Tracks I never tire of: ‘A Higher Place’

‘A Higher Place’ by Röyksopp, 2001, from the album Melody A.M.

Röyksopp had two big hits from their debut album Melody A.M, ‘Eple’ and ‘So Easy’, both of which appeared on almost every chillout compilation album for the next few years, and both of which had great videos.

They were decent enough tracks, and listening to them had a similar effect as popping sheets of bubble-wrap. Save for the high-pitched, bleeping melody of ‘Eple’, they weren’t that challenging, and they were a little bit fun, and they passed the time, but there wasn’t much more to them. Same deal with most of the rest of the album. For me, though, one track on Melody A.M. stood out as seeming to come from somewhere deeper, darker and more mysterious, and it was appropriately titled ‘A Higher Place’.

Röyksopp waste no time on ‘A Higher Place’. It kicks off with a three scene-setting drum hits and then goes straight into the main loop – a simple percussion sequence embellished by a few soothing synth chords, a constant floating, shimmering motif and, eventually, some minimalist vocal samples. It quickly establishes an offbeat-yet-driving tone and, apart from the subtle loop variations and chord changes, mostly stays there. The few repeated synth gestures are sporadic at first but become more frequent as the song continues – a steady, subtle escalation. There is no hint of verse or chorus, only variations on the same four-bar phrase – poison for some, but just the kind of thing I love.

The lyrics are simple – “take you to a higher place” – but ‘A Higher Place’ doesn’t necessarily take you all the way there. What it does is even better, something the best music (and art in general) manages to pull off: it suggests the existence of such heights rather than presenting them to you explicitly. The track is as ecstatic as the best scenes in Hitchcock films are scary, where the horror is suggested rather than shown. Röyksopp seem to bring you a glimpse of something out of human reach, just enough to get a sense that it’s out there, just for a few minutes.

There is one moment, at 2:44, that is among the closest to a metaphysical paradise as I know in contemporary music. The beat drops off and then all the synth and vocal samples dissipate, leaving a quick moment of silence before – the beat drops again, slightly more complex than before, with a new chord as a landmark to shift the tone a degree out. It’s a moment infused with subtle wonder, deflating my ego in a single beat and just forcing me to listen.

Read about more tracks I never tire of here.

Tracks I never tire of: ‘These Words’

‘These Words’, by Natasha Bedingfield, 2004, from the album Unwritten

I was 19 when ‘These Words’ came out and dominated C4 and commercial radio for a few weeks. It had a catchy up-tempo beat, great lyrics (about struggling with writer’s block in the studio), Bedingfield’s strong and passionate voice and a classic video. All these helped me to love it, but what makes me never tire of it is the memory of one of the funniest, and most embarrassing, episodes in my life.

My good mate Tommy and I were on our way out to Taylors Mistake, a beach/peninsula just outside of Christchurch, to go fishing. He had picked me up around midday in his car and, with the summer sun high in a cloudless sky, we wound the windows all the way down and turned the radio up to full volume. The Rasmus – ‘In The Shadows’. Usher – ‘Yeah’. OutKast – ‘Roses’. It was going to be a great day.

Then ‘These Words’ came on. Perhaps it was the heat, but we went a little crazy – not merely singing along, but singing along to each other, gesticulating and grinning widely as we pulled up to an intersection on Moorhouse Drive. With the car idling, we put everything we had into our performance, our voices striving to reach Natasha’s high pitch. The world around us dissolved as we lost ourselves in it.

Halfway through the chorus, as our voices reached a crescendo, I noticed that a car had pulled up next to us. I froze. Then Tommy looked, and he froze. It was FILLED with hot girls – five of them, all staring at us in disbelief… and laughing uproariously.

For those that don’t know the lyrics to ‘These Words’, the chorus – which we were singing at full volume, as we looked into each other’s eyes, when the girls pulled up – goes like this:

These words are my own, from my heart flow
I love you I love you I love you I love you
There’s no other way to better say
I love you
I love you

Of course we stopped singing. Then, after a few seconds of begging the lights to change, now, please now, we started laughing too. And every time I’ve heard the song since, I’ve remembered that moment of sheer panic, followed by the realisation of how hilarious and absurd we must have looked.

Tommy and I never saw those girls again, but we’ll always have ‘These Words’.

View the music video and hear the song by clicking here. Thank you, Tommy, for being a good sport and allowing me to announce this to the world.

Tracks I never tire of: ‘Raver’

‘Raver’, by Burial, from the album Untrue

Nostalgia is a beautiful, brutal thing, and so it has come to hit me in the face once more with remembrance of how I discovered Burial. The reclusive UK dubstep/grime producer released his second album Untrue in late 2007, and on the tip of some good online folk, I checked it out. My subsequent (and repeated) rocking out awkwardly to his beats, seated in front of my laptop in a tatami-floored Japanese room by the sea, is not something anyone else needs to ever see or think about, but if the dearest moments in one’s life are marked by the purest self-realization yet experienced, I’d hold that as dear as just about anything.

Unlike most of my favourite albums, Untrue did actually grab me immediately, warranting a second listen straight after the first. However, it wasn’t until after a week or so that I realized it was Raver that stuck in my head as I cycled to and from the supermarket. It is the closing track, after all, but that’s not why I couldn’t shake it.

There are several reasons for this. First, it stands out clearly as being unlike anything else on the album. The moody, echoed, organic textures of ‘Archangel’, ‘Ghost Hardware’ and ‘Untrue’ are offset by the quiet reverberating tones of ‘Endorphin’ and ‘In McDonalds’, but ‘Raver’ offers a more upbeat conclusion with its straightforwardness and clarity of tone. As such, it could be dismissed as more shallow than what’s come before, but repeated listens prove this isn’t the case.

Opening with echoed cymbal hits, it starts off much like the other tracks. Then that driving beat kicks in, followed by a pushing, wobbling bassline – can I even call it a bassline? It kicks in at about 00:18 – and I’m swept along every time. Layers are added steadily until the chorus which seems to burst, powerfully but at a respectful distance, out of the metronomic beat. Its simple up-and-down tones cut to the heart of whoever feels like listening.

One of the more beautiful things about Burial’s music is that he cuts the vocal samples so that they could be heard and interpreted in several different ways. To me, the initial plaintive cry on ‘Raver’ asks us to “choose life” and later agonizes over “the world’s fear” and how we “never grow”. A simple message that could be purely my own. Perhaps the way cuts the lyrics is an effort to include the listener in what meaning should be ascribed to his work.

It’s hopeful, it’s emotional. Everyone’s been dancing for hours and this is the last song before the club closes, or something. Burial himself once said that one way he would be inspired would be to recall the sounds of the club echoing in his head when he got home (see question 9), and that’s exactly what ‘Raver’ reminds me of. Still nodding your head as you unlock the door, then breaking out some clumsy moves with your girlfriend as you both stagger into the bedroom. Or closing your eyes and pointing to the sky with passion as you begin to comprehend what being away from home REALLY means. Your choice.

Tracks I never tire of: ‘Boyd’s Journey’

‘Boyd’s Journey’, by Michael Nyman & Damon Albarn, from the album Ravenous: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Film scores rarely hold much interest for me as stand-alone works of art. Generally, they’re either boring compilations designed to cash in on (or bolster) the movie’s success or the same cue repeated 20 times with little variation and a few bits of dialogue thrown in for distraction. There are exceptions, of course. Great compilation or part-compilation soundtracks include GoodFellas, Boogie Nights or Lost In Translation (among others), all of which work wonderfully as albums; of excellent original score soundtrack albums, however, I’ve only come across one – Ravenous.

Without its score, Ravenous would be a decent, enjoyable, but somewhat muddled film. With its Albarn/Nyman score, the muddlement remains, but it seems to fit perfectly alongside the schizophrenic music and the film is elevated to something I have been happy to watch about six or seven times. For me, no other film score is as important to its film than this one. Other scores may be greater – 2001, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, name something of your own – but here it’s absolutely vital to the film’s success. It is its star, its guiding force, the thing you remember about the film years later.

Though it’s full of fantastic individual tracks, it’s easy to pick one as the standout. ‘Boyd’s Journey’ is essentially the film’s main theme, appearing three times in the film and acting each time as a cue to our hero’s rebirth. As it begins it sounds like a child with ADD plucking at banjo strings, then other elements such as harmonica, squeeze-box and brass are brought in. It’s almost heroic, but the overwhelming impression one gets is of bitterness, melancholy, and tragedy. Like, it’s really beautiful, and seems to signal new beginnings, but I don’t think there’s any real joy intended – yes, things are changing, but probably not for the better.

The first time and (I think) second time through, it’s played on actual instruments, but on the third time – for the conclusion and end titles – Nyman & Albarn switch just about everything over to keyboards and synthesizers. With the strings, it adds a deeper level of sadness, its preciseness somehow cutting deeper than the roughness of the former version. Both are phenomenal pieces of music, regardless of whether they’re listened to in context (of the film or the album) or not. My vote for the Best Film-Related Music Ever, and as stated above, something I never get sick of hearing.

Tracks I never tire of: ‘Are We Here?’

Are We Here?’ by Orbital, from the album Snivilisation (1994)

Given my deep, almost obsessive love for Orbital’s entire oeuvre, it seems unfair to pick just one track to discuss out of the many they’ve released. The Hartnoll brothers have provided more of the soundtrack to my life than any other musicians – there’s no doubt I’ve listened to some of their tracks hundreds of times – and were at the forefront of electronic music for an entire decade. Nevertheless, if there’s one single track which I come back to more than any other, it’s ‘Are We Here?’, so… here we are.

The album it comes from, Snivilisation, was their third and marked something of a change in direction: less club-friendly, more experimental, and certainly more ambitious than their previous work. For a long time it was my least favourite of theirs purely because it was so different from everything else they’ve done, but as I listened to it more, I slowly realized it was their best. This seems to have been the opinion of many Orbital fans. You have that knee-jerk “Play your old shit! Your good shit!” reaction, then you actually give it a chance and see how good it is.

Now, if you listen to ‘Are We Here?’ by itself, it’s magnificent – 15 minutes plus of typically emotional and heartfelt loops cut together to almost feel like it’s telling a story. As the penultimate track of Snivilisation, listened to within that context, it becomes something like the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. If the album is, as I occasionally suspect, a concept birth-to-death thing, then ‘Are We Here?’ is its centrepiece – the last days of a being’s consciousness before slipping away into the dreamworld of ‘Attached’. That sounds awesomely pretentious, and maybe it is, but for me, it’s a religious experience when listened to in sequence.

The old criticism of ‘too repetitive’ would be an easy way to dismiss ‘Are We Here?’, and I imagine I probably did exactly that upon first listen. Now when it comes on, I can’t help but marvel at its complexity, how every element is perfectly timed to come in at just the right moment. It makes me feel very small and insignificant, but it also makes me totally okay with that.

Tracks I never tire of: ‘High Roller’

High Roller’ by The Crystal Method, from the album Vegas (1997)

I was tempted to select ‘Vapor Trail’ from Vegas, The Crystal Method’s debut album, as the first track to write about in this continuing series. Both are excellent examples of meticulously orchestrated electronic music, but ‘High Roller’ gets the nod because it’s a little bit more innovative.

If you know the album but not the track names, this is the one which has “This transmission’s coming to you / We’ve got it” running all the way through. The track opens with straightforward pumping synth which slowly becomes more complex as the samples are laid over the top. After about a minute, the thumping bigbeat comes in, and more synth elements are gradually added.

Kirkland and Jordan understand, however, that simply adding elements can make a track work okay, but to make it really interesting, you’ve got to strip some of those elements away in turn. So, the track ends up as about four minutes of all these different keyboard, drum and other percussion elements, along with the distinctive samples, being cut in and out at various intervals in a way that flows beautifully and demands attention.

I was reading just now and this track came on, and I had to stop and listen (and write about it). I seem to read a lot of unimpressed reviews of electronic music which complain that ‘you couldn’t dance to it’. In this case, and most of the others, it isn’t supposed to be about dancing. Best appreciated through headphones, this is a challenging, professional bit of work. And the beat sure kicks arse.