Sunday, April 14, 2013


Well, I kind of fell off the wagon, didn't I? Too much life getting in the way of THE BLOG. This week, I will be out of town so I'm hoping to resume the blog on Monday, April 22. Sorry for the one-week tease.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Song #339 of 9999 - Pushin' Too Hard by The Seeds

Song #339 of 9999 

Title: Pushin' Too Hard
Artist: The Seeds
Year: 1966
Album: The Seeds

In a year that saw the release of Revolver, Blonde on Blonde, Pet Sounds and not one, but two, Simon and Garfunkel albums, how does one make room for the little guys? Well, I'm certainly going to try and I'll start tonight with a song that was a modest hit in the USA for the little-known garage rock band known as The Seeds.

The Seeds seem exactly like the type of band you'd hear Ed Ward reviewing in a newly remastered Rhino Records release on Fresh Air. You hear "Pushin' Too Hard" and just know it must be an important song in the development of psychedelic rock (in the short term) and punk (in the long term). The song uses repetition (two relentless chords) and randomness (sloppy improvised guitar and keyboard licks) to evoke a feeling of hypnosis. Although it clocks in at just a little over two-and-a-half minutes, one could easily imagine this going on for much longer had it been released two or three years later. Sky Saxon's insistent raspy vocal gives the impression he could blow at any minute and the backing vocals work by being limited to two parts with a hollow center. 

Almost fifty years after its release, this is still an exciting tune. One can only wonder whether The Seeds could have found greater success in a field with fewer music industry giants.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Song #338 of 9999 - Pull Up the People by M.I.A.

Song #338 of 9999 

Title: Pull Up the People
Artist: M.I.A.
Year: 2005
Album: Arular

Every once in a while I pick up a record on a whim without much review or information. One such album was 2007's Kala by London-based Sri Lankan refugee M.I.A. For some time afterward, the CD became my car music of choice as I digested its global beat stew and and African children chants. I was completely oblivious to the fact that M.I.A. had already made a bunch of noise, both literally and figuratively, in 2005 as advance tracks from her international debut Arular were being tossed around the internet to adoring fans and critics.

Listening to Arular now, I am reminded of how exhausting M.I.A.'s music can be. It's clearly not meant to be listened to in front of a computer—it is dance music after all. The sonic onslaught is reminiscent of the complex noisy beats created by the Bomb Squad for Public Enemy in the 1990s but the grooves are more inviting. On the surface, M.I.A. may appear to have more in common with Missy Elliott than with Chuck D, but if you take it off the dance floor and examine the irreverent (and often unintelligible) lyrics, Maya Arulpragasam's twitchy music is itching for a fight.

See you tomorrow in 1966!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Song #337 of 9999 - Bitches Ain't Shit by Ben Folds

Song #337 of 9999 

Title: Bitches Ain't Shit
Artist: Ben Folds
Year: 2005
Album: Songs for Silverman (LP only)

I never really got into Ben Folds Five, a band which clearly had a lot of talent but always seemed to be teetering on the brink of jock rock, especially where their lyrics were concerned. Ben Folds' solo efforts are much more introspective in nature and even the vitriolic rockers (on Songs for Silverman, the very BF5-ish "Bastard") have lyrics more likely to be uttered on a psychiatrist's couch than in a bar fight.

But even as he has reached the age of being old enough to have a kid in college, Folds continues to earn credit with the university crowd by doing things that are creative and subversive. Songs for Silverman is an excellent album and my thirty-something self felt right at home drinking it in in 2005. In fact, I continued to enjoy it so much that I picked up a vinyl copy a few years ago. Imagine my surprise and delight when the record spun past the last track to reveal Folds' recording of Dr. Dre's 1992 classic "Bitches Ain't Shit," a song he has been performing in concert for years.

Folds' version is less of a cover than a re-imagining of the original. He reharmonizes the song, setting Dre's words to a melancholy tune that makes for a rather evocative piano ballad. Of course, the words are still caustic and offensive and misogynistic. If anything, this gentle setting makes them even more shocking and, of course (if you can have a sense of humor about such things), ironic. 

And what do college kids love more than irony? My favorite piece of evidence to support this claim comes in the form an all-female a cappella group who must have worked forever to learn this excellent rendition of Folds' cover, one of MANY covers you will find of this song on YouTube. Enjoy!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Song #336 of 9999 - The Bones of an Idol by The New Pornographers

Song #336 of 9999 

Title: The Bones of an Idol
Artist: The New Pornographers
Year: 2005
Album: Twin Cinema

Somehow I failed to write about The New Pornographers' superb album Electric Version back when I was discussing 2003 so I made myself a promise to feature the Canadian supergroup this time around. Twin Cinema is as good as Electric Version (arguably better, but not for me) and there are a lot of interesting songs exploring a host of musical influences. The group always seems to be on the verge of becoming a punk band, a prog rock band, a power pop band—it's almost like they can't decide—and the blend is exhilarating at times.

I had a difficult time choosing a track to feature so I finally went with one with a particularly interesting harmonic structure: "The Bones of an Idol" is constructed entirely of major chords. I've always been intrigued by the idea of using just one type of chord (i.e. major, minor, dominant 7th, etc.) throughout an entire song. Since major and minor tonalities naturally produce a mix of major and minor chords, a constant stream of one chord type (in this case, major) serves to mask tonality and create a sense of tonal stasis. (This is very prevalent in the work of composers like Debussy.) The normal concepts of tension and relaxation become very diluted.

"The Bones of an Idol" is essentially in the key of G Major but its chord palette includes the non-diatonic major chords of E, F, Bb, and Eb in addition to the diatonic chords G, C and D. The chord progression unfolds like this (chords outside the key are in red):

Intro: G (I)    E (VI)
Verse: C (IV)  D (V)  Bb (bIII)  G (I)   E (VI)
           C (IV)  D (V)  Bb (bIII)  C (IV)  D (V)  Bb (bIII)
           G (I)    E (VI)  F (bVII)
Instrumental Break: C (IV)   G (I)   D (V)    F (bVII)   Bb (bIII)   C (IV)

So that's it! Can you think of another song that uses so many major chords without any minors? Or a lot of minors with no majors?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Song #335 of 9999 - Hide and Seek by Imogen Heap

Song #335 of 9999 

Title: Hide and Seek
Artist: Imogen Heap
Year: 2005
Album: Speak for Yourself

I probably picked the worst week to restart my blog since I'm conducting a show this week and I'm pretty fried by the end of the evening. But I'm determined and, while I may not have much to say, I'm going to share a new song with you every night dammit!

Tonight's song doesn't really need my help anyway. As implied by the title of the album from which it is drawn, it "speaks for itself" in a voice that is at once filled with human emotion while also being robotic and artificial. British songstress Imogen Heap (formerly of Frou Frou) feeds her a capella singing through a device called a vocoder (short for "voice encoder"), which interacts with a keyboard to create a synthesized sound that maintains and reflects the characteristics of the vocal performance. A novelty in the hands of most singers, Heap elevates the device to new heights by feeding it dense keyboard harmony and a vocal track of extreme range and articulation. It is a striking blend that creates some wonderful tension before giving way to the airy "Mmm, what you say?" hook just before the 3:00 mark. 

It's a stunning song (from an incredibly mediocre album—don't go looking for more; you'll be disappointed). Good night!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Songs #333 & 334 - It's TWOsday!

Song #333 of 9999                                   Song #334 of 9999

Title: First Day of My Life                         Title: Take it Easy (Love Nothing)
Artist: Bright Eyes                                    Artist: Bright Eyes
Year: 2005                                               Year: 2005
Album: I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning        Album: Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

It must be hard being a prodigy. I say that with no sarcasm or irony as an introduction to a discussion about Connor Oberst, the singer-songwriter who formed Bright Eyes while still in his teens. To have one's early artistic development under intense and constant scrutiny must be at once quite fulfilling and perhaps a little terrifying. If nothing else, I'm sure the impulse to top yourself must be constant and strong. It may even lead you to release two albums on the same day!

I've admitted before (in post #16) that I am a latecomer to Oberst's work, having written it off (perhaps unfairly) as overly angsty and stricken with a vocal tone quality that I found grating. But 2007's Casadaga was just too brilliant to overlook as a mature Oberst figured out that he could be both a folkie and a rocker all on one album. I say this in retrospect as I listen to Oberst's fraternal twin pairing from 2005, in which he consciously separates the steel guitars and delicate fingerpicking of I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning from the big beats and sonic saturation of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.

These are both really good records and I'm excited to give them proper spins when I have more time (conducting a show this week so my research time is limited :-/). I'm always a little embarrassed to admit missing significant artists the first time around but it's so much fun to uncover these gems when researching my blog. If, like me, you didn't pay much attention to Bright Eyes a decade ago, it may be time to check him/them out.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Song #332 of 9999 - We're From Barcelona by I'm From Barcelona

Song #332 of 9999 

Title: We're From Barcelona
Artist: I'm From Barcelona
Year: 2005
Album: Let Me Introduce My Friends

I've been feeling a little nostalgic for Barcelona (and Europe in general) ever since discovering we have an exchange student from Catalonia in our school. Which reminded me of this powder puff of a song by a crazy band (cult?) of 29 Swedes calling themselves I'm From Barcelona and chanting about love in hipster garb over a lazy, hazy lilt of a beat. This is not great art but it should get a smile out of you if you haven't heard it for a while (or ever).

Back again tomorrow (I hope)!