Monday, March 15, 2021

Doing the Pandora shuffle, 1st edition

Pandora, the grandaddy of music streaming services, has a pretty cool feature for its paid subscribers.

You know how Pandora works. It calls itself a music recommendation service, though in reality it doesn't recommend as much as it drops stuff take-it-or-leave-it. More precisely, I would call it an algorithmic automatic service.

If you're a paid subscriber, specifically a Pandora Plus customer, you have tweaking control of your library of stations -- which you can listen to for hours ad-free. But what I find invaluable, and the only way I use Pandora any more, is the option to shuffle your stations. With that, Pandora delivers its automatic, on-the-fly queue through random polling of your entire library.

For instance, if you have a station generated from a search for Gentle Giant, you can open that station and listen to songs from 1970s prog artists for hours. But if you have three stations generated from Gentle Giant, Ray Charles and Joni Mitchell and use the Pandora shuffle feature, you can spend hours moving randomly among prog, soul and California folk.

I've been a Pandora Plus subscriber for more than a decade, and I've built up a library of dozens of stations -- some of them tweaked with a definite sense of purpose in the early days, most recently several added when I just wanted to get a particular artist's songs into the mix more often. For quite awhile now, my Pandora use is exclusively through the shuffle feature, and I can listen for hours with no real idea what I'm going to be served up next.

I love that. You know, sometimes you're in the mood to fill the house with some music but you have no idea specifically what you're in the mood for. The Pandora shuffle feature pulling from dozens of diverse library stations, keeps you satisfied for good, mostly familiar music and doesn't let you get bored with one particular genre.

If I'm in a particular mood for raw rock and roll, I can go to Little Steven's Underground Garage on SiriusXM. If I want to listen to an Arcade Fire album, Spotify takes care of that for me. But to toss on some music for a completely blank slate for my mood, that Pandora shuffle is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

When I fire that thing up, I might get a Jerry Lee Lewis banger to start and follow it straight up with a Fiona Apple deep cut and then a Midnight Oil tune. I can't swear to how purely random the Pandora algorithm is, but it's close enough to keep me guessing and offering up some real surprises a lot of the time.

I was marveling the other night at the randomness of some of the great songs I was hearing the other night when I got this idea: It might be fun to do what I'll call a "live blog" post, in which I will write something about the next five songs that come up on my Pandora stream, whatever they are. Let's just see where this goes.

So that's the plan. I'll fire up my Pandora shuffle, and I'll get to work. Five songs. The only interfacing I will do will be to hit the pause button now and then to finish what I need to write about a particular song. Then I'll resume the stream and go to the next one. 

So here we go. It's 4:15 p.m. on Monday, March 15. "OK, Google, shuffle Pandora."

"Time of the Season," The Zombies (Odessey & Oracle, 1968):
A classic from the psychedelic-rock era. Bouncy Hammond organ, steady drumbeat and that "click-ooh-ahh" vocal effect behind the whispery lead vocal by Colin Blunstone. Written by keyboardist Rod Argent and recorded at Abbey Road Studios in August 1967. The single, released in March 1968, reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The track I'm listening to is the album version, about 40 seconds longer on the instrumental outro than the single release. "Time of the Season" has become a go-to song to set the scene in this particular era.

"Send His Love to Me," PJ Harvey (To Bring You My Love, 1995):
The ninth track on Harvey's 10-track third album -- her first solo effort after the power trio PJ Harvey disbanded in 1993. This is barebones Polly Jean, singing forcefully over an understated instrumental track of acoustic guitar, snare drums, organ and strings about the desperation of having lost love.

"I Love You," The Zombies (The Original Studio Recordings, Vol 3, 2007):
This happens sometimes, though rarely. I'm not finding a whole lot on this one. The album it is drawn from was a box set of five vinyl LPs, later broken up into volumes and distributed digitally. The chorus sounds slightly familiar, though I can't really locate this song in my memory. Written by bassist Chris White, recorded in 1965 and included on a self-titled album released only in the UK. A California group called People! had a US hit with this song in 1968. The song's OK, has 1965 all over it, nothing special.

"Dream Lover," Bobby Darin (Paul Anka vs. Bobby Darin, 2014):
The album was compiled by Anka as a digital download, featuring hits from both artists. The song was written by Darin and recorded in 1959, with Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler as producers. Neil Sedaka plays piano on this classic. The non-album single, on Atco Records, reached No. 2 on the Hot 100. "I want a dream lover so I don't have to dream alone." Enough said. You know this song.

"Mercy Street," Peter Gabriel (So, 1986):
One of the classic songs from Gabriel's classic album. Written by Gabriel, inspired by an Anne Sexton poem. New Musical Express listed this "beautifully produced number" as one of its 10 Most Depressing Songs Ever. Gabriel double-tracks his vocals on this brooding piece about a character figuratively lost at sea. Gabriel says in an episode of Classic Albums that he couldn't get the lower-register vocal right -- and eventually figured out that he could only get there immediately after he woke up in the morning. So he had producer Daniel Lanois report to work very early one morning; Gabriel slept overnight in the studio and got straight out of bed and recorded the low register. Perfectly. 

OK. So that session, though random, was a bit skewed in an early direction. I'll give this another go in a few days, see what turns up. 

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