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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

In "Burning in the Sun," an early Coldplay-esque sound meets bluegrass influences

With the employment of a mandolin, Blue Merle gave a sound I love a twist I never expected, but one I thoroughly enjoy.

Today's post reminds me why I love the internet.

Even with all the toxicity and depressive news and post cycles it carries through wires and receptors the world over, I continue to appreciate the internet for its near-infinite ability to expand our knowledge. The music lover I am, I love perusing the web to find information on songs both familiar and unfamiliar to my ears. Today's selection is firmly in the latter camp, as I only became aware of it a few hours ago thanks to a single post.

After finishing my coursework and other business for the night, I began to look through various music pages on Reddit, dually seeking escape from the day's stressors and inspiration for writing. I found both through a single post on the Coldplay subreddit, in which a user presents a song they say "sounds eerily like Coldplay bluegrass." Sure enough, within the first minute of listening to Blue Merle's "Burning in the Sun," I couldn't help but admit that the user was right. The song sounds like a bluegrass spin on the sound of Coldplay's first album, Parachutes, between its lyrics on lost love, its verse setting, and singer Luke Reynolds' voice, and I was instantly drawn to it.

Blue Merle was a short-lived band from Nashville. In their three-year existence (2003-06), they recorded a single full-length album, with the same title as today's song choice, Burning in the Sun. The title track was also the opener and lead single, and its music video remains the only one on Blue Merle's official channel; it has approximately 141,000 views as of the time of posting this article.

Upon first listen, I quickly heard multiple elements that cued me into the Coldplay comparison, particularly to the Parachutes era. The acoustic guitar filing behind close-mic'd drums playing a simple line instantly made me think of songs like "Spies" and "We Never Change," while lead singer and guitarist Luke Reynolds' clean tone reminds me of that of Jonny Buckland throughout Coldplay's first record. I also hear an evocation of Buckland's slow, sparse background parts through Luke Bulla's fiddle playing in the verses, adding chord notes in back of the vocals. (With the benefit of hindsight, I also hear the organ as being reminiscent of Coldplay's 2005 record X&Y — though I'm unsure as to whether this influence could be plausible, given Burning in the Sun was released in the same year — and the full-time chorus and fast-moving mandolin lines remind me of their later Mylo Xyloto era, but that's a tangent that moves away from focusing the discussion on Blue Merle.)

However, more than any one instrument, I think of Coldplay when I hear "Burning in the Sun" because of Reynolds' voice. There's an innate similarity to Chris Martin in his tone: both have high baritone voices with a particular gentleness to them, while remaining slightly rough around the edges in the middle part of their range. The way Reynolds sings the song's second line, "She was the best around," sold me on the comparison because of that slight roughness to his delivery of the final word. I hear a third similarity in how Reynolds approached the long note on "mind" in the chorus — the long note on a chord extension (the major seventh), plus the subsequent turnaround every other time on the word, is a move both he and Martin seemed to have taken from Radiohead's Thom Yorke, whose influence can be heard throughout Coldplay's early catalog.

Then there's the moment where the aforementioned instrumental and vocal touches combined to make me do a double take the first time I heard it to make sure I wasn't listening to "Shiver." The "run, run, run" lead-in to the second and third choruses sounds like it was brought straight from Parachutes' lead single — it uses a vocal ascent from the chord's third (G-sharp) to the fifth (B) through the sharpened fourth scale degree (A-sharp), just like in the second verse of "Shiver," and heck, it's even in the same key of B Major. Blue Merle's saving grace is twofold: they used the same figure equally as well as Coldplay did, and they did so in a different context, leading directly into their chorus rather than a continuation of a verse.

Okay, you're probably thinking: There's a clear connection between Blue Merle's sound and Coldplay's, but what sets Blue Merle apart? Enter the bluegrass influences I mentioned at the beginning of the article. Bluegrass is an American roots genre, originating from Appalachia, which grew out of the combined influences of British Isles folk songs and ballads and African-American jazz and blues traditions. With Nashville being on the edge of Appalachia, it's natural for bluegrass to influence the area's ever-growing country and pop music scene. On "Burning in the Sun," Blue Merle demonstrated their reverence for the style by incorporating style-appropriate playing of two common bluegrass instruments: the mandolin and the fiddle. Mandolinist Beau Stapleton's fast picking, combined with the mandolin's delicate sound in its upper range, allows his parts to actively fill out the song's top end. The mandolin's rarity in other music genres further makes its use in more of an alt-rock context stand out, giving Blue Merle a unique touch in their sonic profile. Meanwhile, strings are somewhat common in alt rock, but not fiddle solos like the one Luke Bulla rips after the second verse. The solo takes from bluegrass in its speed and scalar runs, with brief forays into longer chords and extensions demonstrating Bulla's harmonic understanding of the track.

Thanks to its distinctive bluegrass touch, "Burning in the Sun" can hopefully serve as a jumping-off point from which I can explore and appreciate the rest of Blue Merle's catalog, as well as the subsequent works of their members following their disbandment. I also hope it leads me toward discovering other alternative and indie acts which make interesting additions to a typical band lineup. As today's song made evident, just one instrument can make a world of a difference and make a band's sound stand out.


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