tape I made went - Bankshot by Operation Ivy, Afro by John Spencer Blues Explosion, Baby Let's Play House by Elvis, I Met Him On A Sunday by the Shirelles, The Sun Goes Down and the World Goes Dancing by The Magnetic Fields, Mari by Martin Rev, Pop Goes the World by Men Without Hats, Lonely Days by Future Bible Heroes, and then... can't quite remember. It may have ended with Midnight in a Perfect World by DJ Shadow, and may have had Don't Know Why I Love You or Feel by The House of Love somewhere before the end.

I've made quite a few mix cds or zipped folders of mp3s but it's not really the same as the care you had to put into making a mix tape.

And yeah, the days of recording your favourite songs off the radio or taping the videos or looking up who's on SNL are long gone. Not necessarily a bad thing, but the patience and tenacity you needed to track down hard to find music meant there was always more of a payoff in the end.

Rusty Shackleford said...

We have almost identical taste in music. The only favorites of mine you missed were Silver Jews: American Water, Neutral Milk Hotel and the Batman Forever OST.

roboseyo said...

I AM fond of Neutral Milk Hotel's "In the Aeroplane Over The Sea": I can't believe I forgot them. Their opening three (four) tracks, and the "untitled" second last track are good examples of the things I'm talking about.

Got any other recommendations I might have missed?

Rusty Shackleford said...

You mentioned Sunset Rubdown. I gave Dragonslayer a listen because it got a good review on Pitchfork, I might go back to it at some stage. My point is, I really like the other Wolf Parade spin off band (Handsome Furs). I saw them in Busan when they were touring their Face Control album and they were awesome. 

I'm not really listening to much music right now. But a few  albums I got into in the last couple of years were;
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti
Bonnie "Prince" Billy: Beware
Fed: Plush
Oh and TV On The Radio, of course. 
And I have a soft spot for the album Big Boi put out last year.

Roboseyo said...

Good stuff. I disagree about YHF--I actually think it's an interesting album because of the sequencing.  The more commercially accessible songs are on side 2, with the only contender on side 1 as "war on war."  I resequenced the album for fun and made a minor radio hit that sold 100,00 copies!

I was curious about albums that put the goods on side 2.  Grace is dead-on. I also think Songs of Love and Hate gives better songs per side for its last three, though "Last Year's Man" is the best song on the album.

Also Medulla: side 1 has who is it, which is trumped by oceania, triumph of a heart is better than where is the line, unrealities is better than show me forgiveness, ancestors is better than submarine, midvikudags is even with oil birtan.  Other tracks aren't strictly analogous.

Plenty of albums give five strong opening tracks and sort of toss it in from there. You gave Arcade Fire; Interpol too.

For closers, why not Source Tags and Codes?

Roboseyo said...

The reason I say Yankee Hotel Foxtrot isn't a "uniform top-to-bottom" album is simply because its standout songs stand out more than the stand out songs on their other albums.

Meanwhile... great comment! I agree with you on some albums, and some others, you've given me reason to give them a second (or first) look.