Solving the Lyric Conundrum With Instrumental Music

Confession: I’m not very good at listening to lyrics, but I’m pretty good at listening to music. It takes a conscious effort for me to actually pay attention to what a singer is singing and I’ll admit, I often look back in horror at the songs I liked as a young child and the true meaning of what they were singing (listen to any Third Eye Blind song for an example of this).

Naturally I feel guilty because songwriters put so much time into crafting the perfect lyrics for their music. But that guilt was alleviated when I discovered non-classical instrumental music. It happened while watching my favorite movie Little Miss Sunshine, when I realized my love for that movie is equally split between its quirky storyline and its instrumental indie rock and folk soundtrack. Denver-based multi-instrumental and vocal ensemble DeVotchKa provided a majority of the music and the score, along with film composer Mychael Danna.

The soundtrack itself is its own story, ebbing and flowing between layers of strings, tuba and squeezebox and giving each of these their own spotlight from time to time. There are a few lonesome croonings from lead singer Nick Uratra, which complement the warm and clever tone set by the instruments, but it is heavy on the instrument side.

It is by far my favorite film soundtrack and I give a lot of credit to DeVotchKa’s Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack for turning me onto the brilliance of instrumental music.

For the past year, I’ve been on a quest to discover more music like it – music where I can press “Play” and go about my day without being distracted by words (when you’re a journalist, sometimes you just want to get away from those pesky things).

Naturally I turned to Pandora and the recommendations from friends who also enjoy getting away from vocals every once in a while. Both have introduced me to some great bands whose albums have been added to my ever-growing instrumental playlists.

Here, in no particular order, are a few of my favorites.

Lindsey Stirling

I was introduced to the unique musical style of violinist-performance artist-dancer-composer Lindsey Stirling by a friend two years ago and was fortunate enough to see her in concert last June in Milwaukee. It was an incredible experience.

Stirling performs a variety of styles with her violin, including classical, pop, hip-hop and electronic dance music. She also manages her YouTube channel, Lindseystomp. The name is no coincidence – this talented violinist performs complex choreographed dances while playing her violin.

If you want a couple examples of her style, I highly recommend listening to “Stars Align” which is equal parts classical and dubstep, and is featured on her self-titled debut album. From her second album Shatter Me, “Roundtable Rival” hits the ground running with an aggressive mashup of guitars and violin that take you from steampunk to the Wild West in a matter of three-and-a-half minutes. These two will give you a small glimpse into what Stirling is capable of, but definitely check out her YouTube videos for the full experience.

El Ten Eleven

It was my DeVotchKa playlist on Pandora that introduced me to the Los Angeles-based experimental rock duo El Ten Eleven (Kristian Dunn and Tim Fogarty). They have also been called “post-rock,” a subgenre of rock that utilizes instruments associated with rock to create rhythms and tones not commonly associated with the genre, though I read a recent article in the Eureka Times-Standard where Dunn felt the duo didn’t match up with that genre as much following their first record.

In any case, it’s easy to get lost in the sound of El Ten Eleven’s relaxed ambience, which is achieved through use of a double neck guitar/bass or fretless bass (all manipulated with effects pedals) and electric/acoustic drums. Their hooks are catchy and emotional, and their use of looping pedals makes it sound like their songs are played by a handful of people, not just two.

I turn to El Ten Eleven to ward off the afternoon slump on workdays – the tempo is relaxed but not slow, the songs are different enough to enjoy if you really pay attention, but pleasant enough if you don’t. You can tell this duo has a blast creating their songs, and I enjoy listening to them just as much.


Ratatat. “What does that even mean?” I remember thinking when I heard Cleveland rapper Kid Cudi utter it during his infectious 2010 song, “Pursuit of Happiness.” I was a bit behind the times of everyone else my age (or so it seemed at the time) but I did manage to catch up when I realized that he was making reference to experimental New York City rockers Ratatat.

This is another duo (Evan Mast and Mike Stroud) who manage to create layers of electronic sound using few instruments (guitar, bass, synthesizers, percussion and key-flute). They’ve drawn a lot of comparisons to El Ten Eleven, but I believe they set themselves apart quite well.

Electronic pop and hip-hop might not be for everyone, but Ratatat fuses both together in a completely new way. Their music is progressive and they bring in enough instruments to keep their songs interesting (piano, horns, orchestra, harpsichord and mandolin, to name a few).

Some songs seem to play tribute to old television shows and video games (their opening song on LP3, “Shiller,” could very well be the X-Files theme song of today, while “Mirando” on the same album reminds me a lot of Super Mario Bros.). At the same time, they also bring a lot of other musical influences into their songs – reggae, tribal, psychedelic and indie rock. Excellent long-distance road trip music.