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A musician's blog review of TBWKTM

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I found this very different review of the album, which is more of a musical analysis than a review as the blogger seems to be a musician himself or at least trained in musical theory. I've posted it here rather than in the review section as it seems to belong here, being a more technical piece.


I found it fascinating; I'm really interested in musical theory and the craft of writing music even though I am not trained musically and some of the technicalities don't mean a lot to me :naughty:





Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Album Review: Mika (The Boy Who Knew Too Much)


So Mika finally came out with his sophomore album, The Boy Who Knew Too Much. When I first heard “Grace Kelly” (from his first album, Life in Cartoon Motion), I thought it was a Queen song that I’d missed (I'm claiming cultural disadvantage... and drunkenness). While I liked that song as well as the playful “Lollypop” (which my cousin had sent me on Facebook before I realized they were by the same artist), I never bought the first album. But now that I follow a few twink-obsessed bloggers, there was no way I could miss the release of this second album.




Mika’s album starts out with “We Are Golden”, a piano-driven song that screams Queen to me. Doesn't exactly sound current or trendy, which sets it apart. One thing that stuck out to me (besides Mika’s ridiculous range) is that he does a pre-chorus chant in his British accent rather than the "generic American accent" that the Minogue sisters and Britney Spears do so well (listen to them talk on a record and then listen to an interview, and you'll understand). Driving percussion and chord progressions reinforce the song’s hopeful and optimistic mood. The absence of the snare drum in key places in the chorus make it plays like a pre-chorus that's driving towards something else. The tension doesn't settle how one would expect until the post-chorus's "runnin' around again". In the bridge, Mika's vocals are almost lost among the chords of the background vocals. It's an imperfect mix that’s similar to what one might expect would happen in a live performance. And the a cappella moment in the chorus towards the end of the song (gospel legend Andrae Crouch lends his choir for background vocals) slaps the listener in the face with Queen's limp-wristed hand.



“Blame It on the Girls” starts off with a syncopated kick drum like The Ting Tings’ "That's Not My Name", but its timbre is more like a basketball hitting the court. The addition of the snaps and human breaths give it a Stomp-like rhythmic styling. Eventually, piano chords and an electronic bass join the mix. While there's a clear chord progression, each instrument is used more for rhythmic punctuation. It isn't until the chorus that we get a full melodic line in an instrument. This song is clearly more synthesized than “We Are Golden”, but it still feels like it grew out of the same style. And it ends with similar over-the-top background vocals. This instrumental also reflects a hopeful optimistic driving sense, and the lyrics seem to poking fun at people who are rich and unhappy but never look to themselves for a solution.




“Rain” totally deviates from the sunshine-and-rainbows feel of the previous songs: it’s all synths and much darker. The bass line sounds on the off-beat, which gives the song a trance feel. The melody feels a bit awkward because it oscillates between a minor key and it's relative major (i.e., the two keys basically share the same notes even though they 'start' on different notes). The verse really just goes back and forth between the tonic (home/start) chords of both relative keys. Then the pre-chorus follows a progression that could work in either key (inversions of a basic V-I in A-flat major and a slightly awkward i-IV-VII with a v7 implied in F minor). The chorus sounds extra funky because while the A-flat major sounds like home (with the highest note in the line being the dominant), the 4th degree (or note) is sharped. This means it has a borrowed tone from a version of the minor scale (minor scales are tricky because some can vary their 6th and 7th degrees by a half step). But if one interprets this in the minor key, it makes the highest note in the chorus a flatted 7th, not a dominant. Basically what all that means is that the melody can't quite decide on a key, and its oscillating between the two relative keys gives this track a unique sound.




While he first few notes of “Dr. John” said John Mayer to me, the piano and snapping percussion (with the tambourine) make it sound more dated, like The Turtles (“Happy Together”). It's a very square-beat song that makes the listener bob his/her head and sway. Kind of corny, but a very entertaining sound. The instrumentation builds to complete jam-session status before the percussion backs off and lets the piano take over just before the end. Background vocals come in with completely superfluous (yet beautiful) oos just before the final chord, bringing the song to a close.




“I See You” features echoey piano arpeggios, gentle falsetto vocals, and dreamy string synths. All this 80s ballad is missing is the electronic drum kit. More modern (yet simple) percussion comes in halfway through the song. Towards the end, Mika creates variation by bringing in the chorus with no backgrounds for one round, bringing them back for the next, and adding new harmonies for the third, and dropping most of the instrumentation and all of the background vocals for the 4th, eventually fading the music out to a single repeating piano riff.




“Blue Eyes” starts out with a simple phased out guitar riff that made me ask, 'Who invited Paul Simon?' But it gains more of Mika's aesthetic when the piano joins the accompaniment. The catchy, forward-moving chorus features notably less over-the-top vocal harmonies than some of the previous tracks.




Vamping piano chords give urgency to the verses of ”Good Gone Girl” (even with no percussion on the 1st verse). The bassline skips from percussive to syncopated to a quarter-note arpeggio, all of which add to the variation that makes the progression of this song awesome. This track is an excellent example of Mika's range, his artful use of dynamics (especially during the verses), and his overall skill for interpretation and delivery of a melody.




“Touches You” is a unique intersection of genres. I hear rock in the piano, hip-hip-inspired pop percussion, blues chord progressions, and gospel vocal stylings. The song starts with a piano harping on eighth-note octaves punctuated by chords. I see Mika giving us Sir Elton John, banging on the piano and standing while he's singing into the mounted mic. A choral-style vocal chord fills out the sound in the pre-chorus and the chorus. The added electronic percussion that comes in during the first chorus is slightly reminiscent of the New Jack Swing-era Janet Jackson and Luther Vandross song "The Best Things in Life Are Free". It's a motley mix of disparate styles that totally works.



Imogen Heap lends her pen and production skills for "By the Time”. I love the vocal instrumentation that carries the first verse and supports the rest of the song. I see female a cappella groups arranging this in a different key. This song employs not-so-predictable harmonies. Mika's gentle whispery vocals show a different side of his interpretation ability, and again, he sounds almost John Mayer-ish. The bridge with the "don't wake up” ostinato over the airy piano arpeggios is absolutely heavenly.




“One Foot Boy” is a fun, moving track, but what stuck out most for me was the format. It starts out with a what seems to be chorus with a layered chorus of voices (done over verse-like accompaniment) followed by a verse (with a pre-chorus like repetitiveness in the melody that builds tension). Another pre-chorus-like section follows, and a "one foot boy" chant comes after. The melody of the first chorus comes back (with verse-like instrumentation) with different lyrics, and then the pre-chorus-like verse comes back (with the same lyrics). This reprise of the pre-chorus-like verse starts a 40-bar cycle of familiar music (pre-chorus-like verse, 2nd pre-chorus twice, the first chorus, and the "one foot boy" chant). And then the song is over. But somehow, it feels complete. None of these sections seems to fit into the convenient boxes we have for pop music formatting, adding quite a few cool points to this song.



I was totally caught off by the sticatto clarinet intro to “Toy Boy”, which is a total tease because an oom-pa rhythm on a piano takes over the accompaniment for the verse (by itself). Strings join the chords during the pre-chorus, and the clarinets come back to accompany the playful melody (harmonized in 3rds) of what seems to be the chorus. However, after a short interlude, the chorus's melody comes back where the 2nd verse should be but with different words (with punctuating trills from a chorus of flutes). It seems like this should be a suite for a sequel to The Nutcracker. The words of this song are particularly interesting because Mika speaks of being the object of the affection of a boy and a girl. It's probably no coincidence that he called himself bisexual in a recent interview with the European magazine Gay & Night.




“Pick up off the Floor” is very much a blues track. The stand-up bass, the piano arpeggios, and the brush percussion carry most of the instrumental until some light guitar and strings come in on the second verse (and some timpani for transitions, which are not at all bluesy, but works for this song). The chorus has classic blues chromatics, and the ending of the song builds heavily before dropping back to the light instrumentation of the first verse. This song would have been a perfect fit for my senior performance recital in college (blues and country).




The intro for “Lover Boy” sounds like it's being played in an old-West bar with the slightly out-of-tune piano and background bar noise. When the pre-chorus comes in, all the instruments sound on the quarter notes, much like "Got to Get You into My Life" (by the Beatles, but covered by Earth Wind and Fire to a totally different aesthetic). The chord progression is hypnotic and makes the song flow effortlessly from one section to the next. The muted trumpet solo is almost comical and an entertaining substitute for a bridge. It reminds me of something from Chicago, the musical.




Lady Jane is a story ballad, accompanied only by piano. It sounds like a truly live performance, and it's definitely not a perfect vocal. Most of the song is in Mika’s lower falsetto voice (an extremely hard range to work with). He's shaky on a few notes, and sometimes he's a bit flat. But it's a beautiful story and an honest performance. It takes a lot of balls to pull a song like this off and put it on your album.




The Deluxe Version on iTunes comes with the previous two songs as well as the video for "We Are Golden", the making of "We Are Golden", a documentary on the making of Mika's Parc Des Princes Show, and live video performances of "Grace Kelly", "Lollipop", and "Love Today". These bonus features were brilliant additions to the album because they go beyond demonstrating Mika's musical genius to show how involved he is in the total creative process. Also, they show how dynamic he is live and provides motivation for fans to buy tickets to his inevitable world tour! Mika comes off as unbelievably accessible when he's on stage, and it's not just him in a spotlight with a guitar and a glass of water. He runs, he jumps, he screams, he interacts with his band and dancers, and he actively engages his audience. It's a full multimedia event to delight the senses (especially for you twink hunters when he takes his shirt off). Also, the electronic album jacket is animated like a website, allowing the listener to click through to each section from a series of menus. It took a minute to get used to, but it's noticeably more efficient than the usual PDF that comes with most iTunes albums.



I can honestly say that while I prefer some individual songs to others, I recommend this album as a unit. In addition to showing his amazing vocal range in an artful manner, Mika co-produced (secondary credits) every song on the album except for “By the Time”. He also has primary writing credits on every track. He does a great job of making music entertaining while actually saying something. He walks the fine line of having a distinctive style without everything sounding the same. And this is why I loved this album without falling in love with most of the individual tracks (because I love his style). And when I saw that this amazing talent was 3 months younger than I, I wanted to jump off a bridge.

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I loved this. So nice to read a musician's view of the album, and so complimentary too.


I can honestly say that while I prefer some individual songs to others, I recommend this album as a unit. In addition to showing his amazing vocal range in an artful manner, Mika co-produced (secondary credits) every song on the album except for “By the Time”. He also has primary writing credits on every track. He does a great job of making music entertaining while actually saying something. He walks the fine line of having a distinctive style without everything sounding the same. And this is why I loved this album without falling in love with most of the individual tracks (because I love his style). And when I saw that this amazing talent was 3 months younger than I, I wanted to jump off a bridge.


Please don't jump off that bridge though :naughty:

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This was a really interesting read. Perhaps a little convuluted at some points, but definitely interesting. I like that they focus on the music rather than the lyrics, cos every single critic seems to focus on the words and Elton John/ George Michael. They never go any deeper into the music than a comparison so this was a breath of fresh air.

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