Wednesday, November 17, 2010

At a loss for words: five great instrumental acts

Posted By on Wed, Nov 17, 2010 at 8:30 AM

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Musicians have an advantage over we rock journalists (above and beyond the whole "coolness" aspect) in that, if they're at a loss for words, they can just opt to record a song with no lyrics and vocals whatsoever. They'll have an instrumental that's still pretty nifty. (If I don't write, I don't get paid, and I have to try and convince the folks at Love Garden to hold onto those Ramones records for me one more week.)

Despite their lack of words, instrumentals can create an atmosphere, tell a story, or rock just as hard as any song with vocals. Here are five bands who almost entirely eschew lyrics, instead letting the instruments do all the talking for them.

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The songs of Explosions In the Sky are so far-reaching in terms of breadth and scope, it's of no surprise that they were tapped to soundtrack the football film, Friday Night Lights. Who better than this Texas band to soundtrack a film about Texas high school football? Their songs have always managed to use the loud-quiet-loud aesthetic to great purposes, and when paired with the experiences of the Panthers, it's a glorious movie watching experience. And all of this is without even mentioning their "real" albums, which in and of themselves manage to create cinematic vistas. "Yasmin the Light," from their second album, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, demonstrates this fairly aptly.

Probably my favorite artists ever to record on Thrill Jockey, Trans Am sounds like a muscle car: it's lean, propulsive, and if you rev it up fast enough, they roar. Their self-titled debut is a mix of the floating and ethereal right next to full-on blasts of energy. Somehow, though, Trans Am manages to make it all work. Every Trans Am song sounds like a journey through time and space, with bass and guitar rumbling as the guitar races alongside them. This track is a live version of "Carboforce," off their album Surrender to the Night, recorded at Waterloo Records in Austin on April 16, 2007.

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While best known for their work soundtracking the interludes to the Kids In the Hall, the Canandian act Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet managed to transcend that gig, and the surf-rock genre as a whole. Placing their sonic efforts within a different context, Shadowy Men's songs take influences from crime jazz, country, and indie rock. Listening to any song or album places the listener in a world where every dance floor is freshly waxed, and the boogaloo never fails to impress. Enjoy the live version of "Spin Me Round '86" from Savvy Show Stoppers and shimmy away.

While rocking is all fine and dandy, where would music of the last fifty years be without the development of electronic music? Further removing the man from the music, and creating a style wherein music can be created entirely within a machine, electronic music can still be rather warm and inviting. The music of Scottish duo, Boards of Canada, fits that bill nicely. Using analog synths, Boards of Canada reference '70s-era film and television scores, making a sound that's simultaneously new and exciting, while still seeming familiar. I almost feel like I'm cheating here, as the band does utilize dialogue samples -- but "Roygbiv" is too good not to include here.

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Lastly, any discussion of instrumental acts would be remiss if it didn't include Stax/Volt legends Booker T and the MGs. Booker T. Jones' fatback organ laid the foundation for too many tracks to count as part of the Stax house band. However, that Hammond B-3 sound would go on to fame on its own as the focus of the classic "Green Onions." The band's instrumental version of the Beatles' Abbey Road, entitled McLemore Avenue, is the sort of deep soul release that pops up out of the past and manages to make anyone listening to them feel as if they're partaking in a piece of timeless cool. Picking any track to represent Booker T and the MGs is a difficult proposition, but the blues shuffle of "Hip Hug-Her" needs to be heard by more folks.

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