Best Song Ever? The 1812 Overture (Tchaikovsky)

Maybe the most in-depth “best song ever?” review…ever

Only in the US could a song written by a gay Russian guy to celebrate a Russian military victory become a cornerstone of its patriotic celebrations. Sure, the whole “1812” in the title makes it sound like it could’ve been written in relation to the little discussed War of 1812 (USA! USA! USA!). Sure the whole name, Festival Overture “The Year 1812” has exactly no ring to it, and the French Ouverture solennelle 1812 is, well, French, but had it been named something like “Glorious Song Celebrating Russian Victory,” maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be a staple of barbecues, Budweiser, and bottlerockets. In lieu of the anti-septic “yes, no, conclusion” form of previous “Best Song Ever?” reviews, I’m going to really tear this one up. Like most everything, Wikipedia has a detailed, thorough write-up of it, so here’s a quick background: 1) commissioned to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Napoleon’s defeat at Moscow in (wait for it) 1812 2) actually from the “Romantic” time period, what with the aggressive dynamic range and being written in a patriotic state of mind (see Finlandia, and the Moldau, both from about the same time period).

I’ll assume that everyone knows the end of the 1812 Overture (du-duh-du-duh-duh-duh-duh-du-duh-duh-CANNON EXPLOSION!! du-duh … [repeat]), so I’ll be focusing more on the rest of the ~15-17 minutes of wretched Slavic excess.

First things first, there are a number of orchestral variations that exist: some have a choir at the beginning singing the opening hymn, others have it played by the strings, some even have the choir sing at the end as well, some versions have cannon, some versions don’t. (I prefer sans cannon – the reverberations tend to lose the finer details of the conclusion, that being said, points are earned for incorporating firearms into music. I don’t think Creedence ever had the guts to do that.) Also, there are a number of sonically inferior recordings of the 1812 Overture. The blaring trumpets of the “best part” (see below) will overwhelm low-quality mixes, leaving it painful to listen to, much less “appreciate.” Likewise, in the interest of not clipping during recording, if the opening choir is included, they’re frequently gained way, way down, creating one of those wonderful experiences where your speakers (and ears) are left in pieces when the cannon shots start. After both of these almost technical aspects are taken care of, we’re left at the whims of the conductor – should the opening be minor key Christmas Carol slow or old lady playing the organ slow? (answer: minor key Christmas Carol slow) – should the high end of the orchestra bring it back a few notches when the low end completes the final run? (answer: absolutely) Should the ringing trumpets of “the good part” be included in the arrangement? (answer: yes, but Mr. Conductor had best keep them from blowing the notes out of tune).

Let’s call the “definitive” arrangement the recording by the Tchaikovsky Large Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev (1995).

From 0:00 – 01:08 we hear the opening hymn – sung in this version, frequently played by the string section in other recordings. The hymn is actually “God Save the Tsar,” not a new creation of Tchaikovsky’s. Let’s call this the first good part.

01:08 – 03:12 Lots of building – starting small, getting large at 02:50. Look out for the tubas to rock your world, speakers, and sense of decency at 2:32. Maybe some “mystery” with the forgotten member of the strings, the double bass being played with a bow, creating “uncertainty and dread.” Maybe.

03:12 – 03:40 Section played by the upper and middle brass (French horns, the upper range of the trombones). What with the whole “celebrating victory over the French” thing, this is actually a play on La Marseillaise, the French National Anthem. Finally, “musical allusions” I agree with. Remember this ditty for later.

03:41 – The strings rock out before the brass comes back in at 4:40 playing more variations on La Marseillaise as the strings add flourishes – notice that the flourishes aren’t all by the violins and violas, the cellos and double basses add just as much. The melody is thrown all around the brass department: french horns and trombones, then trumpets, back to trombones, then trumpets again as at 05:03 – the violins flourish with an upwards run, the cellos and basses match it, but in reverse (for you music people out there, that’s called “inversion” …. or “retrograde.”) At 5:07 the string section’s cat and mouse game ends as they’re given the melody for a time as the section begins to wind down at 05:40.

05:57 – The section begins – woodwinds and strings are left alone to introduce this middle theme. At 6:40 the oboe and English horn get a slight countermelody which at 7:00 is picked up by the flutes who begin their take on the theme at 07:06. Notice the continual tambourine and the bassoon player’s mom standing up during the concert and saying “THAT’S MY SON!!!” because he’s the featured instrument from 7:21 until 7:26. Heck, it might be only 5 seconds, but to a bassoon player, that’s like being TIME’s person of the year. The French national anthem continues to be played with like a cat with a gimpy mouse until the brass add exclamation marks at 08:05, with the tubas even getting in on the French-bashing at 08:45. Uh-oh, I smell segue (08:50 – 09:02).

Same file as above, to avoid excess scrolling.

09:02 – 10:17 – I think this is the part where pretentious war movies start and they talk about the “beauty of combat, the man on man, the country vs. country.” At 9:42 the double bass proves why it Le Stinks compared to the tuba, with it barely being able to be heard (9:48 specifically). 09:49 – French Horn Solo! Well, two measures at a time, at least. 10:05 building to what will be the second good part.

10:18 – 11:10 The second good part. Timpani is played in place of cannon (good move), the trumpets take guff from no man. I assume this is supposed to be the whole “cannonballs wrecking stuff” section as we get blaring, blaring, blaring, then it’s the long, long (long, long) run down the orchestra starting with violins, viola, cello, then double-bass, then (to the chagrin of double-bass players everywhere), the tubas join in around 10:58 and totally drown them out. As it should be.

11:10 – 12:23 The third good part – also called, “the best part” I’ll be honest, the conductor takes it a bit fast for more liking, but it’s made up for in the fact that this version includes the chorus. This section’s all top-quality; generally the structure is “choir and brass play the role of cannon” then the strings play the part of “stuff blown up and floating through the air after explosion.” Remember the opening hymn, well, this is it all over again. Notice the “ringing” trumpets accenting the melody 1 and 2 octaves up, playing in unison but a 5th above the melody in the low brass. Wait a minute…isn’t root-5th the same thing as a power chord? Indeed it is. Take that rock and roll. 11:42 rocks my world (and makes purple acceptable to wear), so turn your speakers up. Notice the tuba player almost duff the first note of his mini-feature at 11:49, then redeem himself until he takes a slightly too long breath at 11:53/11:54. The chorus and brass do their thing, as the strings begin to wrap up the section at 12:16. Oh yeah, and the bells that start at ~11:06 and don’t stop until the whole song’s over? Someone needs to tell them not to overdo it. Supposedly, the original score calls for “carillon,” but most versions use tubular bells in place of the carillon. Notice the MP3 compression have a major coronary as it tries to compress this section with the bells, the brass, chorus, cymbals, and the strings all playing at FF. What’s a carillon you may ask? Well, if you’ve been to Musikfest, this guy plays a carillon.

Same file as above, to avoid excess scrolling.

12:23 – END – You know it, you may love it, you may hate it, but no matter what you think of it, to most people, this is the 1812 Overture. It’s the fourth good part if only by popular vote. It’s actually kind of ho-hum when you listen to it: the drums go bum-bum over and over again, the cymbal player is phoning it in, the cannoneers are waiting for their cue, the violin players are developing carpal tunnel, Clarinet 2 is wondering to himself, “I spent how much money on a music degree, and all I’m doing is playing second Clarinet in this commercial waste of time?!,” but its one saving grace is that the brass is about to get back in and bring it home. This version even includes the closing chorus, so if you ever see it performed live or even on TV (almost never with the chorus), remember this, so you realize what you’re missing. 12:32 The tubas double the chorus, the trumpets assist the violins and woodwinds, the cannon do their thing, and the double-bass and bassoon are apparently in absentia (as it should be). On your second listen-through, notice the trumpet players triple-tonguing the opening of each phrase (listen at 12:36, that’s not one note, that’s 3 super-quick ones, in a row). 12:49 This is a tricky section for most recordings. Frequently, the chromatic run of triplets, which begins at the top of the orchestra’s range with the flutes and violins, gets lost in the soundfield when it gets handed to the low brass (at 12:52) but not in this version. In this one, the notes are even accented on the way down and the tempo is slowed ever so slightly, drawing it out. Making this version even more definitive is that (pay attention), normally, when the chorus sits this section out as the low brass is doing the triplet run, the higher instruments ascend the major scale on each downbeat two octaves above the low brass. In this version, the men’s chorus is singing one octave above the brass, drawing more tension between the simultaneous ascending and descending lines compared to having two whole octaves between each.

After that, it’s just bombast – nothing extraordinary, though there’s something to be said for throwing the final melody down each member of the brass section, the high trumpets at 13:04, the lower trumpets at 13:05, the french horns and baritone at 13:06 (listen for the sour note during their turn around 13:07), then finally the trombones and tuba bring up the rear. All that’s left now is to wait for the darn thing to end for the next 18 seconds. It’s kind of like watching a dog after it’s let out to go to the bathroom. It runs around the whole yard waiting for a nice spot to take care of its business. It takes a while, but it does eventually end.

An alternate version (USSR State Symphony Orchestra – Evgeny Svetlanov – 1974):
No choir (beginning, middle, or end)
The strings are played in place of the chorus – eh, it’s okay, but he takes them a bit too slowly. At this tempo, they come off more as “emotive” than “expressive.” I’m not sure what that means, but feel free to quote me. It does sound like the instruments are about to cry. Also, I think you can hear the musician’s breath between musical phrases. I’d assume this was someone’s artsy-fartsy idea to “make the instruments sound more like people.”
Listen (opening only – turn it up a bit):

More notably, this version includes an alternate ending. Apparently the change has to do with Soviet Russia not liking things praising the Tsar (for some reason). More here.
Listen:

At 0:12 – right when you expect the brass entrance, you get…whuh?! Actually, it’s another hymn, but at least you get back in time (0:35) for the epic final run (which is drawn out and even accented by the tubas).

Here’s the whole thing – it’s pretty much the typical performance. The sound quality is a bit lacking, but it’s certainly passable:
Listen:

Another Sample
Not sure the pedigree of this one, but it shows why that final run (0:04) needs to be recorded and mixed carefully. The bottom half gets completely lost in the explosions and strings.
Listen:

One Last Example
Finally, this is what happens when the end is played too fast. Not only are the trumpets out of sync, they’re blowing the notes out of tune. Also, one of the trumpet players seems to left the building from 0:23-0:27.
Listen:

I have a few more renditions if anyone’s interested, but I covered the good ones and the notable differences between variations….and, I’m sure most of you stopped reading after the title.

****½

The 1812 Overture gets four-and-half stars for longevity, effect, and who-cares-if-it’s-“popular” awesomeness. It makes fun of the French, incorporates military equipment, and has been co-opted by the US; really, what else is there? Half-a-star is deducted for that middle section. It’s good, but unfortunately doesn’t compare. It is not the best song ever, but it’s definitely breathing rarefied air.

Best Song Ever?: Everyone Gets a Star (Albert Hammond, Jr.)

Note for those using feedreaders: the song is embedded on this review’s entry so there’s a point-of-reference in the review; you might want to view this entry from the webpage instead of the feed.

Background
About six years ago during the throes of the boy-band era and Creed’s establishing themselves as the benchmark for “rock” for the next few years (face it, it’s true, unfortunate or not), “rock journalists” began hyping a new, unsigned band from New York who would supposedly save rock (and/or roll). Well, it’s been six years later, and The Strokes are still more-or-less “the who’s?.” Notably, they were pretty much the first of the “the” bands (the Hives, the Vines, the White Stripes) to get significant mainstream exposure. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that The Strokes didn’t really end up changing the world, but they do have three perfectly solid albums to their name (some publications weren’t too fond of First Impressions of Earth, but I digress). Long story short, Albert Hammond, Jr. is the lead guitar player in The Strokes, and his first solo CD, Yours to Keep, came out in late 2006. With one listen, his membership in The Strokes is obvious, but the music manages to be a bit less “garagey” sounding than a typical Strokes track, with slightly higher-gloss production and even some vocal harmonies throughout. Consider the album highly recommended.

For

  • The bass part is actually played by a guitar for most of the song. The rhythm part during the opening (up to 0:21) is being played on a guitar. Once the bass comes in at that point, the guitar stays with a bass-type part instead of playing chords (around 0:43 the second rhythm guitar comes in, with the rhythm guitar continuing its “bass line.”)
  • Deceptively complicated for such a simple-sounding song. At 2:04 listen to four separate rhythm parts (rhythm guitar 1, rhythm guitar 2, bass, drums), all of which are unique. (the parts aren’t doubling each other, in other words).
  • Incredibly catchy – I guess that’s that whole “intangible” of a “good song.”

Against

  • Relentlessly dull lyrics:

    These guys have all got problems. / These guys have all got their problems.

    He’s rhyming the word “problems” with…. “problems.”

    When will you stop and see me through / There’s something else I’d rather do

    “Do” is the first entry in any rhyming dictionary for “through.”

    Today, you’ve come now go away.

    Points for the internal rhyme, but points off for the faux-deep jumble of words.

  • The “breakdown” at 2:24 (in other words, when the unique aspects of the song get thrown out) should be a true bridge, not “well, I don’t have any more lyrics, and I don’t want to end the song by repeating the chorus over and over again, so I’ll have it ‘rock out!’ here.

***

Unfortunately, it’s not the best song ever. It had a darn good thing going, then all of a sudden…. well, it didn’t. Considering this is his first solo CD and I’ll say this one song is stronger than anything on Is This It? (except maybe “Someday.”), it doesn’t need to be the best song ever.

Best Song Ever?: Magic (Ben Folds Five)

Another in the “Best Song Ever?” series. Simply, I give the background, a point, a counterpoint, then star rating for songs that I have on my list of “good songs” with the goal of deciding what’s the best song ever. Note for those using feedreaders: the song is embedded on this review’s entry so there’s a point-of-reference in the review; you might want to view this entry from the webpage instead of the feed.

Background
I was really never a fan of Ben Folds Five. I thought “Brick” was catchy in its own way, way back when (1995?). I never followed Ben Folds Five, but I knew the band ceased to exist sometime between 1995 and 2000, with Ben Folds going out on his own, making CD’s that sounded just like when he was in “Ben Folds Five.” (I had no problem with it, I just wasn’t into it.) I randomly (very randomly) heard the song, “Magic” sometime in the fall of 2005 on WMUH. I didn’t know what it was when I heard it (I had missed the DJ’s intro), so I scribbled down some of the lyrics to look up later on the internet. Turns out that this was the mystery song. +1 for college radio.

For

  • Shows that playing “around” chords and a pleasant melody can get you pretty far as a singer-songwriter. (yes, I’m aware that being that he had a backing band, this isn’t really a “singer-songwriter” type song). For what it’s worth, the song was actually written by the drummer, Darren Jessee, so it’s not necessarily a “Ben Folds” song.
  • The viola playing the bottom of the chords in a nice touch during the first verse.
  • It’s in 6/8. None of the pedestrian 4/4 stuff here, thank you very much.
  • The soft-loud-soft dynamic is used to good effect here. (see “against”)
  • 2:12 – At the risk of venturing into girliness, the line “You’re the magic that holds the sky up” really gets the point of that whole “love” thing. It’s not a metaphor, there’s nothing really figurative to it, I’m not sure it’s even symbolic, but it’s just a gentle exaggeration which gets the point across rather well.
  • Against

  • For the love of God, who thought it would be a good idea to have the timpani levels so loud. If you’ve turned up your head phones to hear the first verse, the timpani is seriously “damage your ears and headphones” loud. Why, why, why? Studio engineers:The enhanced dynamic range offered by CD’s is a privilege, not a right. Don’t abuse it.
  • Again, the timpani. If anyone has his or her bass turned up (most people usually do), the two timpani entrances (combined with the relative quiet of the first verse) will cause noticeable clipping because of their volume. Again, why?
  • The string section is a bit gratuitous. A single viola, violin, or cello would be ok, but with all of them, it gets a little heavy sounding.

    ****

    I’ve got a fever and the only prescription is louder timpani. No one would ever say that, even jokingly making reference to a Saturday Night Live sketch. The slightly over-the-top string section can be forgiven, but when the mixing of a song calls attention to itself, someone should be fired. Jarring dynamic changes are one thing; being unpleasant to listen to is another. It gets 4 out of 5, because of the quality of the song, but the mixing should really give it an “NA” for its rating.

Best Song Ever?: Ambulance (TV on the Radio)

Another in the “Best Song Ever?” series. Simply, I give the background, a point, a counterpoint, then star rating for songs that I have on my list of “good songs” with the goal of deciding what’s the best song ever. Note for those using feedreaders: the song is embedded on this review’s entry so there’s a point-of-reference in the review; you might want to view this entry from the webpage instead of the feed.

Background
TV on the Radio, creators of one of 2006’s best-reviewed albums, Return to Cookie Mountain were once “indie” in more than just genre. They’re now one of those “popular unpopular” bands, with an appearance on David Letterman and a video on rotation on MTV Hits. You’ll see music critics fawning over their doo-wop and soul influences, though at the end of the day, their “thing” is usually more of a noise/fuzz experiment (basically, it’s an entrant in the genre of “stoner rock”), in 2004, they released the album Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes with the a cappella “retro-ish” track “Ambulance.” They’re the type of band that if you namedrop “TV on the Radio,” you’re guaranteed to impress your pretentious friends.For

  • Who needs any stinkin’ instruments when you’ve got competant singers.
  • The “dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum” bass line won’t leave your head. Ever.
  • Relentlessly solid lyrics (and I’m not a lyrics person): I will be your accident if you will be my ambulance //
    And I will be your screech and crash if you will be my crutch and cast // And I will be your one more time if you will be my one last chance.

Against

  • The “dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum” bass line won’t leave your head.
  • The music is so straight-forward that you can’t help but pay attention to the words, and some of those words, while usually solid, if not looked at in the context of the whole song give the feel of written-by-high-schoolers-literature. Heart’s colors changed like leaves sounds like one of those faux-deep expressions a 16 year old would think up. To be fair, the line does actually work because the rest of that verse mentions vines, gardens, seeds and other earthy, not entirely unmetamorphical terms. I’m not sure this should be held against the song, but I don’t feel like erasing it.
  • At 4:54, it’s a bit simple for a song with no “build” or swell.

***

This is a tough one. The song is timeless – if I hadn’t mentioned the dates in the first section, I’m not sure anyone would know that it was from 2004 instead of any decade preceding that. Timelessness would be a characteristic of “the best song ever,” but I think this one draws too much from the past. A more modern take of the song is offered when it’s played live (see video, below). A guitar plays some atmospheric texture, a bass plays the “dum-dum-dum-dum-dum” part, and someone beatboxes a drum part. It’s wholly the same song, but provides an all-new direction for it. Note: the video is just a portion of the song, but it’ll get the point across.

Best Song Ever?: Superman (Goldfinger)

Another in the “Best Song Ever?” series. Simply, I give the background, a point, a counterpoint, then star rating for songs that I have on my list of “good songs” with the goal of deciding what’s the best song ever. Note for those using feedreaders: the song is embedded on this review’s entry so there’s a point-of-reference in the review; you might want to view this entry from the webpage instead of the feed.

Background
Goldfinger was one of the bigger bands (along with The Mighty Might Bosstones and Reel Big Fish) of the ska “boom” of 1996/1997. They’ve been churning out albums at the pace of about one every other year since 1996, and are known for doing hundreds of concerts each year. The album Hang-Ups is probably their best work. The preceding self-titled album was a bit rough around the edges and the later albums (3 as of today), while solid, didn’t quite have the creative edge presented with the whole of Hang-Ups. Basically, along with Blink 182, Goldfinger invented pop-punk, though for Goldfinger, the “pop” aspect never really came true. I heard the song “Superman” in 9th grade in 1997, and since then it’s been one of my favorites.

For

  • Incorporates the trumpets and trombones without it being gimmicky. They don’t sound out of place, and they used sparingly enough that the texture they add is not arbitrary.
  • Similar to the last song reviewed, the return from the bridge (the bridge starting at 1:57) happens at exactly the right time within the song (2:23 as the lead guitar plays 3 notes to lead into a recap of the first verse), and the stripped down arrangement of rhythm guitar, bass, cymbal ride, and vocals is the perfect contrast to the “throw everything at the fan” arrangement of the bridge.
  • Ambitious bass playing.

Against

  • Probably a bit too aggressive for most people.
  • Some people just don’t and won’t like the ska, guitar chord on the upbeat style.
  • No one’s going to be writing a treatise on the lyrics any time soon. (maybe Nate would be up it)

***

In terms of this being the best song ever, it gets only 3 stars. It puts up a good fight, but a real test here is whether one can listen to it beginning to end more than once in a row. This song? Can’t do it. I could listen to the recapitulation of the first verse after the bridge (starting at 2:23) all day long, but unfortunately that’s only part of the song, not the whole thing. And, well, the whole ska thing probably knocks it out of competition for good.

Best Song Ever?: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Neutral Milk Hotel)

The first in (maybe) a series of reviews. Simply, I give the background, a point, a counterpoint, then star rating for songs that I have on my list of “good songs” with the goal of deciding what’s the best song ever. Up first is one that definitely isn’t the best song ever, but lets me test my review format. Note for those using feedreaders: the song is embedded on this review’s entry so there’s a point-of-reference in the review; you might want to view this entry from the webpage instead of the feed.

Background
I came across Neutral Milk Hotel after reading that they had a 10.0 reviewed album with one of our nemeses, Pitchfork Media. (That’s darn near impossible). I checked out the album, and came across a song I had heard once before and had stuck with me reasonably well considering I had only heard it once. That brings us to “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”

For

  • Note the singing saw and the who cares if it’s out of tune trumpet. It does the whole “using non-traditional instruments” in an artistic, non-self-conscious-way. (see Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys).
  • It’s in 6/8 (kind of rare for rock music [well, indie {the genre} music]).
  • Evocative-ish lyrics “When we meet on a cloud, I’ll be laughing out loud” [internal rhyme for the win!]
  • Everything seems right in the world as the verses begin after the controlled musical meanderings (0:40, 1:28). The return after the bridge (the bridge starting at 2:00) is especially epic. As a listener, you’re rooting for it to get to the “What beautiful face…” after the song seemingly deconstructs after the bridge. At 2:45, everything is where it needs to be.

Against

  • Neutral Cheese Who?
  • Odd instruments, intentionally sloppy singing and bass playing.
  • Lyrically, there are some nice little onesies (see above), but there’s not much going on beyond that.
  • Just plain too weird for most people.

*½

While not a one and a half star song on its own merits, in the scale of whether it’s the best song ever, it really isn’t even a contender. It’s one-of-a-kind, but the weirdness-to-most-people inherent in making a song “one-of-a-kind” seals its fate on the “not the best song ever” side of the dividing line.