Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Songs #106 & 107 - It's TWOsday!

Song #106 of 9999                                                    Song #107 of 9999

Title: Everything in its Right Place                           Title: Don't Panic
Artist: Radiohead                                                     Artist: Coldplay
Year: 2000                                                               Year: 2000
Album: Kid A                                                            Album: Parachutes

I guess you could argue that Radiohead evolved into something more than a pop band with OK Computer, but, with Kid A, they basically left the planet and haven't been back since. For some, that means they turned into gods, making music that transcends pop and charts territory we didn't even know existed; for others, it means they became completely lost in their own self-indulgent world, with nary a melody to be heard from them again. (For the record, I fall into the former camp–one "Fake Plastic Trees" is enough for me.)

So what's a pseudo-mopy melodic British pop fiend supposed to do when a band like Radiohead suddenly desserts them? "Don't Panic"—that's what! Coldplay's debut record has almost all of the hallmarks of Radiohead's safer tracks on Pablo Honey and The Bends: clean electric guitar lines, busy but not quite hyperactive drums and an emotional singer with a sweet falsetto. "Don't Panic" is really not a bad song and it came just in time to rescue non-believers from....

....scary compressed-but-ever-evolving electric pianos layered with backward masking and a perpetually rising three-chord progression spread across ten beats. Chris Martin's "we live in a beautiful world message" is nowhere to be found among Thom Yorke's lyrics about....well, who knows what they're about? It doesn't really matter because they work perfectly amidst this eerie intro to the band that has redefined pop music for the 21st century.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Song #105 of 9999 - Chemical by Joseph Arthur

Song #105 of 9999

Title: Chemical
Artist: Joseph Arthur
Year: 2000
Album: Come To Where I'm From

Whenever an artist is "discovered" by a big name like Peter Gabriel, expectations run high. Joseph Arthur was the first artist signed to Gabriel's Real World Records in 1996 and was invited to join Gabriel's WOMAD tour following his first release in 1997. Arthur made a bigger, but still modest, splash with his more polished sophomore effort Come To Where I'm From. It featured the single "In the Sun," a lovely song that has the unfortunate distinction of being perfect for contemplative moments in episodes of "Scrubs" or the like. It's an obvious single that would quickly melt the hearts of adult contemporary listeners everywhere.

I really like "In the Sun" but I never thought it fully represented Arthur's style, which is often described as folk-punk or experimental folk-rock. The guy has an edge that is sometimes his worst enemy (avoid his records with The Lonely Astronauts) and an artistic side that is interesting and successful but occasionally gets in the way of his music. Anyway, as it turns out "In the Sun" was actually the second release from Come To Where I'm From, following "Chemical."

"Chemical" is much more indicative of Arthur's style. I was surprised a little by how much it sounds like Beck, but then I was surprised by how much a lot of music from 2000 sounded like Beck while doing my research this week. The dirty guitar and veiled production remind me of another dark loner, the late Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. What I really love about this song, though, is the extended multi-part chorus. You get the sustained title in falsetto three times, then the call-and-response section that begins with "I'm putting myself in jail" and then yet another section that begins with "I don't know the way..." before returning to the verse. This kind of thing always impresses me because I never think to do it in my own songs!

Incidentally, Arthur just released a double album that is 100% free to download from his website. You can get it here.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Song #104 of 9999 - Pure by The Lightning Seeds

Song #104 of 9999

Title: Pure
Artist: Lightning Seeds
Year: 1990
Album: Cloudcuckooland

On this final day of my week featuring songs from 1990, I had to make a tough decision. Go with the big hit or go with a good song many have never heard or don't remember. No song made a greater impression in 1990 than Sinéad O'Connor's gorgeous cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U." Jane's Addiction also scored big with the rollicking "Been Caught Stealing." And don't call it a comeback, but LL Cool J returned to the charts with "Mama Said Knock You Out." 

In the end, I followed the advice found in the lyric of my featured song, which reminded me that "feelings, not reasons, can make you decide." I just really like this song and it makes me happy listening to it and sharing it. The Lightning Seeds is basically just one guy, Ian Broudie, a music producer from Liverpool, who produced a lot of synth pop in the late 1980s, including Echo and the Bunnymen, Icicle Works, and The Fall. Supposedly, "Pure" is the first song he ever wrote from start to finish and it turned out to be his biggest hit worldwide and his only song to hit the charts in the US.

"Pure" has a melancholy character despite its upbeat tempo and stays true to its title with just two chords for the verse and four for the chorus, never straying from its home key of E Major. The vocal melody in the verse (and, to an extent, the synthy ostinato) adds a bit of complexity to the A Major chord by emphasizing the major 7th. It's this almost incidental dissonance that contributes to the dreamy quality and evokes some sadness. What really struck me through this analysis is how similar The Lightning Seeds are to Belle and Sebastian, who didn't emerge until six years later. I don't recall ever hearing these two bands mentioned in the same breath and I wonder if there is some connection.

Anyway, enough theorizing. Enjoy the song and I'll see you tomorrow in 2000!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Song #103 of 9999 - Falling by Julee Cruise

Song #103 of 9999

Title: Falling
Artist: Julee Cruise
Year: 1990
Album: Floating Into the Night

Twin Peaks was as much about small-town living as it was about murder and intrigue. The pace of Twin Peaks, the fictional city, was probably not as glacial as the tempo of this song, whose instrumental version accompanied the opening credits, but it does seem fitting for a sleepy town where nothing much happened before the murder of Laura Palmer and the arrival of Kyle McLachlan's pie-obsessed special agent.

As much attention as David Lynch gives to the creation of his films, I'm guessing Angelo Badalamenti's score was practically dictated by the director. Having heard Lynch's own music, I'd bet the excessive reverb and shimmering airiness of Julee Cruise's vocal also emanated from his imagination (as did the lyric). Twenty years later, I doubt many of us have the attention span for this track or even the show itself; but, with it's echoing slide guitars, major sevenths and swelling synths, it is certainly an excellent example of dreaminess in pop.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Song #102 of 9999 - Epic by Faith No More

Song #102 of 9999

Title: Epic
Artist: Faith No More
Year: 1990
Album: The Real Thing

I have to admit I was hesitant to feature "Epic" in my blog for a number of reasons. First, I don't think it's truly representative of who Faith No More are/were, certainly not who they became. No-one (except maybe Mike Patton) could have predicted what a genius Mike Patton would turn out to be. Most of the songs on The Real Thing were already written and recorded and Patton's job was basically to write some lyrics and sing. His avant-garde influence would really not be felt until Angel Dust. Second, the song is arguably responsible for spawning a genre I really don't like very much: rap metal. It pains me a little to know that Faith No More contributed to the success of Limp Bizket, Linkin Park, Korn and other bands who have trouble spelling their own band names. My only solace is the fond recollection of helping to boo opening act Limp Bizket off the stage at a Faith no More concert in the mid-90s. There's just so much more to this band than "Epic" and I'd much rather play "Evidence" or "Midlife Crisis" or "Ashes to Ashes" or Spanish-language "Evidence."

"Epic" is somewhat the victim of its own success. Watching the video and listening to the song, one can't help but notice it hasn't aged well. The rapping is not very good and Patton looks fairly ridiculous in his multi-colored outfit and gesticulating in purposeful white-boy rap style. Many of the rap metal bands that followed have done this style better (even if I don't like them very much), making this song look weak by comparison. But it was first and it was a huge hit. What does it have going for it? Faith No More are a really good band and the playing is great. (They're going to get even better with the next guitarist.) The keyboard, particularly the piano solo at the end, was something relatively new for metal bands, who tended more toward the powerful sound of Hammond organs with giant Leslie speakers (think Deep Purple). And the video, well.....it seemed cool in 1990. The flopping fish attracted all kinds of negative attention from animal rights groups but MTV played it pretty around the clock anyway. Not sure the exploding piano was necessary...

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Song #101 of 9999 - Fight the Power by Public Enemy

Song #101 of 9999

Title: Fight the Power
Artist: Public Enemy
Year: 1990
Album: Fear of a Black Planet

"Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother fuck him and John Wayne"

Whether you agree with or appalled by this lyric, you can't deny its impact and power. As with the most provocative visual art, the music of Public Enemy was designed to get people thinking and debating. It's a call to action for some and scares the crap out of others. The album title Fear of a Black Planet is very appropriate for the group that took on a militant look and produced music wrought with pure tension.

In an homage to Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" production method, Pubilc Enemy's Bomb Squad set out to produce a "Wall of Noise" and did they ever. Piecing together hundreds of samples on a single album, the producers developed a dense cacophonous stew of sounds that set the stage for Chuck D's proselytizing and Flavor Flav's antics. "Fight the Power" features over a dozensamples from such disparate sources as Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff," "Planet Rock" by Afrika Bambaataa, and Uriah Heep's "Bird of Prey." These are in addition to the usual soul records from James Brown, Syl Johnson and Bobby Byrd. In fact, the only live instruments on the record come from Branford Marsalis (saxophone) and Terminator X (scratches).

Chuck D said, with Fear of a Black Planet, he was "shooting for Sgt. Pepper's." Considering the limited technology available in 1989 (when this single was actually produced), I think there is a case to be made that he succeeded in terms of pushing production values to their limits in the same way George Martin and The Beatles succeeded in coaxing amazing results from a four-track recorder.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Song #100 of 9999 - Personal Jesus by Depeche Mode

Song #100 of 9999

Title: Personal Jesus
Artist: Depeche Mode
Year: 1990
Album: Violator

Like a lot of music in the early 1990s, Depeche Mode sneaked by me. I was aware of them, but I didn't really understand the impact they were having or the success they were attaining. And I guess I kind of dismissed them a bit. (I was pretty heavily involved in analyzing the neo-Classical works of Stravinsky at the time, so.....that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!)

What a delightful surprise "Personal Jesus" must have been to hardcore Depeche Mode fans! I can only imagine it spun their heads around a bit. The instrumental track evokes the barrenness of the desert (even without the literal images provided by the video) by maintaining a spare balance between guitar and drums. The guitar track, prominent like no other in previous works by the band, just kicks ass in so many ways from the riff itself to the perfect tone quality. The chord progression smacks of American blues music with a rhythmic feel falling uncomfortably between straight and swing. Finally, the expected synthesizers are there but in a well-situated supporting role.

By the time Dave Mahan starts singing, all is well again in Depeche Mode-land, with his purposely indifferent and emotionless voice delivering always intriguing lyrics. Its striking to hear this vocal style delivered atop a guitar track that relies so heavily on blues elements. A remarkable contrast that is truly unique and deserving of the attention it received. A great track.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Songs #98 and 99 of 9999 - It's TWOsday!

Song #98 of 9999                                                    Song #99 of 9999
Title: Spinning Away                                                Title: I Feel Love 
Artist: Brian Eno and John Cale                              Artist: Donna Summer
Year: 1990                                                               Year: 1977
Album: Wrong Way Up                                            Album: I Remember Yesterday

I have to admit I had never heard Wrong Way Up before this past Sunday. One of the nice things about writing this blog is you get taken to places you didn't even know existed. I knew Brian Eno and John Cale had collaborated on an album but it never made its way to me and I didn't go looking. 

"Spinning Away" was inspired by Van Gogh's "Night Sky at Arles," its lyrics describing the act of drawing in florid detail. It's one of those songs that gets richer every time you listen to it. As you would expect from Eno, the musical landscape is as complex as a painting layered with thick paint. Off-kilter drums and an active bass bubble beneath a slow and repetitive four-chord progression while a fluid vocal is poured over the top, avoiding syncopated violin stabs. Eno described the song in terms of "contrasts of speed" and lists Donna Summer's "I Feel Love," produced and orchestrated by Georgio Moroder, as an inspiration for the arrangement. It's easy to hear the similarities with Moroder's pulsating synth rhythms contrasted by Summer's silky vocal. Both songs have a trance-like quality despite being quite different in style, instrumentation and texture. A surprising and unlikely pair for this TWOsday!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Song #97 of 9999 - When the Lights Go Out by Oingo Boingo

Song #97 of 9999

Title: When the Lights Go Out
Artist: Oingo Boingo
Year: 1990
Album: Dark at the End of the Tunnel

1990 was not a good year for pop music. I had a really hard time coming up with even a dozen songs I'm excited about sharing. But here goes anyway. :)

By 1990, Danny Elfman had already become a major force in the movie music business, having written scores for the Pee-Wee movies, Beetlejuice, and Batman. I found his film music to be quite good, especially when paired with the right film and he had obviously found a kindred spirit in misfit Tim Burton. A huge fan of The Simpsons, I also admired Elfman's old-school opening theme for the animated sitcom. But I really hadn't had any experience with his pop music until I picked up Dark at the End of the Tunnel. 

The entirety of Dark at the End of the Tunnel doesn't live up to the opening track, but "When the Lights Go Out" is an insane piece of pop music. It's easy to hear why Elfman's music translates so well to the cinema as the song paints vivid and sometimes frightening pictures with its jungle beat, zombie backing vocals and slithery note-bending. The track production shows Elfman's sense of balance and ability to make sense of a busy, active space, additional assets where film music is concerned.

Not sure this song holds up super-well twenty years later, but I must admit I listened to it a lot that year. A sentimental favorite.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Song #96 of 9999 - I Will Follow by U2

Song #96 of 9999

Title: I Will Follow
Artist: U2
Year: 1980
Album: Boy

Bands that stick around for thirty or more years rarely manage to sustain the interest of their fans, let alone the general public. Typically, they find themselves wanting to try new things and find their fans aren't willing to come along for the ride or they keep doing the same thing over and over with diminishing results. Styles also change and bands who become quite successful in one genre often have to decide whether to test the waters in another or stick to what they know and hope they become fashionable again.

U2 falls more into the latter category, I suppose, although they have taken certain risks throughout their careers (Pop comes to mind, Rattle and Hum was certainly a departure, although not for the better to my ears). Listening back to their first single, "I Will Follow," one can recognize the basic U2 sound of today even if the 21st-century version lacks some of the spunk of the four Irish lads in this very white video. 

Say what you want about The Edge as a guitarist, there is no question that he created a very unique sound and approach to the instrument, one that was perhaps as startling as Eddie Van Halen's or Chuck Berry's. His minimalistic approach works well with Adam Clayton's contained but active bass lines and the high-range frequencies of Larry Mullen Jr.'s cymbal-and-snare drumming. The band is very adept at creating and maintaining space in their sound that I find attractive. In this song, the glockenspiel added by Steve Lillywhite (sounds like crotales to me actually) adds a clang that I appreciate.

And then there's Bono. This video makes him look ridiculous, but in 1980, most of us looked ridiculous. He is probably the number one reason U2-haters hate, but on the other hand, he is so charismatic that it's not hard to understand why he has legions of followers. If nothing else, he seems to serve as the soul of a band who's sound is severely lacking in that area (which is fine by me—again, Rattle and Hum = blech).

See you tomorrow in 1990.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Song #95 of 9999 - Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads

Song #95 of 9999

Title: Once in a Lifetime
Artist: Talking Heads
Year: 1980
Album: Remain in Light

Less a song than a work of art, "Once in a Lifetime" is a production of famed producer Brian Eno who pieced together the independent contributions of the members of Talking Heads. The song is so revolutionary that it has been named one of the 100 most important musical works of the Twentieth Century by NPR and its video is exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art, New York City. To further evidence its greatness, it didn't even crack the Billboard Hot 100 in America. :-\

For me, this is one of a very few songs that manages to sustain listener interest with absolutely no harmonic progression. Tina Weymouth's bass line gives the impression of two chords, but she's really just alternating between the 3rd and 5th of the D Major chord that is sustained throughout the piece. It's not until the guitar power chords at 3:05 (D-C-G) that we hear anything in contrast to the D Major groove. (By the way, I use D Major loosely—the sustained and sparkling keyboard that hovers over the song appears to contain almost all of the notes of the D Major scale and enough pitch modulation to disorient.)

Of course, as interesting as the polyrhythmic musical kaleidoscope manufactured by Eno is, it's David Byrne's manic preacher existentialist rant that makes the song. "And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack!" It's like one of those intriguing first lines from a novel that you can't put down. The verses are contrasted by a call-and-response chant that lets you know you're not alone in your midlife crisis and invites you to participate in the ritual.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Song #94 of 9999 - I Got You by Split Enz

Song #94 of 9999

Title: I Got You
Artist: Split Enz
Year: 1980
Album: True Colours

Not a lot of time tonight to write, but so what? You don't need me to tell you how awesome this song is. When that menacing chromatic chord progression opens up to reveal the glorious chorus, it's 100% pop bliss. Fun to think of Split Enz as the training ground for Crowded House and this song certainly shows flashes of the brilliance that will inhabit Neil Finn's future songwriting. It's also a reminder of just how well the man can sing. Enjoy.

Song #93 of 9999 - Ace of Spades by Motörhead

Song #93 of 9999

Title: Ace of Spades
Artist: Motörhead
Year: 1980
Album: Ace of Spades

I first heard "Ace of Spades" when Motörhead showed up unexpectedly in an episode of The Young Ones, an absurd British comedy that was showing on MTV sometime around 1985. It was a rare moment for me. I didn't exactly like what I was seeing/hearing, but I also didn't want to stop watching/listening, I had certainly never seen anything like this band. Lemmy Kilminster is scary with his mic positioned overhead and that gravelly voice. Remember, I was used to seeing guys with Rickenbacker basses in bands like Rush and Yes, wearing capes and singing with high-pitched voices about philiosophy and Ayn Rand. This was....a shock to my system.

I never became a big Motörhead fan but I love this song. The live energy of the recording, propelled by the drumming of Phil Taylor, is invigorating and I love the guitar work, especially the solos. I think hearing this song probably made me more interested in bands like Metallica and Megadeth than I would have been otherwise. Still an exciting track 30 years later that holds up very well to today's metal.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Song #92 of 9999 - The Spirit of Radio by Rush

Song #92 of 9999

Title: The Spirit of Radio
Artist: Rush
Year: 1980
Album: Permanent Waves

It's hard to believe how much of a Rush fanatic I was 30 years ago. Around 1981, I was playing keyboard and singing in a band with three school friends who played guitar, guitar and drums. It was suggested that I learn the bass and one of the guys knew someone who was selling a 1973 Rickenbacker bass that was listed in the local classifieds. This was the same friend who probably had us performing "Tom Sawyer" and "Red Barchetta" already with me playing the bass and synth lines simultaneously on my awesome $100 Casio. I bought the bass and still own it to this day. It was probably the most significant purchase of my life.

Owning a bass sent me on a quest for great bass lines to learn. While there was an emergence of guitar-related magazines with some tablature, there was nothing like the Internet today and if you wanted to learn a song, you sat down with the record (or more likely a tape) and you figured it out. I had notebook after notebook of Rush and Yes songs written in my own blend of crude and standard music notation as I learned what was the "standard repertoire" of my youth.

I probably didn't hear "The Spirit of Radio" until 1982 or so and it wasn't a song that I immediately fell in love with. It was a little too pop by Rush's standards and I didn't really understand the point of the ridiculous simultaneous bass and guitar licks that open the tune. (But I worked like hell to learn them.) I also wasn't taken by the pseudo-reggae pap and "concert hall!" gimmickry toward the end. But this was Rush and I had chosen my path and it meant loving everything they released and trying my best to sound exactly like Geddy Lee. They provided a remarkable collection of etudes and a proving ground for me and my fellow musicians and, for that, I'll always be grateful.