Chad Parkhill

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Do Music Critics Need Music Theory?

Sheet Music

Canadian musician Owen Pallett—the man who arranged the strings on Arcade Fire’s albums, co-wrote the soundtrack for Spike Jonze’s Her, and has a bunch of wonderful solo albums—can now add another feather to his cap: that of an engaging music writer. His recent series of three essays for Slate, each aiming to explain the appeal of a well-known pop song through music theory, tackles some relatively dry subject matter with impressive brio.

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Uncanny Beauty

Metronomy

Metronomy’s Love Letters

For all that Metronomy’s 2011 album The English Riviera was compared with Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac on its release—the critical idée reçu being that it channeled both of these heavyweights of 70s AOR—the truth is that it actually sounds nothing like either of these bands (who don’t sound all that much like each other in any case). Go on, crack open your streaming service of choice and compare ‘The Look’ with, say, ‘Peg’ or ‘Go Your Own Way’. While it’s clear that The English Riviera has taken a few hints from the aforementioned, it’s also clear that there’s nothing derivative about it—it disregards the cruisy pleasures of Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan for something nervier, reedier.

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Singing Out

Merilai Lilburn

My maternal grandmother, Merilai Lilburn, recently died in a nursing home in Katikati, New Zealand, of complications arising from pneumonia. She was 82 years old. At the time of her death, I and the other members of our extended family based in Australia were flying to Auckland from our homes on Australia’s east coast, trying to arrive in Katikati in time to bid her a final farewell. We didn’t make it, but this mad dash to Katikati did have the effect of drawing together a geographically atomised family for close to a week of mourning and funeral preparation.

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Something Rich and Strange

Beck

Beck, Sea Change and Morning Phase

Few artists are as burdened by their pasts as Beck Hansen. The man responsible for ‘Loser’ released three albums’ worth of material (Stereopathetic Soulmanure, Mellow Gold and One Foot in the Grave) in the year after it first hit the airwaves, as if to prove that he had been working at this music caper for a very long time and was, by extension, no one-hit wonder. While none of those albums became the cornerstone of his career, their sheer musical variety demonstrated something that has become a truism when talking about Beck’s output: namely, that he’s not an easy man to pin down.

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Direct and Artless

Planningtorock

Planningtorock’s All Love’s Legal

Planningtorock—the solo project of Bolton-born, Berlin-based Jam (formerly Janine) Rostron—has long been dogged by comparisons to the work of her friends and collaborators The Knife. These haven’t always been accurate or fair; contra Pitchfork, I can’t see all that much in common between the musical exuberance and mad funfair atmosphere of Planningtorock’s 2006 debut Have It All and The Knife’s taut, dark techno masterpiece of the same year, Silent Shout. Yet as her career has progressed, Rostron seems to have acquiesced to those comparisons. She worked more closely with The Knife on the magisterial soundtrack to Hotel Pro Forma’s opera,Tomorrow, in a Year (2010); and her second album, 2011’s W, contains a good few tricks taken from Karin Dreijer Andersson’s playbook, including pitch-bending vocals as a form of gender-bending.

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Uncomfortable Complicity

St Vincent live

St. Vincent’s St. Vincent

St. Vincent’s eponymous title, coming as it does after Annie Clark’s three prior solo albums and her collaboration with David Byrne, implies that the record will be a clear statement of intent. Fittingly enough for an artist with near-legendary creative control over her output, the title was a very deliberate decision. “I was reading Miles Davis’ autobiography,” she recently told Paste, “and he talks about how the hardest thing for any musician to do is to sound like himself … and that’s why I decided to self-title this record because I feel like I sound like myself.” It’s an uncannily good time for Clark to sound like herself, too: the Byrne collaboration, the ever-so-slightly disappointing Love This Giant, may not have sold by the bucketload, but it certainly has introduced her work to a much wider audience. Good thing, then, that St. Vincent is the best kind of statement album: it’s a sharp, laser-focused collection designed to show off Clark’s ample virtues as a songwriter and performer.

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The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be

Daft Punk

Daft Punk, Nostalgia, and Musical Conservatism

There’s no reason not to be very happy for Daft Punk right now. The French production duo, who have been making music since 1993, recently won five awards at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards—including both Album of the Year (for Random Access Memories) and Record of the Year (for ‘Get Lucky’). They also demonstrated exactly why they deserved the accolades by putting on a phenomenal live performance with Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers, and Stevie Wonder: a medley of ‘Get Lucky’, Chic’s ‘Le Freak’, and Wonder’s ‘Another Star’. Over two decades of hard work and perseverance by a group twice removed from the mainstream (by both nationality and musical genre) finally rewarded on the music industry’s night of nights—how could you not feel good about that?

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Dream River’s Ghost

Have Fun With God crop

Bill Callahan’s Have Fun With God

If the world needed any further proof that Bill Callahan has an almost pathological contrarian streak, he delivered it last year when he promoted his then-forthcoming album, Dream River, by releasing a dub version of one of its highlights, ‘Javelin Unlanding’. Aside from the perversity of promoting an album by way of music that would not appear on it, Callahan’s choice to release ‘Expanding Dub’ as Dream River’s lead single revealed the artist’s heretofore unknown love for dub music. As he explained in an interview with the Quietus last year, “Dub is a spiritual, abstract, visceral, mystical thing. Finite and infinite at the same time. Deeply rooted in the earth and in outer space. It was invented in Jamaica and no one else really messes with it as it is greatly abetted when the original song has a reggae rhythm, which my songs largely do not.” Despite the caveat that his songs are seemingly not suited to dub treatment, Callahan has produced not only a dub version of ‘Javelin Unlanding’ but also dub versions of each of the other seven songs that appear on Dream River, all of which have been collected on Have Fun With God.

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That Kind of Racism Just Ain’t for Us

Lorde

Lorde’s ‘Royals’ and Offence Criticism

One of the most widely-read and influential pieces of music criticism in 2013 was not written by a music critic—its author possesses a master’s degree in sexuality and public health, works in the field of reproductive justice, and had written little about music before the blog post in question was published. Despite this, Verónica Bayetti Flores’s post entitled ‘Wow, that Lorde song Royals is racist’—which argues that ‘Royals’ is “deeply racist” because its singer doesn’t care for a list racially-charged signifiers of material wealth—not only (in the words of its author) “BLEW. UP.” but also set the frame through which Lorde’s song ‘Royals’ would thenceforth be analysed, inspiring an endless series of rebuttals along the lines of ‘Nah, that Lorde song “Royals” isn’t racist’.

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The Slaughter to Come

The Counselor 2

Reading and Watching The Counselor

Early in Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay The Counselor, a diamond dealer reflects on an issue that directly relates to Ridley Scott’s film version of the same screenplay. “The crown and the pavilion may be well cut each in itself and yet stand alien to one another,” he says of a poorly-cut diamond the titular Counselor is inspecting. “Once the first facet is cut there can be no going back. What was meant to be a union remains forever untrue and we see a troubling truth that the forms of our undertakings are complete at their beginnings. For good or ill.” Those who have seen the film may be surprised by these lines: if they were ever uttered, they ended up on the cutting-room floor, perhaps because they invite an unkind comparison between the misshapen diamond and Scott’s film. Like the diamond, both the script and the production (led by some of Hollywood’s most valuable A-listers) is well-cut, but each stands alien to the other.

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