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Mix Tape

Give it a chance! -- August 2009

When it comes to sharing music with friends, I often find myself caught between two worlds which shouldn't be mutually exclusive, but often are. One is occupied by musicians, the other -- enthusiasts. I've been studying music for most of my life and am now doing so at college, and must admit (hopefully without even a tinge of elitism) that this education has forced me to have a different relationship with music as a listener. My background as a performer has led me to music that I find compelling for technical reasons (interesting harmony or rhythm, unique textures from unexpected instrumentation, etc.). However, when I take a hard look at my iTunes library, I find a lot of music that I love for reasons entirely divorced from musical training. In this Mix Tape, I attempt to reconcile those two worlds, urging both musicians (who might dismiss some tracks as overly simplistic) and listeners (who might rush for the fast forward button because something sounds foreign) to just give these songs a chance.
Mix Tape compiled and written by Jeff Stein

Jay Electronica utilizes movie scores and clips (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), news reels and strange recording effects to create a very compelling textural landscape that complements his rap. But there's plenty of technical greatness, too! His attention to form matches that of any great composer, and his flow is reminiscent of a Bebop solo, with the ability to both move in and out of time and create a steady stream of ideas.

For those of you who have yet to take a foray into raw rock-infused modern jazz, fear not! In the absence of lyrics, the idea of tension and release (which is something that really moves me when listening to music) becomes even more evident in the composition. Check out the way that drummer Jim Black, along with guitarist Hilmar Jensson and reedist Chris Speed, builds the intensity until the music explodes into a toe-tappin' good groove.

Upon first listen, Fleet Foxes' music might seem like rehashed material from your favorite bands of the 60s (a subject thoroughly discussed in last month's Mix Tape). However, this band builds on its recycled material and creates something fresh out of it, mostly due to their ability to structure songs in a really compelling way. Each composition goes through carefully formed peaks and valleys, complementing the lush lyrics with group sensitivity and reverby grandiosity, when called for.

This song is a poster child for simple harmony used to maximum effect. The listener in me loves this song for its colossal energy, but the musician in me wants more of an explanation. Problem solved! With layering hand claps and other added textures over static harmony, the tension in this song builds until it's almost unbearable and bursts into the chorus, and finally into a no holds barred wall of sound.

I once mentioned Jazz to a friend and she declared, "It's like physics! If I even think about it, I'm going to get a headache." Not to give physics a bad rap, but I think that many people have a misconception of Jazz as a genre that's just cerebral, sterile and confusing. As a counter argument, I've included an excerpt from John Coltrane's masterpiece A Love Supreme, his musical expression of personal spirituality. This music is all about emotion -- just listen to Coltrane wail and scream through his horn as drummer Elvin Jones accompanies like a simmering pot of water, ready to boil over at any moment.

Gastr del Sol is the case in point for musical openness. The Chicago-based collective is all about experimenting with different sounds, as evidenced by "The Seasons Reverse." Jim O'Rourke helps the break beat-like proceedings along with quirky tape samples, and the song grooves along through an echoing trumpet solo, before breaking down into a little behind the scenes sound clip involving a French lady with some firecrackers. Don't ask.

I think a constant point of agreement between the listener and musician within me is the desire for storytelling in music. John Adams, the great minimalist composer (and Berkeley resident!) is a master of imagery; imagine, as Adams did, the swift, energetic dance movements of Shakers while listening. Harmony and rhythm rub against each other until the apex when the entire Symphony comes together in unison, a moment that gives me chills every time I listen to this piece.

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Please Note: Some songs may contain explicit lyrics.