On first hearing Carnivorous Plant Society ’s Don’t Go Outside I felt transfixed by the performance, recorded live for RNZ in March. A seven-piece band packed the studio with vibraphone, keyboards, backing vocalists, guitar and a rhythm section. The performance was deliberate and assured, yet somehow vulnerable.
Music is both a strange and wonderful beast! While some tracks may take a few listens to warm to, other music is instantly appealing but tires quickly with repeated listening. Sometimes when you hear a track for the first time you simply just ‘get it’, giving weight to an intuition that you know not only the music but perhaps also a sense of the artists’ intentions in crafting the song. Of course it’s possible to be misguided in this regard, but nevertheless, the guessing game is still a fun path to travel, a journey of both focus and abandonment.
Carnivorous Plant Society have been described by some as an alternative cinematic band drawing from jazz and popular music, and leader Finn Scholes is on record as a composer who likes to craft unique songs that defy genre. In an RNZ piece, Scholes told the story of The Wolf Pack, subjects of a documentary by the same name.
“It’s about these boys that are kept inside their house by their somewhat psychotic father. So the male vocal is trying to not let the kids out, but then the kids [represented by female backing vocals] want to go out.”
Expanding on Scholes’ dysfunctional family theme, it is both easy and natural to spot musical devices that support the song’s semantics. This article aims to unpack the complex relationship between harmony, melody, rhythm and meaning.
Don’t Go Outside is built using a harmonic device called ‘constant structure’, utilising primarily non-diatonic chords of the same type (e.g. either major, minor or dominant). In this case, harmony is built entirely using major chords containing abrupt modulations between sections, and ambiguous key centres (each section starting on B Major – Ab Major – Db Major respectively), often descending in thirds. This is a listening surprise as the normative palette found in most contemporary music is well established to be diatonic chords derived from the major scale (e.g. Cmaj – Dm – Em – Fmaj – Gmaj – Am – Bdim). Although constant structure exists in popular music (think Black Hole Sun by Soundgarden or Nirvana’s Lithium), it is not commonplace.
The melody of Don’t Go Outside is composed using thirds, fifths and the occasional #11th, a combination of warm tones, neutral tones, and bright tones as described in websites such as Holistic Songwriting.
The melody that represents the psychotic father (the A section) is slow but syncopated, and largely horizontal and conjunct. Contrastingly at the B section, the children (represented by the female singers) sing a more agitated and rhythmically dense melody, suffixed with a jilted choral laughter which is particularly haunting; connotations include repressed desire to escape (the children) and an uneasy moroseness (father). Contrast between the syncopated male melodic line and a straight and relaxed groove by bass and drums (bassline played by both vibraphone and bass) add to this feeling.
At 2min 25s, the rhythm section drops out. This is poignant as the children have left by this time, so the lyrics, ‘It’s cold in here’ are represented by both a lack of accompaniment and an ambiguous time feel.
The mood of this track is quirky, its oddness supported by musical accompaniment using many well-crafted surprises, including but not limited to a false ending and unusual harmonic choices. Even the ending of the song simply fades.
In the book Sweet Anticipation, academic David Huron states, “The phenomenon of ‘surprise’ represents a failure of expectation. From a biological perspective, surprise is always a bad thing. Even when the surprising outcome turns out to be good, failing to anticipate the outcome means that the brain has failed to provide useful information about possible futures. Predictive failures are therefore caused for biological alarm. If an animal is to be prepared for the future, the best surprise is no surprise.” (Sweet Anticipation, Huron, 2006).
However, alarm created from predictive failures in music helps to draw listeners in, like an emotional amplifier or focus. From a phenomenological perspective, my lived experience of Don’t Go Outside after a hermeneutical epiphany is quite different from my initial listen – the variation in tonality and harmonic movement has more significance, and the lyrics far more sobering.
It ’s always difficult to summarise the essence of what makes a great track. Even analytical tools are reductive, crude and subjective at best. In the case of Don’t Go Outside, one might argue that it has a semantic depth caused by the denotations of musical elements described above, that represent the connotations of the meaning in the song.
A slow relaxed but persistent rhythmical groove could represent the moroseness of the father combined with a syncopated melodic line ‘lost’ from the reality of his surrounding family environment. It could be said that the children, represented by innocent-sounding female voices, coupled with agitated and forced melodies create a sense of musical irony from a desire to escape (if only they could allow themselves hope).
One could just as easily argue that it is a great track because Carnivorous Plant Society are musicians who know how to capture some of what it means to be human – innocence, suffering, empathy and hope.
Dr Mark Baynes is 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