No matter what the accumulated critics’ choices or popular picks might leave us expecting on the night, the winner of the 2018 Silver Scrolls will be a surprise when announced on October 4. Last year saw stylistic trends and a tip of the hat to the past being the driver for the top five nominee songs. Excited by this year’s finalist songs NZM’s X-Factory columnist Dr Mark Baynes chose to take the approach of ‘the art of surprise’ as the starting point for his own comparison of the top five Silver Scroll nominees for 2018.
If carefully crafted simplicity was the driving force behind the 2017 finalists, then carefully crafted musical surprises form the foundations of the five songs/artists vying for the 2018 APRA Silver Scroll award. The five songs remaining (with the winner decided by popular vote of APRA NZ songwriter members) are: Aztechknowledgey (Troy Kingi), Future Me Hates Me (The Beths), Hunnybee (Unknown Mortal Orchestra), Laugh It Off (Chelsea Jade), and Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore by Marlon Williams. I’m pleased to be able to share my thoughts on the efficacy of these tracks in relation to the title of this piece.
Aztechknowledgey is written and performed by Troy Kingi, a singer leading a band with all the trappings of the soul and psychedelic acts of the ‘70s – think a cross between dub music, Sly and the Family Stone and Marvin Gaye…
Extremely catchy, the song is full of harmonic devices intended to create surprise. Apart from the fact the verses and choruses are in different keys (verse is based around C and choruses Am), the verse borrows from C minor and C major tonalities in the same section which is unusual in pop music (but not unheard of e.g. Nick Drake – River Man).
The verse harmony is C – Eb – Ab – Db – G – C – Cm – Eb – Ab – Db – G – C, a chord sequence borrowed from jazz, which is surprising as recent trends in music performance seem to be to avoiding complex harmony. Maybe trends are changing? The move away from a purely diatonic palette would be welcomed from my point of view. Good job Troy Kingi!
Future Me Hates Me, written by Elizabeth Stokes and performed by The Beths (who she fronts) is dripping with self-irony. Sonically it is an upbeat sunshine song, sung with a smile. (Sorry for the alliteration). The meaning of the track is self-depreciating, the foreshadowing-styled lyrics are self-fulfilling, and the result is surprisingly incongruent (with perhaps the exception of overdriven guitar heard between choruses).
There are however lovely moments of prosody, such as the melody line descending over the word ‘fall’ at 37s, and syncopated lyrics over ‘wide-eyed nights lying awake’ at 3m20s. A more reflective stance represented by the lyrics ‘there’s something about you’ (e.g. 2m23s) is supported by finger-picked guitar as opposed to a dirty overdriven sound, which anaphonically represents a shift on mood. In short Future Me Hates Me is an astute, self-aware reflection of the human spirit and I love it!
Hunnybee is written by Ruban Nielson, Kody Nielson, and Jacob Portrait, and performed by Unknown Mortal Orchestra, a personal favourite among NZ bands, I should admit. The key to UMO’s music is production – they seem to dance effortlessly between solid groove and surprise, simplicity and interest, familiarity and exploration.
What do I mean by that? Well, the intro to Hunnybee is 1m18s long, comprising of three sections (1) unaccompanied strings, (2) guitar-driven groove and (3) string-driven groove. In pop music terms, an intro this long represents an eternity and UMO pull it off by playing the verse and chorus without vocals – as the introduction. Both grooves are (to coin an NZ expression) ‘tight and phat as…’ which is a testament to careful soundscaping and production choices.
Surprise comes by way of the intro (discussed), form (sections using odd bar lengths), vocal phrasing (especially in the verse). All of that said, words still fail me when trying to describe when listening to UMO – why part of me is transformed to somewhere quite magical.
Laugh It Off is written by Chelsea Jade Metcalf and Bradley Hale, and performed by Chelsea. Of all the finalist songs Laugh It Off seems to be the most ‘pop’, starting off with that classic Korg M1 ‘90s piano sound, sub-bass, pads, minimal production really – providing a backdrop to highly processed vocals. No surprise there perhaps, but then the chorus kicks in (e.g. 1m01s & 2m08s) – wow, what a groove!
The bassline over the chorus section is phenomenal, a punchy syncopated lombard figure-based groove, surprising in its originality and its ability to evoke a guttural/primal/organic vibe. Without being too reductive, this alone could be the reason that Laugh It Off is such a compelling track and why it is included in the nominees.
Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore, written by Marlon Williams and performed by Marlon Williams (and featuring Aldous Harding) is harmonically surprising. The track flirts with several distinct key centres without really settling on any one in particular. The verse begins in E major for two chords (E maj then A maj), before modulating briefly (using harmonic interpolation) to B major via an F#7 chord, before moving to the key of F# minor over the lyrics ‘nobody gets what they want anymore’. A parallel modulation such as this (the same chord moving between major and minor) is particularly striking, and in this case is used to darken the mood.
Williams supports the meaning of the song by not allowing the listener the comfort of a settled key signature, and by doing so creates prosody between lyrics and music. Beatles-esque production includes a mellotron sample in verse two and a Ringo Starr-type fill at 1m16s, which sends me back to the reflectivity of Strawberry Fields Forever. This is a surprising reference too – thanks for the ‘blast from the past’ Marlon!
In pop music there are usually trends to follow (or set), whether it be sounds, feels, tempos, and even number of writers etc. Just now, it seems like the secret of writing successful Silver Scroll nominee tracks is all about the art of surprise in some form or another; to this end I will simply follow suit – cabbage!
Dr Mark Baynes is the Programme Manager for the Bachelor of Musical Arts degree at MAINZ, Auckland; a degree program that fosters students’ ability to find their own musical voice, culminating with the creation of a capstone project such as an album, film score or music for game audio. For more information, visit www.mainz.ac.nz