Tuesday, May 25, 2010

This Week on Audiosurf Radio – Relax, Don’t Do It Edition

Take a deep breath.  Every song this week rides uphill, meaning relaxing rides most of the way.  A quick glance at the traffic counts will reveal, however, that these songs are no slouches.  Prepare yourself to be pumped and relaxed.

Urtzi Azkue hails from Nauru, an island republic I’d never heard of before today.  The unemployment rate in Nauru hovers around, oh, ninety percent.  No wonder people have time to hang around and compose jazz on guitar.

Three British dudes make up universal constructors.  They like to give music away for free.  I don’t think I know much more than that.

Palermo’s own After Work have an album of mostly original jazz pieces for a quartet of tenor sax, piano, bass, and drums.  They’ve got a Facebook page.  I’m sure they’d let you be their fan.

Once more: inhale, exhale, relax.  Let’s get to the songs.

The Songs

Draw a line in the proverbial sand.  Make sure it’s razor thin.  Use a leaf or a piece of paper to part the grains.  You know what?  Just use an actual razor.  On one side, put John Mayer’s jazz side, the stuff that proves he’s got chops despite his other songs about high school, bubblegum tongues, and getting high.  On the other, put every low key, nameless jazz record you’ve ever heard in a department store (I’m looking at you Sears).  Resting on your razor-thin line you will find Urtzi Azkue’s “Last Train.”  I don’t know that I could conceive of more innocuous jazz guitar.  His silky smooth guitar lacks the edge of a Satriani, but it’s no less fluid and impressive.  The bass rumbles in pure tones underneath while a keyboard chimes up above.  Oddly enough, the relaxing groove I’m describing drives the track uphill in spite of the massive traffic attack.  Navigating the traffic proves difficult when the solos are so distractingly soothing.

I booted up “De Que Manera” half-expecting the Spanish title to be misleading.  Would it just be “vaguely inspired” by Latin music without any actual execution?  Thankfully, no.  Horns appear.  There’s some Spanish mumbling.  And the whole song’s laid over what I believe to be a samba beat (hardcore ballroom dance fans should feel free to call me an idiot if I messed that up).  Again, Azkue cultivates that liquid guitar sound that actually melds well with Latin music (Carlos Santana, anyone?).  The individual notes have such tonal purity it’s a wonder they’re emanating from an amp.  Another quality this song shares with “Last Train” that I didn’t mention above is the presence of some jazzy, vibrato-less background singing.  Think the voices in the excellent 30 Rock theme but subtler.  The singers shadow the main melodies without overpowering them.  Again, the operative word is soothing.  Having heard millions of guitarists like this, I’m not immediately shocked by Azkue’s talent or anything – but it’s certainly the type of music I’d clap for without hesitation in live performance.  The execution’s spot on, if a little uninspired.

Maybe I’m in the minority, but I don’t appreciate disembodied female voices telling me to “Just Lay Back.”  It’s mildly unsettling.  Why does she want me to relax?  What’s going to happen to me if I don’t?  What if I wanted to stay upright so I could hold a conversation with her?  Save a guitar wasting away in the sonic background, “Just Lay Back” has little in common with the Azkue tracks other than moving perpetually hill.  This just isn’t a week for sweeping curves or dense tunnels.  Sure, some of the traffic’s alright, but each artist checked their intensity at the door.  If it weren’t for the occasional punctuation by a vibraslap I’d have succumbed to the siren’s sultry call and drifted off, leaving behind a trail of overloaded columns and squandered high score opportunity.

“Turn Over” is no revolution.  It’s a competently performed quartet piece with an entertaining piano solo in the middle.  It succeeds by doing exactly what it’s supposed to do; stuff you’d only notice if the group somehow failed to execute what’s expected of a decent jazz ensemble.  The group moves tightly through each transition, backing the rambunctious melodies with every twist and turn.  The solos – particularly the piano one – move from one idea (scales) to the next (rhythms), exploring each briefly until it’s time to move on.  And the 6/8 time signature, while nothing groundbreaking, keeps the head fresh.  I wish they’d kept playing with meter as the piece went on.  Perhaps I’ve just spent too many Audiosurf weeks in a row bopping my head to techno, but the organic sound of live musicians is so refreshing, particularly the saxophone.  I enjoy hearing the air leaking through pads, the reed buzzing in the mouthpiece.  Computers can’t do that.  Nor can they infuse the track with momentary bursts of speed or light.  At the end of the day, the song is nothing special, but the quartet brings it to life.

Author’s Note

All songs were played at least twice on the Pro difficulty using the Eraser and Vegas characters.  I’d like to give a special shout-out to Audiosurf user Kenny (whose actual handle contains more weirdo characters than I care to include).  Of “De Que Manera” he said, “It makes me think at Africa.”  If English isn’t your first language, Ken, good on you.  If it is, I hope you’re still in school.