On Growing

It’s hard to find a band with a sound quite like Growing. The group’s music is at once challenging, unique, and simple. Often grouped as drone/ambient music, a typical Growing track is a 10-minute plus instrumental wash, without much obvious variation. No melody. No beat. But, stay with me now —though the songs may lack variation, they’re not boring.

Growing is Kevin Doria on bass guitar and Joe Denardo on electric guitar, although you could hardly guess the instrumentation just by listening to most tracks. It’s more accurate to say that each musician plays a series of effects through pedals and amplifiers, rather than guitars. After experimenting for years, Doria and Denardo seem to have found the exact sounds they wanted to make, and they continue to break new ground.

Growing formed in 2001 in Olympia, Wash. as a three-piece group, releasing several cassettes and a video before its first LP, The Sky’s Run Into the Sea (2003). On The Sky’s Run, the new sounds weren’t there yet; the band seemed impatient, with a stadium rock guitar solo on almost every track. Following the LP, the third member left, allowing the band the creative flexibility that it needed.

Growing’s next album, The Soul of the Rainbow and the Harmony of Light, represents a distinct shift. On Soul, the band seems calmer — there is no rush to do something artificially interesting. Thus, Doria and Denardo are able to use more subtle variations as they move away from the guitar sounds to create a serene and enveloping effect. The good thing about this kind of ambient music is that it doesn’t have to be the focus of the listener. It’s just as good with the volume low, for somebody sitting on the porch reading, as it is when it’s filling the room completely.

Skip ahead to Color Wheel, the fourth LP. Color Wheel makes you forget that the world exists, allowing the mind to wander. Here, the duo has really figured out how to make the sounds they want, capable of completely overwhelming the listener without brute force. The album has a much more dynamic feel, while maintaining the patience of Soul. The opener is brilliant, starting out with a soaring overlay of delayed guitar sounding like a choir of horns, and a strong rumbling drone that trades focus with what can only be described as an incandescent glow — probably orange. Eventually the drone fades, and an explosion that’s not quite a tone comes in at unpredictable intervals, followed by a harsh rhythmic sound. The beauty isn’t gone though, as the “guitarist” overlays a more continuous stream of bright reflections and huge angelic flourishes at just the right times.

Following in Color Wheel’s tracks, this year’s Vision Swim is amazing as well.

On Scottish bands

Andrew Carnegie, forefather of our university and lover of plaid, instilled our institution with a strange tie to his homeland, Scotland. I present five songs by Scottish groups.

Boards of Canada, “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” is the second track on Boards of Canada’s Hi Scores: a five-minute masterpiece that has aged incredibly well. I know that it’s made with machines, but BOC fools me, fusing organic fuzz of real space, murmuring of a crowd and emotion with a space-age melody. “Turquoise” is a BOC classic, displaying the band’s uncanny ability to toe the line between ambient, psychedelic, and even disco.

Mogwai, “Stanley Kubrick” Glasgow post-rockers Mogwai released EP in 1999, having already garnered significant attention for their music. “Stanley Kubrick” is the foundation for EP, starting off with the slow patter of drums and murmurs, then arching into the band’s signature rich bass and guitar twang. Well-balanced distortion, drones, vocals and epic cymbal crashes elevate “Stanley Kubrick” to be one of Mogwai’s finest tracks.

The Twilight Sad, “Cold Days from the Birdhouse” With a powerful voice and thick Scottish accent, vocalist James Graham is what really sets The Twilight Sad and their album Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters apart from other bands in the same vein (think The Arcade Fire crossed with My Bloody Valentine). “Cold Days from the Birdhouse” opens their album with intensity, as Graham shouts “Where are your manners?” to the end, and “Cold Days” is among many awesome songs on a surprising debut album.

Belle and Sebastian, “Wrapped Up in Books” If you’ve seen John Cusack in High Fidelity, you’ve heard long-time indie darlings Belle and Sebastian. Their signature sound is understated indie pop, complete with rock organ and twee vocals. What I like most about Belle and Sebastian is their ability to tell serious emotional stories without melodrama. You feel like you’re listening to an upbeat song, while the lyrics are something else entirely. “Wrapped Up in Books” is a little ditty about fantasy relationships and the unwillingness to change course and follow your real desires.

Franz Ferdinand, “Cheating On You” As tired as they sound now, I have a fondness for Franz Ferdinand — the soundtrack to a lot of reckless driving senior year of high school. It wasn’t “Take Me Out” which got me hooked; it was “Cheating On You,” a song by all accounts much less musically interesting. But there was something exhilarating about shouting “I’m cheating on you!” out car windows, as relationships became strained and the angst of high school came to a head.

On music and the Internet

It’s easy to find agreement on the Internet. Just type in a band name on www.last.fm and you’ll find hundreds of fellow listeners, along with suggestions for other “similar” bands to listen to, but are they really similar? Most websites list bands together based on who listens to them, not how they sound. They base their statistics on average listening habits, which says little about the actual quality of music.

For example, post-punk bands The Sound and The Chameleons have both clearly influenced the group Interpol; the music sounds the same stylistically, and the guitar work on some Chameleons songs is eerily reminiscent of certain Interpol lines. But neither band appears on Last.fm’s “Similar to Interpol” list — instead, the website recommends The Arcade Fire and Modest Mouse, bands that sound nothing like Interpol and just represent some sort of indie band zeitgeist that has nothing to do with the music.

Music-based social networking does not reveal true musical connections, which is a problem, because most people aren’t willing to look any further. Average listeners are often uninterested in expanding their musical educations; they seek little beyond what is fed to them by the Internet or their friends. But services like Last.fm cannot replace the time and effort needed to find new exciting artists. For truly new music, listeners have to look elsewhere.

One idea is www.scaruffi.com, run by Piero Scaruffi, who claims it’s one of the first websites ever. Scaruffi updates frequently with truckloads of new content, including contemporary music reviews. He has his own strong opinions and isn’t afraid to share them. I’ve probably found more new artists that I’ve loved from Scaruffi than from any online taste aggregator so far, even though I disagree with many of his opinions. I remember being crushed when reading his thoughts on Björk, a musician I love; he wrote, “The first impression with Björk’s music is always of something terribly trivial, obnoxious and, ultimately, boring.” But Scaruffi also led me to Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom, an album which not only earned me some serious cred with my dad, but also introduced me to one of the most beautiful male voices in rock, along with some really weird song structures. By exposing myself to the opinions of one other person who really loves music, I’ve discovered more than I would have by following the aggregated listening habits of a million others.

So, next time you’re looking for something new to listen to, ask just one person. Better yet, ask one cranky opinionated guy on the Internet who thinks Captain Beefheart is possibly the greatest rock musician of all time.

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