Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Author's Playlist – The Youtube Edition






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The Piano Guys have at least two factors conspiring against their success from the very get-go.  For one, they make no pretenses about the five of them being anything other than piano Guys, and not in the gender-ambiguous Five Guys Burgers And Fries sense but in the Drink Beer With The Guys sense (not that any of them likely drink, as I think they’re all fairly conservative Mormons).  Older men – boring.  Secondly, all their instruments of choice are way too bulky to play and dance with in inclement weather at the same time, which puts their music channel at a severe competitive disadvantage against some other unnamed, hypothetical person who might try to implement this crazy, hypothetical idea of playing a classical instrument while dancing in the rain, snow, wind, or fire.  In fact, such are the drawbacks of the piano and cello that their performers have little liberty even to stand vertically while playing them.  Sitting – boring.  Fortunately Youtube doesn’t censor videos for being boring (only for being offensive and politically incorrect), as the Piano Guys’ music is brimming with passionate force and offers an infectious blend of music new and old that we’d probably never have heard if not for the internet and the opportunities it grants to the self-made artist.

Both of the Piano Guys’ albums (excepting the Christmas one they recently released, which I haven’t bought because I’d only listen it one month and then shelve it the rest of the year) feature songs from a wide array of genres and time periods, but the premise of their work is mostly consistent throughout.  Steven Sharp Nelson plays the cello – acoustic, electric, steel, and every other variety – Jon Schmidt plays the piano – acoustic and, eh, just that – Al van der Beek plays the arranger, and Paul Anderson plays the camera; together they write original music and produce uniquely classical covers of film scores and of occasionally crappy Top 40 tunes (*coughOne Directioncough*), often synthesizing the contemporary song with an obscure but somewhat similar composition by Beethoven, Bach, or another of the greats.  It’s a curious idea that usually works pretty well in execution, not the least because the Guys understand how to convey the joy and energy that runs through popular music without soiling the melodies by annoying vocals.  I used to think that many of the songs treated herein are fundamentally and irredeemably obnoxious, but the truth is that they just needed a better artist to perform them.

The most impressive staple of Nelson’s and Schmidt’s style is that they so flawlessly replicate the sound of a full band or even orchestra using just two instruments and minimal vocal backup; you could hardly guess it merely from hearing the songs alone, but all the percussion elements of the group’s music are produced by Nelson’s rhythmic tapping against the chassis of his cello, sometimes in conjunction with a small kick drum.  Certain commenters have accused the Guys of “molesting a piano” in order to achieve a similar effect for some of their videos, a comparison that’s not too inadequate considering the almost intimate bond they share with their tools of trade.  Whether scratching, plucking, strumming, drumming, bowing, or doing a combination of them all by utility of numerous recordings and overlays, Nelson consistently draws a diverse and entrancing range of sound from his strings, and Schmidt’s achievement with the piano is just as impressive, pulling off both fast-paced and spirited compositions like the Charlie Brown Medley or his own All Of Me and slower, more somber songs, the ilk of which is represented by A Thousand Years and Just The Way You Are.

Actually, that last title is one of the few problems with both albums, which is that a couple of the tracks are unduly sluggish and boring.  I found this nuisance to be slightly more prominent on the second CD than on the first, in part because I personally think the Guys’ covers are more intriguing than their originals and in part because songs like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star should have been thrown in the trash bin of ideas from the very start.  There’s only so much one can do with something so structurally simple.

Regardless of some occasional tedium, the Piano Guys have nonetheless turned out two thematically rich and universally appealing albums that encompass nearly the whole spectrum of music classical to present.  They may not number among the most skilled artisans of their craft, but one can easily count them among the most original, creative, and eclectic.  And that’s what makes them beautiful.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, that was a really corny close.

Been here, seen this.

Easily the finest of their videos – maybe even of their songs – and yet I have no idea what the two of them are trying to accomplish.  I kind of want to bow-slap that one-eyed villain at the end, though.

But this one has the most views.  Oh well.

Dramatic Song – Recommended informally by the Middle Dude
Some singles are so obvious by nature that one doesn’t even need to hear them in order to accurately predict their subject matter or arrangement.  The indie cult classic Roar is a prime example of these songs, leaving such an impression by its very title that the perceptive listener can foretell exactly what singer Katy Perry is going to do in it without hearing a note.  Likewise, the Grammy-nominated country hit This Ain’t A Love Song from up-and-coming band Bon Jovi is so self-explanatory that it makes all efforts at critical description seem redundant and silly.  And so the dice roll with Toby Turner’s viral music video Dramatic Song, a ballad that’s suitably if disappointingly dramatic and does a pretty impeccable job of translating itself for my convenience, not that I will allow it to do so.

Toby, A.K.A. Tobuscus, is known chiefly for cutting through the platitudes and theatrics of self-serious media trailers to spell out in clear, direct English what’s literally happening on-screen, the unveiling of which is usually laughable next to the heroics suggested by the editing and music.  Here he applies a slight twist on that principle to the platitudes and theatrics of self-serious pop songs, by spelling out not what the artists are singing but how.  The problem is that while Toby thoroughly understands the history and science of the emo music genre, he doesn’t quite have the performance aspect of it down pat, being quite clearly a comedian by occupation rather than a tragedian.  Listening to his strained efforts at real drama is about as uncomfortable as watching gunphobic funny man Jim Carrey in the philosophically and politically provocative Truman Show; you know he shouldn’t be doing this stuff, but it’s hard to avert your eyes all the same.  Try as he might, Toby can’t belt out a chorus that “sounds like Coldplaaaaay” and only the most musically starving of foreign grandmas would love this song.

With all the heart and personal experience they poured into this soul-jerking single, Team Tobuscus would probably go far writing a whole album of Dramatic Songs, but in the future they should leave the production and lead vocals to more experienced emo singers.  I would literally buy many more of these, provided they got some emo violinists to play backup parts.  Or just do the whole thing.  Dramatically.

The Fox (What Does The Fox Say?) –
Aside from Cee Lo Green’s Forget You and Beyonce’s Single Ladies/Shoulda Put A Ring On It, there aren’t many high-profile songs that go by more than one name.  For Ylvis’ runaway electronic smash, it’s only appropriate that The Fox have a subtitle because its nature is such that people will observe it through one of two lenses, either uncomprehending indignation or conscious adulation.  Having listened to and watched the video a dozen times, I think I prefer the latter perspective.

I was one of the first couple million to hear the controversial tune, encountering it on talk radio about two or three days after it launched its storm of the Youtube.  Of course, the full method of the song’s madness didn’t reveal itself to me until I watched the video, which is populated with all manners of challenging and ethereal imagery, from the dancing CG fox and reading grandpa to the parade of grotesquely distorted two-legs at the beginning.  Many cultural commentators instinctively compared the absurdity of The Fox to the prior year’s oddball phenomenon Gangnam Style, but the two have virtually nothing in common upon closer introspection.  Whereas Gangnam Style was begotten of genuine, accidental stupidity and a puerile obsession with adult anatomical functions, The Fox is a consummation of deliberate, gloriously satirical stupidity and a sharp awareness of electronica’s artistic and intellectual defects.  The point of the song, that catchy beats and flashy visuals can easily lull people to overlook even the most inane and nonsensical words, has only acquired new significance after Daft Punk’s entrancing but mind-numbingly idiotic Get Lucky won them a fistful of Grammys.

The truth may be an ancient mystery to these guys, but I will proudly admit to knowing WTFox says in its entirety.  What Ylvis’ somewhat more profane and politically tinged Massachusetts video is saying will probably baffle me until the end of my days.  If you haven’t found it yet, don’t; if you have, please share any theories you might have to its meaning in the comment box below.

Wrecking Ball by EdBassmaster – Suggested by Aaden
Actually, it’s a Miley Cyrus song, but you couldn’t infer that by watching this because it’s way better than the original.  When Miley tries to forcibly inject feeling and sexiness into her music videos, they emerge as something definitively not so, but everything this guy sings is raw, natural, and believable, like a wrecking ball to my emotional gut, so harshly beautiful it wrenches tears from my eyes.  Auto-tune and ballstialty be damned.

The $#*! that people do for attention.

I had initially planned on including more artists in this issue, but jamming so many talented people into one post would compel me to either far exceed my 3-4 videos/post cap or cut the Piano Guys and everybody else short by stealing just one video from each of their channels.  Part 2 will follow the next two posts of the Author’s Playlist.

Anyway, one of these four three reviews is trolling you to a dramatic extent, which means you have at minimum a 33-67 shot at busting the troll even if you’re hopelessly daft.  Correctly identify it and that means you’re not a total idiot.  Oh, and I guess it means you can recommend something from your own playlist.  Incorrectly identify the mock review and that makes you… not the sharpest pencil in the stack.

Postscript apology: I may have spoken a little out of line on the Piano Guys’ videos.  Only a couple of them are totally boring and I actually had some difficulty narrowing my sample picks down to three.  In spite of Mission Impossible, Cello Wars, Rockelbel’s Canon, and Me And My Cello being the only ones so far that have anything resembling action or a plot, the Guys have actually transported their instruments to some visually incredible stages.  The deluxe edition of each album includes a DVD that collects the CD tracks’ associated videos, which is a pretty cool exhibit to go through once, although I’d probably indulge it more often had some other unnamed, hypothetical Youtube artist done the same thing.


  1. Well, I would be confident in the assumption that Ed Bassmaster's presentation of "Wrecking Ball" is the disingenuous review, but I'm not sure if the implication of the crossing out of the four in your final paragraph was that your review of Ed Bassmaster was too obvious in its falsity. In the event that this *is* the case, I have no ideas as to what the fake review might be.

    I would also like to share my opinion that the true meaning of The Fox is merely pointing out the absurdity of modern "music", which generally focuses on either sex - "Blurred Lines", "Gangam Style", "Get Lucky" -, tearjerking breakups - AnythingByKellyClarkston, AnythingByP!nk, AnythingByTaylorSwift -, or stupid, mindless, droning pop music - "Burn", "Roar", AnythingByOneDirection. The Fox really doesn't have any grand meaning, any higher moral message, or deep implications. It's simply an invective of types of the ridiculous music that floods modern-day society.

  2. Well, is the dramatic songs review the fake one? After reading your positive review, I went and watched the video of it, and I thought it was really disrespectful of the elderly and foreigners. We should celebrate people for their old age and/or differences, not make fun of them for it. So I think that one is the fake one. As a song, I would like to recommend "Ready or Not" by Britt Nicole and Lecrae. It's a truly amazing song.


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