(I first wrote this a year ago for the AUX Whisky Rocks series, and only just realized it’s the one post in the series that I didn’t get the chance to share here. Now that the competition is rebooting for 2013 – tune in for new posts!– I don’t want to lose it, so I figured it’s time to reblog it here.)
When I hear a band for the first time, whether it’s a band that just came out with their first ever EP last week, or a band from the 70s I somehow missed out on in my music education, there is an almost indescribable factor that will decide if I come back for a repeat listen (or obsessively dive into their entire back catalog).
I say indescribable because, really, how do we know what it is that attracts us to certain kinds of music, or certain musicians in particular? From what I can decipher, our individual music taste is just an odd mishmash of our musical upbringing, emotional state, genres of music we most relate to, and if we can connect the theme of the song to our lives in some way.
Being able to connect what a song (or more importantly, an entire album) is saying to a particular event or time in my life is what makes me want to return to it, and for me this happens primarily through lyrics. To say I grew up in the music school of Bob Dylan would be an understatement.
To clarify, I’ll reference my two favorite albums of the past two years, that came to me from artists I had no idea existed until their songs arrived in my inbox.
The first time I heard Cold Specks “Holland,” this past winter, time stopped. Everything I was doing stopped. I had to do nothing but listen. That is how I know. The line “I’ll find God in the gutter” instantly connected with me in a big way, and I knew then and there this girl was making the kind of music I respect most. Her voice was filled with a soul this city has never been graced with before, and the music took me to a place that was so peaceful, despite the self described “doom soul” nature of her lyrics. I desperately YouTubed her to see if I could find any other songs.
There is nothing that compares to that moment when you click play on a random mp3 and instead of thinking, “next” while fishing through your inbox, thinking “Oh my god, what is this and where has it been all my life?”
Of course, unless you’re listening to a singer/songwriter album like hers, you’re not going to hear the lyrics on the first listen. In these (ie. most) cases, it is the music itself that will either pull me in or push me away.
When I was sent the debut We Are Augustines album last year I had no idea who they were, or what they were about, but 30 seconds into the first track, there was no way I could move on with my day without listening to the entire album. The melody, the instrumentation, their musical influences, the production value, the raspy tone of his voice… I didn’t grasp the weight of all the heavy things he was singing about until I obsessively googled the lyrics and read about their story, but the honesty that instantly came across in their sound, combined with just being incredible, catchy, orchestral music (coming from just two guys!) had me coming back for more. It was the first record I heard in 2011 that actually made me want to get up and shout at the world, singing along. The album delivered exactly what its title, Rise Ye Sunken Ships, described – broken people rising from the ashes, hope. It made me feel alive.
So, to answer the question of the week, the thing that catches my ear when I hear a band for the first time is if I can instantly feel whatever they are supposed to be feeling throughout the song. Is this musician doing his or her job so well that they are transferring their emotions onto me? As Nick Hornby so aptly wrote in High Fidelity:
Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?
What is it that grabs you when you first hear a song? What qualities make you interested enough to explore the rest of their catalog?