Elisabeth Kaplan

Singer & Songwriter

Monday, 22 September 2014

Thriller – Michael Jackson

Did you know …
… that “Thriller” went through quite a bit of trial and error and quite a few rewrites before it became the song that was finally presented to the public in late 1982? If you listen to one of the previous versions of the song, a demo called “Starlight” (see www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_kimWJ7128), you’ll appreciate why Rod Temperton (a song-writing veteran who has written for all the greats, including Donna Summer, Aretha Franklin, Herbie Hancock, Mariah Carey) decided to scrap his initial lyrics, which were rather generic and lacked a clear central message, in favour of something more unique.

Genius last-minute lyrics
The lyrics he then came up with for “Thriller” are full of strong imagery, immediately conjuring a vivid picture in the listeners’ minds. Temperton puts us right in the middle of this horror scenario (using direct address, “you”), and waits until the 3rd verse to let on that we are in fact just watching a horror film (“I’ll save you from the terror on the screen”). The directness of the lyrics is what makes them so accessible. Temperton doesn’t challenge us with hidden meaning, allegory, juxtaposition, metaphor or the like. He doesn’t try to make the song more than it is – with a satisfying result.

If I could be so bold as to voice one minor gripe (how dare I?): The bridge section (“Night creatures call …”) stands out musically – the harmonies suddenly shift, the triplets in the vocal melody make this part smoother and more lyrical compared to the rhythmic verse and chorus. Which is why the horror imagery (“night creatures”, “dead”, “jaws of the alien”) doesn’t feel right to me in this part. I’d have seen this bridge as an opportunity to introduce the idea of cuddling in front of the TV screen. In fact, I quite like the lines from Starlight: “Light up the world / Let the love start / Take charge of this masquerade”. As it stands, the music in this section gives the creepy lyrics a kind of sweetness, effectively rendering them harmless. Then again, perhaps it was Temperton’s intention to tone down the scariness here – to prepare us for the subsequent revelation that it’s all just happening on the screen?

THAT iconic bass hook
Musically, being intrigued by songs that have long, virtually unchanging sections, I wanted to find out how much of the song is made up of the famous bass hook that characterises the entire song. If you take just the main body of the song – Intro/ Verse 1/ Chorus/ Verse 2/ Chorus/ Bridge/ Verse 3/ Chorus (excluding the coda with Vincent Price’s legendary “rap”) – which makes up 117 bars, and count the number of bars built on the bass hook, you’ll find they make up 77% of the song! But thanks to the harmonic and melodic development, we don’t feel that the song ever gets boring or monotonous. Also, thanks to Quincy Jones and the world-class musicians playing on the track (I especially love David Williams’s tastefully restrained guitar lick, which adds so much density and rhythmic depth in all the right places), “Thriller” is a prime example of when to add and when to leave out small details that can make all the difference.

Back to “Starlight”: If I look at my copy of “Thriller” (the album) and mentally replace the song “Thriller” with “Starlight”, it changes the entire feel of the album. “Starlight” would have been no more than a catchy, but inconsequential interlude on an album whose makers intended it to be edgy. But in a moment of sheer brilliance, Temperton came up with a title that would go on to define an album, a year, a decade, a generation, the artist himself. 

German version here: http://zartbitter.co.at/kultur/unter-der-lupe-thriller-von-michael-jackson/

Sunday, 14 September 2014

U2: Uninvited guests

Mom taught me to always say please and thank you. Dad taught me that you never look a gift horse in the mouth. But Granddad always said, if it doesn’t cost anything, it’s not worth anything. And Vergil warned us to beware of gifts – they may not be what they seem.

U2 have certainly caused a stir with their new album, “Songs of Innocence” – not so much because of the music, but rather because of the distribution method. Personally, I don’t feel inspired to write about the musical content of the album. Despite the best of intentions, I never managed to warm to U2 and “Songs of Innocence” will definitely not win me over. U2 is a band you either love or hate. So it can be assumed that a large share of the 500 million iTunes users who were “gifted” with this album do not want the music. And even among the other, pro-U2 faction there are many who are appalled at the way the album “appeared” on their devices. U2 and Apple are calling it a “gift”, but let’s be honest, it’s actually more like the silent, unexpected attack of a stealth aircraft.

In a business that constantly needs to come up with new ways of getting people to spend their money on music, the publicity stunts are taking on new forms. Last year, for example, Jay Z teamed up with Samsung and gave away his album “Magna Carta Holy Grail” to owners of certain Galaxy devices. Users had to register for an app to claim the album, and downloads were limited to 1 million. That campaign had more of a “gift” feeling, because after all, only Jay Z fans would have taken advantage of the offer and I’m sure they appreciated belonging to this exclusive group and being among the first to own this album, which went on to become very successful.

U2/Apple’s ambush-style attack, however, makes me feel decidedly uncomfortable. There are so many questions, the first of which being: why? U2 and Apple throw their arms in the air and jubilantly proclaim: “It’s a gift!” But there is no such thing in the world of commerce – not without any ulterior motives, that is. U2’s benefits are clear: Apple paid them for their work, the sales of their past albums have seen a sudden boost, they again have the attention of the media, and they’ve used the opportunity to announce their follow-up album, “Songs of Experience”. What Apple stand to gain isn’t as clear to me, which increases my unease. They wouldn’t spend that kind of money without expecting some kind of ROI.

It may be true that there is no such thing as negative publicity, but taking away my freedom of choosing whether I want to click on the “download” button or not is more than questionable. It’s an invasion. But maybe Apple have, in a way, done us a service with their very public display of an unwanted, unsanctioned intrusion into our digital devices: they have raised awareness of just how easily they can tamper with our devices and how they can manipulate what we see and hear in our own homes. Perhaps we should see that as the actual gift.

Die deutsche Version dieses Blogeintrags findet ihr unter http://zartbitter.co.at/allgemein/u2-ein-ungebetener-gast/

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Dancer - Gin Ga


Photo credit: Petra Benovsky
For their track “Dancer”, it seems to me that the Viennese band Gin Ga – made up of Alex Konrad, Klemens Wihlidal, Emanuel Donner and Matias Meno – took their inspiration from the new wave of the early 80s. For those who are not familiar with new wave or are simply too young to remember, new wave was a style that emerged from punk in the late 70s/early 80s in England, but strived to be more accessible than its predecessor. It was, essentially, punk-inspired pop. I had loads of fun fun tracking down the new wave references in “Dancer” and I’ll show you what I found further down.

International connections
Gin Ga is yet another example of an Austrian band that has gained more recognition internationally than locally. What certainly worked to Gin Ga’s advantage was the fact that they have a Belgian manager who managed to get them not only gigs abroad, but also airplay in Poland, Spain, France and, of course, in Belgium. Also, for a while Gin Ga collaborated with James Stelfox, a British bassist they’d met at a gig in Brussels. These international connections helped them to get out of the confinement of the Austrian pop scene and also gave them the international endorsement needed in order to be taken seriously in Austria.  

Their second album, “Yes/No”, was released with Monkey Music late last year. The album exudes self-confidence and energy and is full of memorable songs that often give me flashbacks of post-punk England. “Dancer”, however, is the song that immediately grabbed my attention (click here to watch their homemade-style video!).

New wave from Austria
So what exactly are the main ingredients needed to qualify a song as new wave? 
Item 1: An attitude and energy clearly derived from punk. Check.
Item 2: Elements reminiscent of the era, namely late 70s to mid-80s. Check.
Item 3: Greater attention to songwriting and melodies than is the case in punk, as well as use of synth sounds. Check!

“Dancer” starts off with octaves in the bass that just scream 80s. Think New Order’s “Blue Monday” (1983), Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” (1984) or Visage’s “Fade to Grey” (1980). After a short intro frontman Alex Konrad takes centre stage with the first verse. He clearly belongs to the long line of such punk and post-punk performers as Joe Strummer (The Clash), Billy Idol or Robert Smith (The Cure), all of whom are not “good” singers in the classical sense, but whose vocals are chock-full of drama and raw emotion.

In the third line of each verse background shouts are employed for emphasis (e.g. “And with my first breath” in the 1st verse). Yelling vocals were common in punk and were then often adopted in new wave, e.g. in “Burning down the House” (1983) by Talking Heads. Another element that characterises the verses is the rhythmic motif played by a variety of industrial-sounding percussion instruments like those used by Depeche Mode in “People are People” (1984). This motif also has a similarly defining function as the one in Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” (1981). 

“To the left, to the right!”
The lyrics could well be just a load of mumbo-jumbo or, alternatively, so profound that my shallow mind cannot fathom them. Gin Ga chose a clever, stable structure for the lyrics (starting every verse with “I was a dancer before I was born/before I could walk/before I could speak/before I was sold”) that allows them to say almost anything and lets it sound extremely meaningful.

The chorus is just plain fun: “To the left, to the right / To the left, to the right / D-d-d-dancer, dancer!” Although the chorus suddenly gets more of a 90s trip-hop vibe with Massive Attack-style strings, I still found a new wave reference: the “d-d-d-dancer” reminds me of “M(-m-m-m)y Sharona” (The Knack, 1979)!

In truth, this song would be predestined to become something of an indie party anthem. The band even invented a little dance to go with it. How great is that?! A group of friends in England obviously had great fun making their own reconstruction of the“Dancer” video. What I’d love to see is an entire audience doing the moves. It would certainly be a way of showing the guys that they’re also appreciated at home and not just abroad …

Their website: www.thisisginga.com

Read the German version of this blog post at http://zartbitter.co.at/kultur/unter-der-lupe-dancer-gin-ga/.







Copyright © 2014 Elisabeth Kaplan