Owl City- Fireflies

Quality: 3.5

Clean: 4

Genre: electronic, bubblegum synth-pop

owl city

I heard Fireflies on the radio which seemed a little out of place. Living in a somewhat rural area, all of the radio stations are either Country, Christian or Ryan Seacrest. Ryan of course only plays the most popular, never anything different or interesting.  You know how it goes: mostly R&B, some Miley, Lady Gaga and once in a while a generic alternative song.  Owl City doesn’t fit those molds.  Electronic beats, and lyrics not about dancing or baby-making, I found the song refreshing. Given, I haven’t been up with the latest Indie releases, I haven’t prowled the internet for interesting and new music for about ten months. My music canvas has been mostly blank so Fireflies was like an invitation to listen to music again.

The lyrics are cute, puzzling and peppy. Falling asleep, or not being able to, and that funny line between the two states of being where reality is blurred seems to be the topic, though it is not clear. Although I’m not exactly sure what he is talking about, I don’t mind because its different and unexpected.

You would not believe your eyes if ten-million fireflies lit up the world as I fell asleep,
Cause they fill the open air, and leave tear drops everywhere,
You’d think me rude but I would just stand and stare.
I’d like to make myself believe that planet Earth turns slowly,
Its hard to say that I’d rather stay awake when I’m asleep,
Cause everything is never as it seems.
Cause I’d get a thousand hugs from ten-thousand lightning bugs as they try to teach me how to dance,
A fox-trot above my head, a sock-hop beneath my bed,
A disco ball is just hanging by a thread.
I’d like to make myself believe that planet Earth turns slowly,
Its hard to say I’d rather stay awake when I’m asleep,
Cause everything is never as it seems.
Leave my door open just a crack (please take me away from here)
Cause I feel like such an insomniac (please take me away from here)
Why do I tire of counting sheep (please take me away from here)
When I’m far too tired to fall sleep.
Ten-thousand fireflies, I’m weird cause I hate good-byes,
I got misty eyes when they said farewell.
But I’ll know where several are, if my dreams get real bizarre,
Cause I saved a few, and I keep them in a jar.

The music is crackly and beepy with simple bass and a little bit of piano and strings–nice and uncomplicated yet not so basic that its just a loop played over and over. Owl City is just one dude, Adam Young, who’s voice sounds a bit like Postal Service, as does the music itself. Yet Fireflies is more bubblegum and less crafted than Postal Service. Fireflies sounds as if Adam composed the song himself in his basement and recorded it purely for fun, without over-analyzing. In fact the internet-lore is just that: living in his parents’ basement he couldn’t sleep, so he wrote and recorded this song. He became popular via Myspace and now it has escalated to a radio hit. That’s how it ended up on Ryan Seacrest’s station.

The criticism of Owl City is that 1. it sounds too much like Postal Service and is therefore unoriginal, and 2. he’s not Christian enough. I guess I don’t mind that it sounds like Postal Service. Its different enough for me that it isn’t in the same category. Postal Service is actual good quality music with style and meaning, while Owl City is just for fun, silly and all smiles. As for criticism #2…I didn’t know O.C was supposed to be Christian. I go back and forth between the whole Christian-band-sounding-Christian-enough thing.  Perhaps if I had the entire album, I’d feel the same way I did about Family Force Five, that it was too much fun to be fun. But, for now I just like the song Fireflies for what it is.  I enjoy listening to lyrics about something different and positive for once (unlike the rest of Ryan Seacrest radio Lady Gaga gag gag).

Links: Official site (you can listen to the song here), Myspace, Owl City hater review

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Family Force 5- Dance or Die

Quality: 3

Clean: 4

Genre: rock, electronic, pop

ff5

There is a Christian radio station in town that primarily plays alternative and hard rock music. I try to listen to it because I want to get to know more Christian music, and I feel like I should try to support a radio station that is at least trying to play good music. The problem is that most of the music sounds the same and I don’t even like it all that much. Consequently, whenever I hear a song that is remotely different or interesting, I try to find out more about it. I heard Fever once and had to look it up. It was different from most other songs on this station because it had electronic elements- the vocals are synthesized- and you know I am a sucker for electronic elements.

Dance or Die is Family Force 5’s second album. Their first was heavier, like Linkin Park, or Rage Against the Machine. Dance or Die is more like a throw back to 80’s synth pop, mixed together with music like The Killers and other such indie/punk music.  When I listened to the songs on their myspace page, I liked, but didn’t love them. I didn’t want to give up though, because I’m always trying to support Christian bands that are different/interesting/don’t sound the same as all the bands/at least good. So I cruised over to Christianity Today‘s music review website (which is actually pretty good). The review basically said the album was too much about fun and didn’t have enough substance either lyrically or musically to carry it. I quickly dismissed the review as being written by old people and bought the album.

I frequently wish there was more music out there, without swears or innuendos, that was fun just for fun’s sake. Fun music doesn’t have to mean anything, it can just be fun. I’m not sure if I’ve changed my mind or not, but the pure lack of substance on this album got on my nerves after a while. The lyrics are just silly. For example, Fever, is about a um, fever, that is well, burning up…”somebody call the New York Times, this fever’s gonna make the headlines.” What does that even mean? Actually, I wouldn’t mind it if there was at least one or two songs with some heft to them, but every song is silly,and meaningless. There are some lyrics that made me think: While listening to D-I-E 4 Y-O-U, I wondered if the song was about Christ, you know the whole dying thing and all…or perhaps even a martyr being willing to die for Christ…but there is nothing in the lyrics to suggest such an interpretation. If the band wasn’t signed to a Christian label I wouldn’t have even thought twice. Another song, How in the World, is a pretty sweet love song, that could be interpreted to be written to Christ, but again, there is nothing in the lyrics to suggest such an interpretation. In fact, there is nothing on the entire album to suggest that this band is “Christian.”

I’m breaking my own rules, because I usually think that a band or album should be taken for what it is, on its own terms, and not for what we think it should be or what it was expected to be. Dance or Die, is supposed to be fun. That was the one and only objective and in that, it succeeded. Also, because they are “Christian” the album is free of swears and innuendos. I should be happy and move on.

I’m not happy. I have to agree that Christianity Today’s review was right on. A single song can be fun, but an entire album should have balance. There should be other songs to bring out a theme, or to remind us why Family Force 5 claim to be Christians, or even that they have emotions. Dance or Die, is one of those albums with two good songs, and the rest sounds too much the same to palate all at once.

Fever:

How in the World:


Kanye West- 808s and Heartbreaks

Quality: 4

Clean: 3

Genre: r&b, electronic, pop

808

I hesitated to post this review here. You might be wondering what Kanye West is doing on a quality and clean blog. It would be like adding a review of one of Madonna’s albums- it almost doesn’t matter what the the content of their music is because their reputations are both so um carnal. Kanye has a reputation for his trash talking bravado, materialistic yet dapper fashion sense and possessing an appetite for causing and basking in controversy. Then there is the way he generally raps about women, similar to other rappers, he treats them like possessions to chalk up on his tally sheet. Kanye is a very talented beat-maker and rapper, consequently he rose to fame quickly. Maybe this is why he has such a big ego, or maybe that is just part of every rappers persona.

Actually what caused me to purchase and then decide to add a review to this blog was the contrast between Kanye’s reputation and the content of 808’s and Heartbreaks. When Love Lockdown came out I was it was not what I had expected. Stylistically and lyrically, Kanye West’s fourth album, is very very different from his past three. The name of the album lays bare the musical and lyrical themes. 808s is a reference to the analogue synthesizer the early 1980’s. It has a characteristically “hollow/tinny” sound which smoothly contributes to the lyrical theme of heartbreak. Instead of rapping, Kanye sings throughout the entire album causing the songs to feel more heartfelt. Instead of the light-hearted, feel-good tempo if his past albums, Heartbreaks is melancholy to its core. The instrumentation is sparse, minimalistic and lonely instead of fully layered and well fed. In the past Kanye has been a little different from other rappers, his production is richly layered and contributes to the message of his songs instead of just background looping. He heavily relies on his favorite tool, auto-tune, as well as as other electronic devices (ie. the electronic voice in Stronger) and uses live instrumentation (actual cello, piano, woodwinds and choirs). Heartbreaks keeps auto-tune as a faithful friend but disposes with the heavy layered devices. There are a few live instruments (including a lovely choir in the first track), but musically the themes are raw percussion with 808 sounding synthesizer beeps and shallow melodies that sound like they came straight from a midi or cheap home-Casio piano.

Lyrically, Kanye’s past songs have been full of bragging how good and easy and full of material possessions his life is. In contrast, Heartbreaks delves into the emptiness of his life, how material possessions mean little  and making lasting positive relationships with women is difficult if not impossible for him. The song that best displays the “emptiness” theme is Welcome to Heartbreak. The lyrics are rich with contrast between the “good life” and his own:

My friend showed me pictures of his kids, and all I could show him was pictures of my cribs.
He said his daughter got a brand new report card, and all I got was a brand new sports car.
Dad crack a joke all the kids laughed, but I couldn’t hear em all the way in first class.
Chased the good life my whole life long, look back on my life and my gone…where did I go wrong?

Kanye’s mother died shortly before he began work on the album. The genuine yet not necessarily romantic heartbreak and grieving portrayed on the album fits with this kind of rift, the kind that rocks you to your core, the kind the death of a mother to a young person (Kanye is only 31) can cause.

The lyrics to several songs give off vibes of a desire for change, yet he is a bit like Peter Petrelli in the T.V. show Heroes. No matter how hard he tries to do what he thinks is right and even to fix past mistakes, he just makes things worse. I can see a man like Kanye deciding to find a real relationship, maybe even invest more in the one he already has. Yet, all he has trained himself to do thus far is treat women shallowly and create relationships based on appearances. One song, RoboCop, reveals the one-sided conversation of a dysfunctional romantic fight, first laying all the blame on the other party, then sarcastically making fun of and putting down that party. He wants to change over night but most people can’t do that. Kanye’s descriptions of the inner workings of his romantic relationships (in the songs, and who knows if they are autobiographical or just songs) reveal a desire for intimacy but a lack in compassion and patience. Perhaps these qualities will develop in time and then he will find and develop a loving lasting relationship, but for now he is caught in the middle; wanting to be someone he isn’t.

I’m fascinated by songs in the main-stream that describe yearning for eternal significance. To me it shows that no one is completely shallow and we all have the same needs at our core. I also know that anyone can change but not everyone does. To me this album shows that universal struggle: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” (Romans 7:21).

As an adult it is fun for me to analyze music with contrasting and unexpected images. However, If I had children between the ages of 5 and 15 I might not have purchased this album (perhaps they would be oblivious at a younger age?). It could send a mixed message to them, and they might not be mature enough to filter the bad from the good. None of the songs have swears but they do portray dysfunctional relationships and talking enigmatically about one’s sordid past. Also, unfortunately, we cannot separate the singer and his image from his music. Kanye is not the type of person I would want to put on display or admire around my young children. With older children however, I think that talking and analyzing media such as this would be very healthy. Teenager’s minds are developing the ability to think through complicated issues with contrasting messages. Parents and teachers are in the role to help teach them discernement in recognizing good and evil instead of just cool and uncool.  I think it can be complicated and I am sure I know people who would not go near this album and others who would go to a concert with their children. Here is a situation that is very gray. Also I do not have children so I can only think about and speculate what I would do. Perhaps I would act entirely different.

Love Lockdown:

Welcome to Heartbreak:

Son Lux, At War with Walls and Mazes

Quality: 5

Clean: 5

Genre: electronic, alternative

sonlux

So far, At War with Walls and Mazes is my favorite album of 2008. It is a perfect blend of all my favorite components of music. My husband makes fun of me that the music I like is always the same, all containing electronic blips and glitches (bjork, psapp, Imogene Heap). Son Lux has these electronic sounds that I like but they are blended into an ornate tapestry. Son Lux’s use of electronics to make music reminds me of when you go into a cathedral at just the right time of day when the sun is shining through the stained glass windows and all the glints and glares reflect off the icons and the cross and make the room feel rich and perfect and holy. Son Lux also incorporates a wide variety of classical instrumentation: piano, strings, flute, an operatic background voice, acoustic guitar. Its not just that he uses these instruments, but he does so in a very classically trained way. As if he is fusing symphonic orchestra music with modern electronics. I am reminded of a rock opera such as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem (see the song Hosanna).

I classify Son Lux as “electronic” not to be confused with “dance” music. The album does not have a happy poppy feel and is not danceable. Rather, it feels thoughtful, forceful at times, maybe even morose.

Son Lux’s lyrics continue in the cathedral theme: they are brief and simple and repeated over and over like a meditation or mantra. Sometimes the lyrics hint at scriptural references, sometimes of powerful experiences such as betrayal and reconciliation. They get me thinking not about what he means (like Coldplay did), but of what associations they bring to my mind. Son Lux’s lyrics are powerful and demonstrate poetic skill. Perhaps the most interesting lyrics are for the song Weapons:

Put down all your weapons,
let me in through your open wounds

Son Lux is not signed with a “Christian” label and I would not label him as a “Christian” artist…but you know by now that I don’t like that label anyway. He reminds me in a way, of Johnny Cash: their lyrics only let out little hints of a profound belief. I like not knowing, and being able to let the mystery be itself.

Whereas Break is the song put forward by the label to promote the album, my favorite songs from the album are Wither and Betray.

Break lyrics: Where have all the wicked gone?
Is there no one left to break you down?
Where have all the holy gone?
Is there no one to condemn you?

Where have all the wicked gone?
Is there no one to condemn you?
Where have all the holy gone?
Is there no one else to break you down?

links: myspace, anticon records, pitchfork review

Oceanlab, On a Good Day

Clean: 4

Quality: 3.5

Genre: Trance

Trance is a subcategory of electronic/dance music that has a relatively fast tempo but also sometimes a slow melancholy melody over the top of the fast beat. Trance music is repetitive and “the effect of some trance music has been likened to the trance-inducing music created by ancient shamanists during long periods of drumming.” (Wikipedia). I would classify the group, Oceanlab, as dream-trance: Trance music that is almost new age sounding. There is a calming effect even though there is a dance beat in the background. This particular song is good standard trance. The music, the lyrics and the mellow vocals of Justine Suissa all meld together wonderfully. Vocal trance is probably my favorite type of music so I liked this song the first time I heard it.

The song, On a Good Day, is melancholy, thoughtful and hopeful. The words are about working through some issue and moving on to live the rest of life. The funk is beginning to leave but isn’t gone yet. The words express some slight regret and sadness but also optimism for the future.

Lyrics and song below:

A little bit lost

A little bit lonely

A little bit cold here

A little bit of fear


But I hold on and I feel strong and I know that I can

Getting used to it

Lit the fuse to it

Like to know who I am

(Chorus)

Been talking to myself forever, yeah

And how I wish I knew me better, yeah

Still sitting on the shelf but never, never seen the sun shine brighter

and It feels like me on a good day (repeat)


I’m a little bit hemmed in

A little bit isolated

A little bit hopeful

A little bit calm

But I hold on and I feel strong and I know that I can

Getting used to it

Lit the fuse to it

Like to know who I am

Jem, It’s Amazing

Quality: 4

Clean: 5

Genre: Pop, dance

Jem: as a child of the 80’s the first thing I think of when I hear that name is Jem and the Holograms!

Ok seriously, I remember when Jem came out with her first album 4 year ago. I heard her first single, They, once on the radio and rushed out and bought the little mini EP, It All Starts Here (which was produced before the full album Finally Woken). My initial enthusiasm was a little much and I was slightly disappointed at the rest of the EP. I still liked it because it was, after all, good pop music and more on the electronic/triphop/dance side.

Jem’s second album, Down to Earth, came out yesterday. I haven’t gotten a copy of it yet…however she’s put out a couple singles already. It’s Amazing, was released as a single in June and on the soundtrack of Sex and the City, the movie. Jem’s contribution is a solid, affirming, motivational and fun song. Lyrically, it reminds me of Mariah Carey’s Make it Happen, or Jordin Spark’s One Step at a Time. Jem urges the listener not to give up, to work hard and to have patience! The chorus is inspiring for anyone needing a little encouragement: It’s Amazing all that you can do, It’s Amazing, it makes my heart sing, now its up to you.

Musically, this song is hard to classify. Poppy, yet slightly more dancy than most pop, the beat is slightly DnB but not really…let’s just say pop. Jem revels in these inbetween genre labels however. Her first album was a little trip hop, a little alternative, a little pop, a little acoustic folk rock. This song clearly has electronic roots looping over and over in the background, but it also has trumpet, guitar, strings, and piano, not to mention Jem’s soothing voice. Oh and as a bonus a computerized 80’s sounding voice at the end urging the listener to trust her instincts, and not give up! Its a good song, not super great. I love it for its positive message and poppy beat. Certainly more creative than most dime-a-dozen pop singers out there. For 99 cents on iTunes I can’t think of a reason not to buy it.

Jem’s Myspace

Stutterin Stan

Clean: 4.5 (most are instrumental)

Quality: 5

Genre: Electronic

Most people who know me are surprised when they find out that I am a sucker for dance/techno/electronica music. Most of it ala C89.5 (radio station in Seattle), is sort of poppish and repetitive and not very quality (but I like it nonetheless). Also, most of the lyrics are about one topic (the dance floor and what happens later that night), so not the most uplifting.

When I find good electronic music (musically or lyrically) I am always super excited and want to tell the whole world because it is so rare. I feel the same way about my most recent find. Stutterin Stan, is actually a beat maker. Using software he electronically makes beats aka the rhythm or percussion that gives a song its groove. Often a beat maker will use a short sample of a pre-existing song and loop it over and over so that is sounds completely new. Beat makers also use tapes containing dozens of individual beats but mix them in such a way as to make them sound new. If you listen to the background music closely of most R&B or rap songs, it will consist of these types of beats. Usually beats are made to be only part of a song, and sound incomplete on their own. That’s ok because they are meant to enhance the vocals, not steal the spotlight.

Stutterin Stan’s beats are interesting enough to be their own songs. His tracks are more than just one sample looped over and over again, but like a dance they throw in unexpected yet graceful surprises. On his myspace page you can listen to 6 full tracks which are either instrumental or feature a few spoken verses. One is a remix of Hillsong’s Open My Eyes. You Can’t Stop Us, and World Warrior are probably my favorites but they are all great. Other beats you can by on his myspace page for cheap; they are more trance-like (I love trance but it is more repetative). Check out his blog as well. Its consists of a fun mix of his faith and music making journeys.

Below is a video of World Warrior being performed at a contest.