Monday, September 30, 2013

Song #371 of 9999 - Death is the Road to Awe by Clint Mansell (performed by Kronos Quartet & Mogwai)

Song #371 of 9999

Title: Death is the Road to Awe
Artist: Clint Mansell (performed by Kronos Quartet & Mogwai)
Year: 2006
Album: The Fountain - OST

Composer Clint Mansell (formerly of the late-80s alt rock band Pop Will Eat Itself) has worked with filmmaker Darren Aronofsky on every film since π. Mansell seems to specialize in creating sonic landscapes that both reflect and inform mathematical properties inherent in Aronofsky's films. His work is thematic in the sense that musical motives related to characters (or maybe feelings?) are established and repeated throughout a film. He also borrows frequently from Minimalism, invoking Philip Glass at times to establish rhythmic pulsating undercurrents upon which to layer his melodies. The end result is music that borrows and repays the tension so frequently found in Aronofsky's best work (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan).

The joining of classical music's preeminent modern string quartet, Kronos, with Scottish post-rock band Mogwai is an inspired move, resulting in some startling tone colors. Kronos are no strangers to experimentation and this music occupies a space between the modern and ancient music they seem to love equally. Mogwai strikes me as the kind of band that would be content to play the same brooding chord progression for hours if left to their own devices, potentially relegating them to the likes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. By using them sparingly and providing direction, Mansell increases their value and effectiveness as a musical entity.

It may be difficult to enjoy this style of music in a blog post. I would encourage you seek out and listen to the entire album from beginning to end. It's quite an experience. (See the movie too!)

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Song #370 of 9999 - Criminal by Fiona Apple

Song #370 of 9999

Title: Criminal
Artist: Fiona Apple
Year: 1996
Album: Tidal

After 15+ years, I guess the verdict is in on Fiona Apple. In 1996, 18-year-old Apple showed up seemingly out of nowhere and seemingly fully-formed as an artist. Comparisons to Nina Simone were probably fair in retrospect but the controversial video for "Criminal"—featuring Apple as a scantily clad waïf rolling around on a bed, the floor, the back seat of a car—created some confusion about her artistic endeavors even as it was making her a star.

But Tidal has much more in common with records by Simone or (the future) Tori Amos or Ani DiFranco than it does with those of Madonna (a fellow floor-writher) or Alanis Morisette (an occasional comparison). A quick look at her "related artists" on Spotify produces a list of singers who weren't even around in 1996 which probably supports the theory that Fiona Apple was more than meets the eye.

"Criminal" may not be the best example of Apple's early work but it is the big hit and this post is about first impressions. So are there any signs of Apple's unique talent in this chart-topper? I would start by recognizing the arrangement, particularly the prominent use of flutes early in the track and strings during the second verse and chorus. During the bridge, horns are added to support a powerful vocal performance. But the real treat comes during the outro at 4:06 where we're rewarded for our patience (the track is long!) with Apple's head voice ad libs and some choice piano banging amidst flute dissonance. The last 90 seconds are as important to me as her stellar vocal performance. And if you happen to have the album playing, it prepares you for the excellent ballad ("Slow Like Honey") that follows where we get a clearer sense of her jazz leanings.

See you tomorrow in 2006.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Songs #367, 368 & 369 - It's a Super-Charged Triple Play Saturday!

Song #367 of 9999                        Song #368 of 9999                         Song #369 of 9999

Title: Super Bon Bon                    Title: Bulls on Parade                     Title: Devil's Haircut
Artist: Soul Coughing                   Artist: Rage Against the Machine  Artist: Beck
Year: 1996                                     Year: 1996                                      Year: 1996
Album: Irresistible Bliss               Album: Evil Empire                       Album: Odelay


I started late with 1996 and there is a surprisingly excellent array of music to choose from so I thought I would put forth a rare Saturday Triple Play! Each of these songs deserves its own spotlight but they all have something in common that I think is a true characteristic of music from the mid-1990s.

By this time, elements of hip-hop had infiltrated all pop music genres and many emerging bands had dedicated turntablists as full-fledged members. But even those who didn't seemed to be incorporating the musical elements of turntablists, constructing their songs with breaks and loops played by actual musicians with instruments (as opposed to a sample or turntable--this is not a slam on turntablists). Moreover, the concept seemed to work its way into the lyrics of many artists who eschewed the traditional chorus for a sort of mantric repetition of a single line.

I'll start with the song that inspired this post: "Super Bon Bon" by Soul Coughing. The band's singer, Mike Doughty, was probably just waiting for his time to arrive, having already established himself as a slam poet in New York City, rubbing shoulders with avant garde artists John Zorn and Marc Ribot. His approach to singing leans toward sprechgesang (a very pretentious way of saying "half-sung, half-spoken"—you're welcome) and repetition of a single line is a recurring theme on the band's breakout album Irresistible Bliss. I especially love the noise in this song and the mantra "move aside and let the man go through" is not only intriguing, but spoken with a catchy rhythmic cadence. At 2:52, Doughty breaks the line into pieces the way a turntablist might through scratching.

Rage Against the Machine made their career on complex verses and mantric choruses, albeit it with the verve of a political activist. In "Bulls on Parade," singer Zach de la Rosa spouts his rhetoric with an intensity that may leave you feeling doused in phantom spittle. de la Rosa understands the power of fanaticism and gives the listener several mantras to latch onto, from the opening "come wit' it now" to the hook "they rally 'round the family/with a pocket full of shells" to his titular description of the military industrial complex in the outro. And then there's the talented and creative Tom Morello, turning his guitar into a turntable right before our ears.

Finally, there Beck, no stranger to hip-hop and the only artist featured here who's actually using sampled loops. In "Devil's Haircut" from the brilliant Odelay, Beck lets loose with some evocative surrealism during the wordy verses but keeps it simple during the chorus with the simple repeated line "I got a devil's haircut in my mind." Like the other tracks heard here, Beck makes room for some choice dissonance during almost every available instrumental space. (As an aside, I'm struck by how much this sounds like Eels, who released their debut Beautiful Freak the same year.)

Friday, September 27, 2013

Song #366 of 9999 - Sunny Came Home by Shawn Colvin

Song #366 of 9999

Title: Sunny Came Home
Artist: Shawn Colvin
Year: 1996
Album: A Few Small Repairs

It's a good night for a short post. Let's see if I can do it.

I'm guessing "Sunny Came Home" is one of those love-it-or-hate-it tunes. Perhaps if there is a "Lilith Fair" sound that we can describe as "dated," this song would be the prime representative, if for no other reason than the fact that it was so successful, winning the Grammy for Song of the Year and catapulting a relatively unknown folk singer into the pop music spotlight. In 1997 (when the song really hit), I loved the chorus, thinking it was absolutely ingenious with its rangy lilt. Today, I'm not so sure but I think it's been played so much that "to death" would be an understatement.

But I want to focus on the legacy of the song tonight, stopping to ask the question: is this the song that spawned the current spate of female revenge songs that seems to be pervasive in modern country music? Consider Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats" or Miranda Lambert's "Gunpowder and Lead," both of which lack the subtlety of Colvin's music or lyrics, spelling out in detail the vengeful acts that await their cheating men. Do they owe a debt to "Sunny Came Home"? This connection makes sense to me. While Colvin was more likely influenced by the traditional murder ballads found in early folk music (think "Matty Groves" or "Tom Dooley"), I'm guessing the modern female country stars don't have such deep roots (no disrespect intended!) and would more likely have been influenced by Colvin's hit and maybe The Dixie Chicks' "Goodbye Earl" or even Alanis Morisette's "You Oughta Know."

What do YOU think? Discuss.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Song #365 of 9999 - Coppertone by Fini Scad

It's Guest Blogger Night again here at 9999 Songs. Tonight, I hand the keyboard over to my pal David Kowalski, who hails from a Land Down Under (that's Australia, mate!). Dave is a professional educator, musician, composer, amateur musicologist, and a man "on a constant search for more good music." He maintains a blog called The Sound and the Fury, which I encourage you to check out. When he's not doing all this fun stuff, Dave teaches computing to high school kids but more impressively (and perhaps more dangerously) he teaches 13 year olds "how to use tools so that they don't hurt themselves while joining pieces of wood together."

Song #365 of 9999

Title: Coppertone
Artist: Fini Scad
Year: 1996
Album: Testrider (EP)

Most people know that Sydney is Australia's largest and most densely populated city. The northern Sydney suburb of Hornsby, as far as suburbs go, is pretty innocuous. It’s right on the very outer edge of an affluent area known as the North Shore. As with most cities, the further one gets from the city centre, the less affluent the suburbs become. Thus, it has lots of medium density housing, a couple of small pubs that double as gig venues and a big mother of a shopping centre named Westfield. Hornsby is a major junction on the train line, being the intersection of the northern line and the North Shore line to the city. It is an hour’s drive due east to the beaches of Bondi and Coogee, or about 45 minutes if you head northeast to the pristine beaches of the Central Coast. It was from this ordinariness that Fini Scad and their sunshine-and-surf filled sound were born.

Fini Scad's first ep, entitled Testrider was part of the soundtrack of summer 96/ 97 and it contained this great radio hit “Coppertone”. Given the fact that the track is so gloriously sunny, you'd be forgiven for thinking they were singing about a brand of sunscreen. Personally, I think, that the title alludes to a girl who had coloured her hair. It was (and still is, to a degree) common for girls with blonde hair to take the edge of it with a copper (or other) coloured tint.

The lyric seems to support the hair-colouring theory:
“...let go of my hand, Coppertone…”
Structurally, the song has a rather interesting chord sequence. It’s hard to suggest whether this is more of a modal piece, or deliberately structured with upward modulations in order to enhance the tension and release of the song’s mood. The song starts with a pedal on C major, with a quick passing chord back to B-flat for the last one-and-a-half beats of the four bar repeating phrase. For the instrumental section breaking up the two verses, there’s an upward modulation to D5 for four bars before returning to the C Major section in the verse, returning to D Major for the chorus.

The modulations use what I like to call the “Roxette effect” (named after the Swedish band who frequently use modulations between verse and chorus without following any of the correct rules for changing key. See “Vulnerable” and “Sleeping in My Car”). SLAM! Into that chorus, crashing in on a D Major, then E minor-B Minor-D Major-G Major-D Major. The end of the first chorus has this amazing hang on the B-Minor (F# in the vocal line), creating a chromatic pivot resolution back to C Major of the verse. Whether intentional or accidental, it give me goosebumps!

Back into D Major for the chorus and then, without warning, the outro kicks in, this time in E Minor. This serves the purpose of ramping up the intensity of the failed/broken relationship of the lyric by taking it into broody, sultry emotional territory. The vocal line, heavily treated with reverb, wafts over the top of the mix in such a fashion that you never really work out what is being said, but it just adds that little bit of extra suspenseful ambience.

Fini Scad had some success in the ensuing years, with their debut album in 1998 Wider Screen selling in respectful quantities. Its success saw the band play on major festival stages around the country during this period. Unfortunately for them, the band has been all but forgotten and the music is out of print, both in physical and streaming modes; relegated to the scrap-heap of Australian rock history now, lost in the shuffle of record company takeovers and mainstream media indifference. They do, however, live on in the hearts of those who saw them in sweaty pubs, festival stages, heard them on alternative rock radio and bought their me.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Song #364 of 9999 - 6 Underground by Sneaker Pimps

Song #364 of 9999

Title: 6 Underground
Artist: Sneaker Pimps
Year: 1996
Album: Becoming X

Yesterday, I wrote about some of the melodious loudness that emanated from the mid-90s with the post-grunge movement. It seemed that everyone had their amps turned up to 11 but were doling out simple tunes intent on worming their way into your ears. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond (mostly), some particularly laidback musicians were working out some really complex (and often sinister-sounding) melodies. Emerging from Bristol, artists like Portishead, Massive Attack and Tricky ushered in the trip-hop sound, co-opting beats from hip-hop but cutting the BPM while incorporating elements of jazz, dub and electronica. By 1996, there were quite a few of these bands and they were making their way to the lucrative shores of the USA.

One of the bands that made it to my CD player was Sneaker Pimps, whose sound was defined by the helium-filled tone quality of singer Kelli Dayton. While I personally prefer "Tesko Suicide," it was "6 Underground" that put the band on the map and it is worth talking about for its unique use of "Golden Girl," a John Barry composition featured in the James Bond film Goldfinger.

The tune opens with the sample: a five-note harp motive (D-A-E-F#-Bb) set above a cluster of strings. A beating-heart bass drum helps define one of the more tense settings I've heard in the opening strains of a pop song. When the bass settles in, we get a sense of the tonal center (G), but Dayton's melody continually vacillates between minor and major, especially during the chorus. Listen to the word "overground" (G-F-Bb) and then "watch this space" (C-D-B) and you'll hear what I mean. At 2:54, we find the genesis of the song in another sample from Barry's work: French horns sustaining Gmaj (G-B-D) and Ebmaj7 (Eb-G-Bb-D). Notice the common tones from the earlier melody. Only now, Dayton sings her minor melody (G-F-Bb) over the Gmaj chord and the dissonance is even more pronounced. This teeter-tottering of the diatonic mode gives the track a fairly unstable nucleus, which I find to be quite thrilling, especially in this context.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Songs #362 & 363 - It's TWOsday!

Songs #362 & 363 of 9999

Title: Slot Machine/Phaser
Artist: Superdrag
Year: 1996
Album: Regretfully Yours

Following Kurt Cobain's death, rock music seemed to take a turn toward the melodic, memorializing Nirvana not for the most discordant of its songs but for melodic gems like "About a Girl" and "All Apologies." Which is not to say the intensity of grunge was not embraced, but this new sound has more to do with loudness than with noise. With Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters leading the way, the era of post-grunge arrived bursting with singable melodies buried under walls of distorted guitars even more imposing than those found in the early part of the decade. (Unless you were listening to Sugar, Bob Mould's fantastic trio who championed this sound several years earlier but broke up before achieving real commercial success.)

While Superdrag cannot be counted among the great post-grunge success stories of the mid-90s, together with bands like Local H and maybe Jawbox (okay--more post-punk than post-grunge), they contribute to a nice little cadre of loud but super-melodic bands that helped us get past the spectre of grunge. Their 1996 debut Regretfully Yours did spawn the minor hit "Sucked Out," but I like it more for the contiguous opening tracks. 

"Slot Machine" begins with that giant wall of distortion I've been mentioning and the band lets it soak in for a good thirty seconds before making room for the lead vocal, which is rarely allowed to be more prominent than the rhythm guitar. On the second chord of the verse, they deliver one of the most notable sounds of this style: a major-seventh chord so saturated with distortion you can barely make out the chord quality. A similar chord, offering a bit more clarity in arpeggiated form, ends the tune, which transitions immediately into "Phaser." This second track uses the common tones from this Gmaj7 arpeggio to modulate effortlessly to an E minor introduction (i-v-VI). The minor key doesn't last long, as we find the verse in G Major (I-IV). This pivot between relative major and minor subsists throughout the track, which I find to be more satisfying and better developed than the opener. 

But the two tracks together make for a great listening experience and a good introduction to this overlooked quartet. Superdrag would open several of their albums with this kind of diptych, which I always felt contributed to the sonic illusion of hearing a live band. I copied the idea and their sound on my song Whale, Parts 2 & 1.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Song #361 of 9999 - Don't Dream, It's Over by Crowded House

Song #361 of 9999

Title: Don't Dream, It's Over
Artist: Crowded House
Year: 1986
Album: Crowded House

Have you ever loved someone so much despite glaring flaws that should have has you running for the door? That's how I feel about tonight's track, Crowded House's debut single "Don't Dream, It's Over." I suspect there are many others who feel the way I do about this song and perhaps they (like me) are unable to see the warts without careful analysis. Let's count the ways. 

First, there are problems that are really not the fault of the song or the performers—they're just symptoms of the time: the chorus-laden guitar, the penchant for 9th chords, the excessive reverb on the snare drum and, well, everything else. These are production relics from the 80s and are to be forgiven. Second, we have the actual guitar playing, particularly the use of harmonics, the slide and whammy bar. All of this wankery is presumably an attempt to create "dreaminess" but really, it's just excessive and distracting. Finally, we have the words. Oh, the words that come out of the mush-mouth of this song. A line like "my possessions are causing me suspicion but there's no proof" is an alliterative nightmare and stanzas such as "only the shadows ahead barely clearing the roof/get to know the feeling of liberation and relief " are virtually meaningless while lacking the grace of poetry that allows for such guff. 

And yet we listen and smile and laugh and we eat it up and come back for more. Why do we do it? Are we mad?! The answer is plain and simple. It's the voice. That voice is the pretty face of this song that we can't resist and we don't really care what nonsense it's spewing. Neil Finn's voice is nearly perfect in its clarity and earnestness and we can't help but drink it in. A few years later, when these boys finally shed their Split Enz skin for good and start writing ballads with lyrics that (nearly) live up to the quality of Finn's voice, we won't feel so foolish for falling this hard for this flawed but beautiful song. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Song #360 of 9999 - Don't Let's Start by They Might Be Giants

I have to pack a bag tonight so I'm calling an audible and leaving you in the capable hands of my third guest blogger, Mr. Erik Schlosser. Erik is a guitarist extraordinaire, one of the best teachers I know and one of my closest friends IN THE WHOLE WORLD. Luckily, I only have to travel down the hall to see him. To learn more about Erik and websites with brown-toned color schemes, visit

Song #360 of 9999

Don't Let's Start
They Might Be Giants
Year: 1986
They Might Be Giants

The Brooklyn duo of John Linnell and John Flansburgh (affectionately known as "The Johns" by their fans) form the core of the band They Might Be Giants. To call them a band is not entirely accurate. Since the early 90s, they have toured and recorded with a full ensemble. However, in the 1980s the Johns were primarily a duo making demo recordings in their apartment. These sparsely produced relics feature Linnell on keyboards/accordion, Flansburgh on guitar, songwriting/vocals by both, and synthesized drums and bass lines to flesh out the rest of the "band." They created quite an underground following in this pre-Internet time period thanks to their "Dial-A-Song," a simple answering machine where they offered a new song nearly every day (just a toll call to Brooklyn. As TMBG advertised in the Village Voice: "Free when you call from work!")

Their 1986 debut album featured the best of many of these demos (and actually the worst one as well with "Boat of Car"). "Don't Let's Start" is one of Linnell's craftiest tunes. While it never hit the charts, it became a college radio favorite. Musically, this is about as catchy as two and a half minutes can be. Linnell's great penchant for melody and Flansburgh's tasty guitar riffs could be the subject of this post. However, I would like to focus on Linnell's lyrics. TMBG are often cited as having quirky, clever and sometimes even "juvenile" lyrics (they do have a few children's albums after all). John Linnell has said that he chooses lyrics based on what accompanies the melody best even if they are just meaningless words. While that may be true, "Don't Let's Start" contains many lyrical gems.

Let's start with the title and main hook in the chorus: "Don't Let's Start." What an awkward phrase! Spread the contractions out and we have "Do not let us start." Linnell is quite apt at incorporating lyrical dissonance in his lines. In everyday use, "Let's Start" is a cliche used to mean positive action. By putting "Don't" in front of it, he completely disarms the listener. "Don't Start" and "Let's Start" are familiar to us, but not the combination.

This dissonance continues with the rest of the chorus: "This is the worst part, to believe for all the world that you are my precious little girl."  "Worst" and "precious" create such conflict in this line. Leave one out or make one the antonym and we have a mundane lyric. Both of them together give this a delightful bite.

The second verse features one of the best examples of schadenfreude in a pop song. "No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful. Everybody dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful." The melodic line that accompanies "beautiful" has such a gentle soft landing that once again it unsettles the audience.

The pre-chorus features that clever wordplay that the Johns are known for. Here they spell out D-O-N-apostrophe-T while simultaneously chanting about "world destruction" and "do I need this torture?". Each subsequent letter of “don’t” ascends a major scale which leads us nicely into the main hook of the chorus. This is just a fun lyric to sing along with even though it is pretty much nonsense.

A certain famous "music teacher, songwriter and musician" once confided in me that he finds the bridge of a pop song to be the confessional moment in the lyric. This is where the songwriter lets all of the emotions out and is often the moment where you can find the true intent of the lyricist. In "Don't Let's Start" this can be found in the short but powerful bridge lyric "I don't want to live in this world anymore." Linnell sings this as a frenetic, out of control child having a grown-up existential tantrum with Flansburgh's guitar wailing in the background. It is short but what a great climax!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Song #359 of 9999 - Battery by Metallica

Song #359 of 9999

Title: Battery
Artist: Metallica
Year: 1986
Album: Master of Puppets

It's funny what time and circumstances can do to music, film, art, prose. We all understand that certain sounds, images, and phrases become dated and, if you choose to cloak your art in the style de jour, it may not stand the test of time. I heard an interview recently with Elmore Leonard, who talked about his book The Big Bounce. Apparently, "bounce" was a new slang word that emerged about the time he was writing the book and he thought it would catch on. It didn't, but the book is still good.

Then I think of movies like Titanic, which I honestly thought was good in 1997 as I sat watching the credits roll and listening to what I also thought was a beautiful original song. Of course, it's terrible, the song is terrible and I retrospectively wonder what kind of gas was being pumped into the theater. But the grosses indicate that lots of other people thought it was good too. So was it the time it was made or my own personal circumstances that caused me to be so delusional? (At least I knew Pretty Woman sucked when it came out while everyone else seemed to gush over it.) For example, I have the fondest memories of laughing like mad with my sister watching Woody Allen's Love and Death sometime around 1979 or 1980. But the last time I saw it, it seemed stupid.

Which brings me to Metallica's Master of Puppets. I chose "Battery" over the title track because it's the first thing I ever heard by the band and, at the time, it was startlingly original. I was primed for a record like this. My favorite band of the time, Rush, had gone all synthy; Yes had devolved into the equivalent of Mike and the Mechanics; and, well, there was just a lot of boring music in my record collection as I tried to stay loyal to my aging heroes. Here comes this band that plays fast, loud, technical music with all the time signatures changes a boy could ever need.

Today, it comes off almost as a parody of itself. I still like it (sort of) and I can certainly admire the musicianship and the production. But it's hard to imagine ever taking the lyrics seriously (smashing through the boundaries/lunacy has found me/cannot stop the battery) and I knew even in 1986 that James Hetfield's voice and singing style were monotonous. But my guess is that plenty of 17-year-old kids are discovering this album and getting really excited about it because their time and circumstances will allow it.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Song #358 of 9999 - Kiss by Prince

Song #358 of 9999

Title: Kiss
Artist: Prince
Year: 1986
Album: Parade

I like to learn and I'm guessing you like to learn to! Which is why tonight I'm going to share some stuff I learned just minutes ago ON THE INTERNET. But Frank, couldn't I just go find this stuff on the internet myself? Well, of course you can, silly! But as a service to you, I am gathering all the information from several unreliable sources and bringing it to you FREE OF CHARGE. So let's begin.

As you know, Prince was more than just a singer/songwriter/musician. He was a purveyor of talent. He went out and discovered people like Sheila E. and Wendy and Lisa and Morris Day and the Time and, when he was through with them, they sounded like even more miniature versions of Prince. He even wrote a lot of their songs! So one day, he whipped up a little one-minute 24-bar blues acoustic number—just one verse and one chorus—and gave it to the funk band Mazarati. Mazarati took it to the studio and together with producer David Z. created this:

Pretty interesting, huh? That's what Prince thought too so he decided to take it back! I can just imagine him standing there in his purple jacket, listening for the first time, falling silent and turning beet red before yelling "Everyone get the fuck out of the studio!" Then he sat down and took this destined-for-obscurity song and turned it into this:

Awesome, right? Well yeah, easy to say that now. Warner Brothers hated it and didn't think it could succeed as a single. The minimalist arrangement stayed intact and Prince stripped it down even more by removing the bass (remember that trick from "When Doves Cry"?). He added some funky guitar but kept the whole thing free from reverb and other effects. He also changed the drums, which are more impactful, and most obviously, he replaced the lead vocal with his sweet-and-sour version, which features some of his best histrionics on the final chorus.

And that's the true story of how Prince stole his own song from the guys he gave it to. And you read it here ON THE INTERNET.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Songs #356 & 357 - It's TWOsday!

Song #356 of 9999                                                   Song #357 of 9999

Title: There is a Light That Never Goes Out              Title: Bizarre Love Triangle
Artist: The Smiths                                                      Artist: New Order
Year: 1986                                                                Year: 1986
Album: The Queen is Dead                                       Album: Brotherhood

I find myself frequently using this space as a confessional. Most of the time, my crimes are small and somewhat embarrassing. They almost always involve progressive rock. A man can't undo his past, I tell you!

It is almost a certainty that I had not heard a single song by The Smiths or New Order in 1986, despite the fact that my girlfriend listened to new wave almost exclusively on her Walkman. She was more of a Duran Duran and Echo and the Bunnymen girl, but I'm sure her rotation included these two records. Meanwhile, I would have considered this music to be "gay" and I was busy listening to Triumph and Zebra. *sigh*

Well anyway, I'm enlightened now! The first time I heard "There is a Light..." was in a little coffeehouse performance by Joseph Arthur not very long ago. His cover was so different than the original—I-IV-V in a major key, super-slow, solo acoustic, very emo. It was quite moving and sent me in search of the original. Upon discovering the Smiths' version, I fell in love all over again. Uptempo sadness is such a fantastic concoction and no-one does it better than Morissey & Co. Two years ago, I chose to play the song with a violist at a wedding for two people who were much hipper than me in the 80s and received the following note in a card: "When two of our friends arrived, they heard The Smiths and said they knew it was going to be a good wedding." :)

"Bizarre Love Triangle" is another song that dares you to take your sadness out to the dance floor. The setting is almost symphonic in its scope: swirling synths and arpeggios that somehow sound dated and fresh at the same time. (I know that doesn't really make sense but can you deny it? I blame The Killers, who sounds just like this to me.) What's the song all about? Not sure—the lyric is not the most important thing going on here—but I will admit I love the last lines of the chorus: I'm waiting for that final moment/You say the words that I can't say. I find those lines to be quite evocative, even as (or maybe because) they are buried by the music.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Song #355 of 9999 - Mercy Street by Peter Gabriel

Song #355 of 9999

Title: Mercy Street
Artist: Peter Gabriel
Year: 1986
Album: So

Trying to choose one song from the mammoth artistic event that is Peter Gabriel's So paralyzes me in the way I sometimes find myself in the aisles of grocery stores. There it's just a matter of making up my damn mind already, whereas here it's a question of real nutrition. It's all good and I want to share. But since I know you've probably had your fill of "Big Time" and "Sledgehammer" and you've probably at least sampled "Don't Give Up" and "In Your Eyes," I've decided to direct your palate to "Mercy Street," Gabriel's somber ode to the complicated confessional poet Anne Sexton. Her poem "45 Mercy Street" and other events from Sexton's life are chronicled in the song.

Awash with synths and close vocal harmony on the surface, the song percolates underneath with Brazilian percussion and synth sequences. This is a common technique in Gabriel's music which always seems to have a sense of urgency even when moving at a crawl. I'm struck by how quiet and spare the song can be at times, perfectly mimicking the atmosphere of the late-night boat ride at the center of the story.

Harmonically, Gabriel creates a feeling of stasis by avoiding any typical progressions toward the tonic. The chords of the verse change infrequently and subtly—each proceeding triad harboring two notes from its predecessor: C#m (c#-e-g#)—A (a-c#-e)—F#m (f#-a-c#). When the chorus arrives, Gabriel launches into a hymn with uneven harmonic rhythm: C#m__A__B_____ | C#m_____ A_____ | E_____A__B__ | C#m_____ (B______) :|| This asymmetry is interesting to me. Does it create a more organic environment for his melody? I don't know but I find it very moving. The harmony seems to swarm around the melody like a school of fish, changing direction only when necessary and only when prompted. There are more details worth mentioning—mostly lingering dissonances in the vocal and synth lines—but they're softened and muted by the delicate production. If songs were paintings, this one would be hanging in an Impressionist gallery with the Monet waterscapes. It's exquisite.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Song #354 of 9999 - Word on a Wing by David Bowie

Song #354 of 9999 

Title: Word on a Wing
Artist: David Bowie
Year: 1976
Album: Station to Station

Recently, I loaned (well, rented) my vocal talent to an Episcopal mass that was centered around the music of David Bowie. As Bowie has made a career of being noncommittal in just about every way—even his gender is frequently blurred—I was surprised to find so much (fairly specific) religious imagery in his music, especially prevalent on the album Station to Station. In fact, the "stations" of the title are not train or space stations, but the Stations of the Cross!

Then I found out the whole album was written under extreme duress fueled by excessive cocaine use and it all made sense. Hey-O! Nevertheless, as Bowie himself said, "The passion of the song was genuine..." and this is not hard to believe when measuring the dramatic and moving vocal performance contained in "Word on a Wing." When Bowie croons "Sweet name, you're born once again for me," you can be forgiven for believing he means it and maybe even for believing it yourself. Like so much religious music, it's filled with a fervor that stirs believers and confounds bystanders.

But also like so much religious music, the devil is in the details. (sorry, couldn't resist) The song is structured to tug at your heartstrings and direct you to the message. Take the melody of the opening verse, which starts on a low B (sinking as low as G#) and gradually wends its way to G# above, a rising melody that is uplifting both figuratively and literally. The chorus begins with a leap to D#, which is supported by angelic upper harmonies. In the particularly gorgeous third go-round, the lead vocal goes it alone and the choir is offset rhythmically before Bowie delivers the "just because I believe..." line. And then just when you think this melody can't ascend any further, it does, taking the harmony with it as the tonal center shifts upward by a step. This section plays as an all-out appeal to God, with Bowie offering his best Gethsemane moment, "kneel(ing) and offer(ing his) word on a wing." When the breathy (breathless?) falsetto finally arrives, the melody has traversed nearly two octaves while trying to reach the kingdom beyond the clouds. It's an exhausting and, in many ways, inspiring three minutes and we're not even halfway through.

I don't mean any of this as criticism and I'm not as jaded as you think. This is the power of music and it's why it's such a central force in religious ceremonies. While retrospectively calling the song "a cry for help," I think David Bowie believed what he was singing and his skill as a vocalist allows the message to be heard more clearly. When I sang the song in a church, I sang it with the same passion despite being spiritually disconnected from the message. This is the job of any actor/singer/performer: deliver the song with conviction, period. Believing (or not) is for the listener.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Song #353 of 9999 - Space Intro/Fly Like an Eagle by Steve Miller Band

Song #353 of 9999 

Title: Space Intro/Fly Like an Eagle
Artist: Steve Miller Band
Year: 1976
Album: Fly Like an Eagle

When Steve Miller made his recorded debut in 1968, he was playing a mix of psychedelic rock and British blues that showcased his guitar talents but didn't really feature the kinds of hooks that were going to turn him into a radio star. 1969's "Space Cowboy" was clever enough, capitalizing on the recent Apollo 11 moon landing, but perhaps outdone by the even more clever and progressive "Space Oddity" by David Bowie.

After languishing in relative obscurity for another few years, Miller finally hit with "The Joker," certainly a step in the right direction in terms of establishing himself as more than just a B-grade Eric Clapton. The self-referential song has hooks and even invented words ("pompatus" anyone?)! The record was a big success and Miller had finally found the sizable audience he had sought.

What he did next is worth noting. I'm not old enough to know firsthand what the fan reaction was upon hearing the opening track(s) of Fly Like an Eagle but I like to imagine it was similar to that of Van Halen's 1984 almost ten years later. Where fans expected guitar rock (could the cover photo be any more deceiving?), they were greeted with washes of atmospheric synthesizers (Roland? Arp?—the debate rages) fed through an echoplex. Not to worry, these captivating tone colors eventually give way to one of Miller's trademark guitar riffs while the synths continue to swirl around and beneath. The combination of sounds really works, especially with the lyrics about "time" and the "future." Listening to it today, I can't help but wonder if Miller was influenced by Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, which came out the same year as The Joker and features a similar combination of sounds (bluesy guitar, organ, synths) and the theme of "time." It's almost as if he heard that album and then went away for a couple of years to figure out how he could work their sound into his brand of pop/rock without sounding derivative. And I think he did it. As great as it is, nothing on Dark Side of the Moon is as catchy as the singles from Miller's record. It's an excellent example of how a new musical setting can make the tried and true seem fresh and new.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Song #352 of 9999 - Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen) by Tom Waits

I get a night off and you get the second installment in what I hope to make a weekly feature: the guest blogger. Tonight, one of my oldest friends makes me look silly with his incredibly insightful post about Tom Waits's 1976 classic and the turning point it represented in his path as an artist. George Barron is a lawyer by day, father by night, and a damn fine musician when he has time. You can hear his guitar work on my 2003 album Smile If You Absolutely Want To and also on my rumored-to-be-forthcoming new album, whenever that happens.

Song #352 of 9999

Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)
Tom Waits
Year: 1976
Small Change

This post will not include any discussion of music theory. I'm not a musician, I'm a guitar player. 

In the early 1970’s Tom Waits was not the growling carnival barker of despair and doom that we know and love today. He was a sincere, slightly goofy singer/songwriter/storyteller. 1975's "Nighthawks at the Diner" is a great example of this Tom Waits, a live album in which he is as much comedian as singer – like Dean Martin after a three-day bender. On “Nighthawks,” Waits is funny and engaging and even sort of cute. 

1976’s “Small Change” introduces us to a new Tom Waits. This Tom Waits is not funny, except in the most acerbic way, as in his rant against commercialism, "Step Right Up." The goofiness is gone, the love songs are steeped in pain and there is nothing cute about this guy. The songs are written for the most part in the first person, and Waits assumes the role of one of the dysfunctional denizens of the urban underbelly that is his canvas. This Tom Waits is a man in danger, and possibly a dangerous man.

“Tom Traubert’s Blues,” the first track on Small Change, is a big step forward for Waits. It is a beautifully sad song that sets the tone for the album and for the next stage of Waits’ career. The protagonist, Tom Waits Traubert, begins with an expression of regret, acknowledging that he is to blame for his suffering:
“Wasted and wounded, it ain't what the moon did/Got what I paid for now”
It only takes another verse for Tom to proclaim himself an “innocent victim.” So which is it? Tom isn’t able to say for sure, and that confusion is the first hint that there are deeper problems afoot. The chorus of the song, sung over a soaring string section is: 
“Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda, you'll go waltzing Matilda with me”
Now, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a love song about a woman named Matilda (particularly if you’d only heard Rod Stewart’s criminally bad 1993 cover). In fact, Waits once said that this song is about a woman he met and waltzed with in Copenhagen.

Waits was, as usual, pulling the interviewer’s chain. Here’s the first clue: “waltzing Matilda" is Australian slang, used to refer to vagrants, bums – what we would call today homeless people. 

So we know that Tom is homeless. But it’s not that simple. In another proclamation of innocence, Tom makes it clear that "Matilda" is not just the result of his suffering, “she” is the cause:
“And you can ask any sailor and the keys from the jailor/And the old men in wheelchairs know/That Matilda's the defendant, she killed about a hundred/And she follows wherever you may go”
So who or what is “Matilda”? Waits has said that the inspiration for this song came when he spent an evening on skid row with a bottle of rye in a paper bag, talking to the men there. By Waits’ account, all the men he spoke to blamed a woman for their downfall. Maybe he was telling the truth, and “Matilda” means women in general. 

But I think that Waits’ "Matilda" is something else. “Waltzing Matilda” is what Tom does to cope as best he can with his demons – waltzing Matilda = dancing with the devil. Homeless, probably an alcoholic, possibly mentally ill, Tom is fighting a battle to keep his sanity - and losing:
“I'm an innocent victim of a blinded alley And I'm tired of all these soldiers here No one speaks English, and everything's broken And my Stacys are soaking wet” “I begged you to stab me You tore my shirt open And I'm down on my knees tonight Old Bushmill's I staggered, you buried the dagger in Your silhouette window light to go”
In any event, Waits’ decision to use the “waltzing Matilda” line and leave it open to interpretation is clever. It makes his repeated, lilting invitation that the listener "go waltzing Matilda with me" positively chilling.

“Tom Traubert's Blues” is a defining moment in Waits’ career. It introduces the lyrical darkness that becomes increasingly prominent on later records. It marks the beginning of Waits’ habit of writing and singing in character, and in a sense, the beginning of Waits’ acting career. It is our introduction to a new Tom Waits. He is no longer the goofy guy who told waitress jokes in the early 1970s. He is not yet the man on fire who would proclaim that God is "away on business" and that we will all ultimately be "just dirt in the ground." The Tom Waits we meet for the first time in “Tom Traubert’s Blues” is the key to understanding both what he was and what he would become.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Song #351 of 9999 - Sir Duke by Stevie Wonder

Song #351 of 9999

Title: Sir Duke
Artist: Stevie Wonder
Year: 1976
Songs in the Key of Life

Simply put, Stevie Wonder's tribute to Duke Ellington is one of the most delicious slices of pop you'll ever taste. It is unquestionably my favorite Stevie Wonder song and features one of the coolest bass lines you'll ever hear (or suffer learning if you're a player). I mean, the lyrics are pure cheese but I didn't even know what they were until a minute ago when I looked them up. This song is not about the words; it's about the groove and the party that starts up inside you when you hear it.

Because I am a music theory blogger, I had to take a closer look (even though I mostly wanted to bop around the room) and there's some really cool chromatic stuff going on in the chord progression. Consider the verse (B-G#m-G-F#). What starts out as typical motion away from the tonic (I-vi) continues down chromatically to the dominant (bVI-V). The second time around, he proceeds even further to a bV (F) before embarking on the more obviously chromatic pre-chorus with all those dominant 9ths (E9-Eb9-D9-C#9-D9-Eb9-E9). 

This all sets up the rhythmically looser singalong chorus which even has one chromatic surprise in store. It occurs between the second and third chords, set up cleverly by the tritone descent to a minor seventh chord built on the bV (B-Fm7-E). All of which leads to what I will call THE RIFF. It's probably too long to be called a "riff" and frankly, I don't care what you call it, but it may be my favorite riff of all time. I listen to that bass player laying it down with the horns and...well, I should probably go practice.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Song #350 of 9999 - Carry On Wayward Son by Kansas

Song #350 of 9999

Title: Carry On Wayward Son
Artist: Kansas
Year: 1976
Album: Leftoverture

When I'm short on time, I go for the personal stories. Tonight is one of those nights.

When I auditioned to get into the music department at college, I was required to take a music theory test. I hadn't had any formal music training beyond my school saxophone lessons but I had taught myself the piano and bass guitar. The test had thirty-five questions and I got one wrong. I still remember the question because it was the only answer I was unsure of. Name this chord:

The choices were something like this: 
a) D6; b) Bm6; c) F#m; d) Adim

I chose A because the chord was almost a D6 (D-F#-A-B) but the answer was B because it is a B Minor chord in first inversion, which is represented by the number 6. I understood the concept of inversions but I didn't know anything about figured bass symbols so....34/35 for me.

Afterward, the music theory professor commented that there must be quite a music theory program at my school. (pause for laughter from FHS graduates) I said no, there are no music theory classes at my school. He asked how I learned all of this stuff and I said "Well, I listen to a lot of progressive rock." He was surprised to say the least. And when he asked me how I learned about the early Greek modes, I countered his question with "Have you ever heard of Kansas?" (some events may be slightly dramatized)

I can't even begin to measure how much I learned in high school by transcribing songs by Rush, Yes, Kansas, Genesis—even Triumph—but a lot of those things can be counted in this full-length version of Kansas's biggest hit, "Carry On Wayward Son." Reproducing the opening a cappella harmonies by myself (with multiple tape recorders) and eventually with others was eye-opening. The bass line was an important etude in my technical development. The contrary motion of the piano arpeggios in the verse (l.h.=a-c-e-c; r.h. e-a-c-e) pushed me in the direction of true hand independence. And the lead vocal range taught me about vocal cord nodules. (Just kidding--if I had them, I certainly wasn't getting them fixed anytime soon.) Sadly, I did not learn great lyric-writing from Kansas, even though I thought I had at the time. And just learning all of this stuff without music sharpened my ears in a way that fully prepared me for a collegiate ear training regimen. Even though I've moved on from prog rock and tend to favor, shall we say, a slightly more subtle approach to songwriting, I'll always have a soft spot in my heart this style of music and particularly this song, which I still find enthralling in a completely genuine way.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Songs #348 & 349 - It's TWOsday!

Song #348 of 9999                                   Song #349 of 9999

Title: Good Vibrations                              Title: Good Vibrations
Artist: Beach Boys                                    Artist: Todd Rundgren
Year: 1966                                               Year: 1976
Album: Smiley Smile                                Album: Faithful

Disclaimer: It's been a long day, I'm tired and I have baseball to watch. This is less about analyzing tonight than it is about sharing something interesting. No deep insights. Fifteen minutes of blog time, max.

In 1998, Gus Van Sant set out to make a shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. It wasn't well-received and many people were somewhat confounded by Van Sant's exercise. Why remake a film in the exact way as the originator, with the same camera angles, same music, etc., essentially co-opting someone else's artistic vision?

I actually had no problem with the concept (although I didn't see the film) and have had similar thoughts of remaking a record such as The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, with a goal of making it sound as identical to the original recording as possible. The reasons are simple: you learn the songs and gain insight from them, you figure out how certain sounds are made and recorded, and you hone your mixing skills in an effort to match the sound of the original. It is all about learning a craft, or more succinctly, learning.

I have to figure that's what Todd Rundgren had in mind when he made Faithful, a record that features an A side of cover tunes written by The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys. Rundgren regarded these songs as "classics" and set out to perform them in the way classical music is performed: faithful reproductions of the original scores. Particularly adept at getting his voice to sound like Mike Love of The Beach Boys, the cover of "Good Vibrations" is so good that radio stations held on-air contests to see if listeners could distinguish the cover from the original. As an aside, the B-side features original material and I think it's some of Rundgren's best. Check out "Cliché."