Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Song #140 of 9999 - Squeeze Me Macaroni by Mr. Bungle

Song #140 of 9999

Title: Squeeze Me Macaroni
Artist: Mr. Bungle
Year: 1991
Album: Mr. Bungle

This is probably mostly a guy thing, but did you ever have a friend who, whenever you see him or her, you become instantly silly? Maybe you even make up funny songs or maybe you're even a little catty, making fun of other people behind their backs or whatever. For me, much of eighth grade was spent making up terrible (I mean, awesome!) parody songs a là Weird Al Yankovic. (Think "Detergent" in place of Foreigner's "Urgent." See, hilarious!) Later, in high school, I co-wrote many a ridiculous song, including an over-the-top Christian metal song called "Kill For God," never thinking "Christian metal" could actually become a real thing.

Mr. Bungle is a band made up of high school chums who managed to make a career out of this tomfoolery, although they lean much more toward the foul and scatological than I ever did. Fronted by mad genius Mike Patton, they released several albums, but none quite as acrid as their 1991 debut. Patton had already explored some of this territory as a member of Faith No More, but here he allows himself to be completely uncensored in the way one can only be completely at ease around family members. It's outrageous in the truest sense of the word.

Why does it work? Are you kidding? Listen to these guys play. Influenced by John Zorn, who was influenced by Carl Stalling, Mr. Bungle shifts gears at high speed, moving in and out of new tempos (and even styles) like flipping a switch. This is not entirely uncharted territory—Frank Zappa did it 15 years earlier with a similar caliber of musician and just as much raunchiness. Nothing about this record is for the faint-hearted but, if you let yourself be in on the joke, you're guaranteed to have a good time.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Songs #138 & 139 - It's TWOsday!

Song #138 of 9999                                                  Song #139 of 9999

Title: Acrobat                                                          Title: Acrobat
Artist: U2                                                                 Artist: ADD
Year: 1991                                                              Year: 2003
Album: Achtung Baby                                             Album: Achtung Baby


Last week, I laid out my theory about how you can find an artist's most intriguing (not necessarily best) album by going to the record that marks their commercial peak and subtracting one. I cited several examples including The Joshua Tree by U2 as the high point and the previous year's The Unforgettable Fire as the better album. If I had a bigger readership (or maybe just a more motivated one ;), someone would have taken me to task for that analysis and cited Achtung Baby as proof of my foolishness.

Achtung Baby is a great example of art emerging from conflict. By 1991, U2 were superstars, having made their mark worldwide with The Joshua Tree. But they had also received some (rightfully) negative reviews for their follow-up Rattle and Hum, which seemed self-indulgent and misguided. So there was a lot of pressure and tension as the band entered the studio with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who had helped them achieve their pre-Rattle success. Apparently, the writing and recording was hard, prompting the near dissolution of the band.

But the end result is remarkable as the band revamped their sound, juxtaposing melody and noise into a very accessible record. As the novelty of The Edge's guitar sound had worn off and Bono's voice had lost some of its clarity from excessive touring, the band was forced to turn their attention to writing great songs instead of making great recordings. The album spawned several hits, including "One," "Mysterious Ways," and "Even Better Than the Real Thing." I chose to feature "Acrobat" tonight for two reasons: 1) I think it's one of the best full band performances on a U2 record, thrilling as it nearly spins out of control in fast 3/4 time; and 2) because I think my friend Jeff's cover of the song is one of the highlights of his 2003 reworking of THE ENTIRE ALBUM. If you like it, you should check out the rest of the tracks HERE. It's a superb reinterpretation of a classic album that makes me jealous every time I listen to it.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Song #137 of 9999 - Losing My Religion by R.E.M.

Song #137 of 9999

Title: Losing My Religion
Artist: R.E.M.
Year: 1991
Album: Out of Time

There are actually a number of really good songs from 1991 so I thought I would get one of the giants out of the way first. If you haven't heard this song for a while, try it out with some fresh ears.

It's always interesting when a musical artist brings some attention to the characteristics of their hometown or region. Whether it's Woody Guthrie singing about the dust storms of Oklahoma or Bruce Springsteen singing about the Jersey Shore, these artists offer a glimpse of a life most people will never experience. When it's done well, it can be very effective because it makes the subject of the song so much more tangible. Billy Joel's "Allentown," for example, paints a vivid picture of a town facing a recession while Frank Zappa's "Valley Girl" introduced an entirely new vocabulary to millions of teenagers living well outside of Southern California.

R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe took a simple colloquialism of the south and turned it into a song about longing and unrequited love. "Losing my religion" means to lose one's temper or to be at the end of one's rope. It's a really cool phrase that I certainly had never heard before this song was released, not having grown up in Georgia. The phrase anchors Stipe's otherwise (typically) cryptic lyrics and he cleverly taps the religion concept for the related phrase "choosing my confessions." Indeed, the whole song reads like a confession and I think these are some of Stipe's most engaging lyrics.

The arrangement also contributes a lot to the emotional resonance of the song. Peter Buck's I-just-learned-how-to-play-the-mandolin riff jangles amidst strings and acoustic guitars playing a simple minor chord progression. For me, the most ingenious moment of the song occurs in the break right before the final verse (around the 3:15 mark). The progression moves to the III chord (C Major) for the first (and only) time when Stipe sings "That was just a dream" and it's like the clouds suddenly part to let some sunlight through. It's a neat moment and a good example of how effective a single chord change can be.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Song #136 of 9999 - Girls on Film by Duran Duran

Song #136 of 9999

Title: Girls on Film
Artist: Duran Duran
Year: 1981
Album: Duran Duran

I thought I'd close out my survey of 1981 songs with a song I wasn't very fond of as a kid and, frankly, I'm not that crazy about it now. But it's worth acknowledging for the impact that bassist John Taylor had on my development as a musician.

1981 is right around the time I learned how to play the bass guitar. I was in a band and we played progressive rock, so I became pretty good right away, learning all those Rush and Led Zeppelin riffs in assorted time signatures. My girlfriend at the time was pretty into Duran Duran, A Flock of Seagulls, The Jam, etc. (in retrospect, she was much hipper than me for the times) while I pretty much avoided the whole new wave scene. Eventually, though, if you want to play in a band that actually has gigs, you have to learn songs that people want to hear, which generally doesn't include Iron Maiden's "Number of the Beast."

It probably wasn't until 1983 (coincidentally, the year Duran Duran was re-released in America to capitalize on Rio's success) that I really had to start learning these songs and, man, were they eye-opening. Taylor's style was busy and funky (as funky as an Englishman can be, anyway) and I really enjoyed learning how to play this way. The songs were challenging but not impossible and served as a great primer to a style I really had no experience with at the time. So thanks John Taylor!

See you tomorrow in 1991.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Song #135 of 9999 - Who's Crying Now by Journey

Song #135 of 9999

Title: Who's Crying Now
Artist: Journey
Year: 1981
Album: Escape

Tonight, I thought I'd write about an unsung hero. Occasionally, a band has to make a personnel change and the results can have a significant impact. Sometimes for the better (goodbye Pete Best, hello Ringo), sometimes for the worse (so long David Lee, hello Sammy). Journey made two major changes in their early years that transformed them from Santana Lite to Gods of the Power Ballad. The obvious change—bringing Steve Perry to the band as the primary singer—was significant and completely altered their sound. But it was the addition of keyboardist Jonathan Cain that catapulted them to superstardom.

If you were never more than a casual Journey fan, you may not even know who Jonathan Cain is. Cain played with John Waite in The Babys, co-writing several of their hits. When The Babys toured with Journey as an opening act, Cain caught the attention of the headliner and soon replaced original singer/keyboardist Gregg Rolie. With Journey, Cain wrote or co-wrote every one of the band's biggest hits, including "Don't Stop Believin'," "Open Arms," "Faithfully," and "Who's Crying Now."

Even though the other songs I mentioned were bigger hits, I chose to feature "Who's Crying Now" because it's an excellent example of the band and the engineer Mike Stone working together to create a really slick pop song. The arrangement is so full and lush. You can hear the acoustic guitar during the chorus and the vocal harmonies shimmer at the end of the chorus. Every bass and drum fill is rhythmically coordinated. There's a cool little synth string descant in the second half of the second chorus. I love the sound of the bass which is equalized in a way that keeps it from getting lost among the left hand piano. Perry turns in a smoky vocal performance and Neal Schon's outro guitar solo is restrained and melodic. A perfect recording of one of Journey's best tracks.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Songs #133 & 134: It's Friday, but I'm posting like it's TWOsday!

Song #133 of 9999                                                  Song #134 of 9999

Title: Genius of Love                                               Title: Qu'ran
Artist: Tom Tom Club                                               Artist: Brian Eno & David Byrne
Year: 1981                                                               Year: 1981
Album: Tom Tom Club                                             Album: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

Earlier in the week, I profiled the Police, featuring three songs from their groundbreaking Ghost in the Machine LP. The Police are one of those bands that, in my opinion, are so much more than the sum of their parts. All three of them have had solo careers since the dissolution of the band but, despite Sting's immense success, those projects never produced anything as exciting as the music they made together. (Dream of the Blue Turtles comes close.)

Talking Heads, on the other hand, has members who made startlingly creative music alone and with others when not engaged in their primary band. In 1981, David Byrne made his foray into experimental music with producer/musician Brian Eno, while spouses Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz explored the dance scene as Tom Tom Club. (Even Jerry Harrison released a solo record in 1981, but it sounds a little too much like watered-down Talking Heads to feature here. He fared better with 1988's Casual Gods.)

I can't really explain what makes "Genius of Love" good. The synth chirps, funky guitar (thank you, Adrian Belew) and percussion breaks all contribute but, in the end, I think it's really about the layered vocal track with its persistent three-part harmony throughout. Definitely not the lyrics. "Qu'ran" couldn't be more different in mood as it sets a reading of the Qu'ran by Algerian Muslims over a slow funk groove. This is one of the earliest examples of the significant use of sampling on a record; in fact, all of the tracks on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts employ the technique of pairing a sampled vocal track (from a variety of sources) with original music, including some inspired guitar work from Robert Fripp. Incidentally, "Qu'ran" was left off of the 2006 remaster of the record, reminding us how times have changed in the thirty years since its release.

Whether or not you like these tracks, they're worth acknowledging as being very very progressive for the time. I'll bring back the pop tomorrow.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Internet Problems

Having Internet problems tonight. Will have to catch up on my blog tomorrow or over the weekend. Sorry.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Song #132 of 9999 - Rapture by Blondie

Song #132 of 9999

Title: Rapture
Artist: Blondie
Year: 1981
Album: Autoamerican

"Rapture" by the new wave band Blondie is the first song featuring rap elements to top the charts in the United States. The disco-infused record clocks in at an extraordinarily long five minutes, the last three minutes of which is a freestyle-like rap about a man from Mars who eats cars and bars and people and...well, it's the rapture so what did you expect? The rapping is not good, but is in keeping with the rapping style of the era and acknowledges early rap pioneers Fab Five Freddy (who appears in the video) and Grandmaster Flash.

While the rap section is fun (they had to be half-joking, right?), I like this song more for the first two minutes when Debby Harry layers long breathy phrases over disco funk provided by the band. It's an atmospheric, cool singing style that I think was kind of rare at this time and kind of reminds me of some Japanese dream pop artists I've heard in the last decade or so. This part of the song also features the lyric "Back to back/Sacroiliac" which is a pretty impressive description of dancing if you ask me and a wicked rhyme.

The video is worth checking out if you've never seen it. While graffiti art is pretty standard these days, it was relatively new in 1981 and, if you lived outside of NYC, it was interesting to see, even on television. Jean-Michel Basquiat, who later became a very famous neo-expressionist painter, is actually in the video. So is Lee Quiñones, another graffiti art pioneer. Some very authentic touches and references to what would become the most significant pop culture movement of the next thirty years: hip-hop.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Songs #129, 130, and 131: It's THREEsday! (normally, it's TWOsday)

Song #129 of 9999                                 Song #130 of 9999                                          Song #131 of 9999

Title: Spirits in the Material World          Title: Every Little Thing She Does in Magic      Title: Invisible Sun
Artist: The Police                                    Artist: The Police                                              Artist: The Police  
Year: 1981                                              Year: 1981                                                        Year: 1981
Album: Ghost in the Machine                 Album: Ghost in the Machine                           Album: Ghost in the Machine   

I have a theory. Well, it's less a theory than an observation but it is the thesis for this blog post. If you want to find a very successful band's most intriguing work, determine their most popular or successful work (could even be their best work) and then go back one album. You'll most likely find a gem the value of which you could not possibly understand at the time it was released. Here are my examples to support this claim:
  • Like Thriller by Michael Jackson? Off the Wall is better.
  • Like The Joshua Tree by U2? The Unforgettable Fire is better.
  • Out of Time by REM has "Losing My Religion" but Green is amazing.
  • Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, right? No, Summerteeth.
  • And the ultimate example: What's better than Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? Revolver, that's what.
The problem with all of this is that you can't possibly know it at the time because the band is on the rise and you just don't know when they're going to peak. With The Police, the apex came in 1983 with Synchronicity, which is a great record, but I think Ghost in the Machine is more satisfying and interesting. In fact, I would go so far as to say that comparisons to Revolver are apt, especially when looking at the first three tracks.

For me, the first three tracks on Revolver represent a sea change in popular music. In rapid succession (less than eight minutes in total), you get "Taxman," "Eleanor Rigby" and "I'm Only Sleeping"—one groundbreaking song from each of the three great songwriters in the band. There are better songs to come on that record (most notably "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "Here, There and Everywhere" but those first three tracks make up an astounding popular music tryptich.

The first three songs on Ghost in the Machine compare favorably to those on Revolver. Like the Beatles songs, each song has its own mood and evokes an instant response: "Spirits in the Material World" with its dissonant synth stabs and creepy layered vocals gets its drive from Stewart Copeland's frenetic reggae-on-speed drumming; "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic," disguised as a straight-forward pop song dabbles with Lydian most for the entire verse repeating the whole-tone Fa-Sol-La-Ti over and over before erupting on Do right before the chorus; and finally, "Invisible Sun," so atmospheric and dark with its frigid synth patches, vocal chanting, chromatic chord progression and great guitar work by Andy Summers. The rest of the album is great too, but these three songs were downright startling when I first heard them in succession in 1981.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Song #128 of 9999 - Our Lips Are Sealed by The Go-Go's

Song #128 of 9999

Title: Our Lips Are Sealed
Artist: The Go-Go's
Year: 1981
Album: Beauty and the Beat

It's 1981 now so let's start with something fun. Guitarist Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Go's and Fanboy Three singer Terry Hall have crafted a nearly perfect pop song in "Our Lips Are Sealed." (check out this link to hear the Fanboy Three version, a big hit in the UK) The song is so infectious it really is no wonder it remained on the charts in America for almost a year and has been listed by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 100 Greatest Pop Songs of all time.

So what's so great about it? Aside from being just super-fun, with a spirited vocal track from Belinda Carlisle, "Our Lips Are Sealed" has some sneaky little harmonic and rhythmic tricks that make it pretty unique. It's essentially a three-chord pop song (I-bVII-IV), but the bit of the chorus that precedes the refrain is particularly clever. Starting with "Pay no mind to what they say..." we get the progression bVI-IV-bII-V before arriving at the tonic and the tagline. I can't even tell you how giddy that succession of chords makes me.

Later, during the bridge, we are treated to two lovely details in the arrangement: first, Jane Wiedlin's airy soprano delivering what will become a descant in the verse that follows; and second, a really cool bass line in the upper register layered over guitar arpeggios in 6/8 that create a polyrhythmic effect with the 4/4 in the drums. In this moment, it's as if the song could just float away! When the verse kicks back in and Wieldin continues to sing over Carlisle's lead vocal, it's one of the coolest moments in 1980s pop. (For what it's worth, as a 13-year-old, I was more interested in the splashing about in the fountain than the chord progression. :D )

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Song #127 of 9999 - Life on Mars? by David Bowie

Song #127 of 9999

Title: Life on Mars? 
Artist: David Bowie
Year: 1971
Album: Hunky Dory

"Life on Mars?" is probably the best song of 1971. It may be the best song of the 1970s, period. I don't even know what to say about it, really. It is certainly the most significant stepping stone in David Bowie's transition from unique folkie to glam rock superstar, setting the stage for the following year's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. It is also perhaps the first song by Bowie to fully realize the cinematic nature of Bowie's early 1970s period. The drama in the song is overwhelming and still packs a punch forty years later.

So what makes it work? The lyrics have been called surreal and Dali-esque but they actually seem firmly rooted in reality to me. Admittedly, they're not obvious and are open to varying interpretations, but they seem more cohesive than whimisical and the references are quite specific. But it's the harmony that elevates the song to high drama in my opinion. For a pop song, there's enough chromaticism in this chord progression to make Wagner proud. During the verse, the half-steps (with occasionally whole step) fall in a downward direction (F-E-Eb-D/G-F-E-(Eb) in a peaceful cascade. But in the bridge from verse to chorus, where the tension really gets ratcheted up, the direction is skyward (Eb-E-F-Gb/Db-A-Bb-Cb). The transition from Db/Cb to Bb Major right before the chorus is one of the most striking moments I've ever heard in a pop song and Bowie takes full advantage with an unexpected vocal leap of a 6th. Throughout the chorus, the chromaticism continues but it's more internalized, occurring more around the 3rd or 5th of the chord than in the bass. It's a thrilling progression.

Finally, it's important to note the arrangement which certainly plays a role in the dramatic nature of the song. The piano is played by Rick Wakeman, who embellishes in the style of the Romantics and Mick Ronson provides a string arrangement that fortifies the chromaticism of the harmony. An amazing effort by one of rock's most creative artists to end my week-long look at 1971.

Song #126 of 9999 - Timothy by The Buoys

Song #126 of 9999

Title: Timothy
Artist: The Buoys
Year: 1971
Album: The Buoys

You say you really wish there was a hit song about cannibalism? Well, look no further. Rupert Holmes (yes, the Piña Colada song guy) wrote this song about three coal miners trapped in a collapsed mine who are forced to take drastic measures for survival. According to Holmes, he purposely wrote a song he thought would be banned for radio airplay to generate free publicity. Apparently, his plan worked as the song was indeed banned by many stations but climbed to #17 on the Billboard Hot 100. 

The Buoys broke up shortly afterward, unable to capitalize on the success of "Timothy." Two of the guys later formed the band Dakota, achieving great regional success in northeast PA (where I grew up) and a modicum of national attention touring with Queen in 1980. I still have a couple of their albums and always admired Bill Kelly's voice. Today, I find the song to be mediocre and the stereo separation in the mix to be particularly annoying. But it's about cannibalism!

Song #124 (and 125) of 9999 - Baby I'm-a Want You by Bread (plus a bonus!)

Song #124 of 9999                                                  Song #125 of 9999

Title: Baby I'm-a Want You                                      Title: 1972
Artist: Bread                                                            Artist: Josh Rouse
Year: 1971                                                               Year: 2003
Album: Baby I'm-a Want You                                   Album: 1972

Recently, I was talking with my friend Erik about the song selection available to me in 1971 and Bread came up. He said "I love Bread!" and I suggested that they were a good guilty pleasure band. He said he didn't feel guilty at all, so I thought I would remind him of "Baby I'm-a Want You," which I think is a terrific song but definitely belongs on anyone's guilty pleasure list for its lyrics alone. But if you let yourself revel in what may be the corniest lyrics of the 20th century, you'll discover a pretty little love song with a clever chord progression and a surprisingly upbeat bridge.

In fact, this type of love song is so iconic of the early 1970s that Josh Rouse co-opted its characteristics (mid-tempo acoustic pop with loads of major- and minor-sevenths) for the title track to his album 1972. (Yes, I know I'm in 1971 right now—for the record the Bread single was released in '71 but the album followed in '72.) Rouse was born in 1972 and decided to make a record of songs that could have been released during the year of his birth. There are hints of Carole King, Jackson Browne, Jim Croce, Gordon Lightfoot, Seals and Crofts and, yes, Bread. It's a great album—my favorite by Rouse for sure. You should check it out!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Song #123 of 9999 - Locomotive Breath by Jethro Tull

Song #123 of 9999

Title: Locomotive Breath
Artist: Jethro Tull
Year: 1971
Album: Aqualung

I seem to be leaning in the direction of progressive rock where 1971 is concerned and probably with good reason. 1971 saw the release of Yes's Fragile and The Yes Album, Led Zeppelin IV (perhaps not prog by definition, but certainly displaying many of the elements traditionally associated with the genre), Zappa's 200 Motels, Pink Floyd's Meddle, Focus II, Genesis's Nursery Crime, Emerson, Lake and Palmer's Pictures at an Exhibition (with apologies to Mussorgsky) and Aqualung. As recording technology was becoming more advanced, it makes sense that more and more musical artists would want to try more complex recording techniques and produce music on a grander scale. The three-minute single was fading as album-oriented rock (AOR) radio was emerging, granting new-found attention to lengthy album tracks and an entirely new slate of bands.

Like Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull are also unmistakably English and exhibit the same blend of heavy and acoustic elements. Unlike Zeppelin, the individual band members in Jethro Tull are not widely recognized and, arguably, not very important, with the exception of the group's leader Ian Anderson. (Martin Barre fans, feel free to scream at me in your replies.) Anderson's unique vocal style and especially his virtuoso flute playing make him a unique figured in pop music.

"Locomotive Breath" really is a very interesting song. I personally don't care at all about the bluesy piano solo at the beginning although I suppose it sets up the rest of the track nicely. Once the song proper begins, we're reminded that this band can really rock. The pulse of the song is pretty driving and action-oriented, most appropriate for the concept of a runaway train. The phrase "locomotive breath" itself is really creative and image-provoking, but the lyrical wit doesn't end there. Anderson's allegory of a man whose life is speeding out of his control has enough references to religion, adultery, and death to keep a room full of Tull fans arguing for hours about its true meaning. And then there's the flute solo: a singular blend of pitch, air and grunts that has come to epitomize the band's sound.