As comedian Howard Kremer so accurately portrays, there is something enjoyable about “having a summah.” As in, getting ready for the summah by picking out breezy outfits, planning barbecues, pool parties, and of course, finding your new summah jam.
Of course, he uses comedic exaggeration, but there’s truth to this. Something about summer definitely makes me want to put on a playlist of my favorite summery songs and go and buy some shorts or something.
“But summer is ooooverrr. I’m using the iiiiinterneeet” you say. Well, the fact that summer was ending got me thinking. Why does this happen only in the summer? Why are there so few winter jamz or spring playlists? And more importantly, what makes a song remind us of a season?
PS this is a much more personal, breezier kind of blog post than a normal Notes on Notes article. Hopefully it’ll get you thinking about this kind of thing and can spark some discussion while I work on some bigger projects.
Okay here goes…
Since summer already has passed and everyone has already played their summer jamz to death, let’s talk a little bit about “summer” music in general. Why is summer the season most closely associated with music? For me at least, I think it mainly has to do with recapturing that carefree feeling of having 3 months to do whatever the hell you wanted. You could swim every day, stay up late watching TV, go to pool parties and birthday parties. Anything. I’m not really one to get too deep into the whole nostalgia thing, but I think this is a common feeling among most who had a similar upbringing.
Maybe summer never actually lived up to the lofty expectations we had for it. Maybe the fun is in planning for the summer. All the possibilities of outdoor activities and breezy clothes and such like the “Have a Summah” bit describes. It’s all about the fun in anticipation for the summer to arrive. Either way, summer has specific feelings tied to it, so please forgive any sappiness or overly nostalgic writing in here. I’m not necessarily talking about what summer actually felt like, it’s more the feelings we assign summer in our minds. That goes for every season mentioned.
Maybe it gives us a little taste of that feeling of anticipation again when a song has a similar carefree attitude and tone.
That attitude for me is perfectly captured in The Avalanche’s incredible debut: Since I Left You. For me, The Avalanches have created the perfect summer album.
The album opens with what sounds like a party, some people chatting in the background. A single guitar plays a flamenco-sounding run, and then you are hit by thick, warm harmonies singing “oohs” and “ahhs.” As if that laid-back intro wasn’t enough, the listener is then greeted with a man saying “Get a drink, have a good time now, welcome to paradise.” The Avalanches are, in many ways, giving the listener the opportunity to do what I previously described–tapping into that magic feeling of having fewer responsibilities and getting a chance to unwind for a bit. That short sample is the thesis of Since I Left You, and The Avalanches spend the rest of the album reinforcing and expanding upon that feeling.
On top of that, every sound on this album is sampled from old, obscure records and re-used to create funky, dance-able tracks. It’s not really a gimmick or a mash-up kind of situation, The Avalanches use turntables and records as their instruments. Every sound and sample used is carefully chosen to support the album’s themes. The older samples also create a nostalgic feeling that I think many have in regards to summer.
It’s an extremely cohesive album that represents all the tenets of summer throughout its run time. It’s laid back, it’s fun, and the sampling aspect of it provides an interesting new dimension on the themes found in the album.
Speaking of old records, the hiss of an old record never fails to make me think about summer heat. Something about the warmth of an old record and the slight white noise that old records often project makes me immediately think of pool parties and sprinklers and other fun summer shit. Probably because it is so reminiscent of the sound of water hitting pavement.
Songs like Animal Collective’s “Summertime Clothes” or Panda Bear’s “Bros” (written by the same guy), take that idea and push it even further. “Summertime Clothes” captures the feeling of water and heat by actually sampling the sounds of water at the beginning of the track. Add that to a reverb-drenched song literally about the summer and carefree, youthful things like sneaking out in the middle of the night, you’ve got yourself a bonafide summer jam.
As a guy that gets hot super easily, there are always the days where I’m not celebrating summer, I am cursing the damn sun for making my life miserable. When things get unbearably hot, the heaviness and the sizzle of the band Kyuss (and other stoner-type rock bands) always helps calm my rage slightly. It helps that the band is from the desert, so it really does feel authentic when they call their album Blues for the Red Sun. The low fuzz of Josh Homme’s guitar combined with the high sizzle of Brant Bjork’s cymbals really captures that feeling of the inescapable heat of summer.
Common’s Be gets a very honorable mention due to it’s fantastic samples of old funk and soul records (more of that great old record hiss), and its party vibe. The album doesn’t quite have as cohesive a theme as The Avalanches does, which doesn’t really make much of a difference for the party vibe it has. It has the right kind of feel that combines the reality of my adulthood summers through Common’s straightforward lyrical style, with the slight tinge of nostalgia in the samples.
But to be honest, Summer is not my favorite season. I’m more of a cold weather kind of guy. I wanna wear a darn sweater already!
Which brings us to…
Autumn is a tricky season. Winter and Summer seem more defined to me, while Spring and Fall seem more like transitional seasons.
It’s harder to define the perfect autumn song or album, but personally, I’ve realized it’s gotta be Queens of the Stone Age’s Lullabies to Paralyze. It’s not my favorite album. It’s not even my favorite Queens of the Stone Age album, but then again, Autumn isn’t my favorite season, so maybe it works out. It’s not the most consistent album in songwriting or tone, but the album’s production and atmosphere makes it work.
Lullabies to Paralyze has a certain crispness to it. After bassist Nick Oliveri left the band, Queens of the Stone Age lost a bit of its punk rock edge. With guitarist Josh Homme now at the forefront, the band moved away from its fuzzy stoner-rock roots to whatever space they occupy now. Slightly creepy alternative rock?
Whatever it is they do, what they do reminds me of Fall. Not to get too much into a whole talk about EQ, which is a huge article on its own, I will say that Lullabies to Paralyze has a very “scooped” sound. Which means that some of the midrange is taken out of the mix, putting the highs and lows at the forefront. This creates a sort of hollow, crisp sound, and gives the album its atmosphere. Each snare hit sounds like a crunched leaf, and the guitars often have a spacey, sort of wind-like sound to them. It’s extremely reminiscent of taking a walk on a cold day and crunching fallen leaves.
Add that to creepy lyrical content like “Someone’s in the Wolf” or “The Blood is Love,” which touches on Halloween’s celebration of creepiness, you’ve got yourself an autumny album.
I don’t really even have any honorable mentions. Sure, there are some great creepy albums that are fun to put on around Halloween, but those don’t feel like Autumn to me. Halloween is a big part of the season, but there are other feelings associated with it, and Lullabies to Paralyze is the only album I can think of off the top of my head that touches on all those emotions.
Can YOU think of other albums that work? Let me know.
This might sound super lame and make you hate me, but I have only one song that immediately comes to mind when I think Winter. I’ll just say it. It’s the Red Baron Remix of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra playing “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy.” Some have told me that this piece of music (and even this particular remix?) have been played to death on the radio and in malls and the like. I don’t get out much so maybe it’s me, but I only heard this song once in a record store around Christmastime a long time ago, and I ended up buying it.
Maybe I haven’t burned myself out on it yet because I only play it when the holiday season is approaching.
Either way, it’s a piece that instantly puts me in a Winter mood. Ignoring the remix aspect of it, I will just say that “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” is Winter encapsulated and put into a song. The tinny sounding glockenspiels are like icicles while the cellos and strings make a nice bed of snow and ice while the brass and vibraphones do their little ice skating dance on top.
The remix aspect of it adds what sounds like live drums to the composition, which to me adds a more social, friendly feeling to the song. I wouldn’t want to play the original “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” at a party, but you better believe I’ve played the remix. It makes it more accessible and poppier. Better for a wider audience of casual music listeners. Which is in no way a bad thing. It’s got everything that makes winter great for me: cold weather, celebration, and friends/family.
Honorable mention goes to the album Total Life Forever by Foals. This is mainly due to the band’s use of extremely trebly, staccato guitar tone. The sharp, high-pitched guitar lines combined with the warbly wind-like synths give a great feeling of cold weather. Their video for “Spanish Sahara,” with its images of glaciers and snow only helps reinforce the connection.
This might get a bit technical for a minute but whatever it’s my blog so I’m gonna type what I want! You can skip it if you don’t care about guitar construction and tone and shit.
Anyway, Foals use Travis Bean style guitars, which are famous for their aluminum necks. While it’s always fun to think about different styles of guitars and what woods and materials do to the guitar’s sound, I’m always a bit skeptical. Without a doubt, wood has a fairly noticeable impact on the sound of acoustic instruments, especially older instruments. When the wood dries out, small air pockets form that give an instrument better resonance. BUT, I think when you introduce electric pickups into the mix, subtle things like body resonance has very little (or maybe even no effect) on the sound of the instrument. What a pickup amplifies is only the vibration of the string, converting it into an electric signal. This all happens on the surface of the guitar, above where the wood of the body is and below the wood of the neck. The resonance of the body seems extremely secondary to the type of strings, technique, pickups, and amplification a guitarist is using. When distortion or other effects are added into the mix, it seems like any effect the wood might have had is completely overshadowed.
Hell, guitars have been made out of everything under the sun. Tons of musicians play instruments made out of clear Lucite plastic or graphite and it doesn’t seem to affect the sound in any major way.
That being said, the guitar tone used on Total Life Forever sounds exactly like what an aluminum guitar might sound like. Maybe the aluminum helps, but watching a video or listening to an interview shows that the tone created by these guitars isn’t from what they are made out of, it’s due to the technique of the musicians. Yannis Philippakis of Foals (player of the aluminum-necked guitar) has said that he plays only on the upper portion of the guitar’s fretboard, plays without distortion, and purposely plays quick, staccato notes. His tone might be assisted by the guitar and its construction, but I’d be willing to bet he’d sound like that on a wooden guitar as well. Plus, the other guitarist, Jimmy Smith, gets a very similar sound on a Les Paul guitar, one of the most commonly used instruments in modern music. I probably could have just said that at the beginning and not written all this but whatever! This is the fun, breezy article. I’m having fun. Let’s move on.
This was a tough one. What the hell is a characteristic of Spring? Autumn is another kind of “transitional” season, but it’s got super solid connotations: leaves changing, Halloween… uhh that’s about it. Still, those are two very defined things.
What does Spring have? Easter is something. And there’s the idea of rebirth and procreation and that kind of thing. Maybe “April Showers” is sort of a thing? So rain can go in the pile too kind of. Oh and flowers too. May flowers.
So I thought about it, and maybe this is just an excuse to talk about one of my favorite artists and her extremely under-appreciated album, but to me, Marnie Stern owns Spring.
While her first album, This is it… (not typing out that whole thing sorry Marnie) is a fantastic, it has a certain punk rawness that makes it feel a bit less Spring. It’s a little too Autumn-y.
Her self-titled album from 2010 though, that’s where you really get into the Springiness. PS are seasons capitalized? Whatever, just go with it. Anyway, while her super fast guitar lines and Zach Hill’s insane drumming on This is it… gave the album a frantic kind of feel. On Marnie Stern, everything is given this layer of reverb and chorus effect that takes everything that was frantic and crazy and frantic in the first album and it makes it driving and uplifting. Added to Stern’s high, feminine voice and the positive lyrics and melodies, and you have something that really can represent a season that is all about life.
The effects only help superficially, though. What gives the album its uplifting, Spring feel is the songwriting. Stern adapted her mostly shouted vocals into a more high-pitched singing voice. She employs the use of ascending melodies in the choruses of the album to provide a release for the tension her guitar and Zach Hill’s drums have created.
Speaking of drums, Stern makes liberal use of cutting her song’s tempo in half. The very first track cuts the time in half 3 times, which provides this huge release. It’s hard to explain without going into technical music terms, but listen to “For Ash” to get an idea of what I mean.
Hear how things build and build only to be released as Stern’s “oohs” and “aahs” finally appear at 36 seconds in. Cutting the song’s time in half for that section is what makes that section feel so weighty and cathartic.
If Spring is all about rebirth and life, Marnie Stern has made the most “Spring” album there is.
Stern’s fast, chorus-y guitar lines and Hill’s rapid-fire snare drum work are the April showers, and Stern’s powerful choruses and crescendos are the May flowers.
So there you go. Summer jams. Seasonal songs. Fun thing to think about. Got any favorite songs for certain seasons? Think I’m crazy and picked stupid songs? Make a comment if you want and I will find you and fight you and then I will kiss you and I will stroke your hair. Bring it on.