Ride - Twenty One Pilots

The Second Single Dilemma

The Second Single HurdleOne of the hardest music business hurdles to overcome, second only to the second verse conundrum, is the second-single-after-a-hit-first-single-conundrum. (I do understand that you need two second verses to be able to have a second single problem but one can, as you may see later, get away with a bad second verse and still have a second single. Successful or not. So there)

KajagoogooIt is often repeated during casual musician-to-musician breeze shooting events that once you’re in, you’re in. Meaning that once you have a big single then you have all the resources and help you need to pull off a second one. Of course one could mention bands like Kajagoogoo as proof that it is not true but that would be mean. Especially to Kajagoogoo.

Anyway, we all have been in that discussion. Just how true is it?

What makes a song/production special enough to shine, what is the magic, is there a formula and is it easily reproducible? Surely Elvis, Beyonce, Liberace, Prince, or Pat Boone (Random examples, I’ll concede) know something about that. Did those people’s hits become hits because they were hits by themselves or did they become hits because of who released them and when?

Interesting question innit?

Hitting It Big

Twenty One Pilots LiveThankfully, thanks to the amazing velocity and semi-transparency of the new pop music business, we are able to catch acts in the act of releasing music with solid metrics of where they stand sales wise. We can pick a song that has been killing it in the charts, and then we can look at its just-released follow-up, and then we can comment in real time. Isn’t that wonderful?

For example. Have you heard the first Twenty One Pilots single "Stressed Out"?

Yes you have. If you are alive in the world today and buy your own groceries/go to the bank/doctor's office/DMV office/been in a car on the way to the DMV office or anything that involves radio or overhead speakers, you have. Promised. Check it out:

Right? Ok. You know this.

I was in an airport lounge in Foz Do Iguacu (very south Brazil) last week and this song came on between Gilberto Gil and some old Djavan track. This song is that big.

It’s catchy as hell right?

Nothing exactly groundbreaking though. Kinda 90s actually. A little 311, a little Sugar Ray with some smart modern vocal production colors to make it feel new.

It peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100, and number one on both Alternative Songs and Hot Rock Songs. It has stayed on the Mainstream Top 40 for 32 weeks. All and all a rocking success.

Congrats guys. You made it out of Ohio on a rocket ship. What next then?

Here’s the follow up they came up with:

Ah. Ok. Same exact influences, same reggae-ish vibe, same filtered vocals (more filtered yes but same idea). This time there is a big anthemic chorus and no rap bridge. Detail. They do drop the drums right before the chorus and on the penultimate section before the cycled choruses at the end in the same way. And they wrap the song with a memorable line that is often repeated earlier in the song in the same way that ‘Stressed Out’ does. ‘Ride’ has reached number 66 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart as of May 1st 2016. Amazing in any other young band’s career. But for a former #2 band, it’s a couple fries short of a happy meal. It’s only been in the race for 7 weeks though. Let's be fair. Fairness does not prevent fortune-tellerness. Let’s prophesize.

Who’s thinks it’s going to top or match Stressed out? (raise your hand)

Who thinks it’s going to fizzle unless it gets a BMW or Sportswear commercial? (You can raise your hand again)

I’m going to go out on a limb and bet that I will not be hearing ‘Ride’ over the PA in the GOL Airlines lounge next time I go to Foz Do Iguacu. (Side note, this is what the Iguacu Falls look like, I recommend you visit. Best white noise ever)
Iguacu Falls

Where Did They Go Wrong?

Anyways. I don’t think this song is going to work out as well for them. Why?

Honestly I don't have any science to back it up. Just a bunch of details that add up to a hunch that may or may not be verified by time but here we go, this is what I think of ‘Ride’:

1/ The song is not as good. It’s subjective but ask yourself right now: Can I remember the melody tied to the title of the song or a main melody on this new effort? How about on Stressed Out? Can you identify with the lyric plot on ‘Ride’? Did you think about it? Do you even know what it’s about after one listen? Did you feel something?

‘Stressed Out’ talks about youth nostalgia. Enough said. Hard to beat these days.

2/ It’s also ran. They are copying themselves but they are copying nonetheless. There was not really a track like ‘Stressed Out’ when ‘Stressed Out’ came out. 'Rude' by Magic! (Remember them?) was on its way out by fall 2014 so it does not count. There is a track quite like ‘Ride’ on the charts, it’s called ‘Stressed Out’ and it’s a (arguably) better track.

3/ It does not sound as good.

Ah! Finally a little geek talk:

Stressed Out sounds actually pretty good for such a loud track. They managed to get it this loud (it’s actually louder than Jay-Z’s Tom Ford, discussed elsewhere on this fine site) and still sounds good by cutting all the super bottom stuff and relying on low mids to get the pedestal for the rest of the track. It gets a little fatter on the choruses because of the bass sounding fatter on that section (by design I assume) but it’s very contained and well curated below the belt.

Notice how it gets lighter on the second verse? I suspect they just muted whatever they doubled the bass with to make the chorus feel bigger. Simple and elegant.

Overall the production is very simple and sparse. Lots of copy pasting. Lots of restraint in the layering. It never changes shape sonically. The chorus hits and lifts a little but stays in the same pleasant and hypnotic sonic space. Everything is kept together but highlighted with simple events like the little filter trick before the second prechorus or finishing the song with a processed vocal rap section. All the sounds are cool and well crafted like the reverbed synth on the intro, the different vocal spaces between dry verse and reverbed prechorus and chorus, the delay throws at the end of the first chorus and elsewhere, the filtered piano broken arpeggio on the second verse, the vocal like 8th note texture that only comes in on one of the pre-choruses and at the end, all the shouted ‘hey’ textures that widen the stereo field, etc, etc....

These is this an inspired quality to all of this. It’s effortless and nothing jumps at you. It all unfolds cleanly but never gets boring.

What's Going On Here?

We are glad to recognize our reverbed synth sound on the intro of the ‘Ride’ version of the Twenty One Pilots book of inspirations. However it does not feel as good to me. Does it to you? There is something too much about it somehow. But it’s there. check.

We do have the delay throws on the vocals, check.

And the Reggae upbeat thing, more overt this time, check.

Filtered piano is there, awesome, check. I feel safe again.

Ah, nice little swung 16th snare fills with a different snare sound, check.

This should work just fine. It did for ‘Stressed Out’. Same team all along.

But it feels different, no?

For example, the chorus shrinks instead of growing. The heavy bass chokes it and the kick drum pulls back in the center of the track.

It sounds like a mid 90s ‘I-just-got-protools-but-I-pretend-I’m-still-on-a-console-and-nothing-works-or-sounds-like-I-expected-and-it’s-the-best-I-can-do-so-here’s-your-mix’ kinda mix.

Actually the problem is not stemming from the mix. I think it’s the production that hurts the song in this case. That held MiniMoog-like bass is the kiss of death for the bass drum which forced the team to create energy another way.

They looked for energy and definition by layering above the belt line (Above 300Hz-ish if you want to be technical) and that creates problems. Nothing creates punch like an unclouded bass drum and bass combo. Many, many, many songs have been taken in odd directions by hanging on to one element like that held bass note and following the natural instincts of trying to make a chorus exciting.

I’ll bet my lunch money ($9.99 at the corner deli on Avenue A) that they originally did not have the intention of making anyone squint when the chorus hits. Who’s in on the bet? (raise your hand again)

So what happened here?

In short it feels like someone wanted to make a follow up or companion (Depending on timeline) to a badass track, tried to make it louder and more radio oriented but missed on many counts.

But these are the same guys who made ‘Stressed Out’. They are pretty fantastic at making records. This is their 3rd record. Each one got bigger than the previous. They came up through the ranks working hard and building their fan base from the ground up. Surely they must have another song on that record that is as good as ‘Stressed Out’ in all these ways.

We may find a hint at the problem in the lyrics of Lane Boy (pasted below if you don’t have the patience to listen to another song)

I think what happened is a combo of two problems:

1/ It’s really hard to make great pop tracks and that there is no formula even for very talented and relentless guys like the Twenty One Pilots guys.

2/ There is a whole team involved beyond the writing/production/mixing, and these days after a smash first hit, the teams involved are quite big and everyone on the team has an opinion. Ever cooked with your significant other + mother + grandfather + crazy aunt at the same time in the kitchen with you? Right, it never ends up tasting quite the same or you can’t really choose what to make because someone always has some allergy to something.

Personally, I would have chosen ‘Fairly Local’ as the follow up single to ‘Stressed Out’. But ‘Fairly Local’ apparently was their first single and peaked at #84 (Never heard it anywhere myself), so that goes to tell you what happens in my kitchen.

Which song would you have chosen as a second single if you were the A&R?

- Fab Dupont


Lane Boy

They say stay in your lane, boy, lane, boy

But we go where we want to

They think this thing is a highway, highway

But will they be alive tomorrow?

They think this thing is a highway

If it was our way

We'd have a tempo change every other time change

'Cause our minds change on what we think is good

I wasn't raised in the hood

But I know a thing or two about pain and darkness

If it wasn't for this music, I don't know how I would've fought this

Regardless, all these songs I'm hearing are so heartless

Don't trust a perfect person and don't trust a song that's flawless

Honest, there's a few songs on this record that feel common

I'm in constant confrontation with what I want and what is poppin'

In the industry it seems to me that singles on the radio are currency

My creativity's only free when I'm playin' shows

They say stay in your lane, boy, lane ,boy

But we go where we want to

They think this thing is a highway, highway

But will they be alive tomorrow? Will they be alive tomorrow?

I'm sorry if that question I asked last

Scared you a bit like a hazmat

In a gas mask

If you ask Zack

He's my brother, he likes when I rap fast

But let's back track, back to this

Who would you live and die for on that list

But the problem is, there's another list that exists and no one really wants to think about this

Forget sanity, forget salary, forget vanity, my morality

If you get in between someone I love and me

You're gonna feel the heat of my cavalry

All these songs I'm hearing are so heartless

Don't trust a perfect person and don't trust a song that's flawless


‘nuff said.

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