Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Song #287 of 9999 - This Love by Maroon 5

Song #287 of 9999 

Title: This Love
Artist: Maroon 5
Year: 2004
Album: Songs About Jane

I have a short list of "guilty pleasure" songs. Songs that would absolutely decimate my indie cred if I had any. I can't tell you all of them or you may never return this blog. But I thought if I exposed one at a time, maybe you could forgive me.

This is the part where I try to justify why I think "This Love" is a great song. First, it has a killer hook that relies almost entirely on the rhythm for its catchiness. If you think about it, the melody is basically just two notes. "This love has ta-ken its toll on me/She said good-bye so ma-ny times be-fore." (Red is G and Blue is Eb.) So almost all of the interest comes from the short-loooong syncopation in the lyric (on me---, she said---, good-bye---). I especially like the way that this contrasts with the rigid quarter and eighth notes of the first seven syllables. What makes it even more clever is the prosody: the syncopation puts the natural stress of the lyric right where it would be if you were speaking the words (listen to "she said good-bye" for example, with its stress on "she" and "bye"). There's also some nice white-boy funk in the accompaniment but that's not really what's making it work.

I've never been as fond of the verse, but it has some interesting harmonic attributes. The song is in C Minor, but the winding chromatic riff opens the tune a half-step below on a B. (In the demo and live recordings, the tune actually starts on a diminished chord—that's quite unusual!) Singer Adam Levine sings a rather sinister melody that spans the unusual interval of a diminished 3rd (B-Eb). This melody would likely overstay its welcome fast if the band didn't wisely move us to the chorus in what seems like a rush. (Don't all pop songs do this nowadays?)

So there you have it. If you already thought this was a great song, there no longer a need to be ashamed. Just tell everyone it's about the rhythmic syncopation and the prosody. :P

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Songs #285 & 286 - It's TWOsday!

Song #285 of 9999                                                  Song #286 of 9999

Title: Where is the Line                                            Title: Something to Fall Back On
Artist: Björk                                                               Artist: Todd Rundgren
Year: 2004                                                               Year: 1985
Album: Medúlla                                                        Album: A Capella

I suppose anyone with a voice like Björk's would at some point entertain the idea of an a capella record. And it's really no surprise that someone with her creative mind would make a record that refuses to let such a limitation be confining in any way. Medúlla takes full advantage of modern-by-2004 studio manipulation to turn voices into instruments, tongue clicking into percussion, sighs and moans into atmosphere. It is truly a technical and artistic achievement of the highest order (even if this critic would say it leans toward the former).

It should come as no surprise that this (like almost everything) has been done before with equally mixed results. Todd Rundgren didn't have the supercomputers we have today in 1985 when he made A Capella, but he took full advantage of new digital sampling techniques and other advances to make an album that is at times very moving ("Pretending to Care") and at others very silly ("Lockjaw"). Given the technical limitations he faced, Rundgren made no less ambitious an album than Björk but, sadly, it also suffers from uneven songwriting. "Something to Fall Back On" is a pretty good example of what he was able to achieve technically, but some of the more traditional a capella numbers ("Pretending to Care," "Honest Work") are better.

Honestly, I think I prefer Todd's record, but I'll give the video win to Björk. :)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Songs #283 & 284 - Transition Monday!

Song #283 of 9999                                                  Song #284 of 9999

Title: Welcome to Paradise                                     Title: American Idiot
Artist: Green Day                                                     Artist: Green Day
Year: 1994                                                               Year: 2004
Album: Dookie                                                         Album: American Idiot

I've always been a little skeptical of American punk bands, especially those who hail from northern California. What are they rebelling against: a lack of seasons or too much good cheap wine? Which is why it's hard to take a song like "Welcome to Paradise" too seriously, as Billie Joe Armstrong recites a series of letters to his mom about his new home in an abandoned warehouse. It's not clear whether the new digs were his idea or whether he was forced from his mother's home but, in the end, he's very happy. Not very punk rock.

But of course, it doesn't matter because the band is just so damn good. Tighter and more proficient than any of the British or American punk bands that came before them and with hooks that would make even Bob Mould smile. Bassist Mike Dimt conjures great bass lines and has the chops to pull them off. They may be good to the point where they belie the spirit of punk. But again, knowing they were influenced more by Hüsker Dü than The Sex Pistols, it kind of makes sense.

And then they disappeared for a decade. Well, not really, but they certainly were no longer a punk band basking in the light of mainstream popularity. They had hits—a huge one in fact ("Good Riddance")—but they weren't scoring as punks, until 2004's American Idiot.

One part punk album, two parts rock opera, several critics called the album "a mess" while simultaneously recognizing the catchy hooks and using positive descriptors like "vivid" and "courageous." When I first heard the title track, I thought Green Day had finally found something to rage against and I was pretty excited about it. But ultimately, the album devolves into something more idealistic than anarchic with Armstrong stating the message is to "following your beliefs and ethics." Yawn. Maybe in 2014?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Song #285 of 9999 - Black Hole Sun by Soundgarden

Song #285 of 9999 

Title: Black Hole Sun
Artist: Soundgarden
Year: 1994
Album: Superunknown

I have to be somewhere so I'm only allowing myself twenty minutes to write this. Therefore, it will be sketchy and probably won't say anything interesting. But at least you get to hear a good song.

I never thought Soundgarden would amount to anything I would really want to listen to. I understand the appeal of their early records but it just wasn't for me. A song like "Jesus Christ Pose," which personifies early Soundgarden for me, is just a little too pretentious for me in my post-Rush years. And Chris Cornell's voice is a little too....well, again I'm living my post-Rush years. Cool riff, but not for me, at least in terms of repeated listening.

Then suddenly, they showed up with a controlled singer (with a GREAT reedy baritone) and a song with chord progressions that could have come from The Beatles songbook. "Black Hole Sun" is a dramatic departure which may have resulted in the loss of many from their fan base if they weren't simultaneously churning out mediocre pat like "Spoonman." But they continued to evolve and 1996's Down on the Upside was another huge step forward in terms of their crossover success. Unfortunately, not everyone went along for Cornell's ride and the band dissolved shortly thereafter. Frankly, I think it was worth it for this song alone.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Song #283 (& #284) of 9999 - Sure Shot by Beastie Boys (+ Bonus!)

Song #283 of 9999                                                  Song #284 of 9999

Title: Sure Shot                                                        Title: Howling for Judy
Artist: Beastie Boys                                                 Artist: Jeremy Steig
Year: 1994                                                               Year: 1970
Album: Ill Communication                                       Album: Wayfaring Stranger

I was watching a comedy sketch show the other day and one of the comedians was musing about the fact that rap groups seem to have disappeared. Where there used to be collaborative efforts from Run-DMC, Public Enemy, NWA, and the Wu-Tang Clan, there now seems to be a preponderance of solo artists making hip-hop records. While this comment was mostly just a starting place to make a couple of jokes about Public Enemy's on-stage security force and the like, it's actually kind of an interesting point because one of the driving forces of early rap, i.e. battle rapping, seems to have all but disappeared from the genre.

With the death of Adam Yauch, it's hard to know whether the Beastie Boys are still a current rap group, but their collaborative and competitive spirit lives on in records like "Sure Shot." While not a battle rap, per se, the song stands as a good example of how three MCs can trade verses in the traditional boastful style of early rap. There is plenty of oneupmanship, even if they're not exactly dissing one another. With the Beastie Boys, the competition has always been about dropping pop culture references and there are plenty in this song from All-Star Minnesota Twin Rod Carew to underground comic strip artist Vaughn Bodé. All of this is set atop a sample from jazz flutist Jeremy Steig's "Howling for Judy," which I've featured here in its entirety because, well, it's a pretty sweet record.

Have a great weekend everybody!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Song #282 of 9999 - Cry Wolf by Lisa Germano

Song #282 of 9999 

Title: Cry Wolf
Artist: Lisa Germano
Year: 1994
Album: Geek the Girl

I don't know much about Lisa Germano, the former John Mellencamp violinist who has become a critical darling for her understated ruminations on social (especially women's) issues. But my 1994 music research led me to her modestly successful Geek the Girl and I was immediately taken with her hushed, confessional style. (I'm especially partial to the gallons of air that accompany every note she sings.) 

"Cry Wolf" is apparently about an unwanted sexual encounter, perhaps a date rape or something similar. The lyrics are simple yet poignant and the arrangement is particularly effective in creating an uneasy feeling. There are essentially only three chords in the song (save for an instrumental bridge that comes later in the tune) and the progression (Bm-C-D) provides very little information about the key. This makes for a rather unsettled harmonic backdrop, in front of which tremolo guitar arpeggios and bass double stops in the highest register provide some momentum amidst a wash of synth pads. This arrangement creates a sense of stasis, even confusion, that seems well-matched to the lyric. It seems to be the musical equivalent of sorrow, frustration, anger, and guilt all wrapped up in a perfect mess. There's absolutely nothing cheesy or melodramatic or manipulative about this song and that's what makes it amazing.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Song #281 of 9999 - Savory by Jawbox

Song #281 of 9999 

Title: Savory
Artist: Jawbox
Year: 1994
Album: For Your Own Special Sweetheart

One of the most exciting things about the 1990s was the renewed interest in regionalism as record companies sought "the next Seattle." The fact that so many A&R people were looking in corners outside of the normal metropoli of New York and Los Angeles made for an interesting guessing game and uncovered some artists that probably would never have gained national attention. I guess you could say they never did find the next Seattle, but instead found a handful of cool acts from cities like Chicago, Atlanta, Berkeley and Washington, DC.

Jawbox had been a part of the DC post-hardcore scene for years before making their major label debut with 1994's For Your Own Special Sweetheart. I can't remember how I came into the song "Savory" but do remember being immediately struck by the unrelenting dissonance in the opening guitar strumming. Each proceeding instrumental entrance is a surprise, but none greater than the drum groove, so unexpected in its slow syncopated groove. By the time singer J. Robbins sings his first lines, the band has created a most sinister musical treat. (And oh man, that lead guitar tone at 3:24!)

Personal anecdote: I remember with fondness playing this and a couple of other Jawbox songs as part of a heavy three-piece cover band called Blisterine. For most of the songs we played, I sent the bass pickup of my stereo Rickenbacker bass to an Ampeg bass amp and the treble pickup to a guitar amp with distortion. For "Savory," I played the chords that come in at 0:10 by whacking the strings of my bass with a drumstick. Hadn't thought about that for ages. Good times.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Songs #278, 279 and 280 - It's TWOsday! Or it is THREEsday?!

Song #278 of 9999                   Song #279 of 9999                           Song #280 of 9999

Title: Glory Box                         Title: Hell is Round the Corner          Title: Karmacoma
Artist: Portishead                      Artist: Tricky                                       Artist: Massive Attack
Year: 1994                                Year: 1995                                         Year: 1994
Album: Dummy                         Album: Maxinquaye                           Album: Protection

I sometimes feel incredibly deficient when discussing music of the 1990s. I tend to think it wasn't a very good decade for music but I don't know if it's because it really wasn't or if I just missed out on the good stuff. Writing this blog has helped the latter case and tonight's post uncovers some of the evidence.

Thankfully, I didn't miss out on Portishead. Although I find their output to be uneven, there is no denying the cool appeal of Dummy and especially (for me, anyway) their 1998 live set Roseland NYC Live. "Glory Box" is a great example of why I find Portishead to be the best of the Bristol trip hop players. Singer Beth Gibbons allows herself a full range of emotion in her vocal performance and guitarist Adrian Utley matches her fervor in his solos even as the backing tracks never break a sweat. This is not music that was intended as background noise and it makes me sit up and listen.

Tricky's "Hell is Round the Corner" from his 1995 solo debut uses the same Isaac Hayes sample as "Glory Box" but the song has a looser structure, relying less on melody and musicianship than on the rhythmic wordplay inherent in Tricky's rapping and singer Martina Topley-Bird's phrasing. It's probably unfair to feature this song—there are better singles from the record—but I was surprised by the shared sample and intrigued by the varied usage.

And there's Massive Attack, who seem to have spawned all of this activity. According to Wikipedia, founding Portishead member Geoff Barrow interned as a tape operator in the studio during the recording of Massive Attack's debut and Tricky was a guest vocalist on their very successful 1994 offering Protection. "Karmacoma" sets one of two Tricky performances from the record atop a dub reggae beat prominently featuring a sample of Borodin's opera "Prince Igor." It's just the kind of clever and creative sonic assemblage that seems to trickle limitlessly out of Great Britain.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Song #277 of 9999 - Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen

Song #277 of 9999 

Title: Born in the U.S.A.
Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Year: 1984
Album: Born in the U.S.A.

Sometimes a song is overplayed you can't really hear it anymore. Think "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or "Losing My Religion" (both songs I've featured previously in this blog). "Born in the U.S.A." has that distinction but it also has the misfortunate of being misunderstood as a jingoistic anthem for American patriotism, the irony of Springsteen's lyrics lost on a 1980s public high on economic prosperity in a pre-AIDS society. Why listen beyond the chorus? Life was pretty good in 1984 and Vietnam was a long time ago, man. Have a wine cooler!

If you can renew your ears for this song, it will blow you away. You can try to recalibrate the story for this decade if you like, but the military in this country has never been so revered as it is today. There are injustices against soldiers, but we rarely hear about them—just sing "God Bless America" and send them back for a third or fourth tour! But if you really know anything about Vietnam and the way the soldiers were treated upon their return from our first failed war, Springsteen's lyrics will strike you as incredibly powerful.

The arrangement is a musical coup: two chords repeated for nearly five minutes without a lilt in energy or interest. Max Weinberg's driving backbeat and copious fills dictate the ebb and flow of the band, which nearly comes apart at its seams near the end of the track. But it's Springsteen's vocal performance that steals the show, an achievement on par with John Lennon's "Twist and Shout" or Roger Daltrey's "Love Reign O'er Me."

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Song #276 of 9999 - Jump by Van Halen

Song #276 of 9999 

Title: Jump
Artist: Van Halen
Year: 1984
Album: 1984

Looking back to my youth, it's funny to think about the things that upset people when it came to music and especially the perception that a band had "sold out." By 1984, Van Halen had been around for nearly ten years and at least one member of the band was getting bored. There seemed to be no question in anyone's mind that, in the rock music world, Eddie Van Halen was the premiere guitarist, having revolutionized the lead guitar with his two-handed finger tapping techniques. With nothing left to prove, Van Halen decided to return to his roots as a classically-trained pianist and incorporate some synthesizers into the music of his eponymous band.

People were not happy. But apparently, they weren't the people who buy records because "Jump" became the band's biggest-selling single and 1984 their biggest-selling album. And really, despite the new sonic textures, not much had changed. One must remember that this is the band whose previous hits included the self-penned "Dance the Night Away" and covers "Oh! Pretty Woman," "Dancing in the Streets" and a bunch of Kinks covers that were devoid of any of the punk spirit infused by Ray and Dave Davies. Van Halen was as much a pop band as Duran Duran—they just used different tools and targeted a different (read: white, male, heterosexual...ish*) crowd.

*I mean, come on—just look at this video

Friday, October 19, 2012

Song #275 of 9999 - A Sort of Homecoming by U2

Song #275 of 9999 

Title: A Sort of Homecoming
Artist: U2
Year: 1984
Album: The Unforgettable Fire

It's hard to imagine what U2 would have become without Brian Eno. By 1983, they had truly established themselves as the next big arena rock band, creating a sound that was militant, anthemic, socially conscious. They were a great live band and they managed to capture the experience quite well on the short-but-sweet live LP Under a Blood Red Sky. To their credit (and probably to the dissatisfaction of less-adventurous fans), they chose not to release a sequel to War but intead enlisted a reluctant Brian Eno and his engineer Daniel Lanois to make The Unforgettable Fire.

There are hits on The Unforgettable Fire, most notably "Pride (In the Name of Love)" but if you were old enough to tear the shrink wrap off an LP in 1984, the first track you heard was "A Sort of Homecoming." I remember being a little confused by this track, which at times sounds like two stereos playing two different records simultaneously. There's a pop song in there somewhere, but it's buried under an impressionistic haze of lush guitars and is constantly being interrupted by Larry Mullen's I'm-testing-out-this-new-drum-kit syncopation. Each member of the band has a defined role, seemingly to find a new and interesting way to obscure the focus of the song. Adam Clayton's bass line seems to oscillate between playing the tonic as a pedal tone and avoiding it altogether. In fact, we don't really get a strong sense of the tonal center until the very end (at 5:03) when he plays a descending line that clearly delineates the key. The fact that this occurs just as Bono is singing the lines "I am coming home" makes it all the more brilliant.

Speaking of Bono, I think it's easy to forget just how versatile a singer he is, especially if your main remembrances of U2 are of their mediocre venture into Americana, Rattle and Hum. In this track, where Eno has created a sense of sonic stasis, it's Bono who powerfully and gracefully moves the tune forward. His reedy tenor shines through the cloudy mix, at times growling, shouting, whispering, chanting. He slips in and out of his full voice, head voice and falsetto with convincing ease and the result is a triumph steps beyond his previous work.

With "A Sort of Homecoming," U2 abandons the modern militant warfare of their previous record for something more tribal and organic.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Song #274 of 9999 - When Doves Cry by Prince

Song #274 of 9999

Title: When Doves Cry
Artist: Prince
Year: 1984
Album: Purple Rain

Have you listened to Purple Rain lately? An album that seemed like it was destined to be a timeless classic in 1984 sounds cheesy and dated almost thirty years later. "I Would Die 4 U," "Let's Go Crazy," even "Purple Rain"—they still retain some of their magic, but it's more like the kind that transports you back to the time the songs were written, not the kind that makes you feel alive in the present moment. To me, the lasting and glorious exception is "When Doves Cry."

I think "When Doves Cry" still works today by avoiding many of the new-in-1984 sounds that dominate the other songs on the album. "Purple Rain" has that ringing chorus-laden rhythm guitar and the big electric reverberated drums. "I Would Die 4 U" has the sampled-and-processed hand-clap and fat synthy bass. "Let's Go Crazy" almost achieves lasting greatness, but those Oberheim(?) organ/bell patches give away its age. 

"When Doves Cry" avoids most of these problems by creating textures that are generated by traditional instruments and by limiting their use. Most of the song consists of layered vocal tracks sung a capella over a drum loop. (Yes, the drum track has 80s characteristics but it's more mechanical in nature and could pass for something heard today.) The lead guitar has a sound that any modern guitarist would love to have at his disposal. (The playing's not too shabby either.) Most of the synth patches have a piano- or harp-like quality that could have been generated in almost any decade and the brilliant synth solo near the end of the song sounds like a Moog. But the richest texture comes from the tight vocal layering, so clever and evocative in its support of the title and concept of the song. And wisely, Prince avoids the fat synth bass sound by simply leaving out the bass altogether! Great song for any decade.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Songs #272 & 273 - It's TWOsday!

Song #272 of 9999                                                  Song #273 of 9999

Title: Major Tom (Völlig losgelöst)                            Title: Space Oddity
Artist: Peter Schilling                                                Artist: David Bowie
Year: 1984                                                                Year: 1969
Album: Error in the System                                      Album: Space Oddity

Given the recent events of a crazy man jumping from a giant weather balloon somewhere in our stratosphere 24 miles above the earth, it seems like an appropriate time to feature this interesting duo of songs. I hadn't thought about Peter Schilling's "Major Tom" in 25 years until I saw the incredibly quirky character Gale on Breaking Bad singing it in a homemade karaoke video. I didn't really like the song in 1984 and still don't get too excited about it today but it is certainly notable in that it retells the story of a fictional character immortalized in David Bowie's very popular "Space Oddity."

In Schilling's retelling, it's hard to ascertain whether Major Tom commits suicide by leaving his protective capsule and floating away into the emptiness of space as he does in Bowie's track. In fact, the song repeatedly tells us he is "coming home," but whether this is literal or he is returning as a spirit or some sort of light is uncertain. Either way, the song replaces the cinematic orchestration of Bowie's classic with a synth-driven dance track. I prefer the German version of the song which seems to have better prosody and, since I don't understand it, I can pretend it has better lyrics.

Interestingly, Bowie himself made a few references to the character in songs throughout his career, most notably in 1980s "Ashes to Ashes" and in the Pet Shop Boys remix of 1994's "Hallo Spaceboy." And Schilling was not the last to retell the story (the legend?) of the fictitious astronaut. In 2002, Canadian artist K.I.A. wrote and recorded a track that tells the story of Major Tom from the perspective of his widow and in 2004, another Canadian band, The Tea Party, drops all kinds of Bowie references into a song that asks Major Tom to divulge the meaning of life. (Neither of these songs is worth seeking out. Trust me.)

Since I'm sure just about everyone has heard the original "Space Oddity," I've embedded a rare early version of the song from the 1969 promotional film Love You Till Tuesday.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Song #271 of 9999 - Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream) by The Icicle Works

Song #271 of 9999

Title: Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream)
Artist: The Icicle Works
Year: 1984
Album: The Icicle Works

1984 was such a good year for music. It's almost impossible to narrow my list, let alone pick a significant starting point so I'll just go with what it perhaps my favorite song of the year. The Icicle Works (or simply Icicle Works in the USA) had only one hit but it's a doozy in my book. "Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream)" (or "Whisper to a Scream [Birds Fly]" as it was known in the USA—apparently Arista wanted to throw its weight around with this release) is one of those songs that grabbed me from the beginning and has never let go. I could listen to it every day.

So what makes this song so special? I do think it's expertly arranged and I like the concept of the song. (I guess I'm just talking about the title really—I have no idea what it's about and have never really paid much attention to the lyric.) But I think what really elevates this song to amazing is the rhythmic interplay between the instruments. The jangly guitar riff that open the song benefits from unison "E"s played on adjacent strings, but it's the syncopated rhythm that makes it so engaging. The bass joins in with it's own layer of syncopation, establishing the simple two-chord harmony. When the drums enter, they actually work to anchor the rhythm, establishing a sixteenth note pulse beneath the unaccompanied vocal of the first verse. And then the real magic happens: the chorus vocal adds yet another slower-moving layer of syncopation independent of both the bass and guitar. For me, this is one of the most exciting choruses in all of pop. It helps that the lyric is somewhat anthemic in its content, inviting you to sing along and be included in the "we" who are "but your children" and "rather helpless." The vocal counterpoint on the outro adds even more layers of rhythmic activity and, well, it's just sublime, isn't it?