Noam Pikelny – Waveland

This week I’ve been guest blogging over at my sister concern MusicForMy, a bespoke music service that lets you easily commission original music and unique arrangements for your special event. You can give it a look see by clicking this here sentence, but it lifts the curtain on how I go about arranging music, at least to begin with. The arrangement of music is key, in all genres. An incredible melody or wrenchingly beautiful chord progression is next to worthless if set for kazoo and toy piano. Satisfying music needs to follow a certain logic across the genres, otherwise you just end up with confused mush. For me, the arrangement is as vital as the piece itself. Take my classical piece Farewell, Nathan Adler which exists in two versions; one for piano trio and one for symphony orchestra. Go click those links and give them a listen. Once you get past the electronic nature of the MIDI presentation (I can’t quite afford an orchestra yet) you can clearly see that changing the instrumentation immediately alters the atmosphere of the piece. Powerful stuff. Of course, talent tends to throw what rules we build for ourselves out the window. Sometimes the instrument you least expect can claw the most inexplicable wave of melancholic relief and joy once in the right hands. Sometimes you only need a banjo.

I’ve always liked the banjo, probably due to a very crappy demo of Camptown Races on my first keyboard along with an awful banjo setting. When I finally heard one for reals it was just so alien yet earthly, a bizarre hybrid of percussion and melody. I even bought one a few years ago but my playing has unfortunately never really taken off (probably because it stayed in Britain when I moved to Sweden). Noam Pikelny, on the other hand, is one of the most important pickers of his generation, cropping up all over the records of Chris Thile, Aoife O’Donovan, Steve Martin, Béla Fleck and a whole host of the great and the good of the Contemporary Bluegrass scene. Do you know the Contemporary Bluegrass scene? You should do, it is by far and away the most progressively interesting in all music; an ever-churning eddy filled with a refreshing honesty of both it’s history and the welcome disparate influences that feed it. It also has a great sense of humour running through the community, which is to be expected when Steve Martin is a member.

I’m drawn to Pikelny’s playing because of this. Because of his wit and his intelligence. Because of his skill in knowing exactly where to place that beautiful hybrid sound. Because the banjo can provide such a wealth of colour within the ensemble and he wants to show us. Waveland is almost Debussian in it’s Impressionistic chord progression, yet by setting it for banjo and banjo alone, Pikelny creates something exceptionally unique. He pushes our perceptions of the role of the banjo and hopefully by sharing it with you, you will discover the joys available when listening to the old clawhammer.


What’s in a song?: Lil’ Chris – Checkin’ It Out

Few things give your life perspective more than comparing your achievements against others. Reading the accomplishments of someone at an age younger than our own only serves to highlight our personal failures and lost potential. You begin to feel that if you’ve had no success before 25 then just give up now, you’ve wasted your time on the planet. I wonder why am I not winning Brit awards if by my age Bowie had already released all his seminal Glam albums? By my age he’d already been married once and had a child. By my age he’d lived. Of course, that’s a stupid train of thought; I have experienced things that Bowie never has and likely never will so have no need to feel bad at his success. I just need to take the chances as they come to me and be brave enough to follow my own path regardless of how long it may take. That said; it also helps to be able to look back at the end with no regrets, having contributed in some small way to the collective cultural consciousness. The way I see it; if I can write and perform a song that will grab you for those short, fleeting moments of it’s duration then I have achieved something in life and should be proud, regardless of whether you like it or not. It’s all about the reaction; aesthetics have no place in it. If you happen to enjoy the song, well I’ll consider it a bonus.

Chris Hardman (Lil’ Chris) died yesterday. He was 24. I vaguely remember when the ‘Rock School‘ programme was on but I didn’t really follow it due to being intensely jealous of the opportunity these children were given. That, and a serious allergy to Gene Simmons. Lil’ Chris, being the charismatic frontman and songwriter in the final group, was (as is so often the case) promptly snapped up by producers and ‘Checkin’ It Out’ was released months later. It is a song I greatly enjoy. Yes, it is a Franken-mash of better songs (‘Close to Me‘, ‘I Predict A Riot‘, ‘My Sharona‘ etc.). Yes, it is depressingly precocious. Yes, his jaunty cap angle offends my very being. It’s still a good song. A functional tune performed with verve and class. Seriously consider, how many 16 year old manufactured pop stars sound this raw? How many have a significant section dedicated to guitar solo after shouting ‘guitar, ow!’? How many use ‘brrrrrrrrrrrrr’ with such artistic abandon? Not many. I’m not trying to argue that it should have set the world alight or anything, I just want to highlight how rare this type of song is. His personality is writ all over it; effervescent and disjointed as it may be. All at the age of 16.

Fun fact: this was one of the first songs I ever bought on iTunes. I have no regrets. It is far more fun then most of the dross out today (looking at you, Swift) and it revels in it. That’s surely the whole point of expression; be yourself and create something only you can create. That way it lasts longer. It is remembered long after you think it lost. Though Lil’ Chris didn’t trouble the Top 3 again (arriving right at the end of the public flirtation with pop-punk), he did carve a small niche as a lower tier celeb, avoiding wasting his moment in the process. He didn’t implode in any petulant, fame-grabbing manner. He just stuck around and survived. Yet because that goes against type, we forgot about him (even though he’d had his own TV show at one point and starred in musicals). We forgot ‘Checkin’ It Out’ and I forgot how jealous I was of his early success. But this song, even for a tiny moment, affected me. It will always affect me. Lil’ Chris added to my life experience and listening to it now brings back such strong memories. He achieved something in his short life that I can’t begrudge him. I can only sit silently in thought as I contemplate the extra years I will have that he won’t.

Few things give your life perspective more than death. Especially early death. Especially when there is no destructive build-up we can follow in the papers. It is utterly sobering. But I suppose the only thing we can do is make the most of what we have. We can only ever live in the moment and should we have to go, make sure we leave something behind. The past successes of others is irrelevant. Age is just a number after all.

What’s in a song?: Emmanuel Jal – Yei

So, following on from last week; what are we to do? …Well if that isn’t a hypocritical statement then I don’t know what is. Why should we do anything? Other than to build the world in our image I can’t think of any reason that doesn’t drip questions of guilt and burdens. Maybe, just maybe we should allow others to help themselves. The way I have experienced it; the human psyche has an amazing capacity to take root among the ashes and to turn horror into cushions. The strength within us is insurmountable. Fear, now fear is something that will wreck you; but once you pass beyond fear you can achieve anything. No matter who you are. No matter your background.

©Jairo Crillio Photography                          Like the robot. The funky funky robot.

This is Emmanuel Jal. His particular background can barely be comprehended, but it’s probably best to let the cold words of Wikipedia give it a modicum of justice. His struggles and experiences dim our petty, softened lives. But to listen to his music; to listen to ‘Yei’ is to revel in a positivity of peace forged by the very factors that sought his destruction. Does anyone else think it utterly mind-boggling how one man deals with death, starvation and loss of innocence by dancing all over a sweet, sing-along beat. In fact, the stark tonal shift between poppy backing track and bleak imagery (“why are there so many dead people?”) raises this song way beyond it’s funky roots. The soft blows of his words give me shivers.

Now, I don’t really believe in looking backwards too much but you have to ask; why couldn’t Band Aid have included more African artists? The official line that the organisers sought to maximise charitable profit by packing the studio with bankable Western stars seems a little short sighted. People would have bought the single regardless, charity is the reason we can sleep at night. What the song needs is a genuinely fresh perspective on the problems faced from those who have experienced it. Artists like Emmanuel Jal could provide it. They could open our ears to the vibrancy of life and culture found throughout the African continent. They could have been beacons for good! Yet the burden remains; a shadow between the lines. Only we few can save mankind. No one else can be trusted.

                                 Not even Norwegians.

No, scrap that. I don’t believe it for a second. There is trust here. There is strength here. So much strength that I would follow willingly to Jal’s tune. Not because I pity him, nor because I reject my roots. I’d dance simply because the beat would arrest me and nothing else could matter. So, what are we to do? Maybe just recognise strength where we see only weakness. That’s probably the only path to follow.

Emmanuel Jal currently stars opposite Reese Witherspoon in ‘The Good Lie’. A damn fine film about the experiences of South-Sudanese refugees both during the civil war and after an American effort to patriate them to the States. It is beautifully shot and perfectly judged. I recommend highly. ‘Yei’ features on his new album, The Key. Buy a copy. It’s the most successful attempt at demolishing the ‘World Music’ stigma in years. This is music for everybody, regardless of creed. A very happy find.