Sunday, April 13, 2014

Ugh

Blog is taunting me. Crazy schedule making it impossible. So sorry. Haven't forgotten.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Song #504 of 9999 - Hot Knife by Fiona Apple

Song #504 of 9999

Title: Hot Knife
Artist: Fiona Apple
Year: 2012
Album: The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do


Way back in September of 2013 (yeah, way back then), I wrote a post about Fiona Apple's controversial beginnings as a pop artist, acknowledging there was more than meets the eye to the waifish 19-year-old. At 36, Apple has now spent more than half her life in the music-making business and her mature sound would come as a revelation to those who wrote her off in the late 90s.

I would count myself among that crowd if I had ever given any thought at all to Apple but she didn't fall very close to my tree in the 90s or ever. Only when I started writing this blog did I give her music a deserving chance and it has been a delight to uncover this singular talent. For The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, Apple took a break from longtime producer Jon Brion and enlisted her touring drummer Charley Drayton to tweak the dials. Drayton apparently brought a dumptruck full of toys to the studio and the resulting intermingling of Apple's always interesting piano playing with his colorful percussion is refreshing. (Check out "Jonathan" for a track that really comes alive as a result of the percussion.) This addition of membranophones, metallophones and idiophones (oh my!) pushes Apple closer to a contemporary jazz sound than she's ever been and it seems to have especially had an impact on her singing, which is even more rhythmic and percussive.

"Hot Knife" is almost a novelty track, buried at the end of the album. But it's so much fun, I couldn't resist sharing it. I personally find the words to be a little silly but the conflicting-voices-in-my-head-concept works with this polyphonic multi-tracking. Anyway, it's not really about the words, is it? These are just consonants and vowels enlisted to deliver the rhythm and phrasing that she does so well. And instead of turning it into some funk thing or a big band-like a capella number a là Manhattan Transfer, she plays outside piano licks (like at 0:40) and keeps Drayton away from the drum kit entirely in favor of a tribal beat she plays herself on a pair of timpani. This track is stark! On top of all that, she enlists indie film darling Paul Thomas Anderson to make her video. If you ask me, little Fiona has grown into a pretty cool cat.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Song #503 of 9999 - Perth by Bon Iver

Song #503 of 9999

Title: Perth
Artist: Bon Iver
Year: 2011
Album: Bon Iver, Bon Iver


You can tell a lot about a band from its sophomore effort. I felt okay jumping on the modern folk bandwagon in 2009 or so, picking up records from Bon Iver and Mumford and Sons. And when late 2011 rolled around, I didn't hesitate to purchase their latest releases. What I experienced from each band was something very different. Mumford and Sons continued to tread in the same waters to a disappointing degree while Bon Iver found something new and creative while still retaining their signature sound. In fact, you may find Bon Iver, Bon Iver to be an improvement on For Emma, Forever Ago if you make the investment.

"Perth" is the first track from Bon Iver, Bon Iver and, while not a single, it epitomizes the album and the band for me. Justin Vernon's falsetto vocal is enveloped by a halo of harmony that follows just behind in terms of pitch and rhythm. It's at once both robotic and organic.

But what I really enjoy about "Perth" is its exemplary use of a musical motive. In the simplest of terms, a motive is a short, melodic/rhythmic idea that is repeated throughout a piece and serves as a unifying element. (Think of the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as the quintessential example.) In "Perth," this motive (shown in brackets below) is first heard in the guitar part as a sequence of constantly rising segments which oscillate between dissonant-consonant and consonant-dissonant.


What I really like about this motive is that it provides this rhythmic flourish directly on the beat, almost like a Baroque ornament. This is really unusual for pop music and Bon Iver takes advantage of its power and fluidity. The figure returns most prominently in the chorus (at 1:28) but even before that moment, it can be heard in the snare drum that supports the otherwise naked first verse. When the song gets heavy and syncopated at 2:33, the motive is relegated to a supporting role in the responding drumbeat (at 2:40). But it emerges in full force at 3:48 before eventually giving way to Track 2 ("Minnesota, WI"). It's an auspicious opening to a fulfilling record, almost symphonic in nature.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Song #502 of 9999 - One Sunday Morning by Wilco

Song #502 of 9999

Title: One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)
Artist: Wilco
Year: 2011
Album: The Whole Love


Short post tonight about a long song. Twelve minutes long! It must be an epic prog-rock thing, right? Nope, just a strophic folk song with minimal instrumentation and verse after verse relating a conversation about religion between Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy and author Jane Smiley's boyfriend (whoever that is).

I first heard this song live in concert at the Meriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD. The song was played by Tweedy with just an acoustic guitar in the middle of their set. I remember saying to my friend Erik (frequent contributor to the blog) that I wasn't sure if the song was "working" or "going over very well" or something like that. It was interesting to watch the revved-up crowd completely deflate while the concert ground to a halt. If memory serves, The Whole Love hadn't been released yet, so no-one knew the song and it......was......loooooooong. Erik, naturally more attuned to the artist than I, said he thought it was remarkably brave to play it and I simultaneously admired Tweedy and Erik just a little bit more at the thought. 

Later on, I remembered the catchy guitar riff and, upon hearing the studio recording, found myself enjoying this experimental (for attention-span-lacking 21st century fans) folk ballad more than I ever thought I would. There is something meditative about the song's repetition that is fulfilling in a way I haven't experienced in pop music for some time. I hope you enjoy it.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Song #501 of 9999 - Default by Django Django

Paul Costello holds the distinction of being the first guy I mean when I say "my English friend". (I like him so much I'm going to let that period I just typed sit outside of the quotation marks just for his benefit.) I suspect he is able to tolerate me only after years of working with spoiled American kids at the British American Drama Academy. He records songs and plays shows under the moniker Johnny Cashpoint and writes a daily webcomic called 1000 Days of Paul. He has impeccable taste in music, notwithstanding a soft spot for Supertramp.
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Song #501 of 9999

Title: Default
Artist: Django Django
Year: 2011
Album: Default



I don't about round *your* way, but 2011 was a bad year for music in the UK. Lester Bangs was still dead, Florence and her Coffee Making Machine were covering Buddy Holly, and Mumford was raising his Sons on meaningless folk whimsy ... The spirit of punk (whatever you think that means) couldn't have felt further away. A year of butter-faced dimwit Cameron and it felt like things, sadly, could only get *worse*.

And then - through a complicated series of events, I ended up in a box at the Royal Albert Hall to see Spiritualized - Not a huge fan, exhausted from work, not entirely sure that the RAH was a place to see an Indie band, blah blah blah, - but this "who now?" support band blew them off the stage and me away. Embracing those elements of the past they loved - surf guitar, sour Beach Boys harmonies, big 80s reverb drum sounds, squiggles of krautrock electronica, dominant dub basslines - they melded them together into a sound that was simultaneously as old as Neil Young, and immediately new. They made me want to dance, and not care what people thought of me dancing - music at is best. 

The recordings I hunted down the very next day lacked their visceral live rush but showed four intelligent musicians who understand it was smart to be dumb when it mattered, and vice versa. They scavenged the past and found something new in the spread. Recycling as an art-form, if you will (and you probably won't). Released properly in January 2012, "Default" was a massive surprise hit, which warmed my angry heart. It's an easy default for people to think no good music has been made since we were teenagers - but the truth is people continue to want to hear good music - and, surprisingly, are willing to be patient for it. Sing it (in a silly robot voice) "Diddy diddy default"!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Song #500 of 9999 - Cruel by St. Vincent

Song #500 of 9999

Title: Cruel
Artist: St. Vincent
Year: 2011
Album: Strange Mercy

=

Well, here it is. The big 5-O-O. I made it to 500 songs, even though you and I both know I accidentally used "That Teenage Feeling" by Neko Case twice. Someday I'll figure out an elegant way to fix that. 

In the meantime, I'm going to use tonight's post to make some restitution. I've been unduly critical of Annie Clark and mostly for issues that are almost entirely unrelated to her music. For reasons I don't really understand myself, I a) hate her stage name, St. Vincent, even when while understanding its clever origin (it's the hospital where Dylan Thomas died), and b) hate her association with David Byrne, who I generally like. If I could add a part two to my letter b, it would be that I hate that she is starting to look like a female version of David Byrne—see the cover of Digital Witness (2013). And yes, I did give a fair hearing to 2007's Actor, which I found unnecessarily quirky.

But I may have been wrong and I'm willing to admit it. "Cruel" is an amazing concoction that is as poppy as it is artful. And it fits perfectly with a concept I was explaining to my music theory class earlier today: the use of non-diatonic elements in a diatonic context. In the lesson, I was demonstrating how Baroque composer Henry Purcell uses descending chromaticism to illustrate a character's death in the recitative "Thy Hand, Belinda" from Dido and Aeneas. 

While no such tone painting exists in "Cruel," there are some really interesting non-diatonic elements dressing up an otherwise (mostly) straightforward chord progression. The first of these flourishes occurs right at the outset of the track on the ascending vocal line. Clark sings a major scale in the tonic key of F#, but the keyboard (or vocoder or whatever) that supports her vocal is set to an interval that results in some very unusual (and clearly non-diatonic) parallelism. This is followed immediately by a chromatically descending chord progression. It's a captivating opening that quickly gives way to some harmonic normalcy (I-IV) and a slick guitar lick at 0:26. Later, at 2:10, we're offered a slowly creeping portamento in the keyboard that would have made George Martin proud. Another non-diatonic element that adds interest and intrigue to a very satisfying pop song. You win, St. Vincent—I'm a convert.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Songs #498 & 499 - It's TWOsday!

Song #498 of 9999                                   Song #499 of 9999

Title: Song & Dance                                  Title: The Words That Maketh Murder
Artist: Peggy Sue                                      Artist: PJ Harvey
Year: 2011                                                 Year: 2011
Album: Acrobats                                       Album: 
Let England Shake



                           

Sometime around 2011 (or maybe 2010), I returned to vinyl. I felt disengaged from the music I was listening to and hoped a return to records would restore my focus by demanding a dedicated listening experience. I wanted to go back to the days of looking at album art, occasionally following along with lyrics, and being absorbed by a single artist's work for an hour or more. I wanted to have to get up and flip the record over; or perhaps, abandon it in favor of another. I was hoping a greater investment of my attention would yield the reward I used to get from listening to music.

So I started buying records like I did when I was kid: if I heard a song I liked, I just bought the album hoping for the best. And, for the most part, this worked out okay. Of course, there were occasional flops (I even sent Feist's Metals back to Amazon at great loss to get it out of my house—deplorable record) and some wonderful surprises (bought Vampire Weekend's Contra on a whim and couldn't stop listening to it). But one of the things I also discovered is the focus of tonight's post. Which is to say that some artists work better in small doses.

I first heard Brighton-based Peggy Sue on NPR's All Things Considered. It was an interview segment with snippets of songs played in between questions and I found the record quite intriguing. When I put it on my turntable, I was greeted (not the right word really) by something menacing and dark and commanding. By the second track, "Song and Dance," I was sold on the band's creative guitar work, playful tempo changes and "in the ballpark" vocal harmony. It was a very charismatic sound and, by the middle of the second side, I wanted to pull my ears off. I had had enough.

I don't know if Peggy Sue has been directly influenced by PJ Harvey but they certainly have some things in common, including an occasional harshness (at least in 2011) that will wear you out. Let England Shake is a disheveled collection of discordant songs sewn together into some sort of flag or protest, I suppose. It's hard to tell—maybe it's an English thing. Anyway, if you were to ask me if I like the record, I would enthusiastically say yes! But I can really only listen to about a third of it before I'm ready for a break. Harvey's quivery helium-boosted voice is a good delivery system for her thought-provoking lyrics but it takes on a fingernails-on-slate quality after twenty minutes or so. I think the overly enthusiastic percussion on the record must share the guilt as well.

Everything in moderation, as the saying goes. See you tomorrow.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Song #497 of 9999 - Bigger Than Us by White Lies

Song #497 of 9999

Title: Bigger Than Us
Artist: White Lies
Year: 2011
Album: Ritual


It's still a little difficult for me to think of the 1980s as a period ripe enough for nostalgia but such is the nature of aging, I suppose. I awoke late one night in 2011 to the television blaring the final minutes of David Letterman (yes, when you're old, you consider 12:20AM to be late and you're already asleep and you have the TV turned up too loud because you can't hear) and managed to catch a performance of "Bigger Than Us" by the London-based band White Lies. It stuck with me and I picked up a cheap copy of their new record a few days later.

I suppose it shouldn't surprise me to hear a band so young playing a well-worn style—I was listening to and playing music from the 60s and 70s as a teen in the 1980s—but it does a little. I also feel I can precisely date this sound to 1986 or 1987. Still a huge Rush fan, I was entrenched in their latest releases Power Windows and Hold Your Fire, which I knew even then weren't that great but I listened to them over and over until I convinced myself they were. There are sounds on "Bigger Than Us" that remind me of those records, especially the synth patches and echoing guitar stabs. But no moment reminds me of those records more so than than the breakdown that occurs at 2:40 which lacks only a set of Rototoms and an Alex Lifeson guitar solo to be complete.

Of course, the obvious difference between White Lies in 2011 and Rush in 1986 is the lead vocalist. Harry McVeigh's voice is more in line with British offerings of the 80s invasion (think Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen or [my fav] Icicle Works) and much more palatable in this context than Geddy Lee's nasal tenor ever was. But the song's minor key grandiosity (especially during the chorus) and somewhat robotic groove justifies the unusual comparison, I think. Or not. I could be wrong. (P.S. Check out the silly, overblown video—if you've ever seen a late 80s Rush video, you know this would fit right into the canon.)

Feels good to be back. See you tomorrow.

Monday, March 24, 2014

One More Week...

Looking at my schedule for this week and seeing at least three long nights. So....one more week off until the blog returns with a survey of the songs of 2011. Already have the guest blogger submission and a list of potential songs—just need time. I shall return!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Hey, Didn't There Used to Be a Blog Here?

Yes, it's true. I have fallen off the horse big time. Long hours at work and....well that's it, really....have prevented me from getting going again. And, with the musical on the horizon, there isn't much hope for the very near future. Most likely, I will be back on March 24. Read old posts!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Blog on Strike

Those greedy writers and analysts at 9999 Songs are demanding more pay and shorter hours! This has resulted in a work stoppage. Should have it worked out in a few days, a week at most.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Song #496 of 9999 - Horchata by Vampire Weekend

Song #496 of 9999

Title: Horchata
Artist: Vampire Weekend
Year: 2010
Album: Contra



As much as I loved The National's High Violet, Vampire Weekend's sophomore effort Contra takes my prize for most creative pop record of the year. Even while wearing its influences on its sleeves (I hear a lot of Paul Simon and a little Elvis Costello among others), the band delivers a truly unique blend of guitars, synths and percussion in support of cleverly constructed songs. Brilliant production from band member Rostam Batmanglij pushes the record to crazily gratifying heights.

There are a lot of great songs on Contra but "Horchata" never disappoints me. Syncopated rhythms wend their way through African percussion, strings, synthesizers and pulsating beats that keep you guessing where they may land next. Ezra Koenig's voice is everything I've always hoped The Shins' James Mercer's could be—playful, youthful, but, most of all, controlled. As with most every song on the album (but perhaps not to the same extent), all the instruments on "Horchata" are simultaneously percussive and melodic—the musical equivalent of pointillism. If the song has a weakness, it's the lyrics. But even if they're not that great, they're evocative and interesting, which is more than I can say for most of what I hear today.

I realize this post is comprised mostly of gushing about a song and a band that have already received a lifetime's worth of praise, but it's Saturday and I'm tired and this is all I can muster. Peace out!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Song #495 of 9999 - You Are Not Alone by Mavis Staples

Song #495 of 9999

Title: You Are Not Alone
Artist: Mavis Staples
Year: 2010
Album: You Are Not Alone


I'll be home this evening. And not just because Valentine's Day is a stupid made up holiday. I don't have a sweetheart to take to the movies or out to a fancy dinner or to a monster truck rally. It's just the current way of my life. And since you're reading this blog, it may also be the way of your life. And that's okay. I'm here for you. And so is Mavis Staples. You Are Not Alone. *sniff*

Something special happened when Wilco's Jeff Tweedy decided to team up with then 71-year-old Staples, a longtime, er....staple of the gospel music scene. Tweedy and Staples both hail from Chicago, where baby daughter Mavis got her start with sisters Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne as members of The Staple Singers way back in 1948, nearly twenty years before Tweedy was born. And while most of the Tweedy-produced You Are Not Alone is pretty standard gospel, the title track (penned by Tweedy) is a beautiful synergy of alt-country and gospel that highlights the common ground of the two styles.

Despite being pitched in the key of F Major, the song establishes a solemn tone immediately by beginning the verse on the submediant (vi), D minor. In fact, there is a strong tendency toward minor chords throughout the song but these periods of minor key activity are invariably met with the comforting and familiar sounds of the major plagal cadence (IV-I): 

Verse: vi  /   /   iii  |  vi   /   /   /   |  I  /   /   IV  |   I  /   /   /   |
           vi  /   /   /    |  vi   /   /   /    |  ii  /   /    /   |   I  /   /   IV  |   I  /   /   /   |

Notice the extra-long phrase in the second half of the verse (on the vi chord). And that extra space is filled with...nothing. Space. It's one of the subtle touches a composer like Tweedy brings to a genre that can be somewhat predictable. Another of these moments occurs during the chorus in the form of a lyric most likely never before heard in gospel ("open up this is a raid") and in the setting of that lyric. Where the verse is left deliberately open and spacious, the chorus is intentionally cluttered, with this specific line being shoehorned into a space where no line is necessary. Let me show you what I mean: 


You may say "ew, it sounds weird" and sure, it does in retrospect. It is certainly a lesser chorus without the line but it still works without it. And that's what makes it so brilliant. Not only is its placement perfect, but it's that particular line, which is so unusual in this context and also a great metaphor. Without it, the lyric is rather plain and the chorus's effectiveness significantly diminished. Whether through intuition or hard work, this is the kind of moment that exemplifies Tweedy's mastery of the craft and turns this song into a highlight of 2010.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Song #494 of 9999 - Don't Cry by Deerhunter

Song #494 of 9999

Title: Don't Cry
Artist: Deerhunter
Year: 2010
Album: Halcyon Digest


It's rare that I remember the very first time I heard a song. But in the case of "Don't Cry" by Deerhunter, I can pinpoint the moment almost exactly. I walked into a record shop in London sometime over the 2010 Thanksgiving holiday and was captivated by this song, which was playing on the instore stereo. I remember asking the guy behind the counter who it was and being surprised to learn the band was from Atlanta, Georgia. (He also seemed surprised that I didn't know—I am American, after all!) I wrote down the name of the record and bought it when I returned home. (Yes, I know, support local businesses, blah blah blah—do you know how hard it is to transport vinyl records across an ocean!?) 

The album ended up on a bunch of "Best Of" lists and it feels good to know I still have an ear for spotting new music. (pause for self-adulation) Except not really because my initial thought was that it must be something quite old I had missed. The song has an early-60s psychedelia vibe marked by its midtempo double-backbeat, fuzz guitar and lead vocal all awash in thick, foggy reverb. Add in the excessive stereo separation and you almost expect to see "Stereo" stamped in the upper right corner of the front cover. Although the lyrics were difficult to comprehend in the shop, I distinctly remember being struck by the repetition of the phrase "...cry your eyes out," which becomes progressively more creepy and literal each time it is sung.

Structurally, the song is unusual in that, while its verses use the same chords in the same order, they are distinctly different in terms of how long and how often each chord is played:
Verse 1:   B  /  G#m /  |  B  /  G#m /  |   E  /  F#  /   |   E  /  F#  /   |   (2X)
Verse 2:   B   /   /   /     |  B   /   /   /     |  G#m  /  /  /  |  G#m  /  /  / |  E  /  F#  /   |  F#  /  /  /  |  E  /  F#  /  |  E  /  F#  /   |  (etc.)
I think there's also something intriguing about the way the E and F# chords function relative to the tonic (I) and major supertonic (II—C#M). I would go so far as to say the bridge that connects the verses is actually in the key of C# and the E and F# chords function as bIII and IV, while during the verses (in B Major), they function more predictably as IV and V. Anyway, if you haven't heard this album and you appreciate the neo-psychedelia movement, you should check it out. Stay warm! (or, if in London, dry!)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Song #493 of 9999 - Numbers Don't Lie by The Mynabirds

Song #493 of 9999

Title: Numbers Don't Lie
Artist: The Mynabirds
Year: 2010
Album: What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood


Here's another song from the I-have-no-idea-how-this-got-in-my-playlist collection. Led by singer-songwriter Laura Burhenn, The Mynabirds are a "collective of musicians" (according to their website) with close ties to label-mate Bright Eyes, former Pedro the Lion David Bazan and indie darlings Crooked Fingers. 

Skimming the band's 2010 debut, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, I found that Burhenn has a penchant for digging in the past and "Numbers Don't Lie" sits firmly in the trench dug by Phil Spector. I'm hooked almost immediately upon hearing the syncopated backbeat that emerges in the piano following a noisy intro of fluty synths and distant footsteps. The harmonic progression that follows is just pure pop of the pre-Fab Four 60s:
Verse (key of E):     I     iii     IV     I   (2x)
Pre-Chorus:            vi     iii     IV     I
                               vi     iii     IV     V      (descending piano fill)
Chorus:                  IV     I      IV   (descending triplet)     I         (2x)
My favorite moment comes during the transition from pre-chorus to chorus, where she avoids an authentic cadence by interjecting a subdominant (IV) prior to proceeding to tonic (I). A simple idea but so effective in creating a superb gospel-tinged hook, especially when preceded by the falling leaves piano fill. Second favorite moment is the descending triplet pattern toward the end of the chorus, a detail which contributes to the vintage sound of the track as it hearkens back to a time when quarter-note triplets were all the rage. (not really, but sort of)

This would be enough to make for a good song but Burhenn also includes a nice bridge with a driving four-on-the-floor drumbeat, some choice backing vocals, strings, a detuned piano—it's a nice piece of production and arranging. The song's (and album's) weakness are the lyrics but, to her credit, Burhenn meets every cliché (and there are plenty) with a clever songwriting twist or an inspired tone color. It's a promising debut and I'm very glad I stumbled upon it.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Song #492 of 9999 - Latinoamérica by Calle 13

Yo yo yo, it's Guest Blogger Night! Tonight, I turn things over to my sole Colombian friend, Andres Cardona, to share his personal connection with Calle 13's "Latinoamérica." I asked Dre for some biographical info and this is what he said:
Former Songfighter Dre resides in the Pacific Northwest, where he enjoys; Dirt Biking, Snowboarding, and rock climbing. He spends way too much time reading books on “Songwritting,” or “Psychology / History of music,” and way too much money building his record collection. His last successful music project was the 2011 RPM Challenge, where he collaborated with strangers from craigslist to write and record an album in 28 days. http://tokyoexpressway.bandcamp.com He still locks himself in his room, to write or record new music, depending on season and mood. He is currently trying to hack the Florida Lottery, with his mad programming skillzz, with no luck yet.
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Song #492 of 9999

Title: Latinoamérica
Artist: Calle 13
Year: 2010
Album: Entren Los Que Quieran



I first heard Calle 13's "Latinoamérica" via Facebook from my friend Otho.

The year was 1991; I was an anxious and timid 5th grader, attending a new school. Unlike most anxious 5th graders starting a new school, I also didn't know any English, as my family had just migrated from Colombia to Florida, earlier that year.

Sitting in a classroom amidst other immigrant children, mostly from Latin America and the Caribbean, we would all try to crack this code, called English. Some of the most outspoken and rebellious kids in the classroom, were from the small island of Puerto Rico, one of the most laidback and easy going of them all was named Otho. Otho, was my first friend in the United States.

Growing up within a strong Puerto Rican culture, while being embraced by them, I learned to love and hate everything about them. They can be loud, obnoxious, argumentative, but also warm, caring, unstifled, and most importantly, fun. Till this day, I think Puerto Ricans, like the black ghetto family you always wish you had, are the most fun people to be around. It must be an island thing.

The Puerto Rican stepbrothers known as Calle 13 have built a successful musical career by knowing who they are, and where they're from. Their 2010 release, Entren Los Que Quieran (Enter Those Who Want to), won Latin Grammy Album of the Year, for its eclectic musical style, including Rock, Ska, Reggaeton, and Bollywood. Its fifth single "Latinoamérica (Latin American)," later won song of the year 2011.

No other modern pop song paints such a picture of what it means to be of Hispanic descent. Where family, hard work, resilience, and love for thy neighbor, is all that matters. Where you are expected to make the most with what you have, even if it’s very little, just like everybody else.

So do yourself a favor, especially if you're planning on visiting Machu Picchu in Peru, or the Jungles of Costa Rica, go volcano boarding in Nicaragua, or Patagonia in Argentina. Don’t just be a souvenir buying gringo, watch this music video, and understand how these people truly feel about their daily lives, and you too would be able to relate.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Song #491 of 9999 - Poison & Wine by The Civil Wars

Song #491 of 9999

Title: Poison & Wine
Artist: The Civil Wars
Year: 2010
Album: Barton Hollow


I'm not really a "Best Of" guy. I couldn't tell you my top 10 favorite albums of 2010. Or 2011. Or any year, really. But I do know that The Civil Wars' Barton Hollow has spent (and still spends) an awful lot of time on my turntable. It's not a record I listen to intently—it's pretty easy to relegate to the background. In fact, to be honest, as I'm sitting here listening as closely as I ever have, I have to say Joy Williams is a pretty annoying singer. It's no wonder they don't get along.

But when they click and their voices blend, the results can be pretty sensational. They're like a polished (almost to the point of sterilization) version of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (who I would most definitely pick in a knife fight between the two duos). And yet, I'm sold.

"Poison & Wine" relies on inverted pedal tones to create the soft dissonances that seep through the cracks created by the ticks and tocks of John Paul White's staccato guitar. What I mean is there are notes (Db & Ab in this case) that are sustained throughout the three-chord progression (Db-Ab-Gb) that are sometimes consonant and sometimes dissonant depending on which chords they interact with. In this case, the Db & Ab (heard most prominently in the piano) begin as chord tones with the tonic Db, but become dissonant when played over the dominant (Ab) and subdominant (Gb), like this (the red notes are the dissonances):


As you can see, the notes in the right hand almost never change, at least not until the last measure where the Db moves down by half-step to created a nice augmented 4th dissonance (labeled here as #11) against the bass. These dissonances are rendered even more harmless (and, by extension, more lovely) by the absence of thirds in these chords—notice how the left hand is made only of open fifths. And though I haven't depicted it in this graphic, the vocal melodies sung by Williams and White almost always end on an Eb, a dissonant sixth above the Gb in the bass of the final chord. It is this bundle of dissonances that fuels the slow burn of this beautiful song.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Song #490 of 9999 - From a Sinking Boat by The Magnetic Fields

Song #490 of 9999

Title: From a Sinking Boat
Artist: The Magnetic Fields
Year: 2009
Album: Realism


The Magnetic Fields' Realism is the aural equivalent of folk art. I can almost imagine Stephin Merritt sending everyone in the band a handwritten letter (natch) inviting them to the back warehouse of a thrift store where they are invited to play any instrument they can get to work provided it doesn't require electricity. The results are creative, if not inspired. And, of course, all the coolest people would be there, even Lemony Snicket himself, Daniel Handler, with his antique accordion in tow. A hootenanny of hipsters.

"From a Sinking Boat" doesn't showcase the most striking sounds from the album, which include toy pianos, banjo, folk harp, hammered dulcimer, vibes, tuba and woodblocks. But its whimsical blend of guitar, piano, accordion, cello, and sitar make for a more-than-suitable backdrop for this two-chord tale of love and despair. Merritt's lyric is splendidly naïve, a miniature poem of just 77 words that could have been composed by just about anyone over the age of twelve. Yet it all seems to work just fine, emerging as a poignant assemblage of junk that could hang alongside the best outsider art.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Song #489 of 9999 - A Song for a Son by The Smashing Pumpkins

Song #489 of 9999

Title: A Song for a Son
Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins
Year: 2009
Album: Teargarden by Kaleidyscope


In my (futile) search for engaging music from 2009, I stumbled upon an interesting story about The Smashing Pumpkins, who seem to be engrossed in a two-decade-long identity crisis. In early 2009, Billy Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, the last remaining members of the original lineup, announced they "would not make another traditional studio album, citing changing listener habits." A couple of months later, Chamberlin promptly split. Corgan soldiered on, convinced that the way to make records was to write, record and release one song at a time. He announced a 44-song project, all of which would be made available for free on the band's website, but would eventually be compiled into some sort of physical deluxe edition and made for sale. The first song he produced for this project is "A Song for a Son."

I don't particularly like the song—it's all right—but I am certainly intrigued by the concept, especially as a songwriter who has released way more one-offs than albums. There's something nice about the immediacy of setting a song free as soon as it's complete and in getting instant feedback, both good and bad. And I think it's a good idea for a guy like Corgan, who seems to have a need for constant adoration but whose records don't have the far-reaching or sustaining power they once had. He can keep his diehard fans and himself sated while maintaining (and perhaps growing) a connection to those who may otherwise stray.

I just think he should do it as a soloist. I'm afraid the brand name "The Smashing Pumpkins" has run its course and, frankly, I think Billy has trouble playing well with others. Unfortunately, Corgan and Co. have only made it halfway through the proposed run of 44 songs and they released a commercial album in the process, which was antithetical to his stated goals. Further, the tracks that were released for free have all disappeared from the band's website, but are now commercially available (natch) as a pair of EPs. I do hope the talented Corgan completes his journey and emerges from the other side with a clearer picture of who he is an artist.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Song #488 of 9999 - Bang! by The Raveonettes

Song #488 of 9999

Title: Bang!
Artist: The Raveonettes
Year: 2009
Album: In and Out of Control


I have often complained about my TJ Maxx shopping experience in these pages, my main issue being their great values come paired with equivalently horrendous music. But I do have to thank the curators of crap (new band name!) for introducing me to The Raveonettes in the form of their blandly entitled (but splendidly catchy) "Christmas Song" (profiled in post #61). So, in a rather thin year for music, I turn to the Danish duo's 2009 offering In and Out of Control for some inspiration.

It may be cruel to feature "Bang!" in the dead of winter—the song seems tailor-made for the top-down experience. Made from equal parts fuzz and fun, the Raveonettes single plays like The Beach Boys with no production budget or maybe The Velvet Underground (a primary influence) with hooks. Known more for shoegazing than toe-tapping, "Bang!" is a charming bit of American Bandstand-style pop that could have played well in almost any decade but probably missed its chance to be lucrative by about 45 years.

Need an example of how creative you can be with nothing but the I-IV-V progression? Verse: I-IV-V, Bridge: V-IV-V-IV-V; Chorus: I-IV-V—there, I just taught you the whole song. (Well, not entirely. The instrumental solo features the equally familiar I-vi-IV-V progression found in the remainder of songs from the 1950s.) One of the standout details for me in this twee pop gem is how the backing vocals during the bridge (Bang bang b-bang, b-bang bang b-bang...) kind of forecast the rhythmic feel of the chorus. I'm also a sucker for the syncopated stutter of the previous example and on the word "fun" during the chorus. It's an adorable song until you notice the lyrics:
Bang you're so vicious baby
Bang you sure know how to control me
You're as cool as ice cream
Bang you're so evil baby
Bang you're no sweetheart baby
Bang you keep me blushing all the time
These lyrics are par for the course for The Raveonettes, who are partial to dark topics even when they paint with pastel brushes. If you like noise and melody, I recommend you check out more songs by The Raveonettes!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Song #487 of 9999 - My Love by The Bird and the Bee

Song #487 of 9999

Title: My Love
Artist: The Bird and the Bee
Year: 2009
Album: Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future


Since the advent of Spotify, I don't really look at my iTunes very much anymore. But every once in a while, I notice a record I have no recollection of buying or even listening to. Such is the case with the debut album by The Bird and the Bee, a Los Angeles duo who scored a minor club hit with (mostly remixes of) the provocatively titled "Fucking Boyfriend." I think it's a record I saw on sale for $5.00 on Amazon or maybe it was a free download or perhaps I read a review of it and thought I needed it. Anyway, it's on my computer now and I don't know why.

I also own the song "Love Letter to Japan" from the group's 2009 follow-up Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future. Don't know how I ended up this this song either, but it was intriguing enough to send me in search of the album (which is good, but uneven) where I latched on to tonight's feature, "My Love." 

On the album, "My Love" is introduced by a brief instrumental track (called "Fanfare," absent here, unfortunately) which sets up the playground handclap drumbeat quite nicely. The juxtaposition of keyboardist/producer Greg Kurstin's synthesized landscapes with Inara George's nearly emotionless vocal delivery is captivating in the way I always expect Imogen Heap to be (but rarely is). Kurstin's ability to stay out of the way with his keyboard concoctions is admirable—he seems to know just how much is enough.

The verse is a nice study in the use of the interval of a 6th to create a broad singable melody. George teeters between B and G# at the outset over an E Major chord, then shifts a half-step higher (C to A) to do the same over the minor subdominant (A minor). As many times as I've heard the iv chord used in pop songs, I don't think I've ever quite heard it used in this manner—it's really quite creative. Kurstin uses a nice trick to set up the key change for the chorus, arpeggiating a V chord (B Major), which he then shifts a semitone higher to C Major, which serves as the IV chord in the new key of G Major. He uses a similar trick coming out the chorus as his bass descends chromatically (G-F#-F) to settle on F Major, which serves as the bII (Neapolitan!) in the original key of E Major, where he ultimately proceeds in time for the next verse. This exploitation of half-step relationships between chords reinforces and mimics the half-step relationship mentioned earlier in the melody. Whether intentional or intuitive, it's the kind of observation that just makes the music theorist in me giddy with delight!

P.S. The video is not the official video but had much better sound quality in addition to being quite cute and funny and sad all at once. Enjoy!

P.P.S. Just had to come back and point out there are more 6ths in the backing vocal of the chorus. Just sayin'.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Songs #485 & 486 - It's TWOsday!

Song #485 of 9999                                                 Song #486 of 9999

Title: Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart               Title: I Would Die 4 U
Artist: Alicia Keys                                                  Artist: Prince
Year: 2009                                                              Year: 1984
Album: The Element of Freedom                          Album: Purple Rain

                                 Try this link for Prince song. (No YouTube.)


I'm getting started a little late tonight so forgive me if I fall as short on insight as I am on time.

To me, "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart" and "I Would Die 4 U" are sisters born 25 years apart. And good for Alicia Keys and Co. for taking a risk and producing such a touching and understated record. Not since Giorgio Moroder met Donna Summer has a diva been so firmly held in check by swirling synth lassoes. Keys's breathy—nearly breathless—delivery of phrases of uneven length gives the song a sense urgency that is masterfully echoed by the rising synth line that immediately precedes the chorus. I love the way the filter is gradually burned off the top and that nice analog fuzz is allowed to emerge. It warms my robotic heart.

I'm not the first person to compare "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart" to 80s-period Prince but I found it a challenge to put my finger on exactly which song makes for the best comparison. I chose "I Would Die 4 U" for a few reasons, not the least of which is the similarly spare electronic drum beats that insistently plant themselves front and center of each track. Prince delivers a squarer phrase (at least during the first verse) and the song tends to limp where Keys's strides. They both employ the type of three-part harmony Prince trademarked in those early years with The Revolution although Keys's is more politely consonant. In the end, I think Prince takes more risks vocally but, given that the whole album was a risk for Keys, we should cut her some slack for taking a more traditional approach to phrasing and tone color.

Frankly, I think they're both great songs and it feels right to reunite them after all this time apart. Good night!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Song #484 of 9999 - Meet Me Halfway by The Black Eyed Peas

Song #484 of 9999

Title: Meet Me Halfway
Artist: The Black Eyed Peas
Year: 2009
Album: The E.N.D.


Reviewing all the records released in 2009 made me feel old and out of touch. Which is only partially true (on both counts), but more so when it comes to mainstream music releases. A quick survey of the top records told me I probably didn't miss much—we seem to be firmly entrenched in an age of simplistic songwriting and arranging in support of technically stellar, but emotionally stunted, voices. Nonetheless, it's 2009 on 9999 Songs and I'm going to do my best to highlight some standout tracks.

One advantage of being so out of touch is bands like The Black Eyed Peas still seem fresh and listenable to me. I don't mind hearing "I Got a Feeling" or even "Boom Boom Pow" again, whereas I'm sure some of you would rather die. While those tracks represent the biggest hits from The E.N.D., I'm partial to "Meet Me Halfway," which I can amiably admit to hearing first in a DirecTV commercial. This was probably the best way to come to the song as the ad featured what I can only surmise is the best hook of 2009 and leaves out most of the vapid rapping.

In keeping with the mission of this blog, I sat down to figure out what appeals to me so much about this chorus. If you want to get technical (you know I do!), the song is in G Lydian and features essentially just three chords, presented in a variety of forms but most richly as Gmaj7 A6/9 F#m7 Gmaj7. (N.B. I'm ignoring the fact that the very first "chord" of the song appears to be B Minor—the G is added later. Feel free to argue for the key of B Minor in the comments.) I do love me some Lydian mode, though I don't hear the normal expansive quality I've come to expect from that raised 4th—it's pretty soft in this context.

Add Fergie's vocal melody and you get all kinds of additional dissonances added to the chords: a 6th (E) over the Gmaj7, an 11th (B) over the F#m7. These are not passing tones—these are the notes upon which she comes to rest during the early part of the chorus. In the second half of the chorus, we're presented with a nice countermelody in the backing vocals, which plays upon the augmented 4th from tonic (G-C#) and acts as the call to Fergie's response, which accentuates the longing in the lyric through the use of quarter note triplets. It's at this point I'm absolutely sold.


For me, the proof that this is a great chorus came in sitting at the piano and playing it like a ballad, away from the pulsating dance beat and the moon-meets-Garden of Eden video. Even in (especially in?) that context, I found it to be quite striking.

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Good Time to Catch Up!

I have something going on every night this week so it seems like a good time to take a break. Don't want to shortchange the fine music of 2009! This would be a good time for you to catch up on some older posts. Go ahead! Do it!!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Songs #482 & 483 - It's a Beck x2 Sunday!

Song #482 of 9999                                             Song #483 of 9999

Title: Get Real Paid                                             Title: Nobody's Fault But My Own
Artist: Beck                                                         Artist: Beck
Year: 1999                                                           Year: 1998
Album: Midnite Vultures                                    Album: Mutations


                                    

Last month, I ran out of days in my week of 1998 to feature a song from what is probably my favorite Beck album, Mutations. I promised myself I wouldn't make that mistake again this month with Midnite Vultures, a record that seems less attractive to me now than it did 15 years ago but retains most of its charms.

It's kind of difficult to know what was going on with Beck following the critical and commercial success of Odelay in 1996. Did he reach an artistic impasse and find himself temporarily lost, not knowing what to do next? Or did he feel a sense of relief that he had found some financial success and could now make whatever music he wanted without regard for commercial reward? Recent interviews suggest he was trying to anticipate what people wanted from him and he was sort of reacting to their responses. Given that neither of these albums (which couldn't be more different) did not achieve anything near the success of Odelay, perhaps that wasn't a very good strategy. But in terms of creativity, it worked out really well in my opinion because this pair of unusual records mark a time when Beck was the most unpredictable and versatile musician making music.

I suppose many consider Midnite Vultures to be a parody. It certainly has a sense of humor but I've never viewed it as insincere. Beck has always shown a penchant toward hip-hop and R'n'B is just down the street. Beck has acknowledged the influence of R. Kelly on many of the tracks (most notably "Debra") and it seems to me there is an obvious nod to Prince. "Get Real Paid" owes a debt to Kraftwerk and apparently vocal processors (yes, that is Beck singing). I love the jittery synthwork and vocal polyphony that rounds out the final minute of the record. And who can resist the couplet Thursday night, I think I'm pregnant again/touch my ass if you qualify?

The dirgelike "Nobody's Fault of My Own" from Mutations blends Beatles-style Indian accents with unplugged Nirvana (think "The Man Who Sold the World"). I find this song to be intriguing in the way it avoids making a decision about whether its major or minor—the tonic chord (C) is almost always absent the third and the prominent use of the bIII (Eb) and bVI (Ab) serve to keep the key of C Major obscured. (I drew the conclusion of major based on the vocal melody.) Many, if not all, of the songs on Mutations use similarly creative chord progressions and the songs themselves are granted center stage thanks to stripped-down arrangements. 

Since this pair of albums, Beck seems to have found his "sound" which is kind of unfortunate in some ways. The more mature Beck still makes great records and writes great songs but I find myself longing for the surprises that met me with Mutations and, especially, Midnite Vultures.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Songs #480 and 481 - It's Friday but it feels like TWOsday!

Song #480 of 9999                                           Song #481 of 9999

Title: My Name Is                                            Title: I Got The...
Artist: Eminem                                                 Artist: Labi Siffre
Year: 1999                                                        Year: 1975
Album: The Slim Shady LP                             Album: Remember My Song

                                  

Hip hop can be a real education if you let it. I've learned about so much music doing research for the hip hop songs featured in this blog. (Thank you again Wikipedia!) For example, who the hell is Labi Siffre? This I did not know—but Dr. Dre did! While working on Eminem's sophomore effort, Dre sought permission from Siffre to sample his 1975 song "I Got The..." for Eminem's lead single "My Name Is." Siffre refused on the basis of the song's anti-gay and misogynist lyrical content. Ultimately, Eminem tweaked the lyric and Siffre relented. The sampled portion of the song begins at the 2:10 mark.

The sample is so perfectly paired with Eminem's chorus, I never would have guessed it came from a song written 25 years earlier. Notice how the ascending Rhodes keyboard lick alternates in rhythmic sympathy with "My name is" while the descending fourth lick perfectly aligns with "Slim Shady." Right out of the gate, there is some pretty deft musical thought being employed. Once we're into the song, the slapstick special effects combined with the classroom setting plays like a demented episode of Pee-Wee Herman's Playhouse where the show has been hijacked by the vile Slim Shady and Pee-Wee is duct-taped to Chairy.

Setting aside the violent imagery and profanity (I know that's a tall order for many of you and there are plenty of alternate versions out there—all of them inferior), the striking thing about this song is the unique flow of Eminem's rap. I don't think I've ever heard rap sound so natural and free. It's like he's telling a story—there's no affectation or posturing. He plays this bratty kid in a free and easy way, dispensing with ornate wordplay that would be out of character. It just sounds like talking that happens to rhyme and that's what makes it brilliant.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Song #479 of 9999 - She's a Jar by Wilco

Song #479 of 9999

Title: She's a Jar
Artist: Wilco
Year: 1999
Album: Summerteeth


I like to think my blog is about answers. Most of you who tune in are looking for some insight as to why I think a song "works" even if you don't personally think it "works" or if we don't even agree about what "works" means. But my commentary is usually rooted in some universally accepted truths about harmonic analysis or whatever. (It's the "whatever" you really want!) So what happens when I want to share a song that raises more questions than it answers?

That's the dilemma I faced last night when I sat down and listened to "She's a Jar" about eight times in a row. Today, I had a lengthy discussion with my good friend and fellow blogger Erik Schlosser (not the food author) about the song and, by the end, I had threatened to simply write the words "this song is awesome" in my blog post and walk away. And if you want, you can stop reading this now and go enjoy the song with no interference from me!

But it wouldn't be 9999 Songs if I didn't prattle on about some such something or another. So what are these "questions" raised by the song? For starters, what is the song about? I mean, that's the main question as the musical elements are pretty straight-forward (a nicely placed diminished chord in the chorus, a cool descending chromatic progression shortly thereafter and lovely colorful accents courtesy of Jay Bennett—there, done). Jeff Tweedy pulls off a pretty neat trick with this tune, offering the strong impression of an idea without actually revealing any sort of true meaning in the song. There are songwriters who are really good at this—Bob Dylan, for example; maybe Thom Yorke—but not many. It's a dangerous line to walk and Tweedy treads it like a pro.

Is the song about a relationship? Is it about drugs? Is it about a relationship with drugs? I read a dozen interpretations on the internet and they all seemed plausible and that's what makes the lyric so remarkable. Much has been said about the last line of the song—she begs me not to hit her—with most people remarking that the song takes such a "dark turn"; however, they may be missing the antonymic connection to the last line of of the nearly identical first verse—she begs me not to miss her. If we consider the song to be about intravenous drug use (the beginning of the chorus—climb aboard the tracks of a train's arm—certainly suggests this is a possibility), the word "hit" can take on a whole new meaning. If the "her" in this case is the drug itself (Erik's suggestion!), the lines means something completely different. 

Consider this brilliant verse, which seems to be (in an obvious sense) about a photograph, but could also be about the immediate effects of drug use:
When I forget how to talk I sing
Won't you please
Bring that flash to shine
And turn my eyes red
Unless they close
When you click
And my face gets sick
Stuck
Like a question unposed
In the end, I don't know for sure what the song is about and I suspect Tweedy, who was under the influence of both prescription painkillers and fine literature, doesn't know either. But I do know I feel something every time I hear it and the murky lyric somehow makes it seem more genuine.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Song #479 of 9999 - Muscle Museum by Muse

Was having a little trouble coming up with a good idea for tonight's blog so I did what any self-respecting person would do: delegated it! And that means it's Guest Blogger Night! Tonight, we get some young blood in here as college freshman and former Caravella protégé Kelsey Bomboy weighs in on a song that may or may not have been written before she was born. ;) And by the way, Kelsey is also a very fine singer—you can check out some of her video performances here.
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Song #479 of 9999

Title: Muscle Museum
Artist: Muse
Year: 1999
Album: Showbiz


There is not a single album by Muse that I don't fully enjoy listening to, and Muse is one of the very few bands who I can say that about. From their debut Showbiz in 1999 to their most recent The 2nd Law, Muse's frontman, Matthew Bellamy, has continued to bring new ideas to each album which has only left me coming back for more.

Those who lost their Muse virginity by hearing "Madness" on the radio within the past year would probably be surprised to learn that they didn't always use thick synth beats and sing in major keys. “Muscle Museum” is a prime example of quite the opposite.

When I heard "Muscle Museum" for the first time back in 2007 I was instantly hooked. As an awkward and musically ignorant pre-teen in the seventh grade I had no idea why I loved this song so much. However, after being a survivor of AP Music Theory (thanks to Frankie Big Face!), I now can articulate why.

The first thing that jumps out at you is the alternating eighth notes of F# and C# in the bass guitar. Then comes the piercing harmonies in the lead guitar it soon becomes clear that Bellamy composed this song in the key of F# minor, one of the darkest sounding keys in existence. When Bellamy enters in the first verse with his breathy, British voice you can tell that there's an emotional lament coming your way (not to mention some sweet falsetto).

The chord progression in the chorus is a common [i-V-i-iv]. I am always moved by the last line in the chorus. Its progression truly feels like, well...progression and pushing forward as he slowly slides up to the leading tone and then resolves. After the second chorus Bellamy plays around with the microphone and makes his voice sound like an electric guitar – you gotta admit that's pretty cool. The song fades out with a creepy sounding piano repeating the intro which leaves the listener feeling empty and haunted.

I do think there is something to be said about the relationship between the meaning of this song and the key that it's in. In an interview Bellamy said that this song is about the frustration of putting in so much effort into a relationship and not getting anything in return:
Can you see that I am needing
Begging for so much more
Than you could ever give
And I don’t want you to adore me
Don’t want you to ignore me
When it pleases you
Maybe Bellamy carefully considered the key, or maybe he didn't. But for my own peace of mind, I like to think that he chose a depressing key for a depressing and emotional song.

Fun fact: Muse had a hard time coming up with a name for this song, so they chose the words that come right before and after the word "muse" in most dictionaries: "muscle" and "museum"

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Songs #477 & 478 - It's TWOsday!

Song #477 of 9999                                    Song #478 of 9999

Title: Genie in a Bottle                              Title: ...Baby One More Time 
Artist: 
Christina Aguilera                          Artist: Britney Spears
Year: 1999                                                 Year: 1999
Album: 
Christina Aguilera                        Album: ...Baby One More Time


                           

While we all waited for the world to end (admit it, you bought and stored canned goods in anticipation of the Y2K bug), two former Mickey Mouse Club members emerged as harbingers of the forthcoming apocalypse. I'm kidding—they weren't as bad as they seemed at the time—but it is interesting that these barely legal nymphs showed up almost simultaneously to inject a little bit of teen raunch into popular music while simultaneously siphoning BPM from the dance circuit.

Setting aside the sex factor (NBC's worst fall offering!), let's examine the similarities between the debut singles of our two most popular turn-of-the-millennial singers. Both are in minor keys (F and C respectively) and clock in well under what we might consider to be dance tempos. Christina's tune slinks a little slower at approximately 88 BPM while Britney's struts in the 94 BPM range. Both fall into the range we would call Andante, which is Italian for "sexy walking tempo."

Harmonically, each song features a single chord progression that repeats for the duration of the song, through verse, chorus and even bridge (where applicable). Aguilera's synth-rich setting employs a descending ground bass technique (i VII VI V), which works well to showcase her considerable vocal talent, which was well-honed even at such a young age. But just in case it wasn't enough, the arranger worked overtime to fill every empty space with enough faux trumpet, piano and synth licks to create a polyphonic environment busy enough to satisfy even the shortest attention span.

Spears's single has a little more going on harmonically, some of it quite clever. The basic progression is i-V6-III-iv-V (Cm-G/B-Eb-Fm-G) with the last chord constantly being challenged by the dissonant (and "bluesy," I guess) Bb that appears in the piano riff that opens the piece. I think the motion from G/B to Eb is really cool (that's the technical term), and it points to a fundamental difference between these two tunes: where Xtina's bass consistently moves away from the tonic by descending step, Britney's approaches the tonic by ascending step. (you probably already knew this from the VH1 pop-up video) With fewer bells and whistles and a much weaker singer, Spears's song relies on better construction to get the job done. The best example of this comes during the chorus when the repetitive progression is interrupted at the best possible moment ("give me a siiiiiign") by a couple of quick chords on beats three and four (Ab Bb) before proceeding to the (Eb):



There's some additional harmonic trickery during the bridge that's really effective—again making use of the Ab Major chord (VI)—but the writers don't stray far from the original progression.

I'd be lying if I didn't say I think "Genie in a Bottle" holds up better than "...Baby One More Time" and it's primarily due to Aguilera's singing skill, although I do think both songs have merit. It's kind of interesting to compare the presentations of these two stars-to-be and hard not to believe the producers knew exactly what they had in each. I may be reading too much into this but I'll even put forth the supposition that Aguilera's LP debut is self-titled (i.e. "check out this new singer!") while Spears's is named for the title track (i.e. "check out this new song!") as proof.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Song #476 of 9999 - I Try by Macy Gray

Song #476 of 9999

Title: I Try
Artist: Macy Gray
Year: 1999
Album: On How Life Is


I really don't know anything about Macy Gray and I don't know any other songs by her. I also don't know whether "I Try" was overplayed to the point of making people sick or barely made it to the surface but I'm going to surmise the former based on all the awards it won and the fact that someone as out of touch with mainstream pop in 1999 as I heard it at least a few times. And so I begin by apologizing if you all hate this song. I'm sorry.

But I love it and I can pinpoint the very moment that makes me feel this way. Last week, I was talking about how difficult rhythm is to quantify. This song has a rhythm pattern toward the end of the chorus that commands my attention every time I hear it. For a while, I couldn't even figure out what was going on as I fruitlessly tried counting a bunch of irregular rhythm patterns to match what she is doing on the words "crumbles when you are not near." In the end, I concluded the lyric was simply set to quarter note triplets (EDIT: sort of) and that made me feel stupid and incompetent (EDIT: but less so now).

So I thought about it more. And more. And more and more. Why does this rhythm sound so exotic to me? I considered just writing it off as quarter note triplets just don't show up in pop songs very often. But I don't think it's that simple. From my perspective, the song sits on the edge between straight time and a shuffle. Listen to the drums and you'll hear straight eighth notes played on the hi-hat and bass drum. These straight patterns contrast with the gospel swing time that informs the piano, bass and occasional drum fills. This isn't anything new—this is pretty much the definition of the style. But when you add the quarter note triplets I talked about earlier, you get some unusual polyrhythms that go beyond the norm. In fact, when I sat down to notate it, I found that the only way to align everything I was hearing was to put it in cut time, like this:

(EDIT: I knew the note on the word "here" came just after the beat but I thought I could sneak it by y'all. My friend Sam spotted it right away—that's quality control!—so I went back to the drawing board and I think I have the rhythm notated exactly now. Sam?)


Now I realize the "underlying shuffle" I included in the middle line is intermittent, showing up only in fills and phrasing, but I don't think you can deny its existence. And when you contrast it against those quarter note triplets, you really do get something rather unusual for this genre. When you consider how the melody and rhythm depict the lyric ("my world crumbles when you are not near")—i.e. descending by leap somewhat erratically—it's really quite clever.

I hope that made sense. This was a tough one. :-/