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Review - John Scalzi, "Music for Headphones" [Jan. 25th, 2005|05:11 pm]
The Tarquin
[music |John Scalzi, "Kindertransport"]

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John Scalzi, "Music for Headphones"

I first encountered John Scalzi's album "Music for Headphones" a few years ago when he first posted the tracks on his blog "Whatever". I didn't really get a chance to listen to it, however, because of my irrational hatred of almost all forms of streaming audio. Just recently, however, Scalzi posted the tracks in .mp3 format for download. I have to say, after many listens through them, I'm quite impressed. They honestly far surpass my expectations. After all, John Scalzi's a brilliant writer, but I'd never before encountered and of his musical endeavours, so I was a bit dubious.

The album, however, is superb in many ways. The musical style lingers in the area of laid-back electronica, with occasional overtones of so-called "world" music and a few nostalgic riffs back into the best of late-80s synth music. That being said, I'm both terrible at and suspicious of genre labeling of music, especially when (as in this case) the music spans the borders between genres.

The opening track, a fast-paced piece called "Acceptance" with tribal-sounding drums and reedy flutes, is a quick start to an otherwise more laid back album. And while I, personally, would like to see a more indicative, mellow track used for the opener (perhaps the plodding "Well Imagine That") I must admit that, as a unit unto itself, "Acceptance" is a well constructed, solid piece of music with infectious, funky rhythms dominating for most of it over top more sedate flute lines.

After the high-paced opener, the album backs it off a notch with the track "Transformation", which moves from industrial, synth-heavy beats in the beginning and tapers off, morphing into a laid back, decidedly chill groove toward the end. The song itself is cool, but I find it a little unbalanced. The drums seem to me to be too predominate for too much of the track and while they are accompanied several times by softer melodies from piano, strings, or synths, the heavy drums are there for most of the track, giving way fairly suddenly toward the end. Still a damn decent track, however.

The next song, "Why Don't You Love Me", is the track I found to be the most thematically evocative. Perhaps it's cold of me to hand this title to "Why Don't You Love Me" as opposed to the sadder "Kindertransport" (which is representative of children being sent away to live out WW2 in England), but I was more touched by the theme represented in this track. It feels a lot like a more "modern" version of the idea of a "tone poem" classically seen in orchestra and symphony music. It's a series of interlinked melodic ideas meant (judging from the title and the liner notes) to evoke the emotions assosciated with unrequited love. I found the piece quite effective, myself.

The next track of note is "Athena", featuring vocals from Athena Scalzi, age 3 at the time of the recording. The backing drums behind the vocals are at turns groovy and riotous, with more sedate snare work behind Athena's vocals while she's singing. I like the way the track ends, with good use of Athena's confident "Okay" repeated as the song winds to an end. I must say I'm not the world's biggest fan of the long stretches of Ms. Scalzi's vocal stylings, but I suppose it's a matter of one's own taste, and I hold nothing against John Scalzi's choice to include them.

The rest of the album varies from the unapologetically fun (notably a remix of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'") to the more serious and darkly melodic ("Kindertransport" or "Night Flight"). It then culminates rather brilliantly with "Converge to Merge," a slow, tribal-sounding tune that brings to mind visions of what monsoon season might feel like in the Amazon (if you ignore the tracks occasional use of what sounds like a train whistle, which still manages to work in an odd sort of way.) "Converge to Merge" is then followed by the final track on the album, "Let's Fly Away", which reminds me in a lot of ways of all the best pop-rock tunes I heard growing up, but with fewer real instrumentals and more synth lines.

All in all, I hardily recommend downloading "Music for Headphones" and giving it a listen. The album is different enough that there will probably be something there you like, but solid enough all the way through that, if it fits your tastes, you'll probably be pleased with the album as a whole.