Imagine for a moment if we could transport music into a completely different medium of art. How about a coloring book? Maybe you’re listening to a really great rock song; once we transport that song into a coloring book, it becomes a vividly-realized grizzly bear. (And no, I’m not talking about songs by the band Grizzly Bear.) Filling the frame of the bear are lifelike shades of greys and browns and pinks, completing the space of the image. The hair looks real, the eyes anthropomorphic. Now let’s take all the color away, leaving us with the empty frame of a bear—it will look like a brand new, untouched coloring book (…or perhaps it’ll look like a polar bear). If we take this colorless image and reverse it back into a song…what will the new song sound like?
An anomaly I have been shocked to see over and over again lately is bands releasing “reimagined” versions of songs. The most notable version I’ve stumbled upon is Manchester Orchestra’s Hope, an October 2014 full-length album of acoustic re-recordings song-by-song of their April 2014 LP Cope, which was filled with pretty straightforward post-post-hardcore guitar rockers that pretty much all fell into the 3-4 minute range. (I just about died laughing when I saw someone online suggest that Manchester’s next album would be electro remixes, titled Dope.) Hope might sound one-dimensional in theory, but—au contraire—the record actually greatly expands upon the dynamics of the original. Along with some changes in lyrics, the Hope versions are more varied in song lengths, carried occasionally by acoustic guitar, sometimes by piano/organ, and one track is mostly a’ Capella. The World Wide Web seems to be in one accord (for the first time in the history of the interwebs) that Hope is a better record than Cope, (along with the fact that its new style of music was perfectly fitting for its autumn release).
I noticed earlier this week that the band Issues are on the verge of releasing an EP of soft versions of their songs, and Hands Like Houses did this a few months ago with (the obviously titled) Reimagine, which will likely end up being my favorite EP of 2014.
Now, this all could simply be a trend of heavier artists trying to prove their versatility within a musical landscape that currently prefers folk-rock bands and singer-songwriters. However, these releases also expose a fascinating feature that seems to be true of all pop music in general (note: when I say “pop music”, I’m referring to any non-classical song with an emphasis on lyrics and melody): music genres tend to function simply as the “color” of a song.
I think all of us have heard an artist perform an acoustic or stripped performance of a song, maybe even seen it done live. Chances are, a lot of the songs we listen to started out in those stripped down, one-instrument versions. While not everyone will agree with this statement, I’ve heard it said, “Take out all the production; that’s how much song you have.” That gives us two questions: 1. How good is a song when you are left with only the lyrics, melodies, and the simplest form of musical accompaniment?, and 2. How did the song end up in its final version, with this specific coloring?
Recently, I had the chance to perform in a songwriter’s competition. Before I played, someone tipped me off that the judges were biased towards country-folk and Americana. I thought about the two pop-rock songs I was about to play and considered changing my choices. Instead, I stuck to my guns, played my pop-rock songs, and lost the competition to a few Americana artists. Before performing, however, I realized that I could have played my songs with a country accent and a swing-rhythm strumming-pattern and all of a sudden I would have had a pair of Americana songs on my hands. No one would have been the wiser, and I could have stood a chance at winning.
The idea for this blog post came from listening to an older AbsolutePunk.net podcast, episode 26, titled “Songs vs. Production.” In it, the podcasters discuss how every time a certain type of sound gets huge, a lot of other artists want to make their music sound exactly the same. Artists might walk into a producer’s studio saying, “Make us sound like this other band’s album.” In a more specific example, the podcasters also discuss how, in the wake of the success of New Found Glory, many new pop-punk bands were trying to write the “perfect NFG song.” However, that was never the goal of New Found Glory themselves. Instead, NFG were simply trying to write good pop-punk songs. Because pop-punk was their color of choice.
Color can make a song. Heck, color can even make a band. I admit pretty shamelessly that I love the second and third albums by One Direction. After sternly disliking and ignoring the British band for about two years, I finally gave both of those albums a chance in November 2013. I was stunned by their dedication to guitar-pop with really dynamic drumming and percussion. The way songs progressed was exhilarating, with oft-compelling transitions from verses into the choruses. Now, strip away the great guitar parts and drums parts and harmonies and you’d probably never find me listening to One Direction songs. The lyrics and melodies alone would be far too cloy and cheesy for my tastes, yet when the songs are surrounded by huge guitars on “Best Song Ever,” Journey-ripped stadium-massiveness on “Love You First,” or dance-drum magic on “I Would,” I honestly can’t get enough.
The idea of coloring songs can be very manipulative, which itself can be positive or negative. One of my favorite positive stories of color manipulation comes from Steven Curtis Chapman while he was recording his 2013 wonderwork The Glorious Unfolding. Once he had all the songs written, he and his producers began listening with a careful ear to all the popular songs on the radio at the time, asking themselves, “What can we learn from and borrow from these songs that would be a benefit to our album?” While this may sound like a disastrous idea, the plan worked out perfectly. The record became the first heavily-synth-based album for the 50-year-old singer-songwriter, but it was not at all a sell-out, EDM or Europop album. Instead, the album utilized very warm synths in a mixture of acoustic guitar and real and electronic drums that worked beautiful. Even better, Chapman knew to draw back when a song could work just fine with only a piano.
Personally, I haven’t gained the tact that Chapman displayed on that album. From mid-2013 through early 2014, I planned on recording a full-length album of folk songs I’d written during my summer 2012 while living at the Grand Canyon. However, since at the time I’d been listening to so much .letlive, I the Mighty, Defeater, la dispute, Touché Amoré, etc., I began trying to transform those acoustic folk songs into 4-piece band post-hardcore productions. Time after time, I kept failing, especially when I tried to take one of the soft-poppiest songs and color it as a heavy, 7/8 rocker. While I was clearly working outside of my comfort zone, I also realized that perhaps not every color is very compatible with every song.
Now, there are plenty of times when songs aren’t first written in a simple format and then colored into a genre. I’ve read stories from the band Thrice that it worked both ways on the album Major/Minor. One song, “Anthology,” began as an acoustic demo that the singer wrote by himself, meanwhile another song, “Cataracts,” was written as an instrumental song without the singer, who later heard the song and just wrote his lyrics and melodies on top of what his band members had created. In the case of the former, the other members attempted to make the song more effective and more fitting for the band’s style with their additions of drums, bass, and lead guitar. But strip those away and “Anthology” is a beautiful acoustic song. For the latter, it’s hard to even imagine what a stripped version would sound like–all the dynamics of the song are driven by intricate, melodic bass lines and guitar riffs, to the point where a stripped version would completely compromise the essence of the original.
Maybe not all songs fit within the idea of a coloring book? Maybe there are some songs, especially those cohesively written in a shared setting of a group of musicians, which would— when transformed into a piece of art—have a more abstract output. There might not be a clear picture of an object (like a bear), or even any clear lines to trace around. In this abstract painting, begin taking away colors and you would begin to lose the piece entirely.
Unfortunately, the music industry in general is moving in the direction of color-in-the-lines music, with most bands actually being a singer who writes the songs and then has hired guns as his band members, adding in the color. And I can’t call out these “bands” without pointing right back to myself–my new album fits this description to a T! (Click link to stream/purchase.) Yet I can’t help but remember that the best experiences recording my album were when I had friends come in to sing or play along with me. And most of the best musical experiences I’ve had in my whole life were when a group of friends and I were in a garage or basement jamming, flowing off of each other in fluid, wholly improvised pieces. These jams were sometimes magical, creating pieces of art so abstract that not only did they not fit the color-in-the-lines model: they can never be experienced again, either.
So while I might spend most of my time dealing with coloring books, I’d trade all the coloring-in-the-lines for a good old-fashioned jam any day of the week.
(Drawing of bear courtesy of http://deathmetaldan.blogspot.com)