Rewind Reviews #2 - By Volume

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Rewind Reviews #2

Keelan Harkin looks back on Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark, and... Sesame Street? Author: on September 3, 2012
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In part 2 of our feature highlighting some of the overlooked gems of music past and not-so-past, Keelan Harkin juxtaposes Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Sesame Street. Allow him to explain.


Ralph Vaughan-Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Although more often likened to Gustav Holst, George Butterworth, or William Walton, as torch-bearers of the rather vague “English” style, I find it more fitting to consider Vaughan-Williams in a tighter-knit group, also including Holst, but more closely tangled with Edward Elgar. All three composers exhibit a great awareness of sonority amidst the backdrop of large sweeping vistas, but vistas, nonetheless, marked by something deeply personal. In many ways, then, it is actually quite like American style film-making: stories of deeply personal conflict against something much larger – civil war films, open expanses of the West… hell, George Romero films. For Gustav Holst the obvious candidate is The Planets, for Elgar look no further than the gorgeous “Nimrod,” the ninth variation from the Enigma Variations. And for Vaughan-Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is a perfect marker.

The somewhat under-acknowledged Peter Weir film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World utilized extensively this piece as its central theme. The pairing couldn’t be better: against sweeping oceans we have sweeping strings; against the struggle and camaraderie of a war ship we have a swirling, aching melody. It must be noted that this is indeed a work built around a theme from 16th century English composer Thomas Tallis — a composer whose work has aged remarkably well. Tallis’ ability to create incredibly intricate and lush choral arrangements is given great breath by Vaughan-Williams’s string orchestration. And when the lone cello rakes in with the hard bowing of the main theme, hearts just simply break. A wonderful work from a wonderful composer, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is a work that is simply waiting for new fans not just from those who enjoy forays into classical music, but for fans of anything from ambient, neo-classical/minimalism and even post-rock.

Bert and Ernie – I Don’t Want to Live On the Moon

I know this may seem like a joke, and admittedly I type this with a smile, but I am dead serious when talking about this song’s greatness. The venerable Jim Henson deserves to be among the other hallowed names spoken of as the greatest people of all time — and this song is a perfect example of why. While Henson may not have saved hundreds of lives or advanced medical technology, he created something much more precious in the forming of a world in childhood that was both didactic and fun. Although my preference remains with The Muppets, Sesame Street had its share of wonderful moments. Part of what embodied most of these wonderful moments, the moments that encapsulate fleetingly sad and happy nostalgia, is the tunefulness and dimension of songcraft that has always kept Henson’s productions precious.

I still find myself humming or singing snatches of “Rainbow Connection” or “Rubber Ducky,” which might be embarrassing, but, really, doesn’t it speak more directly to how affecting these songs are? Here we have Ernie taking on a very important question: is a life of far flung adventure really worth the things you will leave behind? Accompanying a wonderfully cheesy (in the classic Jim Henson mode) flute and harp ballad are Ernie’s laments: “although I might like it, I’ll be coming home soon / because I don’t want to live on the moon.” The reasons are, of course, because he would miss “all the people and places [he loves.]” It’s sweet, it’s endearing, it’s classic Jim Henson. It also happens to hold an incredible power of embedding; while I hadn’t heard the song in years, the melody popped into my head out of nowhere while I woke up one day in the middle of this somewhere. That feeling, the feeling of familiarity and warmth, is why this song is so great.

Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark – Sealand

In the hubbub surrounding M83’s epic 2011 release Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, and the long list of influences name-dropped by various publications, one thing stuck out amongst the homage-mongering, a band that was head-scratchingly absent from comparison – the 80s duo Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark. Perhaps all those cheesy videos of two dudes crooning in ridiculous wool-knit sweaters just weren’t cool enough (all though, in that logic, it sounds like they were exactly cool last year). It’s not like OMD have wallowed away in obscurity; they’ve recently put out work and have had enough commercial success with the likes of “Maid of Orleans,” for example, to warrant memory checks in anyone familiar with 80s culture. And while “Maid of Orleans” (which is also a personal favourite) may be the easier go-to option from the band’s most critically and commercially successful record, 1981’s Architecture and Morality, in terms of the original M83 analogy it is “Sealand” that exemplifies what is so great about this album and this band.

Bringing a bit of Kraftwerk to the new-wave scene, OMD seemed to have a greater sense of space and timbre than their genre brethren. “Sealand” marks out just exactly what this expansiveness entails—an expansiveness that was gathered and re-utilized throughout Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. The song is rather aimless for most of its nearly eight minute duration, but it’s a wonderful aimlessness, not so much lost without a clue, but rather gone boating in wanderlust. A lovely synth melody slowly develops over a plodding and methodical drum beat. The vocal section acts less like a verse-chorus mechanism and more like an incantation; a lyrical poem about, well, losing and re-discovering familial love (I think, that’s how sparse the lyrics are). To end the song we have an extended ambient section that a careful listener might notice, is really similar to M83’s “Where the Boats Go.” So if you like that kind of expanse without narrative approach, than this song, and Architecture and Morality in its entirety, is for you.

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