Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Songs #31, 32, 33 & 34 of 9999 - A Quadruple play!

Transatlantic air travel and a nasty cold forced a two-day hiatus from my blog. Today, I catch up and then some with an unprecedented and truly ridiculous QUADRUPLE PLAY which links four songs, including one of my own just to add an element of shameless self-promotion. Let's begin!

Song #31 of 9999
Title: Be My Baby              
Artist: The Ronettes
Year: 1963
Album: Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes

This is the song that started it all with a drumbeat drenched in reverb and a production style that would become famously known as the "Wall of Sound." Phil Spector wrote, arranged and produced the song for the group The Ronettes, named for lead singer Ronnie Bennett who would later become Spector's wife. His unique production style included doubling or tripling instrumental lines, adding orchestral instruments and percussion, and projecting the sound into an echo chamber where it would be re-recorded. The song is considered one of the greatest pop songs in history and led to...

Song #32 of 9999
Title: Don't Worry Baby           
Artist: The Beach Boys
Year: 1965
Album: Shut Down, Volume 2

Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was obsessed with "Be My Baby," claiming he listened to the song 100 times a day! Wilson set out to write and record the "male answer" to "Be My Baby" and "Don't Worry Baby" is his effort. In my opinion, Wilson not only matched the Spector creation, but surpassed it. I won't argue which production is better, but those large-interval leaps in the verses and pre-chorus make me giddy every time I hear the song. Fast-forward a dozen years or so to... 

Song #33 of 9999
Title: Say Goodbye to Hollywood
Artist: Billy Joel
Year: 1976
Album: Turnstiles

Man, remember when Billy Joel wrote really great songs? Raw emotional songs that are arguably the equivalent of Springsteen's early work. Opening the track, we have the familiar "Be My Baby" drum beat married to the "root   root-root  5th" pedal bass line from "Don't Worry Baby." Although the subject matter has changed, Joel does manage to work the word "baby" into the chorus, which I appreciate. The only mis-step in this studio recording is the disco beat of the bridge, which Joel wisely toned down for the live version released in 1981 to great acclaim. Which brings me to....

Song #34 of 9999
Title: Stairway to the Moon             
Artist:Frankie Big Face
Year: 2006
Album: N/A

Click here to listen! (Sorry--my songs don't have awesome YouTube videos)

Listen, I'm not comparing myself to any of these artists so let's get that out of the way from the start. But when I first learned of the link between "Be My Baby" and "Don't Worry Baby," I was immediately determined to write my own "response song." My parameters were pretty simple: the song had to retain the original drum beat and tempo (I sampled it), the chorus had to have significant use of the word "baby" and there needed to be a ton of backing vocals. I kept the pedal bass at the beginning, wrote some typical FBF lyrics (with one particularly clever line--"I'm gonna find the devil who did this if I gotta check every mirror in this town"), added some "96 Tears"-style organ and voilà!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Did I give up already?!

Was without internet access during my last day in England and was unable to post. I'm home now but super-sick so I'm going to bed. What does this mean? Wednesday may have to be the first-ever TRIPLE PLAY. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, watch this incredible video set to Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger."

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Song #30 of 9999 - Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? by Chicago

Song #30 of 9999

Title: Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?
Artist: Chicago
Year: 1969
Album: Chicago Transit Authority

Click here for video!

In celebration of my trip to Greenwich, England today, where I straddled the Prime Meridian with literally one foot in the east and one in the west, I give you this Chicago classic. It's an okay song, much better 40 years ago than now, and to be honest, I'm much more of a Blood, Sweat & Tears fan myself, know, I straddled the Prime Meridian today!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Song #29 of 9999 -Oh Lately, It's So Quiet by OK Go

Song #29 of 9999

Title: Oh Lately, It's So Quiet
Artist: OK Go
Year: 2005
Album: Oh No

Click here to listen!

I first heard OK Go when I saw them open for Fountains of Wayne in Hoboken, NJ back in 2002. This was early in their national career, way before the YouTube fame and the treadmills. They were really good: high energy, enthusiastic, proficient, and creative. Singer Damian Kulash exuded confidence and I remember thinking he seemed incredibly tall on stage. (Maybe he is? But this doesn't seem apparent in the band's videos.)

I think OK Go is doomed to be of of those bands that can only be recognized through their (very creative) videos. Which is a shame because I think they are one of the most talented bands on the pop music scene in terms of their songwriting and performing. In this track, listen to how articulate the guitar is and how it syncs with the drums. All of their songs are like this and that attention to detail creates a sparkle I really appreciate. I also like this song because it reminds me of Prince and I appreciate that the band is confident and comfortable enough to work in that direction. Finally, the lyrics to this song are quite clever and a little melancholy. It's one of those songs I wish I had written; I love the inner rhymes and alliteration. And no treadmills! This song doesn't need a gimmick.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Song #28 of 9999 - Socks, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll by Buffalo Daughter

Song #28 of 9999

Title: Socks, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll
Artist: Buffalo Daughter
Year: 1998
Album: New Rock

Clock here for video!

A word of warning about the video: first, there is a long intro spoken in Japanese and the song doesn't actually start until 1:10; and second, there is some violent footage (the JFK Zapruder film) in the video. I don't think this is the official video, but it's pretty interesting. If you'd like to hear the song but avoid the graphic video clip, click here instead.

Sometime in 1998, I drove to Philadelphia to see the band Boys Against Girls. In retrospect, it's a little hard for me to understand why—was I really that into Boys Against Girls? Regardless, I'm glad I did because the opening band was a trio of Japanese girls (guitar, bass and turntables) accompanied by a very large male Japanese drummer. At that time, maybe I had heard a little bit about Cibo Matto or Shonen Knife, but they weren't really on my radar as I was listening to a lot of Archers of Loaf and Jawbox and Bob Mould.

Buffalo Daughter became one of my favorite bands almost literally overnight. I was kind of shocked by the driving trance-like music they played that night. Maybe this is sexist (and I certainly don't mean it to be), but my surprise almost certainly was due to the fact that these were three tiny Japanese girls playing loud dissonant rock. It was not punk or pop—I don't think that would have surprised me—but something really new and original to my ears. Seeing live turntables was new for me. They contributed noise (I mean the word in the most positive sense) in a way that really complemented the bass and guitar. The band's playing seemed really free and loose, yet the compositions were well-structured and arranged.

I don't know if it was the very next day that I bought New Rock but it was surely very soon after the concert. (Maybe I bought it that night at the concert?) The recording allowed for even more dissonance in a quieter setting which I found (and still find) quite intriguing. I love the riffs in this song and, just as much, the space between them. And the synth that pops in at the start of the chorus has the most perfect sound. The spoken word vox will probably turn some people off but I like the sleepy quality and how occasional melody and harmony are layered on top. It's such a creative arrangement and pretty cool for 1998.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Song #27 of 9999 - Gracie by Ben Folds

Song #27 of 9999

Title: Gracie
Artist: Ben Folds
Year: 2005
Album: Songs for Silverman

Click here to listen!

It's Thanksgiving so I decided to choose a random song with the word "Thank" in it. I chose "You to Thank" by Ben Folds, which is a great song that teeters on the brink between 3/4 and 6/8 while reminding everyone that Ben Folds can really play the piano. Like for real. I also love that track because it sounds like Ben Folds Five even though it comes years after their breakup. Nice to hear that true live sound on a record again—they were so good at that.

Anyway, in the process of preparing my thoughts to write about that song, I listened to another track from Songs from Silverman (my favorite BF album by far) and decided it was a better song to share on Thanksgiving. "Gracie" is the kind of song everyone wishes they could write for a loved one but almost no-one is capable of pulling off. By the time you get to the end of the two-plus minutes, you really know who Gracie is and that Ben Folds loves her very much. This song evokes all kinds of emotions in people about someone close to them not because its lyrics are universal but because they are specific. By writing about a real person, real qualities, real actions, Folds paints a detailed picture in the mind of the listener that is easily transferrable to his or her own life. The fact that the song has beautiful melodies and a particularly lovely bridge doesn't hurt. It's a very powerful song and offers strong evidence that Folds is an extremely talented songwriter.

Hope you love the song and it made you think of someone you are thankful for. Now go check out "You to Thank." Or just buy the whole album.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Song #26 of 9999 - Frame by Frame by King Crimson

Song #26 of 9999

Title: Frame by Frame
Artist: King Crimson
Year: 1981
Album: Discipline

click here for video!

King Crimson is one of those prog rock bands that always seemed to have a new lineup featuring a different permutation of members who were already or previously in the band or on loan from some other similar band like Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer or U.K. But for three glorious albums with primary colored covers, the band maintained the consistent and perfectly balanced lineup of Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp, Tony Levin and Bill Bruford. Belew's quirky lyrics and singing style coupled with his hyperactive whammy bar guitar-playing seemed the ideal counterpoint to Fripp's experimental electronic noise and sustained moto perpetuo style. Levin's thumpy bass filled in the bottom of the rhythm section, allowing Bruford to place his focus on the snare and hi-hat where he likes it. They created a sound that sounds fresh even thirty years later and is emulated by so many progressive bands today, most notably Radiohead.

"Frame by Frame" is a good example of the style that emanated so naturally from this pair of duos with its emphasis on tritone-tinged guitar strikes, metric technical precision and windshield wiper effect polyrhythms. It could have easily stood on its own as an instrumental, but Belew manages to layer a vocal track over the 7/8 meter that seems a natural fit while the backing vocals almost make you believe you're listening to a pop song. If you haven't heard Discipline in its entirety, I highly recommend it. And if you like it, don't hesitate to pick up the other two records and complete your set of one of the classic trilogies in progressive popular music.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Song #25 of 9999 - It's TWOsday!

Song #25 of 9999

Title: The Weakest Shade of Blue
Artist: Pernice Brothers
Year: 2003
Album: Yours, Mine and Ours

I only have a minute today as I must quickly get ready to depart for Oxford and London. But it's TWOsday, so how can I do this so quickly? Easy. Pernice Brothers. There are two of them. This song is awesome and the video is funny. It's like the Beach Boys, but current. And the chorus rocks. See you on the other side of the pond.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Song #24 of 9999 - Won't Say Anything by Hello, Seahorse!

Song #24 of 9999

Title: Won't Say Anything
Artist: Hello Seahorse!
Year: 2007
Album: Hoy a las Ocho

One of the great joys of listening to bands from other countries is that their naivete about the English language often results in some oddly poignant or amusing phrases. In this infectious song by the Mexican band Hello Seahorse!, we are presented with such delights as "I bite my nails even when I'm asleep...I can't believe I swallowed the city" and "Now I'm moving away, you can come & visit me when ever you need, I'll give you the biggest key..." Of course, these lyrics are made all the more whimsical when set against the blissful arrangement. The subtle classical guitar contrasted against a wafer-thin reed instrument, the handclaps and occasional spoken words all add to this fun experience. My favorite moment, however--the one that makes me smile from ear to ear--is when the drum beat changes right at the start of the first verse (around 1:06 in the video). It's a small thing but it sucks me in every time.

And I haven't even gotten to the video! This band is either having a tremendous amount of fun or they are very good actors. The outdoor setting, the color scheme, the odd accents (the paint cans, the banana, the quick kiss in the forest)--how can you not love this video? The fact that half the band is sort of...uh, doughy(?) makes them even more cute. A great discovery on "The 61" back when that was still a thing, this song remains absolutely uplifting four years later.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Song #23 of 9999 - Hello, It's Me by Todd Rundgren

Song #23 of 9999

Title: Hello, It's Me
Artist: Todd Rundgren
Year: 1972
Album: Something/Anything?

Today, I heard a cover of this song by a little-known, but national, recording artist I really like. Despite the fact that this guy has a terrific voice, all I could think about while listening is just how hard this song is to sing and play. Which, by the way, is not the feeling you want to give your audience while performing. I've had that feeling before, most notably watching several productions of West Side Story (even a Broadway production),where the singers just couldn't pull off making the songs sound effortless, which is essential to allowing a listener forget who he is for a moment and just bask in the brilliance of a song.

Todd Rundgren has that ability. His catalog is hit or miss, but there is no denying that this local boy has pipes. One of the few white artists (along with Daryl Hall) to master the Philly Soul sound that emerged in the early 1970s, this is supposedly the first song Rundgren ever wrote! It's an amazing pop music achievement in terms of its creative chord structure and key changes and it has a very clever deviation from 4/4 in the bridge (on the words "never want to make you change for me"). I also love the vocal harmonies, which have some nice close intervals and are perfectly performed. The song also features Randy and Michael Brecker on trumpet and tenor saxophone.

Amazingly, "Hello, It's Me" will celebrate it's 40th birthday in 2012. It should certainly be regarded as one of the great pop classics of the modern era. If you can't get enough of the song, check out this earlier version recorded in 1968 when Rundgren fronted the group Nazz.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Song #22 of 9999 - Alles Neu by Peter Fox

Song #22 of 9999

Title: Alles Neu
Artist: Peter Fox
Year: 2008
Album: Stadtaffe

When I was in Prague in August of 2008, this video was on MTV Europe every five minutes it seemed. Chris and I became a little obsessed with the song and pretty much stopped whatever we were doing to watch the video over and over. While I think the song works really fine on its own, it becomes spectacular when paired with the bizarre video featuring the Cold Steel Drumline. We can debate about whether anyone could get away with dressing up an all-black percussion ensemble in monkey suits in America (answer: no) but it makes a little more sense when you know the title of the album, Stadtaffe, means "city monkey." Political correctness aside, the video is creepy, funny, and undeniably European. I couldn't stop listening to this song for about six months but hadn't thought of it for some time. Hope you enjoyed it!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Song #21 of 9999 - This Year's Love by David Gray

Song #21 of 9999

Title: This Year's Love
Artist: David Gray
Year: 2000
Album: White Ladder

I'm usually late to the party when it comes to mainstream pop. It was just two summers ago that I first heard this song. I was living in an apartment in Mount Joy, separated from my wife and pretty unhappy. I heard this song on some hipster television show, during one of the montages of pensive sadness. I didn't know who it was so I looked it up online, bought it immediately, learned it that night and sang it over and over for a few days. It's not the greatest song in the world and I'm still not that into David Gray's voice but every once in a while you hear the right song at the right time and it clicks.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Song #20 of 9999 - Radio Free Europe by R.E.M.

Song #20 of 9999

Title: Radio Free Europe
Artist: R.E.M.
Year: 1983
Album: Murmur

If you haven't heard, R.E.M. has broken up. They're currently on tour telling everyone about it. (cue laughter)

But seriously, since I keep hearing news stories about R.E.M.'s disbandment, I figured I should post a song by them. I wanted to post "Hairshirt," a sad-sack ballad from 1988's Green that offered a glimpse into the future of the band that would become a household name. Find that song and enjoy it for its simplicity. (It's not on YouTube--that's why I didn't use it.) Try to forget that "Nightswimming" and "Everybody Hurts" and "Try Not to Breathe" are going to advance this type of balladry with slightly better arrangements and production and performances and revel in the lyric that begins "I am not the type of dog/That could keep you waiting/For no good reason/Run a carbon-black test on my jaw/And you will find it's all been said before" and ends with "Here I am here I am in your life/It's a beautiful life/My life/It's a beautiful life/Your life." It is a gorgeous song.

But since it's not available in cheap, easy YouTube, I thought I'd post "Radio Free Europe" and remind people of just where this band began. The Letterman clip is fun to watch for their youthful exuberance and the song is fun to listen to because it's always nice to be reminded what four guys can do with four chords (my favorite of which begins the pre-chorus---an F# barre chord with an open B rubbing against the A# in the lead vocal). If you've never heard Murmur,  go get it and pretend you've never heard of this band before. It will be easy and you'll be in indie pop heaven for 44 minutes and 11 seconds.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Song #19 of 9999 - Cult of Personality by Living Colour

Song #19 of 9999

Title: Cult of Personality
Artist: Living Colour
Year: 1988
Album: Vivid

Back when we were kids and we subscribed to magazines with titles like Guitar for the Practicing Musician, Vernon Reid was being touted as the next amazing rock guitar god, the one that was going to render every other guitar god from Eddie Van Halen to Randy Rhoads (yes, that is a deliberately narrow range, hopefully for comedic effect) obsolete. Reid's splash was unfortunately minimized by the arrival of grunge, which somehow managed to make guitar solos uncool (unless they were of the one-note Neil Young variety). Nonetheless, Living Color did make a hit out of this "guitar riff with shouting about politics" song and video.

I remember first hearing this song on a promotional compilation disc we had to play in the Wall to Wall Sound and Video where I worked in the record department. I can still remember the sound of the guy's voice as he said "That's Cult of Personality by Living Color, available now!" I also remember trying to learn the bass line, which proved surprisingly difficult and frustrating (my right hand just didn't want to deal with the string crossing). In retrospect, it's not a great song, but if you haven't heard it for a while or ever, it's worth a few minutes. Just don't try to learn that bass line!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Songs #17 & 18 of 9999 - It's TWOsday!

Songs #17 of 9999                                Song #18 of 9999

Title: Under Pressure                            Title: Feel Like
Artist: Queen & David Bowie              Artist: Queen
Year: 1981                                            Year: 1981
Album: Hot Space                                Album: N/A - unreleased track

It's TWOsday, so I was going to feature two songs, but then I realized by featuring both David Bowie and Queen, I was fulfilling my self-imposed requirement for TWOsday with just one song. But then, while doing research about "Under Pressure," I came across the original idea for the track, a song called "Feel Like." So, I ended up with two songs anyway. It's complicated.

"Under Pressure" is one of my favorite songs of all time. The bass riff is famous of course, not only for propelling this song forward, but also for propping up Vanilla Ice during his 15 minutes of fame and taking the already active debate about sampling in the 80s to a higher level. But the reasons I love this song are more subtle. The key change at 2:10, the chords that play over over the pedal point at 0:56, the grand build-up at 2:55 (which is so Bowie). Not-so-subtle highlights are Freddie Mercury's vocal performance and the utter grandiosity that unfolds over four minutes. It's an amazing pop achievement, certainly on the level of even the most ambitious Beatles song.

The fact that much of this record evolved from improvisation between these two UK pop superpowers is a testament to the power of collaboration. Listening to the rough cut of "Feel Like" and getting a sense of where this song was headed, one can probably conclude safely that it would have been relegated to the B-side of a Queen catalog that was already on the wane. Whether "Under Pressure" is the "best song of all time" (as stated Stylus music critic Anthony Miccio) is questionable, but it may be the greatest collaboration between two rock artists and it certainly is a masterpiece of pop.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Song #16 of 9999 - Four Winds by Bright Eyes

Song #16 of 9999

Title: Four Winds
Artist: Bright Eyes
Year: 2007
Album: Cassadaga

Bright Eyes is a band (guy?) I could never get into because of Conor Oberst's voice. I've found that the tone quality of a singer's voice has prevented me from liking a number of popular bands, most notably White Stripes. But I digress. Anyway, his voice was so whiny and annoying with wide vibrato, I just couldn't listen to anything he wrote.

Then he came out with his 2007 "grown-up" release, Cassadega, and I decided to give him another chance. What actually happened is I was teaching a pop music class and had read in a magazine about a song on the record that sounded like it was produced by Phil Spector (called "Make a Plan to Love Me"). So I decided to buy the track so the class could hear a modern example of the influence of the legendary producer. I remember so vividly the reaction of one of my students, a diehard Bright Eyes fan, who absolutely despised the song. It clearly lacked the angst upon which Oberst had built his reputation and, indeed, the voice was much more controlled.

I later picked up the album and was absolutely blown away by "Four Winds." The lyrics are brilliant, the arrangement perfect, the recording and performance alive with energy. I've probably heard this song a hundred times and enjoyed every one of them. The chorus is one of the most exciting things I've heard in pop music in the past ten years. I'm now completely sold on this kid (okay, he's 31), who I think is the best lyricist of his generation.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Song #15 of 9999 - I Don't Like Mondays by The Boomtown Rats

Song #15 of 9999

Title: I Don't Like Mondays
Artist: The Boomtown Rats
Year: 1979
Album: The Fine Art of Surfacing

I read a column today in the local Sunday paper that referenced this song as a predecessor to Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks," which I admittedly had never heard until a few minutes ago. The article expressed concern over the more recent song's lyric about a kid taking a gun to school and suggesting that "All the other kids in their pumped-up kicks better run faster than my bullet." The song is so saccharine-sweet that I can't imagine anyone being inspired to do anything but tap a toe or whistle along if they could muster the energy. The video shows the band doing fun things like playing in concert or admiring the pressing of their record or drinking a beer or whatever. I would say they are the most banal band around except they would be tied with a thousand other equally banal bands for the top spot.

Which brings me to Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats, who are quite the opposite of Foster the People. Their song certainly could not be read as a call to action as it grimly recounts the story of a remorseless teenage girl who opened fire on a playground full of children in January of 1979. (Asked why she did it, she replied "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day.") Yet, it has much more potential to incite a similar event because it exudes passion where "Pumped Up Kicks" does not. This point seems to be lost on the author of the column referenced above, who referred to the Foster the People track as a "soundtrack" for "moody teens with guns." Really? I can't imagine any moody teen listening to that song.

Anyway, I'm talking too much about a bad song and not enough about a good one. Lovely piano work, dramatic story-telling, effective tempo changes, compelling lyrics--it's no surprise this song was a #1 hit in the UK. Geldof would go on to greater fame as the organizer of the Band Aid and Live Aid relief efforts for poverty-stricken Africa.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Song #14 of 9999 - Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying by Belle & Sebastian

Song #14 of 9999

Title: Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying
Artist: Belle & Sebastian
Year: 1996
Album: If You're Feeling Sinister

This was my first favorite Belle & Sebastian song. I may have more recent favorites, but this is the song that probably spurred me to go out and buy The Boy With the Arab Strap and, well, all of their other records. This song has the distinction of being perhaps the happiest sounding sad song I've ever heard. And I can't figure out how they did it. An upbeat toe-tapper with a Pachelbel Canon-like chord progression—everything about the musical arrangement screams happy. The words themselves aren't particularly sad, certainly not tragic enough to trump the major key melodies. And still, there is an overwhelming melancholy to the recording and performance which makes me much more likely to listen the song when I'm feeling sad (or sinister, I suppose).

The one thing I can point to as a contributing musical factor is the dissonance in the vocal melody that ends each chorus. For example, on the line "I always cry at endings," the stressed note is a flat-9 against the first chord and a major 7th against the second. Maybe it's this refusal to sing a consonant chord tone at the cadence that makes the song sad. As a music theorist, I find this type of unexplainable emotional resonance so interesting. Such a great song.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Song #13 of 9999 - Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight by Spinal Tap

Song #13 of 9999

Title: Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight
Artist: Spinal Tap
Year: 1984
Album: This is Spinal Tap

I'll jump on the bandwagon--why not? On 11/11/11, we pause to stop and honor Nigel Tufnel, Christopher Guest's good-hearted yet dim-witted heavy metal guitarist from the 1984 mockumentary This is Spinal Tap. Please enjoy this stop-motion Lego video rendition of the fictitious quintet's Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight. And that's all from me because I'm going to go watch the movie now. Cheers!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Song #12 of 9999 - Love is Like Oxygen by Sweet

Song #12 of 9999

Title: Love is Like Oxygen
Artist: Sweet
Year: 1978
Album: Level Headed

Everyone knows "Ballroom Blitz" (for good reason!) and maybe "Fox on the Run," but the song that I really love by Sweet is "Love is Like Oxygen." From the ridiculously dramatic opening to the chromatic guitar riff and the outrageously high harmony in the chorus, this song elevates glam rock to stadium rock status. And if you're lucky enough to catch the album version, clocking in at 6:48 (and featured in the linked video), you also get an intermezzo of classical-tinged prog rock that would have made Rick Wakeman proud and a funky white-boy outro that seems to have almost no connection to the song itself (it's a bonus!). A great song even in its abbreviated single version, but simply sublime in its bombastic overkill long version. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Song #11 of 9999 - My Iron Lung by Radiohead

Song #11 of 9999

Title: My Iron Lung
Artist: Radiohead
Year: 1994
Album: My Iron Lung (EP)

This is the first song I ever heard by Radiohead. It was the opening track of the January 1995 CMJ New Music Monthly CD that came with my magazine subscription. (The other song I really remember form that disc is Senorita by Superdrag.) At the time, I was listening to a lot of Nirvana, Jane's Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, etc. and this song appealed to me primarily because of the very heavy chorus. Not knowing anything about this band, I wasn't really listening closely to the layered guitar lines and complex chords emanating from Johnny Greenwood's guitar. Although they still seem a world away from OK Computer and galaxies away from more recent offerings, in retrospect, there's more here than I realized 16 years ago. Especially interesting are the (augmented?) chord that completes each of the first two lines of the second verse and the sustained dissonant lead lines in the bridge.

About nine months later, I was at an REM concert in Hershey and Radiohead was the opening act. Again, I had no idea who they were and didn't even make the connection to this song until they played it! They really kind of blew me away that night and I even bought a t-shirt, which seemed significant to me at the time. Seeing this video reminded me of what that young Radiohead looked like and how charismatic they were the night I saw them. Definitely one of the more memorable concerts I've attended and I still really like this song.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Songs #9 & 10 of 9999 - It's TWOsday!

Songs #9 of 9999                                Song #10 of 9999

Title: Heartbeats                                 Title: Heartbeats
Artist: José González                         Artist: The Knife
Year: 2003                                          Year: 2002
Album: Veneer                                   Album:Deep Cuts

Sometime around 2006, someone sent me a link to a Sony Bravia commercial and said, "hey, check this out" (I may be paraphrasing). I watched the video featuring 250,000 bouncy balls (we called them Super Balls as a kid, but maybe that was a brand?) tumbling down the streets of San Francisco and just marveled at the technical feat of the ad. It did not make me want to buy a Sony TV, but it did make me want to learn more about the commercial and, especially, about the singer of the beautiful song featured in the video. I eventually learned it was José González, a Swede of Argentinian descent with a melancholy voice and a nylon-string guitar (tuned to lute tuning according to a friend of mine who quickly figured out how to play the intricate arpeggios--jealous!). I bought a couple of albums, saw him play in Austin and realized pretty soon that he was just okay and hadn't written anything quite like Heartbeats.

I don't when it became known to me that the song was a cover written by the Swedish sibling pop duo The Knife, but I can remember hearing their version for the first time and being shocked by the mountain of synths and drum machines accompanying Karin Andersson's Siouxsie Sioux-like wail. I didn't hate the original version, but I just couldn't get past the difference between these two recordings, produced within a year of one another.

Over the past several years, González's version has lost a bit of its impact for me, but I still love his multi-tracked unison vocal and solemn delivery. The Sony ad has become just another commercial—still fun to look at but the thrill is gone. Only The Knife's original seems to get better with time. I never tire of it.

Interesting side note: I had never seen The Knife's video of the song and found it interesting to see skateboarders on steep inclines and floating colored balls coming out of a tractor exhaust. Coincidence?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Song #8 of 9999 - Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) by Eurythmics

Song #8 of 9999

Title: Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)
Artist: Eurythmics
Year: 1983
Album: Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)

As far as minor key pop songs go, I don't know that you'll find one more perfect than this. Its stark components blend perfectly to create an air of sterility and soullessness that seems to predetermine the forthcoming digital age. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox "play" cellos in the video but there is nothing that remotely comes close to sounding like an acoustic instrument on this track. Stewart pokes at an analog synth while Lennox (who would later go on to make beautifully sung, but boring pop-soul) relegates any emotional singing to the distant angelic backing vocals that interrupt the verses. The video is comical almost thirty years (!) later, but I think the song holds up pretty with only the "snare" sounding like it came from an 80s drum machine. Although it is my least favorite part of the song, I love how the call-and-response ("hold your head up!") section sets up one of the more effective breaks in pop music.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Song #7 of 9999 - The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll by Bob Dylan

Song #7 of 9999

Title: The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Artist: Bob Dylan
Album: The Times They Are A-Changin'

Thought I'd do another one that's all about the lyrics. In this case, a broadside ballad by Bob Dylan about the 1963 assault and murder of an African-American barmaid at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore. William Zantzinger, a white customer who verbally abused and beat Hattie Carroll with a cane for not delivering his bourbon quickly enough, was tried and convicted of manslaughter for which he received a sentence of six months in jail and a $500 fine.

If you've often wondered about why Bob Dylan is such a big deal (I'm thinking of younger listeners), this song should help you to understand. He wrote a lot of these types of songs that were "ripped from the headlines" before that was a thing and stood up for people who were on the losing end of injustice. One of the things I really love about the original recording of this song is the way Dylan seems almost incapable of containing his anger as he sings the final verse, his guitar-playing becoming more and more erratic.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Song #6 of 9999 - Love is Like a Bottle of Gin by Magnetic Fields

Song #6 of 9999

Title: Love is Like a Bottle of Gin
Artist: Magnetic Fields
Year: 2000
Album: 69 Love Songs

Of the first five songs I posted, at least three of them have unimportant, unintelligible or no lyrics. I thought it was about time I chose a song that relies almost entirely on lyrics for its effectiveness.

This is one of the most clever lyrics I have encountered. On first listen, you may think, oh, it's the familiar "being in love is like being drunk" motif but the last couplet turns it from predictable to brilliant and seems to render all that came before it more valuable. The spare arrangement of just bass and random guitar harmonics forces you to pay attention to the words. And you probably won't notice the unusual time signature (21/8 according to composer Stephin Merritt) because it suits the lyric so well. Perfect in its simplicity and coming in at well under two minutes. Lyrics reprinted below for your reference.

It makes you blind, it does you in
It makes you think you're pretty tough
It makes you prone to crime and sin
It makes you say things off the cuff
It's very small and made of glass
and grossly over-advertised
It turns a genius to an ass
and makes a fool think he is wise
It could make you regret your birth
or turn cartwheels in your best suit
It costs a lot more than it's worth
and yet there is no substitute
They keep it on a higher shelf
the older and more pure it grows
It has no color in itself
but it can make you see rainbows
You can find it on the Bowery
or you can find it at Elaine's
It makes your words more flowery
It makes the sun shine, makes it rain
You just get out what they put in
and they never put in enough
Love is like a bottle of gin
but a bottle of gin is not like love

Friday, November 4, 2011

Song #5 of 9999 - Attaboy by Yo-yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile

Song #5 of 9999

Title: Attaboy
Artist: Yo-yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile
Year: 2011
Album: The Goat Rodeo Sessions

I was thinking about what song I would post today while catching up on episodes of The Colbert Report when I saw a live performance of this bluegrass-on-steroids track. Coincidentally, I was just talking about Yo-yo Ma and Edgar Meyer with my friend Charlie, who is a blue-grass musician, and saying that this music has a limited appeal to me and it seemed that if you heard one album (like Ma's 1996 collaboration with Meyer and Mark O'Connor), you probably don't need to pick up the subsequent records. 

But seeing these guys play live....that's a whole other story. Unfortunately, the Colbert clip is unavailable on YouTube since Comedy Central isn't done with it yet, but you can watch the episode on TV or CC's website. I did find this "in the studio" live performance which doesn't have quite the same energy as the performance I saw but should give you a thrill nonetheless.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Song #4 of 9999 - Oviedo by Blind Pilot

Song #4 of 9999

Title: Oviedo
Artist: Blind Pilot
Year: 2008
Album: 3 Rounds and a Sound

I had never heard of this band before I set foot in a Detroit bed-and-breakfast. Yes, Detroit. I was there primarily to see a baseball game, but also took in the Motown Museum and some Greek food. So, this bed-and-breakfast was really nice and the kind of place that has all kinds of little amenities you never take advantage of. Like a CD player with a stack of CDs. I popped this one in and was not blown away, but impressed.

I ripped it to my computer (it's okay, I bought it on vinyl later) and started listening to it as I drove across the Midwest. It became a close friend on that drive to Cleveland and then Pittsburgh and then home. The singer (Israel Nebeker) has a plaintive quality to his voice that sucks me in every time. The songwriting is really superb and I think the spare arrangements are spot on.

Now it's one of my favorite albums of all time. I could have picked any song--they're all great.

(I don't know if this is the official video or not, but it seems like it probably is.)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Song #3 of 9999 - Malpractice by Faith No More

Song #3 of 9999

Title: Malpractice
Artist: Faith No More
Year: 1992
Album: Angel Dust


When Mike Patton joined Faith No More in 1989, they had already written (and I think, recorded) most of The Real Thing and his job was essentially to make his lyrics and singing style try to fit in with the punk-metal hybrid sound they were working to develop. I don't think anyone at the time thought Patton was more than just your typical 80s metal singer with a punkier hair style (long, but shaved on the sides). Most would not have expected him to become an avant-garde music icon who hangs out with the likes of John Zorn.

Patton's contributions to Angel Dust were significant as he brought a level of musical experimentation and creativity to the band that fell well outside their norm. This song is an amazing achievement of melodic and rhythmic interpolation. The ascending riff Ab - G - E  is followed by a mirror inversion with a retrograde of the rhythm: G - Ab - B. This "verse," which has no discernible vocal melody, is followed by a 5/8 break that sets up a 7/8 section with some of the eeriest vocal and keyboard melodies ever recorded. The chords that follow are major thirds apart, outlining an augmented triad which sets up the eruptive "applause!" chorus. The next guitar riff is also constructed using major thirds. These M3 chord relationships prevent a key from ever being established and the resulting piece is essentially atonal. The intensity of the song is broken up by gentle bells and vocals over the ticking of a "clock." When the heaviness returns, it is layered with a sample of the Kronos Quartet playing the main theme to Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8. This is one of the most dissonant pop songs I've ever heard and it still sounds very fresh almost 20 years later.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Song #2 of 9999 - Bloodbuzz Ohio by The National

Song #2 of 9999

Title: Bloodbuzz Ohio
Artist: The National
Year: 2010
Album: High Violet

These guys are my darlings of the moment. I could listen to this album every day and sometimes I get to the end and just start it over. I know the The National purists will say Boxer is better but that record hasn't connected with me quite like this one.

The first thing I think of when I hear this song is Peter Murphy, the former Bauhaus singer who had a moderately successfully solo career in the late 80s and early 90s. Once I get past the vocal similarity, I'm struck by how this song manages to have such a driving drumbeat but still comes off as being a ballad. The sleepily lethargic delivery of the lyrics has a lot to do with creating this illusion, but so does a slow-moving chord progression, a lot of instrumental reverb/sustain and repetition in the lyrics. Speaking of the lyrics, I haven't a clue what they mean, but they're intriguing. For as much as I work on my lyrics, I am frequently jealous of songwriters who can put words together in a way that is somewhat incoherent but still manage to convey a mood or an idea.