When was the last time you just *listened* to a record?
One of the many paradoxes of the digital revolution is that we simultaneously listen to more music than ever before but almost never listen it in isolation. Instead, we multitask: we put on records while we surf the web, while we walk or run, while we go about our daily business. This isn’t a new phenomenon, obviously – people have been listening to music as background noise for as long as recorded music has been available. But with our core music device changing from the stereo to the computer, we’re far less likely to *just* listen to a record anymore; we spend so much time with our laptops and desktops that your most recent downloads are devoting their energies to soundtracking your latest visit to theglobeandmail.com
Because of this, I find those musical moments that shake you out of the pattern and FORCE you to listen even more revelatory than they might have seemed in the past. When songs need to work harder to get your attention, those that do stand out as brilliant outliers, somewhat distinct from the more passive soundtracking of everything else.
I got to thinking about this a while back when I was listening to the Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca for the first time, probably while I was surfing the web in my living room or something. I confess: I wasn’t feeling it. I was listening to the record completely fresh, having waited until I could pick up a copy at my music store before I gave it a shot. And it felt a bit messy and all-over-the-place to me, not unlike a Fiery Furnaces record. I was begining to think that the Internet had once again overhyped a record that’s more admirable than listenable.
This was the precise moment that “Stillness is the Move” came on. EVERYTHING STOPPED.
As it should, really. The moment that guitar riff kicks in, one wonders a) where exactly this song originated from (I vote “Venus”) and b) where the hell it has been hiding all this time? It’s a pop song, through and through, but neither the vocal nor the guitar feels like it’s being composed by anyone who understands what is a chart hit. It’s like brilliantly accidental pop music, and it instantly became, if not the best thing I’ve heard all year, certainly close. It also was like a Rosetta Stone: suddenly everything else on the album not only made sense, but was instantly awesome.
This got me thinking about the other moments from the year so far that have forced me to lift my hands off the keyboard, stop what I’m doing and listen. While far from comprehensive, these are what stand out:
– Handsome Furs, “I’m Confused”: The keyboard drone that opens the track, hauntingly reverbering before giving way to the propulsive drum synth. I immediately started dancing in my living room.
– Joel Plaskett, “Run Run Run”: The standout track on Three, mostly for what happens at the midway point: the riff-heavy guitar track gives way to a billowing 12-string chord that guides the song to it’s melodic exit.
– Phoenix, “1901”: You’re probably already tapping your feet by the time the song reaches this point, but when Thomas Mars’ voice cracks singing the song’s name in the second verse, it kills me every time.
– Sunset Rubdown, “You Go On Ahead”: The song’s a slow burner until just after the two minute mark, where Spencer Krug repeats its refrain over a single distorted guitar riff and the song explodes into a chorus of drums and noise.
– U2, “No Line on the Horizon”: The entire song is maybe the best Bono vocal in years, but the magic moment comes in the bridge, just after the two-minute mark, as a brilliant scream splits into spectacular harmony.
– Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Skeletons”: The moment the keyboards and drums kick in, like a long-forgotten Scottish ghost song played as quiet as it can be played without exploding. It was also the exact moment that I knew It’s Blitz! was the band’s best record
– Yeasayer, “Tightrope,” from the Dark Was the Night compilation: second verse, a descending vocal line that’s otherwordly and unforgettable. Never mind, never mind, never mind, never mind, never mind. One listen and you’ll be humming it for days.
And, of course, “Stillness is the Move”: