Thursday, October 31, 2013

Song #405 of 9999 - The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly) by Missy Elliott

Song #405 of 9999 

Title: The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)
Artist: Missy Elliott
Year: 1997 
Album: Supa Dupa Fly

If you had told me in the late 1980s that rap and hip-hop would still be going strong thirty years later, I probably would have balked at the idea. I won't marginalize it and say it seemed like a fad but I saw more limitations than possibilities. Blame it on lack of imagination but I never imagined the amazingly broad sonic spectrum that would result, let alone the plethora of talented artists who would emerge over four decades (and counting!). Although I have only scarcely involved myself in the world of hip-hop and rap, I can say I was there when it began and it's pretty exciting to observe a burgeoning artistic movement from its infancy.

The problem with the genre (and maybe every genre) is that once you invent a new sound and it becomes your sound, your chances of becoming obsolete increase rapidly. It's not fair really. Only a few artists (Eminem, The Beastie Boys, Jay-Z, maybe Kanye West—the jury's still out) seem to have been able to change the course of the movement and also remain on the track. Others, like Snoop Dogg (yeah, I said it) and Public Enemy, have great influence but when the style changes, they quickly go out of fashion. And thus ends my excessively long exposition to introduce....

....Missy Elliott. I fear that Ms. Elliott's style, for all its novelty and creativity, has come to pass. Her twitchy, staccato delivery with unusually long pauses, bizarre sounds and monosyllabic repetition is extremely entertaining. Her tempos tend to creep and crawl and there's always plenty of hard-handed syncopation in Timbaland's beats to bounce off her double entendres. It's still cool but the lyrics don't hold up—no one says "fly" or "peeps" anymore. But we should all be saying "icky-icky-icky-icky-icky-icky" as often as possible. Maybe we can bring it back.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Song #404 of 9999 - Angeles by Elliott Smith

Song #404 of 9999 

Title: Angeles
Artist: Elliott Smith
Year: 1997 
Album: Either/Or

I first heard Elliott Smith in a movie theater. Gus Van Sant worked several of Smith's songs into his Oscar-winning film Good Will Hunting. "Miss Misery," written just for the film, received a lot of the attention (it was nominated for Best Original Song), but it was the song "Angeles" that stuck with me as I left the theater. The song plays over a scene in which Minnie Driver's character (Skylar) tells Matt Damon (as Will) that she loves him and Will responds with "you take care." The character detaches himself from every situation and person who can help him overcome the emotional pain he is feeling. And there's Elliott Smith, narrating the scene in a voice that seems to suggest he's been where Will is heading and beyond.

Van Sant doesn't just play a clip of the song, he plays the entire song. I left the theater feeling like I had just won the lottery. Yeah, the film was great, but it was the soundtrack I wanted and I bought it the very next day. And Either/Or soon afterward. It's still unlike any record I've ever heard and sadly, will probably ever hear again. Spare, raw, and beautiful.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Songs #402 & 403 of 9999 - It's TWOsday!

Song #402 of 9999                                   Song #403 of 9999

Title: I Saw the Light                                 Title: I Saw the Light    
Artist: Todd Rundgren                               Artist: Todd Rundgren
Year: 1972                                                  Year: 1997
Album: Something/Anything?                   Album: With a Twist...


For reasons I don't quite understand, Todd Rundgren keeps popping up in my TWOsday blog posts. (This is the third time!) The first time it was because he made a unique a cappella album and I paired him with Björk (yesterday's feature!), who had done the same. The second time it was because he made a note-for-note remake of The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" which I found astonishing. And now, here he is again, painting over his catalog of hits with the brush of Bossa Nova.

"I Saw the Light," Rundgren's massive chart topper from 1972 is almost perfectly suited for such a transformation. Sure, there are some surface elements already in place: shakers, syncopated drums, etc. But it's the harmony that makes it such a swell candidate, as the verse is constructed around a ii-V-I progression, an essential building block of traditional jazz. Further, nary a chord in the song can be found without a 7th attached. Here's the progression from the pre-chorus through the chorus, beginning with Then you gazed up at me...:
Fmaj7     Em7    Am7    D7     Dm7    G7    Cmaj7   etc.
The bossa version finds Rundgren in a lower key (A instead of C) to allow for a cooler vocal delivery. And all of the Latin lounge elements are in place. But what really makes this work, in my opinion, is the rhythmic variation on the vocal melody. Each line is delivered with a slightly harried rhythmic cadence compared to the original. It's a bit jarring on first listen but it suits the style and is perhaps a bit more lyrical.

Does the experiment work? (And let's face it—everything is an experiment with Rundgren.) I think it does, at least for a song or two. That With a Twist... is an entire album of bossa nova likely explains its lack of success with critics and the record-buying public—the gimmick wears thin after a while. But it was fun to see Rundgren on this tour in a small Lancaster, PA nightclub with his faux tiki bar set up on stage and actual patrons sitting at tables right in front of the band being served drinks by an onstage monitor engineer. Although I don't remember this, the Wikipedia article on the subject states that Rundgren and the band "never acknowledged the larger theater audience, and the show ended when the last 'bar patron' left the stage." Heh. (Here's a clip of him performing the tune on Conan. And yes, he is playing a banana shaker.)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Song #401 of 9999 - Jóga by Björk

Song #401 of 9999 

Title: Jóga
Artist: Björk
Year: 1997 
Album: Homogenic

Picking a place to start in 1997 is maybe the easiest decision I've had to make thus far. "Jóga" by Bkörk is not only the best song of 1997, it's really one of my favorite songs of all time. I almost hate to tear it apart and spell out its musical attributes because as a whole it represents a rather magical musical experience for me. But music theory stops for no man!

The words are really unnecessary to appreciate this song—the beauty lives in the lush musical landscape created by Björk and company in the studio. But to examine the words is to gain a deeper appreciation of what's happening harmonically. The verses chronicle a relationship between Björk and another, the gist of which seems to be "you seem to really understand me but I'm still wrought with confusion much of the time." (My paraphrasing is sillier but not much less eloquent than the verse itself.) Björk sets this lyric to a trio of hollow chords (no thirds!) that slither up and down a short scale: G#5 - A5 - B5 - A5. (Astute listeners will note that her vocal melody fills in the thirds to create G#m - A - B - A, but the chord qualities are sufficiently obfuscated.) That we are in E Major (with the aforementioned chords functioning as iii-IV-V-IV) remains a secret through the pre-chorus (C#5-A5-F#5-B5) with Björk's vocal melody now clinging to roots and 5ths before the song settles on A5 and she delivers the line:
then the riddle gets solved and you push me up to...
And then, whoosh! Clouds part, the sky opens and rays of sunshine explode from heaven as she clutches a G# and the tonic (E) is delivered for the first time. Luxuriant strings descend in scales, leap in 6ths and 7ths and rise pentatonically over I-IV-iii-IV. A rare 1/4 bar (or a 5/4 bar if that suits you better) connects two halves of a chorus, suggesting that the progression shares the same sense of urgency suggested by the lyric—who has time for one more beat! Why Björk chooses to equate a sense of clarity with a "state of emergency" is anyone's guess but would a more predictable lyric be better? If you're going for fantastic, go all the way, right?

What follows is equally brilliant. Filtered tectonic beats and a syncopated bass line contribute to a polyphonic texture that seems to lumber and soar simultaneously, with the force of (arguably) Björk's greatest vocal performance holding it all together. As sublime as pop music gets.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Song #400 of 9999 - Hang on St. Christopher by Tom Waits

Song #400 of 9999 

Title: Hang on St. Christopher
Artist: Tom Waits
Year: 1987 
Album: Franks Wild Years

The last time we saw Frank (on Tom Waits's seminal work Swordfishtrombones), he had had an epiphany of sorts and worked it out in the worst way possible, lighting his San Fernando Valley home on fire, watching it burn for a bit and then heading north on the Hollywood Freeway. Whether "Hang on St. Christopher" picks up where this scene leaves off is anyone's guess but here we have an unnamed driver making his way north toward Reno on a route that seems to imply some urgency but also a little bit of drunken confusion (he was drinking right before he set the fire). I've made a Google Map for you:

As you can see, he starts out in the San Fernando Valley (A), jumps on the Hollywood Freeway but for reasons that confound heads up Mt. Baldy (B)! ("kick me up Mt. Baldy") Well, that's a dead end so he's forced to turn around, return to the Valley and then head toward the jackpot (C) before speeding on the Grapevine (D). ("tear a hole in the jack pot/drive a stake through his heart/do a 100 on the grapevine/do a jump on the start")

You know, now that I think of it, Frank worked in the San Fernando Valley but it's possible he commuted from Long Beach—I mean, it's a hike but we're probably talking about the 1950s or 60s before the I-5 was complete and traffic wasn't so bad. And he does have the patron saint of travel hanging in his passenger seat so maybe...

Anyway, Frank's his car breaks down ("do a jump on the start") or maybe he is just decides to ditch it, but he wisely finds a truck driver to take him the rest of the way but then gives him alcohol as well! ("a bottle for the jockey") And is that the police riding that "750 Norton bustin' down january's door"? I'm not sure, but the next thing you know Frank seems to be getting on a train ("put my baby on the flat car/gotta burn down the caboose"). And where did that dog come from? Didn't he just kill a dog back at the house? It's all very confusing...

Back tomorrow in 1997.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Song #399 of 9999 - Fallen Angel by Robbie Robertson

Song #399 of 9999

Title: Fallen Angel
Artist: Robbie Robertson
Year: 1987
Album: Robbie Robertson

(I passed on the actual video so you could enjoy paintings by Diego Rivera!)

Having a little trouble getting motivated but I took an unscheduled day off yesterday to spend the evening playing music with a friend so I figured I better crank something out today! 1987 just isn't very inspiring, I'm afraid. There are a handful of good albums but they're almost all marked by a very specific drum sound (among other things) that is very very dated. I didn't feel this way about 1986 so I'm going to go on record and say 1987 may have been the beginning of the end for the era.

The producer making the most interesting music of the time was Daniel Lanois. Having made his first big splash with Peter Gabriel's So, Lanois produced a string of successes including U2's The Joshua Tree, Bob Dylan's Oh Mercy, his own solo album Acadie and Robbie Robertson's eponymous solo debut. In conjunction with Brian Eno, Lanois helped shape U2's sound in ways even they most certainly could not have imagined (credits include The Unforgettable Fire, Achtung Baby, All That You Can Leave Behind, and New Line on the Horizon). But while future productions would show more range (Ron Sexsmith, Luscious Jackson's Fever In, Fever Out), Lanois' 1980s output seemed somewhat limited to simply applying the "Lanois sound" (my quotes) to existing artists (Willie Nelson's Teatro, Emmylou Harris's Wrecking Ball). And no matter how exquisite that sound may be—and it really was exquisite, especially in 1987—homogenizing the sound of an entire lot of big name pop and country artists in an attempt to revive their careers isn't a great long-term strategy in my book.

But you know what? It worked for me with Robbie Robertson. I was never a fan of The Band and didn't have high expectations for Robertson's first solo record. And while songs like "Sweet Fire of Love" sound incredibly out of place (it is essentially a U2 song with Robbie Robertson's vocals), the bulk of this album holds up pretty well as a fine collection of songs, despite its heavy-handed production. "Fallen Angel," Robertson's elegy for former Band mate Richard Manuel, who took his own life in 1986, displays all the hallmarks of Lanois' production, including Manu Katché's syncopated drum work, Peter Gabriel's vocals and synth pads and a wash of wash of reverb that casts a sheen on the whole thing. There's also this sort of tribal world music influence evident in the heart-beat drum sequence that opens the piece and backing vocals that show up around 3:31—a well-worn arrow in Lanois' quiver.

I cannot deny it it a splendidly produced record but I have a hard time finding Robertson's prints anywhere on the thing. Which, for me, in 1987 was probably a good thing. Now, not as much. But as I focus on Robertson's expressive and revealing vocal performance (while simultaneously trying to tune out random splash cymbals), I'm thankful for any part Lanois played in bringing it out of him. It may be for a lack of experience with his catalog but I can't recall hearing anything this moving from Robertson prior to this record. It's a captivating performance and worthy of a setting with fewer distractions.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Song #398 of 9999 - Where the Streets Have No Name by U2

Song #398 of 9999

Title: Where the Streets Have No Name
Artist: U2
Year: 1987
Album: The Joshua Tree

By 1987, U2 had become popular enough to play stadium tours (in Europe, at least) and they were acutely aware of this impending engagement as they entered the studio to record The Joshua Tree. According to the exhaustive Wikipedia article on the song (wow!), The Edge (aka Dave Evans or is it the other way around?) wanted to "conjure up the ultimate U2 live-song" and set about creating what he thought the typical U2 fan craved in a life performance. And, by George, he did it. My job tonight is to shed some light on what I think makes this song big enough to fill a stadium.

To do that, I'm going to talk about the way rhythm and harmonic rhythm relate to one another in "Where the Streets Have No Name." We all know what rhythm is: those short and long notes that occur on the surface of a song. There's rhythm in the vocal line, the guitar part, the bass and (obviously) the drums. The harmonic rhythm is the speed at which the chords change as measured in rhythmic note values. So, if you were listening to a waltz and the chord changed every measure, the harmonic rhythm would be a dotted half note (3 beats). Get it?

So, here's what I think is going on with "Where the Streets Have No Name" that makes it so powerful. U2 had been playing with pulsating eighth- sixteenth-note beat patterns since their beginnings. "I Will Follow has eighth notes coursing through the song, which has a tempo somewhere around 152bpm. "Two Hearts Beat As One" exploits the sixteenth note with just a slightly slower tempo (approx. 144bpm). "Sunday Bloody Sunday," from the same record, also relies on sixteenth notes as the motor (in Mullen's hi-hat), with a much slower tempo (about 100bpm). As The Edge begins to experiment more and more with digital delay and these sixteenth notes get built into his guitar playing, they become a staple of U2's sound and tempos appear to level around that 100bpm mark (see "Pride" from Unforgettable Fire). 

I haven't really mentioned harmonic rhythm yet. Where does the rate of chord change fit in with this analysis? Well, "I Will Follow" has the whole note as its harmonic rhythm (chord changes every four beats). "Two Hearts Beat As One" changes less frequently, every eight beats, which makes sense according to my theory—the rhythmic activity on the surface has gotten busier so the underlying activity has slowed. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" has a quicker harmonic rhythm—it's variable, but about every two beats during the chorus. But remember, the tempo has slowed considerably and I believe this allows for the more frequent chord changes. And finally, "Pride" has a fairly consistent change of chord every measure (4 beats) while maintaining the reduced tempo.

What about "Where the Streets Have No Name"? Are you ever going to get to it? Right now, in fact! Once the song emerges from the church organ section (in 3/4—I never noticed!) and The Edge has established his pulsating sixteenth-note guitar riff, we get our first sense of the harmonic rhythm. Eight beats per chord during the intro, but wait! First chord of the verse: 24 beats. Eight beats each for the next several chords. On the bVII (C Major) when Bono first sings "where the streets have no name": 16 beats. During the chorus, 16-16-8-8-16.

What's my point? This a lumbering chord progression. Glacial. But the surface activity—all those sixteenth notes in the guitar, bass and drums—is like a motor fueled by explosions of energy. The song is like a rocket taking flight. It takes a lot of energy to get it moving and keep it moving because its massive. And that seems just perfect for stadium rock.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Song #397 of 9999 - Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley

Guest blogger Jim Tyrrell hijacks my blog this evening to take a closer look at the song that RickRolled a nation. Jim is a professional musician soon to be playing at a bar near you! (provided you are near or in the great state of New Hampshire) You can learn more about Jim by visiting his website: or follow him on Twitter @jimtyrrell. Live free or die!


Song #397 of 9999

Title: Never Gonna Give You Up
Artist: Rick Astley
Year: 1987
Album: Whenever You Need Somebody

Hi! Guest blogger Jim Tyrrell here. I get to write about a song from 1987. This happens to have been my senior year in high school. Listening to the radio was a big part of my life then (much more than it is now), and I'd like to share with you a song that was huge then, and has clearly withstood the test of time. 69 MILLION YouTube viewers can't be wrong, after all:

Okay. Since we're here, let's talk a little bit about this gem. There's actually some legitimate information about it, I promise.

The song was written and produced by Stock Aitken Waterman, whom you can also thank for Dead Or Alive's "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)", and a bunch of Kylie Minogue stuff.

I find this fascinating: in August 2010, the video had gotten over 39 million plays on YouTube. The amount of money Rick Astley saw from this? 12 DOLLARS.

Back in '87, during the Whenever You Need Somebody album's original popularity, I remember thinking you could take this song and his song Together Forever and "mash them up" into some kind of Frankensong because of their blatant similarity. At the time, I meant it as an insult to Astley and his apparently limited musical creativity. Here in the distant future, we can actually witness the result:

Perhaps my favorite moment in American politics: April 1, 2011, the Oregon State House. A video is posted showing legislators from both sides of the aisle. They have all slipped lines from the song into their addresses, and these have been assembled into this:

And what does Mr. Astley think of his awkward stumble back into the spotlight? In a 2012 interview he talks about his video's resurgence, and about the state of the music industry in general. It can be found here.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Songs #395 & 396 - It's TWOsday!

Song #395 of 9999                                          Song #396 of 9999

Title: Tom's Diner                                          Title: Tom's Diner (Instrumental)
Artist: Suzanne Vega                                      Artist: Suzanne Vega
Year: 1987                                                      Year: 1987
Album: Solitude Standing                             Album: Solitude Standing

(no videos for this one—click on the links to play)

Suzanne Vega had "Tom's Diner" rattling around her head for nearly five years before it reached a mass audience as the opening track from her sophomore effort Solitude Standing. Although she had envisioned the song with piano accompaniment, she began opening concerts singing it a cappella and found it so effective she decided to record it as such for her forthcoming record.

The song has since become legendary for being the track that helped shaped MP3 compression, earning Vega the nickname "Mother of the MP3." Apparently, German audio engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg heard the song while working on his audio compression scheme and was convinced that an unaccompanied voice with such warmth would be decimated by his algorithms. After confirming his suspicions, he set out to refine the compression process, eventually uncovering a process that resulted in a satisfactory result. (Vega remained unconvinced, noting a "lack of warmth" and a "little more high end" in a New York Times essay from 2008.)

Having listened to a lot of music from 1987 over the past few days, "Tom's Diner" in its the original version sounds so naked, free not only from musical accompaniment, but also from typical studio effects such as reverb or delay. For an unaccompanied vocal, the tempo is surprisingly brisk, almost jaunty. Not every melody will work in this context but this one does because the key (F# Minor) is suggested by the melody, which begins with a tetrachord that suggest the beginning of the scale and the tonic triad (F#-G#-A-C#). As the verse develops, descending chromatic lines cohort with ascending leaps of a 6th and then 7th to suggest a bit of two-part polyphony carved from a single line! This hidden counterpoint works to convey a harmonic structure not readily apparent at the surface.

Vega maintains interest in the strophic form through the use of silence and variations in tempo. Consider this plot of the form:

Verse 1 (silence) | Verse 2 (silence) | Verse 3 | Verse 4 (silence) | Verse 5—rubato | Doo-doo-doo

The silence is extremely effective, facilitated by the use of monosyllabic words ending with (mostly hard) consonants (in, milk, head, skirt). Wisely, the silence is vacated between verses 3 and 4 and Verse 5 offers variations in tempo that signify the end is near. These cues help to structure a song that would otherwise risk being perceived as repetitive, especially without the normal textural variations that come with instrumental accompaniment.

Solitude Standing rather cleverly concludes with an instrumental version of the tune, which Vega hoped would be viewed as "Brechtian." It has the right feel I suppose but that fretless electric bass and synthesizer have 1987 written all over them. And anyway, I think she probably means "Weillian" as I'm unaware of any music composed by Bertolt Brecht. :)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Song #394 of 9999 - Movin' Out (Anthony's Song) by Billy Joel

Song #394 of 9999

Title: Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)
Artist: Billy Joel
Year: 1977
Album: The Stranger

I had all but settled in to write about a song from Fleetwood Mac's Rumours when I remembered listening to The Stranger earlier in the week and being particularly struck with just how perfectly constructed the opening track is. "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" is one of those songs I think we've all heard a few too many times but to go back and revisit it was really a joy. There are better songs on this record ("Just the Way You Are" comes to mind) but I wonder if there are any that present such a perfectly assembled jigsaw of musical elements such as this.

The chord progression that opens the tune and continues into the verse is simple and straightforward, a so called circle progression (descending 5th root relationship) in the natural minor. But it's the semi-chromatic guitar riff that really catches your attention out of the gate. It's similarity to Maroon 5's "This Love" serves as a reminder of just how influential Billy Joel has been on today's pop artists.

riff:        D'    D             A Ab   G                            D'   C                  E           F             A    C
chords:  Dm (i)  /     /      /      | Gm (iv)   /     /     /      |  C (VII)   /     /     /    | F (III)    /     /     /   |
The rhythmic phrasing and syncopation of the vocal delivery is really masterful in all aspects. Joel sings it spectacularly but it's the setting of the lyric that makes it possible—prosody at its finest. And then of course there is the setup to one of two major hooks in the tune ("heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack"): the chords proceed as with the verse (Dm-Gm) but following the "echo" singing, the progression substitutes Bb-C-Dm (VI-VII-i), an ascension that is known for its grandiosity and is accentuated by Beatle-esque backing vocals. It's a very cool moment...

...only to be outdone by the windup to the even bigger hook. Listen to the sequence in the lead guitar during the chorus ("And it seems such a waste of time...") as it climbs a tonal ladder, literally "movin' up" the scale as the chord progression rises and falls (Bb-C-A7/C#-Dm-Bb-A) before finally settling on the dominant to prepare the titular hook ("movin' out!"). The da capo is peppered with a perfectly placed and purposeful saxophone duet, plugging a hole you didn't even know was there. It's a tremendously clever arrangement. That this all happens within the first minute of the song is a measure of the track's efficiency. There's even enough room left for an instrumental outro in the parallel major mode.

Not sure whether the credit goes to producer Phil Ramone or Joel himself (a bit of both, I imagine) but I reckon this is about as perfect a piano rock track as one can muster. And if it lit a fire under the likes of Ben Folds and Fountains of Wayne and yes, even Maroon 5, all the better.

See you tomorrow in 1987.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Song #393 of 9999 - Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band by Meco

Song #393 of 9999

Title: Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band
Artist: Meco
Year: 1977
Album: Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk

I'm a little short on time tonight so I thought I would just throw up what must be a fond memory for some and a crazy unknown abomination for others. I find that catchy movie soundtracks are rare these days—even those written by master soundtrack composer John Williams. But in 1977, everyone could sing the main title theme to Star Wars. Williams had constructed a masterpiece of leitmotifs for George Lucas's space opera and repeated viewings of the film were enough to plant the music into the psyches of millions, who went out and purchased what was probably (for most) their first record of "classical music."

But one thing the soundtrack did not have were the sound effects from the film. The noises made by the laser cannons, R2-D2, Chewbacca and more were in and of themselves quite unique and interesting for the time. Pop music producer Meco astutely recognized this and paired the award-winning sound effects with his hyper-active disco arrangement to create a piece of music that was entrancing to this 9-year-old. The inclusion of the Cantina Band Theme made it all the better—no-one ever questioned how weirdo musicians at the Mos Eisley Spaceport bar managed to stumble upon old timey jazz. (However, that weird space disco played by an alien elephant in Return of the Jedi is another story.) Depending on your tolerance level, you may wish to graduate from this four-minute version (which spent two weeks at #1 on the Billboard charts and sold two million records) to the 7.5-minute version (on Spotify) or even the 16-minute medley (also on Spotify).

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Song #392 of 9999 - (I'd Go the) Whole Wide World by Wreckless Eric

Song #392 of 9999

Title: (I'd Go the) Whole Wide World
Artist: Wreckless Eric
Year: 1977
Album: A Bunch of Stiff Records

Tonight, a break from spotlighting artists and their music (sort of) to celebrate an upstart record label that found itself in the right place at the right time and made a splash with its savvy signings and unusual marketing techniques. Formed in 1976 in London, Stiff Records arrived just in time to capitalize on the punk spirit running rampant in the UK but signed artists that would usher in the new wave era. The compilation A Bunch of Stiff Records boasts a lineup that includes Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds, Graham Parker, Motörhead and Wreckless Eric. Subsequent signings of Ian Dury, Madness and The Damned brought even greater success.

The label was expert at producing effective promotional campaigns, combining several artists into package tours with a different headliner each night and using guerilla tactics to promote their artists. One such tactic landed Elvis Costello in jail when he was arrested for unauthorized busking outside of a London meeting of CBS Records executives in protest of a lack of label support in the USA. (Apparently, it worked as he was signed to Columbia Records, a CBS affiliate, a few months later.) Other schemes included postering over unwitting record stores with ads for their records.

I must admit I was unfamiliar with Wreckless Eric's "(I'd Go the) Whole Wide World" before its prominent use in the 2006 film Stranger than Fiction. In the film, Will Ferrell attempts to fulfill his dream of learning the guitar upon hearing a prognostication of his untimely death. Early in his study, he is encouraged to play a song by his love interest, played by Maggie Gylenhaal. Setting aside his nerves, Ferrell reluctantly performs "Whole Wide World" as it falls within his current skill set of two chords. (Click here for a video of the scene.)

How can a song with only two chords be so enticing? It's a bit of a mystery really—I mean, the vocal melody of the verse consists of only two notes! But the answers are found in the building blocks of form: repetition and variety. The repetition is obvious (two chords, same vocal melody). Some readily apparent examples of variation can be found in the arrangement (bass solo w/tom-toms; contrasting drum patterns; guitar arpeggios; hand-claps; vocal doubling on the chorus)—the song is well-appointed given the limited instrumentation. But there are a few subtle things that I find really effective. The first is the one-line sneak preview of the chorus that occurs at 0:26. Another is the extended second line of the chorus, in which a 2/4 measure is inserted to accommodate the extra syllables in the line find out where they hide her. And while this is a more obvious thing and an attribute of the arrangement, I think the modified cha-cha rhythm of the chorus goes a long way toward making the song unique. Two chords never sounded so good!

Feel free to reply with your favorite two-chord songs. It's free!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Song #391 of 9999 - Year of the Cat by Al Stewart

It's time for me to take a night off and hand the keys to the blog over to yet another of my super-cool friends. Coincidentally, tonight's blogger is the wife of last week's guest Glenn Case! Rachael Layne is a very talented singer and just about the nicest human being on the planet. She is the pretty half of the duo Glenn and Rachael, SongFight royalty who appear on Glenn's newest album Throw Money, singing their tender duet "Need Stilts." You can check it out here.

Song #391 of 9999

Title: Year of the Cat
Artist: Al Stewart
Year: 1977
Album: Year of the Cat

"Year of the Cat" is the title track of the 1976 album Year of the Cat. The "Year of the Cat" single reached #8 on the Hot 100 in Billboard in March 1977, which is why I am able to squeak by in picking this song to fulfill my 1977 song selection. [Editor's Note: We'll allow it. ;) ]

I have picked this song because it is one of my all-time favorites. While I don't play any musicial instruments myself, I love this composition from a listener’s perspective. I am mesmerized by the piano work as soon as this song begins. There are many lengthy instrumental sections in this song including (but certainly not limited to) cello, violin, piano, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, synthesizer, and saxophone. While the variety of instruments could potentially prove overwhelming, the mix is crafted in such a way that it adds to the “story” of the song.

For me, the lyrics are the real magic throughout the song because they are so descriptive. I honestly get lost in the words. The song is essentially from the perspective of a tourist who seems to have met an interesting local who is utterly intoxicating. One of my favorite lines is “She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running like a water color in the rain.” As the song goes on the tourist “loses” his bus ticket and will “unexpectedly” be staying longer than planned.

Should you choose to venture into Al Stewart’s fantastic catalogue of music, "Year of the Cat" is a very good place to start.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Song #390 of 9999 - Alison by Elvis Costello

Song #390 of 9999

Title: Alison
Artist: Elvis Costello
Year: 1977
Album: My Aim is True

How cool was Elvis Costello in 1977! Here is a guy whose aesthetic is punk rock. But he shows up looking like Buddy Holly with his nerdy glasses and adopts a name that seems a cross between a washed up icon (we all love Elvis, but in 1977—just before his death—he was a wreck) and a fat comedian (I'm talking Lou Costello, but in reality, the name was adopted from his father's stage name). But he pulls it all off because he writes great songs with varied subject matter that seem to transcend genre.

Costello's strength of conviction and downright fearlessness are exemplified in a 1977 Saturday Night Live performance where he stopped mere bars into "Less Than Zero," the song his record company insisted he play, and launched into "Radio, Radio," a new song which he explicitly promised not to play. His antics earned him a ten-year ban from performing on Saturday Night Live (oh right, I guess they weren't as irreverent as they let on) but also laid the groundwork for future legendary status. That he did this while his career was off to a sputter of a start in the US makes it all the more impressive. Here's a video of the incident:

And now "Alison." "Alison" is a gorgeous song by any standard. And while the lyrics are worth a good hard look, I'm going to get into the song structure a bit and leave the interpretation to you. What I find fascinating about this song is how hard it resists the tonic. Rooted in the key of E, the song commences on the subdominant (A) after a brief introduction and establishes the key by way of a plagal cadence (IV-I):

                 A                                           E
Oh, it's so funny to be seeing you after so long girl

After that first line, the tonic jumps ship with Costello poking around the midsection of the key:

                      A (IV)                                       G#m (iii)         C#m (vi)   B(V)
And with the way you look I understand that you are not impressed.
A (IV)                                    G#m (iii)  C#m (vi)       D (bVII)                           B(V)
But I heard you let that little friend       of mine          take off your party dress.

The tonic finally returns during the chorus and even then it's delayed by the subdominant, but the resulting cadence is so satisfying:

A(IV)           E (I)

The rising syncopated melody that follows is one of my favorite moments in all of pop. The rhythmic spacing of the words (I know this world is killing you) combined with Costello's almost strained delivery is almost chill-inducing. Kudos to the arranger for having the band mimic the rhythm of the vocal line and to producer Nick Lowe for doubling the vocal track in unison at that moment. It's perfect.

By the way, according to my sources (*cough*—Wikipedia), the entirety of My Aim is True was recorded in four 6-hour sessions. This is a great reminder for all my musician friends out there toiling over some project you've had on your computer for a year. :D

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Song #389 of 9999 - Deacon Blues by Steely Dan

Song #389 of 9999

Title: Deacon Blues
Artist: Steely Dan
Year: 1977
Album: Aja

Forcing myself to write a quick, short blog post tonight so I can hang out with my friend and guest blogger Erik Schlosser (see post #360). We decided to feature one of our favorite songs from Aja, the brilliant "Deacon Blues."

Rarely does a singer sing about a character this pathetic in the first person. From the outset of the song, Donald Fagen describes a gluttonous man in the most grandiose of terms:
This is the age of the expanding man
That shape is my shade, there where I used to stand.
The song continues down a dark path of gambling, drinking, sex and—worst of all—saxophone playing. The chorus separates the winners and losers of life and it's clear where this dude stands:
I'll learn to work the saxophone
I'll play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whisky all night long
And die behind the wheel
They got a name for the winners in the world
I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues
In the end, Erik and I debated whether this was a celebration of the degenerate lifestyle or a suicide note(!). We couldn't decide and Fagen isn't telling. What do YOU think?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Songs #387 & 388 - It's TWOsday!

Song #387 of 9999                                         Song #388 of 9999

Title: Anarchy in the U.K.                               Title: White Riot
Artist: The Sex Pistols                                    Artist: The Clash
Year: 1977                                                      Year: 1977
Album: Never Mind the Bollocks,                  
Album: The Clash
             Here's the Sex Pistols


Nineteen seventy-seven was the year that punk rock became a sensation in the English-speaking world. The New York-based Ramones had already established themselves as a driving force, releasing their third album, Rocket to Russia, which provided their greatest success to date. California punk bands such as The Germs and X were gaining greater prominence. And in Australia, The Saints became the first band to release punk record outside of the United States (thank you Wikipedia—I give credit).

But in England, punk rock was developing into something much bigger than a minor musical movement, gaining prominence—perhaps more accurately, notoriety— in the mainstream. And while the musical influence of the Ramones was obvious, the lyrics dealt with socio-political issues rather than dancing and school. Debut albums by The Sex Pistols and The Clash aimed to incite action, even violence, from those who would listen and were considered shocking and revolting by older generations. 

The two bands apparently had very different goals, at least as evidenced in their musical styles and approach. In "Anarchy in the U.K.", (comma outside the parentheses in honor of the subjects!) Johnny Rotten (née John Lydon) provocatively declares himself an "anti-Christ" in an over-enunciated snarl that is as insistent as his demands are vague. Readily admitting in the lyric that he "don't know what (he) want(s)", Rotten eventually makes a scant political point when name-dropping the MPLA, UDA and IRA (organizations I know little about and don't wish to research at the moment!). The crude instrumentation and performance perfectly compliment Rotten's vitriol and the infectious energy of the track is irresistible to anyone with even a passing interest in the musical genre.

The Clash on the other hand seem to have a long-term strategy. "White Riot" shows a level of maturity that would not jibe with the bratty antics of John Lydon and Co. Faster and more reflective of the NYC bands who influenced them, the track opens with sophisticated guitar work and a real vocal hook in the chorus. The lyrics are clever and impactful ("Are you taking over/Or are you taking orders? Are you going backwards/Or are you going forwards?") and the song itself is organized in a way that almost makes it the antithesis of "Anarchy in the U.K." It's so efficient that it makes its point about economic inequality, dares the listener to take action, gives you eight choruses to sing along to (as well as two guitar solos) and still clocks in under two minutes! This is a band with their sights on the long game even as they're just beginning, so it should be no wonder that they went on to release five more studio albums (including the excessively brilliant London Calling) while The Sex Pistols had disbanded less than a year later.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Song #386 of 9999 - She's a Rainbow by The Rolling Stones

Song #386 of 9999

Title: She's a Rainbow
Artist: The Rolling Stones
Year: 1967
Album: Their Satanic Majesties Request

I've always been a bit amused by the "Who's better, The Beatles or The Stones?" debate which is almost always begun by someone whose answer is the latter. It's like a built-in inferiority complex or an underdog syndrome—I'm not sure—but I've always seen it as kind of a pointless discussion. I must confess I haven't heard it for some time but it was quite prevalent when I was a kid and The Beatles weren't such a distant memory.

But in the late 1960s, there was certainly some talk of a rivalry between the two whether real or imagined. The bands seemed to get on okay, with McCartney and Lennon even showing up to contribute some backing vocals to a couple of songs on the Stones' second album of 1967, Their Satanic Majesties Request, which was frequently touted as their answer to The Beatles' landmark Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But at a time when The Beatles were relying even more heavily on their longtime producer George Martin, The Rolling Stones found themselves without one after longtime manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham resigned over frustration with the band's increasingly decadent lifestyle, which had led to recent drug busts and a lack of focus in the recording studio.

But the record that Keith Richards would later describe as "a load of crap" did produce "She's a Rainbow," which arguably does meet the standard set by Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's... With a string arrangement by Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones and stylish Baroque piano playing by Nicky Hopkins, the song boasts one of the more creative arrangements to appear on a Stones record. The tempo fluctuations and childlike backing vocals contribute to a colorful setting in support of lyrics that may or may not be blue. The cacophonic conclusion is not dissimilar to moments present on the next Beatles record, the so-called "White Album." A moment of clever invention during a difficult time for the so-called "anti-Beatles."

Friday, October 11, 2013

Song #385 of 9999 - I Think We're Alone Now by Tommy James and the Shondells

Song #385 of 9999

Title: I Think We're Alone Now
Artist: Tommy James and the Shondells
Year: 1967
Album: I Think We're Alone Now

Uh-oh, my readership is dipping. Too much talk of the Muslim influence on Spanish flamenco music during my "White Rabbit" discussion? Okay, maybe I strayed a bit.

I think if someone asked me which artist has had his/her songs covered in the most atrocious manner without any positive residual effects on that artist's own career trajectory, I would choose Tommy James and The Shondells. At least, I would today because that's who I want to write about. During the 1980s, Tommy James and the rest of the world had to suffer through terrible renditions of "Mony, Mony" (Billy Idol), "Crimson and Clover" (Joan Jett), and of course Tiffany's "I Think We're Alone Now."—each one devoid of any soul whatsoever. These cover songs are the reason the phrase "crimes against humanity" was coined.

In its original form, "I Think We're Alone Now" is such a clever little teenage love song. It tells the tale of two kids whose parents don't approve of their relationship, forcing them to sneak around to see one another. The premise itself is so easily relatable to anyone who has ever dealt with a lack of approval over their choice of a boyfriend or girlfriend. 

But it's the details of the arrangement that work to make this a "bubblegum apotheosis," as described rock critic Lester Bangs. I love how the song shifts into overdrive during the line running just as fast as we can by placing the snare on every downbeat and changing the bass guitar rhythm from straight eighths to a gallop. The rasp in James's voice on the line trying to get away into the night over a bVII in the harmony is a favorite moment for me. But the pièce de resistance and most important musical decision made in the performance and production is to turn the chorus into a whisper by removing the rhythm. This makes perfect sense with the lyric—I think we're alone now/there doesn't seem to be anyone around now—and highlights just how clueless the Tiffany rendition is. (Yes, I know it went to #1—there was a lot of cocaine ingestion in the 80s.) The heartbeat and crickets are a cute touch but it's really the drop in dynamic at the outset of the chorus that makes the moment. Brilliant song.

P.S. Just for fun, here's the original cover for the album I Think We're Alone Now. Consider this: it was considered too suggestive and subsequent pressings were issued with a picture of the band instead. In 1967! Crazy.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Songs #383 & 384 of 9999 - Surprise! It's Thursday x2

Song #383 of 9999                                         Song #384 of 9999

Title: White Rabbit                                        Title: Saeta
Artist: Jefferson Airplane                              Artist: Miles Davis
Year: 1967                                                     Year: 1960
Album: Surrealistic Pillow                            Album: Sketches of Spain


"White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane has such a unique structure for a pop song that it's worth examining not just the composition itself, but the influences that led to its creation. Rarely do we experience a song that is essentially one long crescendo, beginning from nothing and rising in a straight line dynamically with no discernable arc. The most obvious comparison, as informed by the rhythmic ostinato present throughout the entirety of the piece, is to Ravel's Bolero, classical music's equivalent, which has the same dynamic structure (albeit across eight minutes instead of two-and-a-half) but surprisingly less of the pseudo-Phrygian tonality so strongly associated with Spanish music.

In interviews, songwriter Grace Slick makes mention of a "bolero" that influenced her writing as the one "used by Miles Davis and Gil Evans on their 1960 album Sketches of Spain." She is most assuredly referring to the song "Saeta," which is not a bolero but has tonal and rhythmic characteristics similar to Slick's composition, including the aforementioned Phrygian tonality (marked by a semitone at the beginning of the scale—in this case F#-G), a melismatic style of performance (heard in Slick's singing and in the bassoon that opens "Saeta"), and a similar rhythmic cadence in the snare drums of each track. "Saeta" sets its melodies over a sustained drone whereas "White Rabbit" utilizes a chord progression more suited to popular music.

For the sake of knowledge (and that's what we're all here for, right?), saeta is a form of religious song from the southern region of Spain which serves as the basis for the cante flamenco, performed by the singer in Flamenco music. Emanating from a region that was ruled by an Islamic empire for over half a millenium before falling under Christian rule, the songs seem obviously influenced by the intonation found in Muslim prayer. While I am certainly not an expert on the subject, I came to this realization while attending a remarkable flamenco performance in Seville immediately after witnessing the ever-strong Moorish influence on the surrounding areas. The most startling (and beautiful!) evidence of this influence can be found in the grand mosque/cathedral (yes, I know that is a weird word combo) in the town of Córdoba.

What's left to say about "White Rabbit"? I'm not going to get into all the Alice in Wonderland stuff, even though I do think it is interesting and creative for the time period. Slick's voice is perfectly suited for this style and song, capable of great power or delicateness when necessary. To me, the most shocking thing about the song is how short it is, which probably says more about the time period than anything as record companies were caught in-between the age of three-minute singles on 45RPMs and the dawn of album-oriented rock just on the horizon.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Song #382 of 9999 - Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks

Song #382 of 9999

Title: Waterloo Sunset
Artist: The Kinks
Year: 1967
Album: Something Else By The Kinks

Disclaimer: I am allowing myself only 20 minutes to write this post this evening—one minute for each year Pirates fans suffered waiting for tonight. Let's go Bucs.

I'm not much of a Kinks fan. I never really got the whole Village Green Preservation Society stuff and I can't just chalk it up to cultural differences. If the songs were awesome, I would like it, right?

So you write them off and then you hear a song like "Waterloo Sunset" and your jaw just drops at the charming simplicity of it all. And while I'd probably rather hear it sung by Elliott Smith, the Kinks' original version has its charms with its quirky backing vocals and McCartney-esque falsetto on the line And I don't need no friends. When I really pay attention to the lyrics, it's Ray Davies I want to hear because, with tongue practically sewn into his cheek, he's much more adept at pulling off lines like Chilly, chilly is the evening time. More earnest versions turn awkward at that moment.

So what's going on with this cascading melody that makes it so damn beautiful? I believe the answer is in the dissonance and resolution of the chordal sixth that occurs just before each chord change. Here's the melody with the sixth highlighted and chord changes below:

dirty old river / must you keep rolling / flowing in to  the night
c# b  e   c#—b   g#     f#   b      g#—f#   c#   b   g# f#—e   c#
                  E                                  B                            A

That the melody is pentatonic helps keep everything nice and open and breathable by not including those sticky semi-tones. This adds to the free and easy descent of the melodic sequence. To me, it's one of the most remarkable melodies in all of pop music history. I just love it. And I'm out of time. Go Bucs!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Songs #380 & 381 - It's TWOsday!

Song #380 of 9999                                                            Song #381 of 9999

Title: You Keep Me Hangin' On                                        Title: You Keep Me Hangin' On
Artist: The Supremes                                                         Artist: Vanilla Fudge
Year: 1967                                                                         Year: 1967
Album: The Supremes Sing Holland–Dozier–Holland     Album: Vanilla Fudge


Here's the story of one act's career slowly grinding to a halt while another's is just getting started. And how a song can transcend and overcome trends in pop music.

By 1967, the stellar songwriting/production team known as Holland-Dozier-Holland (H-D-H) was engaged in a dispute with Motown founder Gordy Berry over royalties. H-D-H was responsible for writing and producing almost every record The Supremes released while at Motown, including "Where Did Our Love Go," "Baby Love," "Come See About Me," "Stop! In the Name of Love," "Back in My Arms Again," "I Hear a Symphony," "You Can't Hurry Love," and "You Keep Me Hangin' On"—eight #1 singles in just over two years! The dispute with Motown resulted in a deliberate work slowdown and, by 1968, they were gone. And while The Supremes continued to have moderate success, they found it harder and harder to crack the Top 20 without their writing team. Soon after, Diana Ross left the group and they never had another number one again.

In the meantime, psychedelic rock was gaining a foothold beyond California and bands with names like Moby Grape, the Electric Prunes, Strawberry Alarm Clock, and Vanilla Fudge starting popping up. (Did it just get hungry in here?) And while most were composing their own lengthy compositions, the Long Island band Vanilla Fudge decided to tap into their influences and record heavy, organ-tinged arrangements of the pop songs they enjoyed. And so just a year after The Supremes hit the charts with "You Keep Me Hangin' On" (in 1966, technically), Vanilla Fudge scored with their pumped-up version form their eponymous debut. (I'm featuring the album-length cut here, but a single version was released for radio airplay.)

While slower and driven by Carmine Appice's forceful drumming, it's actually kind of startling how true to the original Vanilla Fudge's version is. They don't just maintain the Morse-code like ostinato but build upon it later in the song for maximum musical impact. The spoken word break, delivered with cute exasperation by Diana Ross, isn't nearly as awkward as I expected it to be, with Mark Stein sounding both hopeless and helpless. In the end, Vanilla Fudge's version sounds very much like the male counterpoint to The Supremes' version—kudos for keeping the backing vox, which helps a lot in making the connection—and I have more than a little fun imagining that they are singing about one another.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Song #379 of 9999 - She May Call You Up Tonight by The Left Banke

I don't usually start the week with a guest blogger but I'm tired and it's just so easy. TONIGHT, and for one night only, 9999 Songs is proud to present Spokane's very own Glenn Case, discussing one of his favorite songs from 1967. Glenn is an accomplished singer/songwriter who recently released his long-awaited LP Throw Money, which you can hear here. (You can probably buy it too, but that information seems surprisingly difficult to find. We'll get the marketing team on that right away.)

Song #379 of 9999

Song: She May Call You Up Tonight
Artist: The Left Banke
Year: 1967
Album: Walk Away Renée/Pretty Ballerina

I have found that the story behind a song can often help me to appreciate that composition in a new light.

The excellent liner notes of many Rhino records compilations are usually a perfect companion to the music they accompany. I mistakenly thought that "There's Gonna Be A Storm" was released by Rhino, but it's actually a collection of the Left Banke's complete recordings from 1966-1969 that was put out by Mercury. I believe the fact that my memory mistook it for a Rhino release speaks to the quality of the information contained in the booklet.

Don't get me wrong, This 26 song collection is not packed with keepers, but there are some tremendous songs and, as it turns out, three of the very best songs (including the band's biggest hit) were all written about the same woman.

According to the liner notes, "(Bass player, Tom Finn) introduced his girlfriend Renée Fladen to the rest of the group in late 1965. As it turned out, Finn was not the only member attracted to her and almost instantly (Keyboardist, Michael Brown) composed three of The Left Banke's biggest songs about Fladen: 'She May Call You Up Tonight,' 'Pretty Ballerina,' and of course 'Walk Away Renée.'"

"Walk Away Renée" is easily the band's biggest hit. It was successfully covered by the Four Tops, and the Left Banke's version ranked #220 on Rolling Stone's "The RS 500 Greatest Songs of All Time." The band's sound was referred to as Baroque Pop or "Bach-Rock," likely because of the harpsichords and strings that can be found in a number of their songs.

My song choice, "She May Call You Up Tonight" is more of a straight ahead Pop/Rock song, clocking in at a swift 2 minutes and 18 seconds. Gone are the harpsichords and strings, which might have had something to do with why the single didn't chart as high as the other two Renée Fladen inspired songs: The band had a signature sound, and that sound is mostly abandoned here.

What the song DOES have is piano, bass, drums, guitars, vocal harmonies and a wonderful chord structure. Sounds like I'm describing a Beatles song, right? Well, it goes without saying that the fab four were an influence. In fact, "Good Day Sunshine" was one of the songs this band "cut their teeth on" according to the booklet of "There's Gonna Be A Storm."

I believe this song is worth your time if you have two and a half minutes to spare, and you enjoy the sound of 60's pop inspired by the British Invasion acts of the era.

If you love what you hear, it might be worthwhile to check out the entire "There's Gonna Be A Storm" album, and/or the Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs cover version of "She May Call You Up Tonight."