Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Songs #341 & 342 - It's TWOsday!

Song #341 of 9999                                   Song #342 of 9999

Title: For No One                                      Title: God Only Knows
Artist: The Beatles                                    Artist: Beach Boys
Year: 1966                                                Year: 1966
Album: Revolver                                        Album: Pet Sounds

Tonight's all about the French Horn. Okay, not really but both of these songs happen to feature lovely horn solos, the former credited to Alan Civil and the latter to Alan Robinson and really, when is the last time you really gave it up for the French Horn player?!

It's fairly well-known in pop music lore how much influence Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney exerted on one another. Wilson was enamored with Rubber Soul and set out to create a record that could stand up to the Beatles masterpiece. McCartney in turn was seemingly obsessed with Pet Sounds and acknowledges the impact it had on his contributions to Revolver as well as 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. Then Wilson listened to Sgt. Pepper and purportedly had a nervous breakdown. (The breakdown was real, the causation seems a bit tenuous.)

Anyway, I've presented an unfair fight with tonight's picks. McCartney's "For No One" is lovely, simple and moving. The verses unfurl in B Major over a blithely descending bass line while the choruses suggest caution in C# minor, punctuated by an alertly articulated rising bass. The half cadence that ends the piece suggests unfinished business for our protagonist. It's an excellent song but far from McCartney's finest.

On the other hand, "God Only Knows" is unquestionably Brian Wilson's best song and surely one of the top ten pop songs ever produced. (Rolling Stone magazine ranks it #25 of 500, but what do they know.) Wilson channels Phil Spector to produce a recording that seems timeless. The organ, accordion, strings, French horn, woodwinds and the ever-present sleigh bells(!) come together to form a rich soundscape that manages to enhance the song while somehow keeping it free of clutter. 

As with "For No One," let's keep the focus on the bass line, where we see a line that meanders, rarely providing the root before descending chromatically to settle on the lyrical refrain (Verse: A-B-F#-A-B-C-B-Bb Refrain: A-G#-F#-E). As complex as the chord progression is, the overarching structure is actually quite simple: the song is really just three verses (each ending with the refrain "God only knows what I'd be without you") and one slightly uncharacteristically bouncy instrumental interlude. The canonic extension that concludes the piece is gorgeous, with that magic moment at the 2:00 mark still inducing chills after 47 years.

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