Elisabeth Kaplan

Singer & Songwriter

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Loving You Is Easy - Camo & Krooked


I’ve chosen this track off Camo & Krooked’s third studio album “Zeitgeist” (released last September) for the 5th instalment of my Austria Series, firstly because of its relaxed, yet danceable vibe, making it the perfect track for any summer party, and secondly because Camo & Krooked themselves rate it their favourite tune off the album.

Austrian DJs Camo & Krooked (whose real names are Reinhard Rietsch and Markus Wagner) started collaborating in 2007 and have since been making a name for themselves as a drum and bass production outfit. Their track “Watch It Burn” (feat. Ayah Marar), for instance, has been viewed more than 6 million times on YouTube, and they are sought-after DJs, with upcoming gigs at locations from the UK and Belgium to Russia and Japan. And their 321,000+ Facebook likes speak for themselves.

Expanding their range
Camo & Krooked have expanded their musical range with their latest album. They’d been feeling a bit bored with the electronic dance music scene, so they wanted to do something fresh and organic. And in my opinion, they have created a tasteful album that works in the club, but doesn’t grind on your nerves if you put it on at home. 

When asked to pinpoint their main influences, Camo & Krooked name disco, French house and minimal. There’s no mistaking these influences on “Loving You Is Easy”, which I love because of the stark contrast between the upbeat disco parts and the extremely restrained minimal sections. I’ll talk a bit later about what C&K do to intensify this contrast.

Disco meets minimal
The first few seconds of the track leave no doubt as to what awaits us: the long brass note and arpeggiated strings immediately take us back a few decades and put us in a disco state of mind. The intro then introduces the piano/bass riff that forms the meat and potatoes of the entire track. (I’ve written it down in a simplified form, i.e. without the ghost notes, although it’s exactly those ghost notes that make it so rhythmical and funky.) If you listen closely, you can also hear little breathers that are used as percussive elements. The soulful vocal sample (I’m tempted to think it’s an original vintage sample, although it could just be one helluva studio singer) is then introduced and gives the disco sections body and warmth. Its extreme emotionality also contributes towards the contrast between the disco and minimal sections. 

Masters of their craft
So, what do C&K do to enhance the contrast between the sections? With the precision and attention to detail we’ve come to expect from C&K, they create more density in the bit leading up to the next section and then make a clean cut. For instance, in the second half of the vocal part they build up the sound effects and add a swoosh sound, all of which are abruptly cut off when the minimal bit begins (0:33). This technique highlights the new section’s decidedly dry and stripped-down character. This is exactly the same effect I’ve always loved about “One Night in Bangkok” (Murray Head, 1984): the chorus begins – “One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster” – with its expansive instrumentation and no shortage of reverb, and in the second line – “The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free” –we have a cutoff on the word “temples”, with only a minimalist bass line remaining until everything builds up again. I love this effect – if done well, it is a moment of surprise that creates variety, excitement, intensity.

Less is more
But back to “Loving You Is Easy”. So, the secret is in the build-up through the addition of instruments, effects, etc. so that the next bit is all the more surprising. In essence, the minimal bit consists only of bass, bass drum and a minimal sound playing the F minor scale (without the 6th; see it notated) – you can hardly get more minimal than that. And again C&K amp up the effects and the reverb towards the end of the 8-bar form, as well as putting a delay on the melody, just to cut it all off again when the next section begins.

In the subsequent disco parts, C&K reinforce their homage to that era with a Chic-style guitar and later with a couple of string falls (2:36 and 2:44). And, as if they hadn’t made me happy enough yet, C&K end the track with a synth sound that would make Giorgio Moroder proud. 

Thank you, Camo & Krooked, for creating an infectious track for no other reason than to make us happy! It’s the soundtrack of my summer.

See the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9IiagqBBHs

The deutsche Fassung dieses Blogeintrags gibt’s zu lesen auf zartbitter.co.at.

Behave (From Now On) & Phantom Sentimental - Fijuka

Part 4 - Austria Series

This blog entry is about a Vienna-based duo called Fijuka. The two founding members, Ankathie Koi (lead vocals) and Judith Filimónova (bass), met at university in Vienna and formed Fijuka in 2011. They describe themselves as a “synthie-pop-electronica minded band”, but they’re not at all what I’d expect from that label (personally, I’d expect the clean, crisp digital sound of, say, La Roux or Chvrches). Thanks to the analogue synth sounds they use and the real electric bass, Fijuka’s sound is quite natural and warm. The three distinctive elements of Fijuka’s music are the charisma and voice of Ankathie, the synth sounds and the bass lines.

Let’s start with Ankathie, a singer from a small town on the Bavarian-Austrian border, who manages to invoke the spirit of such weird and wonderful pop ladies as Kate Bush, Elly Jackson, Feist, Imogen Heap or Róisín Murphy. In the verse of “Behave (From Now On)”, for instance, her voice has a similar timbre to Kate Bush in “The Man With the Child in His Eyes”, while the verse of “Phantom Sentimental” has a rhythmic quality similar to La Roux’s “Bulletproof”. And you know what – Ankathie’s strong accent doesn’t even bother me. I think it’s because of Fijuka’s tongue-in-cheek attitude. I often find strong foreign accents disconcerting when the singers take themselves too seriously or when the music is trying to sound decidedly American or English. But I can accept an accent as part of an ironic or experimental concept, or when the music has an obvious European vibe. Björk’s accent, to name one example, is an integral part of her whole image and fits in perfectly. Also, Ankathie’s self-confidence and charisma in her performances compel you to accept whatever she offers as gospel. Her weird gyrations in the video to “Behave (From Now On)” are so bonkers you can’t help but watch (not to mention that I NEED those stunning technicolour tights!).

Fijuka use vintage synth sounds that give their music a decidedly retro touch. In one of their live videos, you can see Ankathie playing a Roland RS-09, an analogue synthesizer that hit the stores in 1979, which is why it evokes that typical early 80s sound in Fijuka’s songs – although I don’t think that Fijuka are specifically going for an 80s revival sound. Rather, the synthesizer’s often cheesy sounds make it the logical choice for their whimsical overall concept. 
What also sets Fijuka apart from contemporary synthpop is their comparative simplicity. While there’s always a lot going on in synthpop, with a whole range of sound layers working together at the same time, Fijuka keep it simple with just vocals, drums, bass, harmonic synth, and occasionally a melodic line in the synth – and that’s it. Some might call that under-produced, and who’s to say a good producer wouldn’t get even more out of the songs, but personally I don’t feel like there’s anything missing.

The bass lines in Fijuka’s songs play an important role, owing to the fact that the other half of the duo, Judith Filimónova, is a professional bass player. And because there aren’t so many different musical elements vying for the listener’s attention, we take more notice of the bass. While the driving bass line in “Behave (From Now On)” consists of “Billie Jean”-style eighth notes, “Phantom Sentimental” has a decidedly funky feel.

You’ve just got to watch Fijuka’s videos. They used young directors who did a great job of creating a professional, international look for both videos. In “Phantom Sentimental” (directed by Marie-Thérèse Zumtobel and Anselm Hartmann), you’ll see Ankathie and Judith being treated like meat, literally. And “Behave (From Now On)” (directed by Florian Pochlatko) is just so eccentric and comic in a way, that I never tire of watching it.

See the videos here:

Don't Play (album) - Tyler

Part 3 - Austria Series

This time I just couldn’t bring myself to choose one favourite song, so I’ve decided to take a more general view. Today I’m looking at a Viennese rock band called Tyler.

First time I heard Tyler was on a Servus TV programme, I think in 2010. With the help of Shazam, I found out who it was, and was blown away to learn that it was an Austrian band. The song was “What’s Wrong” from Tyler’s debut album, “Don’t Play” (2005). What first caught my attention was the bass line, which the electric guitar doubles in the second half of the intro. A clever technique is letting the beginning of the vocal line imitate the movement of the bass line (B - C# - D), giving it more weight and power. 

At any rate, from that moment onward, I was a Tyler fan. And in my opinion, “Don’t Play” shouldn’t be missing from any self-respecting Austrian pop-rock aficionado’s music library. Every song on that album is a gem with its own individual character. “Separated”, “All My Weapons”, “Can’t Break Me” and “Any City” are rock songs with strong melodies; to me they sound grungy in parts and remind me a bit of Stone Temple Pilots. “Wantcha” is a pretty funky track, and “Beautiful”, “Stay Awake” (one of my faves), “Hello” and “Paper Maché Darts” are great rock ballads.

Composition + Production + Killer Vocals = Tyler
What sets Tyler apart is firstly their musical originality and creativity. In a genre where a lot of bands seem to think they can get away with weak/uninspired/monotonous melodies by focussing on production, I really admire bands that attach importance to melody and harmony. Songwriter and lead singer Lukas Hillebrand even uses first and second inversions (e.g. C major chord with E resp. G in the bass) – frankly, that impresses me.

The second thing that sets these guys apart is the brilliant production. A music producer’s job requires a great deal of sensitivity to know which element is needed at which moment in a song, and it’s usually the smallest details that make the difference in the end. If you listen to the first 20 seconds of “Separated”, for instance, you’ll hear a whole lot of tiny elements that work together to create excitement. These layers have to be done just right to work and I just love Tyler’s attention to detail.

One more point I need to mention is the vocal performance of Lukas Hillebrand – this guy can sing! Not only does he have the whole rock thing going on, but his head voice sounds fabulous. He can also switch dynamics seamlessly and his phrasing is impeccable. And on top of everything, he makes it all sound effortless and uncontrived. If I had to name one complaint it would be that the balance of the lead vocals is a bit off in the mix – they should quite simply be louder.

An Austrian ending
So now brace yourselves for the blow: in 2011 Tyler released their second album, “Favourite Sin”, only to disband later that year. Tyler was one of the many casualties of Austria’s unsupportive stance towards its own musicians (pop musicians, in particular) during the past few years/decades. In my opinion, it’s inexcusable that this band got so little support and, subsequently, so little recognition that they were forced to throw in the towel.

Granted, Lukas Hillebrand, Alex Pohn (drums) and Peter Schönbauer (bass) aren’t twiddling their thumbs; they are sought-after songwriters/producers/musicians (primarily for Austrian singer Julian le Play at the moment). But Tyler is sorely missed in the Austrian music scene. All fans can do is listen and re-listen to “Don’t Play” and “Favourite Sin” and hope for a reunion gig some day.

Listen to samples at Amazon

Million Euro Smile - The Makemakes

Part 2 – Austria Series

What do you do if you landed a surprise hit and now everyone is expecting you to repeat that level of success or even top it? Well, you could do one of two things. Either say “whatever, I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing” and cross your fingers that things will work out. Or you do your homework, reflect on what people want to hear, create something that fits the bill, and cross your fingers that you got it right. Either way, it’s never a surefire thing.

The Makemakes, a rock band from the district of Flachgau in Salzburg Province, took the latter approach. With their first single, “Lovercall” (2012), a groovy little number with a Maroon 5 vibe, the Makemakes achieved the virtually impossible: they got into the Austrian charts under their own steam, without a casting show behind them, as is usually the case in this country. So, what to do next? The Makemakes took their time in releasing a follow-up single and, knowing how important the second release is – being the moment of truth that either reveals the first success as a fluke, or confirms a band’s high quality – obviously put a lot of consideration into their next single, “Million Euro Smile” (2014). The result was a song that exceeded all expectations, reaching 2nd place in the Austrian Top 40. A truly remarkable achievement!

The art of writing a hit song
Writing a song with an explicit view to creating a hit is no easy feat. Many have tried, but crashed and burned. The fact is that there are certain obvious prerequisites, such as a catchy tune, and certain parameters you can follow, but ultimately audiences are fickle and there are no guarantees.

For “Million Euro Smile”, the Makemakes drew on Rock ’n’ Roll and classic Motown for inspiration. The music of the 50s/60s has provided inspiration for a great number of pop songs throughout the subsequent decades. I can think of a few off the top of my head: The 80s brought us Billy Joel’s album “An Innocent Man” (1983), including, most notably, “Uptown Girl” and “Tell Her About It”, and Soulsister’s “The Way to Your Heart” (1988). The UK seems to have a soft spot for this style of retro pop music, with “Give Me a Little More Time” (1996) by Gabrielle in the 90s, Amy Winehouse and Duffy in the noughties, and more recently “Black Heart” (2012) by Stooshe. 

The advantage of referencing past styles is that people respond immediately because it sounds so familiar, which is a definite bonus. Songs that break new ground often don’t get the reception they deserve for the simple reason that they take getting used to. 

Conformity vs deviation
“Million Euro Smile” is a pretty straightforward retro-style song: it has elements from doo-wop, rock ’n’ roll and classic Motown – e.g. the la-da-da intro, the frenzied chord repetitions in the piano part of the verse, the accentuated backbeat in the drums, the horn section (courtesy of the legendary LaBrassBanda from Bavaria). The list could go on and on. 

It might be more interesting to note the elements that DON’T adhere to the retro blueprint. Firstly, the band chose to give the vocals a highly compressed and saturated sound – I don’t think they were going for a vintage sound, but rather wanted to make the voice a bit edgier, so that the song wouldn’t end up overly sweet and naive (unfortunately, at the expense of intelligibility). Secondly, there’s this short bit at the end of the second chorus (from 2:02) where the song suddenly goes into a halftime feeling and there is a long delay on the vocals. The more contemporary vibe makes this bit stand out and listeners can, just for a few moments, catch their breath before being plunged straight back into the nostalgic rollercoaster ride. 

The third thing that deviates from the blueprint is the lyrics. Tradition would have it that the lyrics of songs in this style should deal with love exclusively, and at first glance “Million Euro Smile” would seem to oblige. But, as I later learned, the lyrics are in fact about the Euro. Yup, you read right. Dodo Muhrer, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, said in an interview that “the song was written at a time when the EU Member States were thinking about how the whole situation with the euro should go on.” Personally, I’d prefer the straightforward approach with regard to the lyrics. But then again, the band’s intention was probably to offset the song’s retro sound by giving it lyrics with a contemporary context.

The Makemakes managed to create a song that became a hit in Austria. Following up on a first-time hit is always daunting, but they took a calculated risk and were rewarded. For me, though, knowing that these guys can really rock, I’m hoping that they’ll show us more of that on their album, which is scheduled for release in autumn.

Watch their video here.

Maschin - Bilderbuch

Part 1 - Austria Series

I’m kicking off my Austria Series with Bilderbuch, one of the most exciting bands the country has to offer at the moment. Bilderbuch have been on the Austrian alternative scene for nine years, and are now finally enjoying a breakthrough with “Maschin”, a single off their EP “Feinste Seide”. 

While the band’s earlier work conveys a sense of youthful energy and urgency, they seem to have matured and found a sound and style that appeals to a more mainstream audience while maintaining just enough of their original punk attitude so as not to disappoint their hardcore fans. The reward is growing success, awards and, as of today, close to 790,000 YouTube clicks for “Maschin”. 

After Falco’s heyday, which lasted from 1985 to 1987, the Austrian pop scene fell into a funk, and his larger-than-life persona has been sorely missed since his death in 1998. Bilderbuch’s frontman, Maurice Ernst, might just have what it takes to fill the void. He struts around the stage with the aloofness and theatricality of a stage veteran, making him completely irresistible to watch. And you need a special kind of self-confidence to rock the jacket he wore at the Amadeus Awards this year (www.youtube.com/watch?v=vsvrABRqgI8). 

So let’s look at the song: Although Bilderbuch’s lyrics often contain surreal images that can’t/aren’t meant to be understood on an intellectual level, I think “Maschin” can be summed up as follows: Essentially, the verses seem to be about a guy trying to pick up a girl by convincing her to get into his swanky car, but when the chorus comes along we get the impression that he’s actually singing to his car, his Maschin. The video reinforces this idea of the guy’s love affair with his car (a bright yellow Lamborghini, no less). Musically, the song owes a lot of its sultriness to the sensual vocals, and I feel that Maurice Ernst has come into his own and found a style that makes the best of his vocal skills and suits him to a T. 

The bass line is the first defining musical element of “Maschin”. It seems so simple when you see it written down, but it works so well with the other elements that you even forget you’re hearing the most basic of chord progressions: I – V – IV – I (Cm – Gm – Fm – Cm). 

The second is the guitar riff, doubled with a synth. It appears in a simplified form in the song’s intro and interlude between verses 1 and 2, and in its entirety in the chorus. So, considering that the whole song is built on a largely unchanging bass line, a simple chord progression and a guitar riff, what keeps it from being boring or banal? 

Well, the most memorable part of the song is, of course, the chorus. The first thing you notice is the syllable repetition à la “Barbara Ann” (“Lala-la-la-lala-lass mich nicht los/Lele-le-le-lele-leg dich zu mir/Haha-ha-ha-haha-halt mich fest”), which always adds a playful or ironic touch and immediately lets us know that none of this is really serious. After this flood of syllables in the first three lines of the chorus, ending it with no more than the two syllables of the word and title “Maschin” is an effective way of drawing attention to it and making it stand out. And coming to the melody in the chorus: A banal melodic solution would involve orbiting around the tonic, third or fifth of the respective chords. But Bilderbuch’s chorus consists primarily of repetitions of B flat, which is first the seventh (of Cm) and then the fourth (of Fm). This creates tension and hence interest.

I’m really curious to see what these guys do next. I’d like to see them dig deeper in the box of genius from whence “Maschin” came, create more of this kind of stuff, which can appeal to a wider audience, and then get really big. So here’s me crossing my fingers that they’ll get support from the right people and make smart decisions.

Rather Be - Clean Bandit feat. Jess Glynne

“Rather Be” by Clean Bandit featuring Jess Glynne is a song that originated in the UK, took Europe by storm and also made its way into the American Billboard charts. Most reviews I’ve read applaud the song’s “freshness”. For me, it is certainly fresh in the sense of light and joyful – and I do love its happy-go-lucky vibe – but not so much in the sense of new or unique. Let me tell you why.

Picking and choosing
I believe that what makes this song so likeable is the fact that it sounds like we’ve heard it before. “Rather Be” isn’t exactly original, but it cleverly unites various elements we’ve heard elsewhere. For example, the use of strings in dance music is a tradition that goes way back: think 70s disco hits like those of Chic, or the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. Granted, these songs usually feature a full violin section as opposed to the solo instruments used by Clean Bandit, but the concept is by no means new.
Other elements of “Rather Be” remind me of early 90s dancefloor hits. The piano riff in the chorus – especially as it is played from 2:23 – reminds me a lot of the piano parts in, say, Madonna’s “Vogue” (1990) and CeCe Peniston’s “Finally” (1991). Also, compare the synth organ riff in “Gypsy Woman” (1991) by Crystal Waters, or the synth in “What is Love?” (1993) by Haddaway. On top of that, I can’t help thinking of 2Unlimited’s “No Limit” (1993) when I hear that “No no no no no” hook. 

Colouring by numbers
Then there are other aspects that are typical for dance, like the way the drums build up, starting at 0:32 with a simple four-on-the-floor beat, getting fuller and more complex from section to section, of course culminating in the hook (“No no no no no / No place I’d rather be”). Then there’s the break at 2:52 where the vocals are left a cappella, only to soar into a final repetition of the chorus. All of these aspects contribute towards the general sense of familiarity when we hear this song. Cleverly done by the band.

Fusion that works
Clean Bandit’s sound is basically a “fusion” of electronic and classical elements, with a varying proportion of strings in each track. In 2013 the band released the intriguingly weird single “Mozart’s House”, which to me sounds as if a string quartet was caught rehearsing next door to Daft Punk back in 1997. In “Rather Be”, however, the strings play a comparatively small role, and the song would work just as well without them. Admittedly, they introduce the riff at the very beginning of the song, but as soon as Jess Glynne starts to sing, the synth takes over, and from then onwards they just add texture here and there. I think the understated use of strings in this song was wise, as the worst thing the band could have done would’ve been to crowbar the strings in just to make a point. Good judgment is vital when trying to make a “fusion” concept work – and, let’s face it, it’s a concept that can go embarrassingly wrong.
I also like their signature synth sounds, which call to mind vintage Atari games; they create a rhythmic carpet that forms a contrast to the smooth vocal melody and the legato lines in the strings. 
As far as the vocals are concerned, I’m pleased to see that full voices with character and warmth are enjoying a comeback, after all the nasal-voiced ladies who dominated British pop from the late 2000s. It seems there is a general trend towards a new sound ideal. 

“Rather Be” is a catchy, to my ears very European-sounding song, and I’m curious to hear the rest of Clean Bandit’s debut album, “New Eyes”, scheduled to be released at the end of May or early June. From what I’ve heard of it, it should present a coherent overall picture, with some tracks more on the deep house end of the scale and others more pop oriented in the style of “Rather Be”. 

Rise Like a Phoenix - Conchita Wurst

I have to admit that I didn’t find “Rise Like a Phoenix” particularly memorable when I first heard it a couple of days ago. But after having had the opportunity to hear it twice in the Eurovision Song Contest, that chorus became so etched in my brain that I hardly slept a wink that night. For me, the song only really showed its true quality in combination with the live performance of Conchita Wurst. You need more than just a big voice to successfully belt this song out, you also need a big personality – and Conchita has both by the bucketful. She totally owned the stage and delivered a sensational performance with no frills, which earned her a well-deserved landslide victory.

It’s a song that might have been conceived as a ballad for a diva like Shirley Bassey. Or that could have worked well at the beginning of Bridget Jones, when the heroine bawls out Celine Dion’s “All By Myself” in her pyjamas. The song can also withstand comparison with “Skyfall” by Adele: although these songs both have a certain James Bond vibe and are similar to a degree (starting with the orchestral chord at the very beginning), “Rise Like a Phoenix” is more deserving of the label “power ballad” and would have been a worthier Bond title song in my eyes. It is bigger, grander and, in my opinion, simply the better song.

Besides Conchita’s compelling and flawless performance, what I love about “Rise Like a Phoenix” is its full, orchestral playback track, especially from the second chorus onwards, with the entry of the low brass. And the last chorus, when the high trumpets join in, is a guaranteed goose bump moment. A bad arrangement would have ruined everything, possibly making it more like a cheap Ralph Siegel-style production (cf. San Marino’s song). But Austria managed to produce an elegant, high-class arrangement that had no equal in this year’s ESC.

Comparisons with James Bond songs from the John Barry era are understandable, although “Rise Like a Phoenix” is by no means just a cheap imitation. Any allusions to Bond, whether intentional or unintentional, are subtle. The typical Bond guitar, for instance, which figures prominently in “Skyfall”, plays a subordinate role in “Rise Like a Phoenix”, and the harp that would be indispensable in a parody of Barry is missing entirely.

But the thing I love most about this song is one small detail: The temptation to raise the key by a semitone in the last chorus must have been great, not only because it’s a musical device that would be appropriate for this genre, but also because it would make sense in combination with the lyrics (“I’m gonna fly / And rise like a phoenix”). But the songwriters found an elegant way to avoid this cliché. Even though we’re thinking “ok, here we go, now it’s coming” and the vocal melody does in fact go up that one semitone on the word “rise”, the key stays put. A nice surprise, and very tastefully resolved. Just classy – perfect for Conchita.

Stay With Me - Sam Smith

Sam Smith is the darling of the hour in his home country of England and there’s no denying his vocal qualities. But it’s interesting to observe the path of “Stay With Me” as it forges its way through the world’s charts. The single was initially released in April of this year and was immediately well received in English-speaking countries such as the UK, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand (interestingly, it never peaked in Australia though). This week it finally reached the top spot in the Billboard charts. And now that the US have given it their stamp of approval, the song is inching up the charts in other countries as well, currently holding 8th place in Switzerland, 15th in Germany and 18th in Austria, for instance. And Smith’s performance of the song at this year’s VMAs (Sunday, 24 August) is bound to further boost its success.

So “Stay With Me” obviously strikes a chord with English-speaking nationalities, but what is it about this song, exactly? I’m personally not a big fan of this song – frankly, I find it a bit dull and generic, and definitely one of the weaker tracks on what is otherwise quite a decent debut album – but I’m going to try to find those qualities that make the song appealing to so many people. 

Thanks for the song, Tom Petty!
The first thing that struck me about “Stay With Me” is the chorus’s blatant similarity with “I Won’t Back Down” (1989) by that American icon Tom Petty. I’m actually surprised there haven’t been any legal ramifications as yet. Just this week Shakira was found guilty of plagiarism, so we’ll see if Petty objects. But the thing is, taking advantage of familiarity is a clever strategic move. For inhabitants of English-speaking countries, “I Won’t Back Down” is a golden oldie that everyone knows, so what better marketing ploy than to reference (read: copy) that tune. Where “Stay Like Me” consists of the three chords vi – IV – I  (Am – F – C), Tom Petty uses vi – V – I, a negligible difference overall, especially considering that the melody in the chorus is practically identical. In the 3rd line, Sam Smith’s melody does take a softer, more melismatic approach, while Tom Petty offers us harmonic variety by way of an unexpected IV – but let’s face it, they’re essentially the same. So it stands to reason that many people would respond to the familiarity of “Stay With Me”.

NOT a love song
The entry of a Hammond organ and gospel-inspired backing vocals are also a nod to American culture, and there are many people who relate to gospel music on a deep level. But for me, the use of these elements is plain bizarre. As a general rule, a gospel choir instantly adds power to a song because, after all, it’s not just one person telling you something, but 20, so you’d better believe it. Their job is to confirm and reinforce what the lead singer is saying, just as they would in the traditional church setting. But here’s the thing: “Stay With Me” is about a guy who feels an immense sense of emptiness and loneliness after a one-night stand, so the idea of having a whole choir underlining the idea of loneliness is just absurd to me. I think the arrangement is also misleading as to what the song is actually about. I’m pretty sure there are ill-informed brides out there who are requesting this song at their wedding in the erroneous belief that it’s a love song. I’d recommend reading through the entire lyrics. “Oh, won’t you stay with me? / ‘Cause you’re all I need” sounds sweet enough, but then “This ain’t love, it’s clear to see” shatters all illusions. 

Ultimately, it is Sam Smith’s voice that carries the song, although I personally appreciate him more on songs like the soulful “I’m Not the Only One”, “Not In That Way”, or the 80s-inspired “Restart”.

Tough enough?
Sam Smith has said that his debut album, aptly titled “In The Lonely Hour”, was written for lonely people. And, for me, he generally has an aura of sadness about him. This is possibly what makes his voice so special. But when I see him in interviews, I feel kind of scared for this sweet, melancholy, vulnerable boy and sincerely hope that he can stand his ground in the music business and live to tell the tale.







Copyright © 2014 Elisabeth Kaplan