Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Blog on Hiatus

Sorry everyone, but I had to put my blog on hiatus while I conduct the school musical. May return on Saturday but possibly will be off until April 1.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Song #159 of 9999 - Sheila by Tommy Roe

Song #159 of 9999

Title: Sheila
Artist: Tommy Roe
Year: 1962
Album: N/A - single release

For my last song of 1962, I thought I'd share a song that is so completely derivative of another artist that it's a little bit shameful. Tommy Roe's "Sheila" went to number one on the pop charts, presumably fueled by sales from heart-broken fans of Buddy Holly who must have felt that a Holly sound-alike was better than nothing. Holly died three years earlier in the plane crash that also cut short the careers of Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. But it was Holly who was blazing a trail toward becoming a rock and roll icon. How interesting it would have been to see how (or if) he stood up to the British invasion of 1964!

Roe's single is like "Peggy Sue" Lite, complete with Holly's trademark hiccups and the snare-less rockabilly beat originated by the late innovator. Nonetheless, it's a nice enough song and a good way to close the door on my week-long survey of 1962. 

See you tomorrow in 1972.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Song #158 of 9999 - Stranger on the Shore by Acker Bilk

Song #158 of 9999

Title: Stranger on the Shore
Artist: Acker Bilk
Year: 1962
Album: N/A - single release

Quick—name the first recording from the UK ever to top the US Billboard Hot 100. Beatles? Nope. Try Acker Bilk. Yes, Acker Bilk. And he did it with a laid-back instrumental featuring a clarinet solo.

Consider how much the world has changed in the last 50 years. Can you imagine an instrumental composition reaching #1 on the pop charts? Not a song from a movie soundtrack (although, to be fair, "Stranger on the Shore" was the theme to a British television show, prompting its release and rise to the top of the charts in the United Kingdom), but just a nice pleasant piece of easy listening music embraced by the masses. Oh, and by the way, "Stranger on the Shore" was one of THREE instrumentals to top the pop charts in 1962 (along with David Rose's "The Stripper" and The Tornados' "Telstar," another British import).

I don't really have anything else to say about this. There's nothing particularly important or interesting about the piece but it is very calming and I thought you could use three minutes of peace and quiet in your life. (Just watch out for that jarring bVI around 2:31. Could knock you out of your rocking chair if you're not expecting it.)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Song #157 of 9999 - He's a Rebel by The Crystals

Song #157 of 9999

Title: He's a Rebel
Artist: The Crystals
Year: 1962
Album: N/A - single release

One of the many things I love about writing this blog is being surprised while doing my research. I had intended to feature "He's a Rebel" because a) it's a great example of Phil Spector's role in the rise of the early-60s girl groups; and b) it was written by Gene Pitney who (if you've been following my blog at all) you know I can't get enough of at the moment.

But it's the stuff I didn't know that you're going to love. Apparently, Spector recognized the song's hit potential and wanted to record it. When he found out it was going to be released as a single by a competing artist and record company, he decided to quickly make a record and get it released. Unfortunately, The Crystals were on tour and he could not get them into the recording studio. No problem! He just tapped Darlene Love and The Blossoms to record the vocals and released it as The Crystals anyway. The song went straight to the top of the charts, holding off "Only Love Can Break a Heart" which peaked at number two becoming the highest charting single for.......Gene Pitney! (who never did make it to #1)

Harmonically, this song does something really peculiar and interesting. Set in the key of F, the song unfolds in normal fashion with the common I-vi-IV-V turnaround. But right before the first chorus, the song modulates up a half-step to F#! This is the kind of thing one might expect for the final chorus to heighten the dramatic impact and elongate the track in an interesting manner. But who can wait for such moments? Spector ratchets up the drama the first chance he gets, just 42 seconds into the track. Perhaps most impressively, he resists the urge to go to the same well twice: the rest of the song plays out in F# as if nothing ever happened. It's a fascinating trick and a delightful discovery. (Disclaimer: I'm just assuming Spector is responsible for the structure of the arrangement, but it could have been Gene Pitney's decision as part of the songwriting. In which case, he is even more brilliant than I thought.)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Song #156 of 9999 - You Don't Know Me by Ray Charles

Song #156 of 9999

Title: You Don't Know Me
Artist: Ray Charles
Year: 1962
Album: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music

I must admit I'm not the biggest Ray Charles fan. I can appreciate his music but I don't really need to hear "Hit the Road Jack" or even "Georgia on My Mind" again. But one thing I really admired about Ray Charles was that he was interested in experimenting and found inspiration in sources many would have found questionable. In 1962, Charles set out on a journey to record an album entirely of country standards written by the likes of Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold, Floyd Tillman and others. Charles was able to see a connection between country music and blues, telling a Rolling Stone reporter, "The words to country songs are very earthy like the blues, see, very down. They're not as dressed up, and the people are very honest and say, 'Look, I miss you, darlin', so I went out and I got drunk in this bar.' That's the way you say it. Where in Tin Pan Alley will say, 'Oh, I missed you darling, so I went to this restaurant and I sat down and I had dinner for one.' That's cleaned up now, you see? But country songs and the blues is like it is."

Having already established himself as a star of rhythm and blues, Charles took a chance in the face of opposition from record executives and recorded a masterpiece. The record crossed over between "black" and "white" markets, establishing a connection between two seemingly disparate groups of people during the pre-civil rights era. Despite its leanings toward jazz and R'n'B, the record has been hailed for bolstering the popularity of country music, elevating songs such as "You Don't Know Me" from country standard to just flat out standard. Willie Nelson noted that the record "did more for country music than any one artist has ever done." 

Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is one of my favorite Ray Charles records and "You Don't Know Me" remains one of my all-time favorite renditions by any singer.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Song #155 of 9999 - Half Heaven, Half Heartache by Gene Pitney

Song #155 of 9999

Title: Half Heaven, Half Heartache
Artist: Gene Pitney
Year: 1962
Album: N/A - single release only

So here I am peddling a Gene Pitney song again. It was only about a month ago that I featured "Town Without Pity" from the film of the same name. Perhaps it was Pitney's dramatic performance of the 1961 Oscar-nominated song that led him to write so many songs of a similar nature the following year. He scored big as a writer for others ("He's a Rebel" by The Crystals) and as a performer of yet another soundtrack gem ("The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"). But I prefer this tormented tale of a love triangle between the singer, his girl and the former lover she can't forget.

The chord progression in this song is so cool. The verse utilizes one of my favorite devices, the chromatic line (in this case, Bb-B-C) that results in an augmented chord and then the submediant, like this: Eb  Eb+  Cm/Eb  (Ab  Bb). Then, in a clever twist, the chorus that follows sounds nearly identical, but the chromatic line wraps back around, returning to B (Bb-B-C-B) and the chord progression is firmed up by having the bass move to Ab (in place of the Cm) and following with a minor subdominant(!), like this: Eb  Eb+  Ab  Abm  (Eb  Fm  Bb). Couple these well-devised progressions with the string arrangement, Pitney's plaintive wail and a dramatic key change and you've got yourself another mini-opera for teens. I love it.

(P.S. I've probably already gone overboard with the music theory tonight for most, but if you're still with me, check this out. The little coda at the end when Pitney hits the high note on "you" reads like this: I  bVI  I (or E  C  E). What's cool about this is that the chord change reflects the emphasis on the chromatic line mentioned earlier, but instead of making the note "C" the fifth of an augmented chord, the "C" is used as the root of a C Major (bVI) triad instead. How cool is that?)

(P.P.S. Also sounds like he was hanging out a lot with Phil Spector and Roy Orbison with this track.)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Songs #153 & 154 - It's TWOsday!

Song #153 of 9999                                                  Song #154 of 9999

Title: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do                             Title: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
Artist: Neil Sedaka                                                  Artist: Neil Sedaka
Year: 1962                                                               Year: 1975
Album: N/A - single release only                             Album: The Hungry Years

I've gushed about the Brill Building and its amazing collection of songwriters in earlier posts, and by 1962, the hit parade was dominated by songwriting teams Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield (to name a few). While the former were engaged in writing songs for others (King didn't become well known as a performer until 1969), Sedaka chose to record many of his own songs and scored a big hit with "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do." Capitalizing on the success of vocal harmony groups like The Everly Brothers, Sedaka's 1962 hit features close harmony and doo-wop backing vocals that invite the listener to sing along with its smart lyrics. 

Interestingly, Sedaka returned to the song a dozen years later to record a ballad version stripped of the bells and whistles of the 1962 arrangement. The jazzy piano version didn't chart quite as high as its predecessor but it did establish Sedaka as one, if not the only, artist to hit the top ten with two versions of the same song. I think I like the original version more but the slow version certainly has its charms. I'll let you decide for yourself which one is better. Happy TWOsday!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Song #152 of 9999 - Palisades Park by Freddy Cannon

Song #152 of 9999

Title: Palisades Park
Artist: Freddy Cannon
Year: 1962
Album: N/A - single release only

In August, I watched the documentary Last Summer at Coney Island, which chronicled the closing of the Astroland amusement park after nearly fifty years of delighting kids of all ages. Although Astroland is one of the more famous parks, there were thousands of similar parks erected in the early 20th century. Many started as trolley parks, picnic and recreation areas situated at the end of streetcar lines to encourage weekend ridership. One such park was Palisades Park, which opened in 1898 and operated until 1971.

The song "Palisades Park" is kind of a novelty song, I suppose, but it seems so tied to this era I thought I'd use it to begin my survey of 1962. Written by Chuck Barris—yes, the same guy who created The Gong Show—the song features a chromatic organ riff reminiscent of a merry-go-round and sound effects of rollercoasters and rollercoaster riders. I really like the sound of Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon's voice on the track and especially the spring reverb that thickens it up. A fun track for a fun place*! 

(*disclaimer: I have never been to Palisades Park and cannot verify that is was actually fun.)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Song #151 of 9999 - Pagan Poetry by Björk

Song #151 of 9999

Title: Pagan Poetry
Artist: Björk
Year: 2001
Album: Vespertine

I don't know what this says about me exactly, but I must admit that, when I first heard The Sugarcubes back in 1988, I assumed that trumpeter and vocalist Einar Örn Benediktsson was the leader and mastermind behind the group, while the singer with the amazing voice, Björk Guðmundsdóttir, was just a lucky acquisition. (Why else would they let that guy yell throughout the songs and play his occasional trumpet so badly?!) It never occurred to me that Björk would not only become a successful solo artist, but one of the most significant artists of her generation.

And when I say "artist," I mean it in every sense of the word. Her voice is a miracle of physiology, but it's her ability to conceptualize and innovate that sets her apart from her contemporaries. Her songwriting is quite good and her lyrics have come a long way in the past 20 years as she has become more comfortable writing in English like a native. (This isn't a backhanded compliment—this was a noticeable problem on the Sugarcubes records.) But more than any artist I can think of, her songs are truly married to the sounds that accompany them. Björk seems inspired by the sounds she and her producers create in the studio through a variety of means (most recently, banks of iPads) and she masterfully sets her versatile voice to her surroundings. And, even though she deals frequently with dance beats, her songs rarely sound dated. 

Vespertine is not a record I embraced right away. A fan of Homogenic, I missed the rhythmic element of her music, which was replaced with the soft sounds of harps, synth bells and music boxes. But it gave Björk the opportunity to explore the soft quality of her head voice on tracks like "Cocoon" and created the most extreme contrast to date with her powerful full voice when she lets loose as she does in this track. In researching the record, I discovered the videos, none of which would be out of place in the world's most renowned modern art museums. The video for "Pagan Poetry" explores the sensuality and sexual themes of Vespertine, as the singer prepares for her wedding day by being sewn into her dress of pearls. It's a very intense video and not for the squeamish. (You've been warned!)

And tomorrow, 1962!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Song #150 of 9999 - Hard to Explain by The Strokes

Song #150 of 9999

Title: Hard to Explain
Artist: The Strokes
Year: 2001
Album: Is This It

I'm a little short on motivation this evening, but I'll give a quick writeup and let the song do the majority of the talking.
There was so much hype surrounding the arrival of The Strokes first record that it would have been nearly impossible for them to live up to it. But they did. And they do. This album is still awesome ten years later even as it seems to have been forgotten by practically everyone. This song is kind of unusual for its drum machine during the verses and highly occupied mid-range. I love how the bass player fights with the guitarists and singer for the space around 125Hz. Beyond that, the melodies are original and the chord progression unpredictable. I preferred the bouncy shuffle of "Last Nite" when the album was released in 2001 but now, I'm really digging this first single.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Song #149 of 9999 - Reckoning by Ani DiFranco

Song #149 of 9999

Title: Reckoning
Artist: Ani DiFranco
Year: 2001
Album: Reveling/Reckoning

A few months ago, I was gushing over The National's High Violet and one of my friends told me I had to get The Boxer, which is "so much better." So I bought The Boxer and it is good but when I want to hear The National, I put on High Violet. I find this to be a curious thing about discovering an artist with a back catalog later in their career. It seems nearly impossible for me to appreciate the other albums (even if they're more critically acclaimed) as much as the one that came first to me. Future albums fare better, but I still often find myself gravitating toward whatever originated the love affair.

Such is the case with Ani DiFranco's Revelling/Reckoning, her two-CD set that delves heavily into jazz. I'm almost certain that real Ani fans could supply me with a list of records SO much better than this one, but I have a hard time believing that, despite the lukewarm reception the record apparently received. To me, this record defines Ani DiFranco, even as it may mark a departure for people who know her music much better than I. To make matters worse, I saw Ani on this tour in Paris and hold fond memories of the show, which was in a club that seemed ridiculously small for someone of her repute. Later live performances (and records for that matter) haven't lived up.

It was hard choosing a song to spotlight, but I really like this cool track with the punchy baritone guitar and sustained wind stacks. Around this time, I was starting to learn how to play the guitar in a more meaningful way and Ani DiFranco's approach and style were a revelation. I still can't play anything like her but I certainly had my eyes opened to the possibilities of the instrument as a complex accompaniment tool. Honestly, she blew me away.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Song #148 of 9999 - Bang by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Song #148 of 9999

Title: Bang
Artist: Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Year: 2001
Album: Yeah Yeah Yeahs

It's funny listening to all these songs from 2001 and occasionally (perhaps frequently) thinking "this sounds so 2001." I had no idea there was a 2001 sound, But there is and I'll share some of it with you tomorrow or over the weekend.

In the meantime, let's look at an EP that defies time-stamping. It's so rare that I'm ahead of the curve with new music, but I somehow managed to come into this EP by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs right when it was released. I remember having the same reaction to this that I had with my first Nirvana experience. I wasn't sure I liked it exactly, but I knew I wanted to hear it again when it was over. It's a very strange sensation.

But maybe that's a normal reaction to hearing something so strikingly original. It's a powerful record not just for Karen O's voice with its punk rock quiver, but for the nuclear energy created by guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase. Zinner's thick guitar sound seems like it would be cold to the touch with its emphasis on low, hollow overtones. Chase's drumming is some of the most complementary I've ever heard as he meets every note of every guitar riff with the perfect selection of timbres and rhythms.

The record borrows from surf rock, punk, rockabilly, even "Crimson and Clover" to form a very interesting blend of styles that is at once derivative and original. I like to think this self-produced record released on the band's own label captures the Yeah Yeah Yeahs sound as they conceived it. None of the (very successful) major label work that followed ever had the raw, heavy sound heard on this album.

Although I am featuring the first track, I highly recommend the entire EP, which can be found here. It's just 14 minutes...unless you have to listen to it over and over again for an hour like I just did. :D

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Song #147 of 9999 - Poses by Rufus Wainwright

Song #147 of 9999

Title: Poses

Artist: Rufus Wainwright
Year: 2001
Album: Poses

Rufus Wainwright's artistic path has been interesting to watch unfold. His first album is just pop bliss: an ambitious mix of uptempo numbers ("April Fools") and dramatic pieces ("Barcelona") that has the youthful exuberance of a newcomer with nothing to lose and nothing to prove. It found its mark despite having no particular aim or target. 

With Poses, Wainwright really found his footing and revealed his identity unapologetically. Turns out he's more Franz Schubert than Brian Wilson and, where Rufus Wainwright had one foot in the cabaret, Poses seems to have its in the recital hall. There are pop songs (most notably "California") but the range of dynamics and high drama in the arrangements reveal Wainwright's interest in opera and art songs.

What I love about "Poses" is the dissonance in the piano throughout the verse, first subtle through the use of pedal tones and ostinati, then with flat-out clashing dissonance (the third line on the words "all these poses"). The other thing I find striking about the song is the way it keeps its control. Yes, there is a dramatic rise during the chorus but the pot never boils over. Wainwright knows exactly how far to go with his voice, preferring to heighten drama through the use of additional colors in the arrangement and flexible tempos than with vocal histrionics.

Although I haven't liked every record he's produced, there's no denying that Wainwright is a singular talent in the pop music world, creating unique and often stirringly beautiful songs. When you're in the mood for him, there is no substitute.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Songs #145 & 146 - It's TWOsday!

Song #145 of 9999                                                  Song #146 of 9999

Title: Waiting For My Real Life to Begin                  Title: Wherever You Are
Artist: Colin Hay                                                      Artist: Neil Finn
Year: 2001                                                               Year: 2001
Album: Going Somewhere                                      Album: One Nil


I felt a little guilty about not posting yesterday, but then I sat down tonight to review all the music that came out in 2001 and well, let's just say I think I can get this done in six days. 

But since it's now TWOsday, I have to start with two songs and since I've already spent hours listening to tons of music, I think I'm going to let the music speak for itself and skip the detailed analysis. So what's the connection between these two artists? Well, they're both from "down under," Hay from Australia and Finn from New Zealand; and they're both former front-men for very successful pop groups, Hay from Men At Work and Finn from Crowded House.

These two guys may be all-but-forgotten to most people since the demise of their respective bands, but they haven't stopped creating great music. Hay is particularly prolific, having released eleven records in the last fifteen years. Although Finn has released only a handful of solo records, they're really quite good. Hay is more of a story-teller and Finn has that beautiful voice.

So here's hoping you never heard either of these songs and you enjoyed them both. Or at least one of them. Or none but you're looking forward to tomorrow's post. That would be okay too.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Song #144 of 9999 - Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana

Song #144 of 9999

Title: Smells Like Teen Spirit
Artist: Nirvana
Year: 1991
Album: Nevermind
(Posting from a train so no embedding feature. Also, apparently studio recordings of Nirvana are not allowed on YouTube, so you get this live version.)

Sigh. I had written this whole elaborate diatribe positing that maybe producer Butch Vig and mixer David Wallace were responsible for Kurt Cobain's death because they made a record that was so polished that the world couldn't help but eat it up like so much chocolate mousse and Cobain couldn't handle the success, but then Google's auto-save function let me down and I lost everything. (conclusion: it was Cobain's own fault for listening to too much R.E.M. and Pixies and writing songs that were just too damn catchy to amount to Bleach 2.)

Then I started talking about what I learned from Cobain and that's where I will begin now in this truncated version. What Cobain showed me was how to create harmonic interest by combining non-committal chords (essentially open 5ths with no 3rds to indicate major or minor) with vocal melodies that are benign on their own but dissonant when sung over the chords. For example, during he verses in "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Cobain sings behind the beat and sustains notes that become major 7ths and 9ths against the chord progression. During the pre-chorus, he takes this idea a step further by emphasizing the note G, which forms a 9th, a 6th, a major 7th, and an augmented 4th--all dissonant in this context--with the chords beneath. The chorus vocal follows the chord progression more closely, but still offers dissonance in the form of 9-8 suspensions throughout. Obviously, there's a lot of other stuff going in this track to make it appealing, most notably the extreme dynamic contrast between verse and chorus that would become a hallmark of the band's sound, but these harmonic tendencies account for the uniqueness of melody and harmony that sets Cobain's songs apart from the rest of the grunge movement.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Songs #142 & 143 of 9999: It's Friday, but I'm posting like it TWOsday!

Song #142 of 9999                                                  Song #143 of 9999

Title: I've Been Waiting                                            Title: Star Sign
Artist: Matthew Sweet                                              Artist: Teenage Fanclub
Year: 1991                                                               Year: 1991
Album: Girlfriend                                                      Album: Bandwagonesque

It's 1991 in my blog and sooner or later I'm going to have to talk about grunge. Specifically Nirvana, but Pearl Jam and Soundgarden also loom. I don't mind—I like Nirvana—but I thought I'd give a little attention first to the music that was killed by grunge. (Okay, "killed" may be an overstatement, but when you think of 1991, do you think about Matthew Sweet and Teenage Fanclub?)

Coincidentally, right around the time grunge was sweeping the USA, there was a bit of a resurgence in guitar-driven power pop similar in style to bands who emerged in the mid- to late-1970s, such as Big Star, Badfinger, The Raspberries and Cheap Trick. Bands like The Posies, The Pixies, The Smithereens and Jellyfish were all releasing albums that garnered critical acclaim but little commercial success. Ironically, many of these bands would be cited as influences by Kurt Cobain and certainly, it is not hard to find similar melodic material in his poppiest of songs (think "About a Girl"), but the more provocative characteristics of the grunge movement (shocking lyrics, noise, rebelliousness) served as the real footholds of the genre.

Regardless, some power pop artists did establish a base of loyal fans. Matthew Sweet and Teenage Fanclub each released their third and most successful records in 1991, which fared well especially with college radio and the newly minted Billboard Modern Rock charts. Sweet's music, is more...well, sweet-sounding with blissful harmonies and Sweet's tenor floating above Rickenbacker arpeggios that could have been lifted from a Byrds record. Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque caught the ear of Spin magazine, who voted it album of the year, besting Nirvana's Nevermind. Bandwagonesque's sound leans more toward washed-out distortion, with heavier drums and a more restrained vocal range. Fanclub seems to have their finger more on the future of power pop (Weezer, Fountains of Wayne, Superdrag) than Sweet, who seems to mark the end of an generation (The La's, Marshall Crenshaw, Nick Lowe). But they did have that haircut in common.