Monday, January 27, 2014

Start Slowly and Gently

As far as opening tracks are concerned, my general rule of thumb is to start with a bang. I feel that a big, attention-grabbing gambit tends to make for the best beginning; the five tracks that I mentioned in my Track Ones blog (cripes, that feels like an eternity ago now) are all pretty good examples. The Chad Who Loved Me has its epic movie strings...Cloud Shadow on the Mountain gives us those pounding drums...heck, Grace Kelly Blues starts with a friggin' brass band!

Lately, though, I've been coming around to the opposite approach, i.e. opening your album with a quiet, gentle song. Matthew Jay's Draw (which I recently received in a 1p Album Club swap) starts with a song called Four Minute Rebellion, and it's the most stripped-back, simplistic, and affecting song on the disc:

This track - being relatively unembellished and less than two minutes long - feel like the sort of thing that ought to be buried somewhere in the album's mid-section. And yet there is a certain charm to the idea of easing your listener in, and Four Minute Rebellion is a pretty arresting opener in spite of its slightness. The sweet melody and tactical F-bomb make sure of that.

Matthew Jay's minute masterpiece got me thinking about other such track ones - which other classic openers knock politely instead of tearing the door off its hinges?

Little Bear by the Guillemots springs nimbly to mind. I realise that I was blogging about Through the Windowpane only a few days ago, but the album's first track is also a great example of what I'm talking about here.

Those string parts aren't the gentlest, I'll grant you, but for an album that eventually winds up in the unhinged indie-samba zone, Little Bear is a pretty modest start. R.E.M. could open an album in understated style, too; Airportman (from Up) is a mumbling, electronic wisp of a song, while How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us (from New Adventures in Hi-Fi) is brilliantly tense, a cup full to the brim but never overflowing.

Both Up and New Adventures in Hi-Fi have explosive second tracks (Lotus and The Wake-Up Bomb, respectively) that would have made excellent openers, but by placing the more reserved tracks in pole position, R.E.M. were making a statement. New Adventures... came directly after the heavy glam fuzzfest that was Monster, and How the West Was Won adroitly informs the listener that this album will be different to its predecessor. Up, meanwhile, was the band's first album after Bill Berry's departure, and Airportman's hookless electronica made it clear that the three-man version of R.E.M. were headed in strange new directions.

Of course, the undisputed champion of opening albums with a whimper rather than a bang is Conor Oberst. He's said that he makes his track ones deliberately challenging so as to ward off casual listeners; this is the thinking behind all the weird noises and spoken word stuff that invariably kicks off each Bright Eyes album.

In fairness, Oberst has seldom gone to the extent of completely ruining a song with this stuff. At the Bottom of Everything (which starts with a story about a plane going down) was released as a single, and I read quite a few reviews of Cassadaga that singled out Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed) as a highlight, in spite of the freaky phone conversation that introduces the song.

My personal favourite, though, comes from the most recent Bright Eyes album, The People's Key. Track one is called Firewall; the song itself is a tense, drawn-out rumination on goodness knows what, with an electric guitar breathing in and out under Oberst's lyrics. But before you get to hear any of that, you are first treated to a speech about...alien reptile creatures. Among other things. Go ahead, have a listen:

And even if CO did intend for these tracks to be difficult, I think they actually make decent openers. They set the scene very nicely, whether by breaching the soon-to-be-recurring themes (as Firewall does when it isn't talking reptiles) or by starting several minutes too early and giving us a nice slice of ambient studio chat (see Big Picture, the creaky starter from Lifted). Oh, and the second track of a Bright Eyes album tends to be far more breakneck - as much as I love Method Acting, Four Winds and A Scale, A Mirror, and Those Indifferent Clocks, I'm not sure they'd make good openers. They work better and blow your mind harder once you're nice and settled in from one of Conor's trademark slow starts.

No comments:

Post a Comment