The Mixtape Project 008. ‘(De)composition’ with Ryan McKenna of Prawn and Sorority Noise
This is The Mixtape Project. The goal of this project is simple, ask the people responsible for creating, facilitating, or just overall being involved with the music we love to share the music they love. This month, we were given the opportunity to have Ryan McKenna of both Sorority Noise and Prawn write about some of his favorite songs. We couldn’t be more excited to share this one with you guys. Sit back, relax, and read/listen along to a mixtape called ‘(De)composition.’
I can’t thank Joel enough for the opportunity to partake in the mixtape project, and am excited to share in the opportunity to humanize the often shrouded side of music, and specifically in this case, the listening experience through my ears and auditory pathways. Admittedly, this may read clinically at times, but being an advocate of scientific reason and rhetoric (and horrible at creative writing), I will try to best relate my listening motives as a habit that starts at the eardrum, and is passed from brain to heart, informing the emotional takeaway of a particular sonic event- though your experience may differ due to the subjective nature of our individual perceptive states.
All tracks found here stood out to me upon first listen for their spectral qualities, or simply how they sound overall. Any spectrum can be decomposed through a Laplace Transform, in which the individual components of the frequency spectrum are revealed. One can practice this while hearing any chord played on an instrument, where one listener may hear only the whole chord, another may focus on the individual notes, and others may decompose the sound further to the timbre (or tone) of each note being played. At face value or at a decomposed level, the balance represented in each of these tracks- from the deepest of kicks, synths, and bass tones, the shrillest of guitars, cymbals, and auxiliary percussion, and the masterful touch of mixing and mastering engineers to tie it all together- culminates in immersive soundscapes. The products are capable of not only carrying a musician’s lyrical message, but of crafting a cathartic human response all their own through both deliberate and serendipitous manipulation of compositional and sonic elements in the stereo field.
To perform the aforementioned decomposition and analysis, one must have source material, thus it is more often than not that convenience and ulterior interest serve as reliable sources of sonic and sometimes musical content for our brains to interpret. For example, the first track, a latin inspired re-imagination of Radiohead’s “High and Dry” by Rhythms Del Mundo (a charity project of the Buena Vista Social Club), is found on an album that I first became aware of watching a local Icelandic channel that aired the video for another track from the album, which I was able to track down the CD for while abroad. Being a bassist primarily groomed in latin styles, the songs on this album are instant ear worms that provide a familiar tune with a unique sonic texture, and a particularly smooth horn section on this track.
Similarly, the following three songs are ones that caught my attention specifically because of sonic elements in the bass tracks. Both “Army” and “Glósóli,” although very different tracks, highlight bass fuzz at different points during the songs, allowing the bass to occupy more space in the spectrum than through their clean tones. This use of gain effects to augment dynamics has become a key point of my playing style, as informed by tracks such as these. “Mortar Dub” on the other hand, low-passes the bass to only occupy a relatively low part of the spectrum, creating a deep throb in a minimalist soundscape.
The sparse instrumentation of “Mortar Dub” is contrasted by the full out auditory assault that Native’s “Backseat Crew” brings the listener, which has made this song, and the five that follow, among the most cathartic songs that I have heard. The notion of tension and release in melody, harmony, and rhythm are expressed across different styles in these six songs (as well as all others on the list, in reality). In particular, “Backseat Crew” and “Impressions and Impressing
People” act cathartically for the intensity that they deliver. Similar can be said of Incubus’ “Circles,” in addition to having a gratuitously heavy riff to sink into. “Tisbury Lane,” alternatively, expresses a great deal of cathartic power in the simplicity of the chord voicing, a wonderful fretless bass line, and a healthy dose of swing. Both Thrice and The National make excellent example of the power of superimposed time signature in the following two tracks, which is a great tool to juggle two instrumental parts against each other, such as at 2:47 in “Circles,” or throughout the entire piano riff of “Fake Empire.”
Even across vastly different styles, elements can combine into new sonic experiences, as expressed in the next three songs. Jamiroquai is a band that I have had a soft spot for ever since digging a CD out of my father’s collection in middle school, and “Cosmic Girl” serves to illustrate their infallibly funky style. The novel combination of funk instrumentation, and composition more closely informed by post-rock such as “Chilsen” (which, as an aside, is a definite frontrunner in my ‘favorite song’ category), culminates in the sound of Bad Rabbits’ “We Can Roll,” which is an absolute banger and a glutton of groove.
The funk influence on “We Can Roll” serves to exemplify another undertone of all tracks here, in the expression of groove as the ‘pocket.’ In general, pocket refers to the ability of a rhythm section to sit behind the beat and allow for slight imperfections in timing that our brain perceives not as mistakes, but as a subtle push and pull in pacing that elicits a physical response, usually resulting in dancing or otherwise ‘getting down.’ Rökkurró is an band whose track, “The Backbone,” illustrates both the intrinsic ambience, control, and sonic complexity heard across Icelandic music, and how pocket need not be complex to create a captivating vibe. Chon’s “Book” highlights pocket in a vastly different way, more so through the virtuosity of the performers than through the addition of auxiliary compositional elements. A middle ground of these two approaches can be heard in Enemies’ “Coral Castle,” which contains both virtuosic performance and control, in addition to introduction of different tones through effects, and even a complete second drum set for the closing section.
You can’t say I didn’t warn you that this may be a clinical breakdown of the accompanying playlist, and kudos if you have read through the whole thing. My apologies if any explanations are not quite fleshed out in this shorter format, but if anything, I hope to have introduced any curious readers to a few new conceptual rabbit holes to venture down. Remember to never take music for granted, because behind every enjoyable listening experience, there’s musicians, composers, and audio engineers that are either very skilled or very lucky, not to mention many other individuals who have helped those songs reach listeners. Enjoy happy and thoughtful listening.