Thursday, May 31, 2012

Song #207 of 9999 - Modern Love by David Bowie

Song #207 of 9999

Title: Modern Love 
Artist: David Bowie 
Year: 1983 
Album: Let's Dance

Having just finished conducting my last (and most high-profile) obligation of the school year, I find myself with a feeling of lightness and joy with summer impending. Driving home, I started thinking of writing my blog and I knew immediately which song to choose.

I used to have a cassette filled with songs that could lift my spirits no matter how miserable I was on any given day. (This was obviously prior to my evolution into the consistently chipper person I am now.) David Bowie's "Modern Love" was the first track on the tape and it never failed. What made the song work for me was the driving tempo, the shouting quality of the lead vocal track, the call-and-response pseudo-gospel chorus—it's a perfectly joyous pop song and I love it.

I read that one of the influences Bowie lists for the Let's Dance record is Louie Jordan. I had no idea who Louis Jordan was until about six or seven years ago when I took a History of Rock and Roll class, but now that I'm familiar with his jump blues style, I can absolutely hear the connection to a song like "Modern Love." The saxophones are reminiscent of Jordan, but really its the springiness of the track that reminds me of Jordan. (Check out the 1946 hit "Caldonia" if you've never heard this rock and roll pioneer. I'll give it its own space in a future post.)

Go ahead; jump up and down around the house while you listen to "Modern Love." No-one will blame you.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Songs #205 & 206 - It's WEDNESDAY, but I forgot yesterday was TWOsday!

Song #205 of 9999                                                  Song #206 of 9999

Title: Talk About the Passion                                   Title: Love on a Farmboy's Wages 
Artist: R.E.M.                                                           Artist: XTC
Year: 1983                                                               Year: 1983
Album: Murmur                                                        Album: Mummer

I used to get the names of these albums mixed up all the time! In 1983, two quartets with three letters for names released albums called Murmur and Mummer. Coincidence? I think so!

Nonetheless, it's a good opportunity to feature two bands who were at very different stages of their musical development in 1983. In R.E.M.'s case, Murmur was an auspicious debut, marked by jangly guitar, melodic bass playing and an often incomprehensible Michael Stipe mumbling often incomprehensible lyrics. Nevertheless, R.E.M. found an audience on college radio and captured the attention of Rolling Stone Magazine, who named Murmur the Album of the Year, besting multi-platinum best-sellers Thriller and Synchronicity. Perhaps most significantly, Murmur prompted the resurgence of independent record labels and is perhaps responsible for spawning an entirely new genre called "alternative rock."

XTC was not a new band in 1983, but they were sounding like a very different band than the post-punk quartet that debuted in 1978 with White Music. Fresh off the critical success of 1982's English Settlement, XTC continued to embrace their English-ness (the word "mummer" refers to English pantomime with medieval origins), sharply crafting pop gems presented in quirky sonic dress. By this time, XTC had completely abandoned live performance (due to singer Andy Partridge's infamous bout with stage fright), allowing them more time to perfect their complex arrangements.

I like pairing these two bands in this way, especially when measuring them in terms of their nationalism. R.E.M.'s early work frequently dealt with themes of the American south, not often explored in popular music. They tended toward the working class at a time when Ronald Reagan was establishing the framework for what would become a decade of rapidly growing income inequality. XTC, on the other hand, revel in the joy of being English. Unencumbered by the perceived social injustice addressed by the British punk scene of the late 1970s, XTC seem at home exploring the longevity of life in the English countryside. There must be great comfort in knowing that your society has existed in some form or another for over a thousand years.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Song #204 of 9999 - Angels Tuck You In by Daniel Amos

Song #204 of 9999

Title: Angels Tuck You In
Artist: Daniel Amos
Year: 1983
Album: Doppelgänger

Oops, it took me a day longer to get to 1983 than I anticipated. Sorry, I just kind of forgot yesterday. It was nice to have a day off.

So, if there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that Christian pop music, whether pop, rap, metal, etc. is terrible. If you like it, it's because you're blinded by the message and the music is secondary. All the Christian acts that attempted to cross over either failed miserably or spread like the plague, destroying eardrums everywhere (yes, I'm looking at you, Creed). And locals, don't even think about replying with the words August Burns Red because they are terrible and that's the end of the discussion. Christian friends, you are just going to have to trust me on this: the last good Christian music was written by Bach. And he was just as passionate writing about coffee.

There is at least one exception! At college, twenty-five years ago(!), my Christian "friends" attempted to share their music and philosophy with me. It was actually good because it helped to cement my atheist beliefs. But on the plus side, one of them introduced me to the band Daniel Amos by loaning me a cassette of Doppelgänger, part 2 (of 4) of The ¡Alarma! Chronicles. Although I am not as impressed listening today (they get better later on), I still think it's the most original Christian pop I've ever heard (limited survey, I admit) and they are the only band that seems to challenge their own beliefs in their songs. They're weren't preachy and they seemed just as interested (dare I say more interested?) in making good music as in spreading their message. 

I probably bought four or five albums by this band and not once did I ever question my personal beliefs. That makes them a success in my book, but probably a failure in many others'. Probably why they didn't get much attention in that narrow little genre. (By the way, I had a hard time choosing a song from this record. If this one doesn't do it for you, try Mall (All Over the World).)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Song #203 of 9999 - Aladdin Sane by David Bowie

Song #203 of 9999

Title: Aladdin Sane
Artist: David Bowie
Year: 1973
Album: Aladdin Sane

With David Bowie, there's no such thing as a baby step. Listening to Aladdin Sane, it's hard to believe only a year had passed since The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Guitar-based glam rock gives way to avant-garde jazz ("Aladdin Sane"), cabaret ("Time"), and Spanish flamenco ("Lady Grinning Soul"). There are plenty of rollicking glam rock numbers to keep "Ziggy" fans happy, including some hits ("Jean Genie," "Watch That Man," "Cracked Actor"), but for me, this album is about the experiments and, especially, the piano playing.

I didn't hear Aladdin Sane until the mid-1980s when I was first discovering David Bowie as a teenager. So my initial exposure wasn't even Ziggy Stardust, it was Let's Dance. So the shock of hearing Aladdin Sane, especially the title track, was pretty significant. I was already playing jazz and had a penchant for experimental music, but I had never heard a juxtaposition of pop and avant-garde jazz quite like this. Mike Garson's solos are spontaneous, creative, and thrilling. And while it's easy to offer all the credit to Garson, it is thanks to David Bowie's artistry and intuition as a producer that these solos exist. Here's Mike Garson from a 2008 interview:
"When I was recording the "Aladdin Sane" track for Bowie, it was just two chords, an A and a G chord, and the band was playing very simple English rock and roll. And Bowie said: 'play a solo on this.' I had just met him, so I played a blues solo, but then he said: 'No, that’s not what I want.' And then I played a latin solo. Again, Bowie said: 'No no, that’s not what I want.' He then continued: 'You told me you play that avant-garde music. Play that stuff!' And I said: 'Are you sure? ‘Cause you might not be working anymore!'. So I did the solo that everybody knows today, in one take."
Listening to Aladdin Sane, it's easy to imagine the progression to Low, Heroes, Lodger and beyond. Bowie is an artist who is at his best when he is testing new waters. Maybe we'll catch up to him again tomorrow when we land in 1983!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Song #202 of 9999 - Sabbath Bloody Sabbath by Black Sabbath

Song #202 of 9999

Title: Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
Artist: Black Sabbath
Year: 1973
Album: Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

I've always found Black Sabbath to be such a curious band. The title track to their 1973 release Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is a good example of why. Here's this fantastic heavy riff that opens the tune (supposedly the "riff that saved Black Sabbath"—more on that later), announcing one of the most demonic-sounding bands of the 1970s heavy metal scene, and then 40 seconds later, they're playing what sounds like smooth jazz. It's such an unusual juxtaposition but I find it endearing. American metal bands would never attempt such a thing because a) they wouldn't have the first clue about how to do it and b) good old American machismo would never allow them such liberties.

So apparently guitarist Tony Iommi was suffering a severe case of writer's block prior to the recording of this record and the band's substance abuse problems were mounting while they waited for him to work it out. So the band did the only logical thing: they rented a castle in Gloustershire and set up shop in the dungeons looking for inspiration. (Which apparently worked!) While the opening riff is the catchy hook, I really like the one that follows the guitar solo around 3:18. This sludgy riff, played with the lowest string tuned to C#, predates Mettalica by more than ten years but it seems like it would fit right in on Master of Puppets. My favorite thing about it is how the major third that ends the riff sounds so dissonant in contrast to the minor third it is built around. I may be getting a bit too technical for the style, but for a band that made their name by consistently emphasizing the tritone, I think it's worth mentioning.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Song #201 of 9999 - The Ocean by Led Zeppelin

Song #201 of 9999

Title: The Ocean
Artist: Led Zeppelin
Year: 1973
Album: Houses of the Holy

I really like the album Houses of the Holy. It doesn't get the attention of the masterpiece that preceded it or even the proceeding double LP Physical Graffiti. Is it because it's short? Uneven? What? I don't know but I like it because it's got a bit of a playful side, perhaps best exemplified in the closing track "The Ocean" (and also "D'Yer Mak'er").

"The Ocean" is apparently about the "the ocean" of fans frequenting Led Zeppelin concerts at this very successful time of their careers and is dedicated to them (thank you Wikipedia!). It begins with a slightly bluesy, slightly funky unison riff in the guitar and bass that alternates between 4/4 and 7/8 time. Like so many great Zeppelin drum beats, the riff is virtually ignored by John Bonham who plays straight time, expending the least amount of effort to accommodate the missing eighth note of the second measure. This is my favorite aspect of Bonham's playing; he almost never overplays. Such a smart drummer.

The songs unfolds with Robert Plant slipping and sliding into notes of his middle range for two lines, then exploring his upper range for the remaining couplet. After two verses, Page plays one of his creative short solos, which is very good, but check out the stuff that follows! I love the rich dissonances that emanate from these chunky chords that precede the final verse. (In fact, this kind of drone-note dissonance is present in the rhythm guitar parts all over this album and I just admire the style and direction so much.) After the final verse, the tune breaks out into some old time doo-wop and it's just fun to hear them paying homage to this style. One of my favorite Zeppelin songs from what is most often my favorite Zeppelin album.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Songs 199 and 200 - It's Thursday but I'm Posting Like It's TWOsday!

Song #199 of 9999                                                  Song #200 of 9999

Title: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road                           Title: Time
Artist: Elton John                                                     Artist: Pink Floyd
Year: 1973                                                               Year: 1973
Album: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road                        Album: Dark Side of the Moon

I thought I would have some fun featuring two songs loosely associated with the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. In 1973, British glam rocker Elton John and British psychedelic rockers Pink Floyd released records that would elevate them to superstar status and drastically change their musical directions for all time. John released three very popular singles from his record, including "Candle in the Wind," a song that would make him very popular among the soft-rock crowd and soon thereafter he would shed most of the glam from his character and replace it with silly glasses and duck suits while singing "Daniel" and "Your Song." Pink Floyd weathered the departure of former member and resident loon Syd Barrett by producing the most cohesive and stirring concept album the world had seen, setting a bar they would never reach again despite coming damn close so many times.

"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" bares its connection to The Wizard of Oz right there in the title. Long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin uses the "yellow brick road" as a metaphor for high society and material success, which his protagonist eschews in favor of a simple life of the farm or the woods. What lies beneath the surface of the lyric is more intriguing; the second verse is laced with vitriol as John sings "Maybe you'll get a replacement/There's plenty like me to be found/Mongrels who ain't got a penny/Sniffing for tidbits like you on the ground." All of this is sung with a level of grandeur rarely found in pop. John's angular vocal soars, covering nearly two octaves, while a complex chord progression meanders and coalesces beneath. It's one of the most impressive vocal tracks in pop history.

The connection between Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz  is a bit more tenuous. Sometime around 1994, rumors began spreading about a "synchronicity" that occurs when you play Pink Floyd's record as the soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz. The phenomenon is sometimes referred to as "Dark Side of the Rainbow" and, I admit, it is pretty interesting and fun to watch. (Instructions can easily be found on the Internet.) Everyone associated with the record, including band members and producer Alan Parsons, has repeatedly denied any intentional connection between the two works, but true believers cannot be swayed by the word of the creators! Anyway, the entire album is great and meant to be enjoyed as a whole, but "Time" stands pretty nicely on its own. Worth listening to for David Gilmour's guitar work alone.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Song #198 of 9999 - Zen Archer by Todd Rundgren

Song #198 of 9999

Title: Zen Archer
Artist: Todd Rundgren
Year: 1973
Album: A Wizard, A True Star

In 1972, Todd Rundgren released Something/Anything?, the record generally heralded as his masterpiece and featuring the singles "I Saw the Light" and "Hello, It's Me." It was an artistic and commercial success, establishing Rundgren as one of the reigning singer-songwriters of his generation. It was also a significant achievement in studio multi-tracking, as Rundgren played every instrument and sang every vocal on the first three sides of the double LP!

Curiously, Rundgren chose to follow his best-selling album to date with an experimental, often noisy, collection of odd vignettes woven together in stream-of-consciousness fashion and presented under the name A Wizard, A True Star. While there are hints of the sweet melodies that captivated listeners on Something/Anything? (see "Sometimes I Don't Know How to Feel" and "I Don't Want to Tie You Down"), the album is dominated by a 26-minute medley of twelve songs squeezed onto the A side without regard for the loss in sound quality that resulted from pushing the physical limitations of 12" vinyl.

The record received mixed reviews even among the Todd faithful, but has recently garnered renewed enthusiasm from legions of young fans, especially in the UK, who embraced its quirky attributes. Rundgren responded by taking the record on tour in 2009-2010, playing it in its entirety for the first time. 

I personally love this record and am proud to have an original copy of the vinyl release in a beat up die-cut record jacket. Although there are more listenable tracks on the record, I chose "Zen Archer" to give you a sense of what the more adventurous tracks sound like (really, it's one of the more cohesive songs on the record). "Zen Archer" is the longest of the songs included in the side A medley, clocking in at 5:35. The song alternates between a French cabaret two-step and a slushy organ-drenched chorus of major and minor 7th chords as it tells the story of "another pretty thing dead on the end of the shaft of the Zen Archer." I'm sure there's a metaphor in there somewhere but Rundgren isn't about to clarify anything on this enigmatic effort.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Songs 196 & 197 - It's TWOsday!

Song #196 of 9999                                                  Song #197 of 9999

Title: Blinded by the Light                                        Title: Blinded by the Light     
Artist: Bruce Springsteen                                         Artist: Manfred Mann's Earth Band
Year: 1973                                                               Year: 1976
Album: Greetings From Asbury Park                       Album: The Roaring Silence

I sometimes find that hearing a cover song before I hear the original makes it impossible for me to truly appreciate the original. At the very least, it takes a while for me to bring fresh ears to the original artist's version. 

Unless you were a true blue Bruce Springsteen fan prior to 1976, you almost assuredly heard Manfred Mann's Earth Band's glossy cover of "Blinded by the Light" first. I remember this song from my pre-teen years for its pulsating organ intro and intense synth patches. I can also remember being struck by how fast the lyrics went by in this time B.R. (Before Rap). Although I didn't really understand the brilliance of the beat poet lyric until I heard Springsteen's casual, rhythmically loose delivery, I could appreciate the funky rhymes. Listening back to the MMEB version 35 years after its release, I like it but I find the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink inclusion of "Chopsticks" and the vocal layering at the end (which I thought was cool as a kid) a little irritating.

I can't say when I first heard the Springsteen version—I was probably in college at least—but I remember it was around the same time I realized he had written the Patti Smith great "Because the Night." I climbed on the Springsteen bandwagon late and, interestingly, the reason I like his "Blinded by the Light" (and the reason I like his early records in general) is the very reason I didn't like him as a kid: the lyric phrasing. I initially found all of these words being stuffed into small spaces to be awkward and off-putting. But somehow, with age I guess, I learned to appreciate just how terrific he is at doing this. He's able to make this conversational style sound effortless in the same way Sinatra is able to make a phrase really swing. It's a unique talent and a high mastery of rhythm that not many pop stars possess (again, B.R.).

So anyway, I like both versions now for different reasons. Which one do you like?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Song #195 of 9999 - Killing Me Softly With His Song by Roberta Flack

Song #195 of 9999

Title: Killing Me Softly With His Song
Artist: Roberta Flack
Year: 1973
Album: Killing My Softly

Nineteen seventy-three is such a great year for music, I decided to start here just so I wouldn't run out of days and overlook this song. I'm betting there are at least a few people who think this song originated with The Fugees and I'd like them to know there once was a version that didn't have some jackass counting "one time....two times" in the background.

In fact, Roberta Flack's version of "Killing Me Softly With His Song" is actually a cover. The singer who originated the song, Lori Leiberman (her recording can be heard here), also claims to have written the poem that became the basis of the lyric. This claim is disputed by the credited songwriters Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox.

Regardless, it is Roberta Flack's version which topped the charts in 1973, earning the Grammy for Record of the Year. Flack's rendition sounds a bit dated in terms of the arrangement—Rhodes piano and slow-jam rhythm section—but her plaintive vocal track still resonates today. Flack supposes that her version was successful because she "changed parts of the chord structure and chose to end on a major chord." I'm not sure this is the major coup she thinks it is as the songs still have identical chord structure, but I'm glad she drew my attention to the interesting chord structure with the key of Bb Minor (natural version) obscured by a number of major chords strewn throughout. And indeed, the piece does come to a close on F Major, a half-cadence in the key of the tonic, while all other occurrences of the V chord appear as F minor (v).

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Song #194 of 9999 - Don't Think Twice, It's All Right by Bob Dylan

Song #194 of 9999

Title: Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
Artist: Bob Dylan
Year: 1963
Album: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan was hardly through with protest songs with the release of 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. After all, the record featured "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Masters of War" among others. But with "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," the world got a glimpse of Dylan's ability to write songs that were personal in nature. Although he claims "Don't Think Twice..." is not a love song, the tenor of the song is surely rooted in a recently deceased relationship. Dylan says the song is "a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel if you were talking to yourself." This perspective adds a layer of sadness to a lyric that, on the surface, is quite acerbic. 

Still I wish there was somethin' you would do or say
To try and make me change my mind and stay
But we never did too much talkin' anyway
So don't think twice, it's all right 

I could have chosen just about any verse—none of them miss their mark—and the titular refrain is brilliant all by itself. Dylan biographer Howard Sounes writes: "The greatness of the song was in the cleverness of the language. The phrase "don't think twice, it's all right" could be snarled, sung with resignation, or delivered with an ambiguous mixture of bitterness and regret. Seldom have the contradictory emotions of a thwarted lover been so well expressed, and the song transcended the autobiographical origins of Dylan's pain."

Unfortunately, the studio version is not available on YouTube (but it is on Spotify). I find it to be superior to any live version I have heard, where Dylan tends to amp up the tempo and shout the verses. Find the tender studio version for the best results. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Song #193 of 9999 - In My Room by The Beach Boys

Song #193 of 9999

Title: In My Room
Artist: The Beach Boys
Year: 1963
Album: Surfer Girl

In 1963, The Beach Boys released two very popular albums: Surfin' USA and Surfer Girl. Of the 17 vocal tracks (there were seven instrumentals!), at least ten dealt with surfing and another three were about cars or car racing. This was their third consecutive album with some form of the word "surf" in the title. For me, The Beach Boys of this time are kind of a one-trick pony, even if the trick is pretty sweet.

But the first track from the B-side of Surfer Girl seems to foreshadow the greatness ahead. "In My Room" casts a net of sobriety on this gang of beach bums (most of whom never actually learned to surf) while simultaneously hinting at leader Brian Wilson's troubled future. 

In this world I lock out 
All my worries and my fears
In my room
In my room

The arrangement is worth noting, especially the opening with its trademark harmonies forming from individual layers that stack three voices high before the rhythm section plays a note. The 12/8 ballad feel is borrowed from the previous decade but the (relatively) complex vocal harmony sets it apart from the average tune of this decade. The unison vox on the bridge are a nice touch, adding an element of loneliness and reflection to a track already dripping with melancholy.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Song #192 of 9999 - The Night Has a Thousand Eyes by Bobby Vee

Song #192 of 9999

Title: The Night Has a Thousand Eyes
Artist: Bobby Vee
Year: 1963
Album: The Night Has a Thousand Eyes

I love this peppy yet creepy song of mass surveillance by Bobby Vee. Yes, twenty years before "Every Breath You Take," this song was warning lovers that "the night has a thousand eyes/And a thousand eyes can't help but see if you are true to me." Just for good measure, the last verse throws in a little Old Testament "eye-for-an-eye" verbiage to let the gander put the goose on notice. Campy and fun, this tune went all the way to #3 in both the US and the UK.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Song #191 of 9999 - (Love is Like a) Heat Wave by Martha and the Vendellas

Song #191 of 9999

Title: (Love is Like a) Heat Wave
Artist: Martha and the Vendellas
Year: 1963
Album: Heat Wave

Man, Holland-Dozier-Holland (not a law firm, I swear) knew how to write some songs. Need proof? Here's a partial list of the songs Brian-Lamont-Edward (respectively) wrote for Motown in the early 1960s:
  • Where Did Our Love Go? - Supremes
  • Baby Love - Supremes
  • How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) - Marvin Gaye
  • Stop! In the Name of Love - Supremes
  • I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) - Four Tops
  • You Can't Hurry Love - Supremes
  • Reach Out I'll Be There - Four Tops
  • You Keep Me Hanging On - Supremes
And all of these were written and recorded during a three-year span from 1964-1966! Like Leiber and Stoller, Holland-Dozier-Holland were geniuses at writing records tailor-made for other people.

"Heat Wave" was their first top ten single, peaking at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. It has some special significance in my life because I heard my uncle Ed sing it from behind the drum kit with his band during a family picnic when I was quite young and it opened my eyes to what was possible with the male voice. I was just starting to get interested in performing rock music at that time and I never felt limited as a singer after hearing him sing this song. It was pretty cool.

So is this song. It actually has quite an unusual chord progression, one that emphasizes minor chords in an upbeat setting that I think is pretty rare. After a false start in Bb, the song finds its true center (Eb) through an exploration of the minor chords available to the key—ii (Fm)  iii (Gm)  vi (Cm). My favorite moment of the tune is the line right before the chorus when a switch is flipped and the major chords are revealed through an ascending line—ii (Fm)  iii (Gm)  IV (Ab)  V (Bb)  I (Eb). It's such a simple idea but it's brilliant nonetheless. Props to Martha Reeves also for delivering a killer lead vocal track. Stay until the end to hear the fantastic ad libs on the fade.