Thursday, March 29, 2007

[Blues] Katie Melua - (2005) Piece by Piece

Every now and then, not often, you get a genuine surprise. This is exactly what happened to me when I googled up Nine Million Bicycles, after hearing that cute, amusing song on the plane on my way back from Singapore. It turned out it was sung by a young artist by the name of Katie Melua, whom, I have to admit, I had never heard of before. I got hold of her latest CD and, expecting nothing more than a few amusing Pop songs, was utterly blown away when I heard one genuinely great Jazz/Blues song after another.

Katie Melua - Piece by Piece
Blues - 2005
1 CD - 12 tracks
Total running time: 44:38

What I was hearing was actually the work of a truely amazing singer, with a voice and style as sensuous and beautiful as the classic great female voices of Jazz and Blues.

Katie who?

After listening to the opening songs, I was eagerly going through the liner notes of the CD to try and figure out why I hadn't heard of this artist earlier as I found out that Piece by Piece was actually her second CD.

The net provided me with more information: Katie is apparently of mixed origins, born and raised in Georgia, then living in Belfast. Not surprisingly, Katie was first known in the UK, in fact, her first album Call off the Search was very successful there but went almost completely unnoticed throughout the rest of the world.

Despite the thick Irish accent Katie displays in interviews, she is actually quite eloquant, has interesting views on world matters, and doesn't subscribe to the standardized "European way of thinking", which is always refreshing to hear. Her origins probably have something to do with that, as they probably do with the rather literary and profound lyrics that surprise you in her songs.

Speaking of songs, it might be time to mention that Katie is a primarily a singer although she does play a little bit of guitar - basically strums a few chords on her nylon stringed electro-acoustic. Many of you (myself included) would already be running for the hills after that description. Luckily, and that's one of the many surprises this artist has in store for us, she is in no way "goofy" like a lot of the so-called professional singers. Her voice is soft yet without being week. From what I could tell in this CD, she creates intensity and expressiveness, not by screeming loudly and going into impossibly high tones, but by subtlely texturing her voice to fit the mood she wants to create and playing with dynamics, sometimes lowering her voice to a mere whisper.

The spark of interest

As I mentionned in the introduction, I first discovered this music on the plane. Air France, on that trip, had apparently forgotten to remove this song from their usual selection of appaulling old French hits. I whole-heartedly encourage them to make similar mistakes in future...

Anyhow, Nine Million Bicycles was the title of the song - nothing more than a catchy and cute love song at first listen. However, as the title maybe indicates, the song bares one question: How do you associate nine million bicycles and love? Well, there lies exactly what makes this little song special.

"Nine million bicycles" refers to how many of those transportation devices are being used everyday in Beijing which, appart from being an interesting and amusing fact, has a nice ring to it. I won't explain how the link to love is made - you'll have to listen to the song to find out - I'll just say that, associated with the lovely melody, the line "there are nine million bicycles in Beijing" is the perfect example of how lyrics, music and meaning can work together to create a really great song.

A genuine discovery

It's high time we had a look at the rest of the album which quite simply beats the hell out of Nine Million Bicycle - which was no slouch in the first place.


A voice as engaging live as in the studio

Here's a little video to illustrate Katie's skills out of the studio and on stage with just a guitar and a microphone. This a an unofficial live recording from an appearance on French TV.

Absolutely mind-blowing in my opinion. Powerful voice yet full of subtleties, sometimes down to just an intimate, spine-tingling whisper, accompanied by just a softly picked guitar, adding to the personal, and surprinsingly intense, quality of this song.


Shy Boy
Nine Million Bicycles
Piece by Piece
Halfway up the Hindu Kush
Blues in the Night
Spider's Web
Blue Shoes
On the Road Again
Thank You Stars
Just Like Heaven
I Cried for You
I Do Believe in Love


Friday, March 02, 2007

Legal note on videos

In the near future, I will be adding more video content to this guide. For some of the twisted minds and consciences out there, this might raise a few legal issues, especially considering we're talking Music here.

Therefore, I'll do some preventive self-criticism, and make my case before the questions are even asked.


The first thing to be said is that I'm not in the slightest way interested in starting a debate over intellectual property and God knows what. That's all capitalistic delerium as far as I'm concerned. I just listen to music, enjoy it and try as best I can to make others enjoy it too.

That being said, I will set some limits as to what kind of material we'll include here at Pifflez's comprehensive guide to musical literacy, mainly to stay out of trouble, but also not to tranform this blog into another one of those "Video of the day" type things. After all, and as I said before, we are talking Music here; so technically, video has no sense here.

Video content philosophy

Generally speaking, we will add a video when it allows us to express something that a simple album review cannot.

For instance, we'll use a video to introduce you to a new artist by showing you an example of his art in the shape of a video recording of one of his pieces. It will, of course, be a recording of the artist actually playing (be it live or in a radio studio etc.). To actually see an artist play a piece, and play it differently than on the official album, is always a fascinating experience.

We'll also use videos as multimedia support for analysing specific pieces. We will present our views on the piece and the particular interpretation of it. Having a common interpretation of the piece to base our comments on can result in a very interesting discussion. Very probable to produce our so-called "wako talk"...

A final example of the advantage of video footage is an effective way to present a new Music genre. For instance, Classical Guitar is best introduced by showing you a video of an amateur guitarist playing a well-known classical composition in his living room.


As you could expect, my sources will mostly be YouTube, Google Video and Daily Motion and other video sites. These sites offer direct links for you to embed the video content in your own webpages, therefore I assume they are encouraging people to do so.

The legitimicy of these sites is debatable, I suppose, but as long as they are still running, I consider them a valid source.

I will however limit my videos to
  • Professional live recordings such as concerts, jam sessions, TV shows etc. (amateur or professional footage)
  • Amateur live recordings such as amateur interpretations of famous pieces, personal compositions, improvisations etc.
I will not include any material present on any artist's official discography. ...Not because of the legal debate, but because the video would have no use here. I might as well do a review of the CD where the material can be found.