Monday, November 25, 2013

Blog on Vacation.

After nearly three months of daily posts, the 9999 Songs blogging team has requested a vacation and I reluctantly acquiesced. Please join me in wishing the writers, researchers, graphic artists and everyone involved in bringing 9999 Songs to you a very Happy Thanksgiving!

The blog will return on Monday December 3 with songs from 1988 and a new logo.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Song #431 of 9999 - Honesty by Billy Joel

Song #431 of 9999

Title: Honesty
Artist: Billy Joel
Year: 1978
Album: 52nd Street

Last month, I took a look at "Movin' Out," an uptempo rocker that was wholly representative of the "angry young man" category of songwriting that would help to define his career.  I ignored the excellent ballads on The Stranger ("Just the Way You Are" and "She's Always a Woman") so I thought it was time to explore this other side of Joel's songwriting. Having hit so big with his 1977 effort, the stakes were high for 52nd Street and Joel proved he was up for the challenge with "Honesty."

If you're not a fan of schmaltz, then you may turn your nose at this choice—it's easy to be cynical in 2013 about a pop ballad written 35 years ago. And I'll admit the lyrics are nothing to write home about. But "Honesty" shows Joel has a real gift for melody and a penchant for incorporating the classical and jazz elements he studied as a kid taking piano lessons in his suburban New York childhood home.

The piece begins with a sad little opening, reminiscent of a Beethoven sonata or perhaps one of the minor-key Chopin preludes Barry Manilow was so fond of quoting in the mid-70s. But shortly after establishing Bb Minor, the song moves forward in the parallel Bb Major. I think this intro is kind of important for establishing the tone of the song. I always caution my students not to equate minor with sad and major with happy but this minor opening manages to establish a sense of pathos in a matter of seconds.

What follows is fairly standard in terms of melodic harmonization, but there is one transition I find really special. Throughout the verse, Joel gradually introduces chords from outside the key of Bb Major (Am in the second line, C and A Major in the third line). Finally, in the fourth line, on a rising melody meant to shepherd the listener to the chorus, he takes us even further outside the key (the chords are Eb-A-Dsus-D), while simultaneously reaching a melodic climax on the final word of the line:

What happens next is the moment that makes the song for me. Joel sustains the high D into the chorus to become the 7th of an Ebmaj7 chord, a deceptive resolution of the D major chord a semitone above. It's a simple idea but so effective in its execution. It puts us right back in the key of Bb (from which we were previously drifting) while rendering a climactic moment suitable for this early power ballad.

See you tomorrow in 1988!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

I need a logo!

I need a logo! Who will make me a logo that says "9999 songs" so I can replace that picture of me playing the oud? Send your submissions to or on Facebook or Twitter or whatever. Help - it's an aesthetic emergency!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Song #430 of 9999 - Radio, Radio by Elvis Costello and The Attractions

Song #430 of 9999

Title: Radio, Radio
Artist: Elvis Costello and The Attractions
Year: 1978
Album: This Year's Model

By 1978, Elvis Costello had found a band. Shortly after recording his 1977 debut My Aim is True, Costello formed The Attractions to accompany him on tour. They were present during the notorious Saturday Night Live appearance in December 1977 (I talked about this in last month's write-up of Alison) and he took them into the studio to record This Year's Model.

The results are stunning and markedly different. Everything is crisp and brimming with energy. Steve Nieve's trembly organ perfectly complements Costello's twitchiness and the rhythm section delivers a one-two punch worthy of Elvis's often venomous lyrical strikes. The band plays with a cohesion that simply brims with life. 

"Radio, Radio" is a great example of this new and improved configuration and defines the new Elvis Costello sound by framing a smart song with an efficient arrangement. What strikes me most about the performance and mix is how little is necessary—it's what they don't play that makes it work. The introduction gives us the full range of colors available within the quartet—guitar, organ, bass and drums—alternating legato quarter notes (tonic) with staccato eighth notes (dominant). When the verse begins, the band pulls back to allow clarity of Costello's text. Following the rising bass line, the chorus commences at 0:38 with a bit of a surprise. Instead of opening up, the song changes texture only slightly with the bass alternating tonic-dominant eighth notes and the drummer removing the snare completely, save to punctuate changes of chord. This is really quite unexpected but works so well in allowing the vitriol of Costello's lyric to shine through. Soon enough, we're presented with the hook accompanied by the full band introduction that opened the tune. Then, in a songwriting coup, Costello inserts a short bridge (1:09) prior to leading us back to the verse. This verse features a variation of the rising bass line, presented in stop-time (1:35), which again allows us to keep our attention on the lyric while simultaneously energizing a previously experienced section of the song. We can debate whether the song goes on for twenty more seconds than necessary, but the coda gives us an opportunity to listen to the excellent drumming of Pete Thomas who is superb for the duration of the record. A perfect arrangement of a great song.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Song #429 of 9999 - Eruption by Van Halen

Song #429 of 9999

Title: Eruption
Artist: Van Halen
Year: 1978
Album: Van Halen

You don't have to be a fan of Van Halen to recognize the talent and creativity of lead guitarist and band namesake Eddie Van Halen. "Eruption," the guitar solo that introduced the unique flair that came to characterize not just the man but also the band wasn't even supposed to appear on the eponymous debut. Producer Ted Templeman overheard Van Halen practicing it in the studio and insisted a recording be made. Van Halen has stated that it wasn't even a particularly good recording and cites mistakes none of us would probably recognize even if we were pointed directly toward them.

Although he had been performing a similar solo live for a few years before Van Halen was recorded, the "Eruption" recording marks the first time Van Halen incorporated the two-handed tapping technique that would make him famous. People who travel in guitar circles have often heard that Van Halen was not the first to use such techniques, that they dated back to pre-Baroque lute playing, but I can tell you with certainty that no-one had heard anything like this in 1978. The electric guitar, especially when fed through processors and pedals such as those being manufactured in the mid- to late-1970s, is especially well-suited for such a technique because it offers significantly more sustain than any acoustic instrument. The sound is fluid, almost like an organ or a synthesizer, where air or electrical current (respectively) can course infinitely allowing for a steady and lasting stream of notes.

Setting aside the specific virtuosic technique displayed in "Eruption," I'd like to talk about the composition itself because I think, in lesser hands, even with Van Halen's ability, a guitar solo of this nature could easily come off as a bunch of overwrought wankery. This is a serious composition worthy of being labeled a toccata, but perhaps short enough to be viewed merely as a cadenza serving as a prelude to the following track ("You Really Got Me"). 

The piece is through-composed but has a clear structure and a strong sense of direction. It opens with an A section marked by two improvisatory cadenze, each pronounced by a sustained chord—first tonic (Ab Minor), then subdominant (Db)—played by the band. The improvisations explore the entire range of the guitar and even playfully quote Kreutzer. At 0:46, an aggressive B section begins in the key of the tonic which utilizes an array of ornamentation before transitioning to the new key of C Minor. At 0:58, the two-handed tapping technique is employed, outlining triads which skillfully navigate the piece toward Eb Major while emphasizing a rising chromatic melody: cm (i), fm/c (iv 6/4), d°(ii/vii°--transition chord), Eb (I), Cb (bVI), Db (bVII), Eb (I). Once this apex is reached, the melody is turned around and a series of descending chromatic riffs leads to a grand cadence in the key of....Eb Minor! The piece is a journey and, along the way, Van Halen offers as many tone colors and textures as he can cram into 90 seconds, while simultaneously showing off his formidable chops. "Eruption" is a modern showpiece worthy of the same recognition given to similar works by Paganini or Liszt, although arguably it has more in common with, say, a toccata by Bach—it is Baroque in almost every sense of the word. Either way, it's the intelligent construction that keeps it from becoming album filler and elevates it to the level of serious composition.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Song #428 of 9999 - Miss You by The Rolling Stones

Boy, did I need a break tonight. Luckily, my good friend Regan Kelly swooped in with a guest blog to save me! Regan is originally from Central PA but now resides in Brooklyn with her awesome husband Alberto Riva. From what I have gathered, she spends the bulk of her time taking the most spectacular photos of people and things. Check out her work at Thanks Regan!

Song #428 of 9999

Title: Miss You
Artist: The Rolling Stones
Year: 1978
Album: Some Girls

Chances are you weren’t spending your nights at New York City’s Studio 54 at the end of the 1970s, but Mick Jagger was. You can hear those nights bubbling up through The Rolling Stones’ monster 1978 hit “Miss You,” arguably their deliberate – some say calculated – foray into disco. It was unmistakably disco, but filtered through the Stones’ singular, more sinister sensibilities. It’s solid while being slippery, with longing lyrics over an immediate, thumping bass groove.

Mick may have brought back the feeling of “Miss You” from the sounds he heard being spun in the clubs that year, but it was Billy Preston, then touring with the band, who contributed its super-slick bass line (later modified/refined by Bill Wyman). In fact, it’s that hyper-dominant bass line that differentiates “Miss You” from most of the Stones’ other songs, which are propelled instead mainly by Keith’s rhythm guitar.

“Miss You” differed, too, in the number of imported players it used: the track features Sugar Blue – found busking in the Paris street – on harmonica (instead of Mick); Mel Collins on sax; and Ian MacLagan on electric piano – an unusually outsider-y lineup then. Regardless of those many new and different voices it had to integrate, the song cooks.

“Miss You” was released in May of 1978 as a sort of dirty pre-tease to the “Some Girls” album to be released a month later. It shot to #1 that summer and stayed there. In fact, “Miss You” was one of those annual summer songs that absolutely could not be escaped – at the time, it seemed to be floating out of every apartment, every humid suburban backyard, every car window, at the same time languorous and insistent.

Having caught the cultural moment, “Miss You” re-established the Stones for a slightly younger generation – it was their 8th #1 hit and their first #1 in five years, closing the longish gap that followed “Angie” in ’73. It enabled the rejuvenated Stones to slip back into relevance, in the middle of a fast-changing music world that now sounded like not only disco, but also the counter-punch of punk.

If you were around in the summer of ‘78, you felt, even as it was happening, that the song marked a departure from earlier Stones. It was dark and interesting, crackling with a kind of summer-hot decadence and risk. And what’s rock and roll without an element of risk?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Songs #426 & 427 - It's TWOsday!

Song #426 of 9999                                   Song #427 of 9999

Title: Just What I Needed                         Title: Stacy's Mom
Artist: The Cars                                         Artist: Fountains of Wayne
Year: 1978                                                 Year: 2003
Album: The Cars                                       Album: 
Welcome Interstate Managers


Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? And I suppose if you put 25 years between the work of the flatteree and the flatterer, it's totally fine. Right?

I guess things get awkward when the copycat song becomes your biggest hit and heaps of attention are bestowed upon you. Fountains of Wayne have carved out a pleasant little niche in the indie pop world and their tribute to The Cars, a band whose finely honed song structure and arrangements had the attention of Adam Schlesinger from an early age, was probably expected to go gently into that good night like so many other great songs they had penned. But a saucy video and an extraordinarily catchy chorus put the band on everyone's radar and delivered them their first real international hit.

So which one stays on your iPod when you're running out of space? As much as I like Fountains of Wayne, I'm partial to The Cars' first single. The minute Benjamin Orr starts singing in that detached, slightly flat baritone, I'm hooked. Beyond that, there are these subtleties in the chord progression that work on my brain, especially where the mediant (G#) is concerned. It appears selectively within the chord progression, sometimes as a minor chord and other times major. This is emphasized in the keyboard solo at 0:47, which intertwines nicely with Elliot Easton's masterfully minimalist guitar track. (His solo at 1:49 is just one of many that put him near the top of my most underrated guitarists list.) But probably my favorite thing about this song is the drum track. When he turns the backbeat around at 2:12, I get almost giddy with delight.

Can "Stacy's Mom" compete at all with this pop masterpiece? Well, actually, it holds its own pretty well and even wins in one major way. The muted guitar intro is really lovingly rendered, to the point that Ric Ocasek thought it was a sample from "Just What I Needed." The verse is really quite predictable and only impressive if you hadn't experienced FoW's capacity for clever lyrics previously. But where I believe this song bests The Cars' effort is in the hook. The chorus is epic in its catchiness and, perhaps more significantly, the transitions both into and out of the chorus are amazingly well-crafted. Drool-worthy for a pop songwriter, really. And I have to admit the handclaps on the outro are a nice touch too—lifted from "My Best Friend's Girl" presumably!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Song #425 of 9999 - Heart of Glass by Blondie

Song #425 of 9999

Title: Heart of Glass
Artist: Blondie
Year: 1978
Album: Parallel Lines

One of the reasons I write this blog is to discover songs I've never heard. Not just things that are "off the beaten path" but songs I missed along the way. I've always admitted I have gaps in my knowledge of, well, just about everything. But where 1970s pop music is concerned, I was at the mercy of my father growing up and if he didn't like a song, I probably never heard it.

Such is the case with Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" which was new to me when I wrote about it last January. It was a TWOsday feature, paired with a Brian Eno/John Cale song (I also had never heard), which was influenced by the Giorgio Moroder concoction. And now here I am tonight with another song that seems so obviously influenced by Summer's tune, "Heart of Glass."

For many Blondie fans, I'm sure Parallel Lines signaled the beginning of the end for the band they adored. Truthfully, the songs really aren't all that different from their first two efforts but slick production from Mike Chapman pretty much insured this record was going to find a pop audience. And "Heart of Glass" is disco, plain and simple, even if it does toss the occasional 3/4-bar on the dance floor for people to trip over.

Debbie Harry borrows Summer's helium-filled vocal to deliver lines like "once I had a love and it was a gas" over bubbling accompaniment and the effect is intoxicating enough to make you forget just how insipid the lyrics are. (Seriously, don't even look at the lyrics.) The song is buried deep on side two of the album and was the fourth single—a crisis of confidence, perhaps? And yet, it hit #1 in ten countries, including the UK and US.

The bridge is pure pop perfection and no amount of analysis can explain why such things work—they just do. But the verse is quite fascinating. With everything that's going on at the surface, it's easy to overlook what's happening melodically and harmonically. Set in the key of E, the chords to the verse are E-C#-C#m-E (I-VI-vi-I). It's very simple but eloquent with the major submediant (VI) borrowed from the parallel minor (Oops! Thanks to Erik Schlosser for pointing out this mistake! Still unexpected but the VI in parallel minor would be C Major, not C# Major. Stupid tired brain.)—this was quite unexpected when I sat at the piano. But what really makes the verse unique is the note Harry sings to begin the airy melody over the E chord—a C#! This note effectively turns the E major chord into an E6, which I believe lends a bit more lift to a vocal that already seems to float above our stereos.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Song #424 of 9999 - Wichita Lineman by Glen Campbell

Song #424 of 9999

Title: Wichita Lineman
Artist: Glen Campbell
Year: 1968
Album: Wichita Lineman

Before I wrote my blog post on The Rolling Stones yesterday, I sat with "Wichita Lineman" for quite some time. I played it on the piano over and over again, marvelling at its harmonic structure and the way the tonality is kept hidden from the listener. I looked up the chords on the internet and found every version to be wrought with mistakes. (Who needs the bass note anyway?) [Editor's note: I just found an accurate version, which means there are probably a thousand accurate versions. Dammit!]

So let's get the other stuff out of the way. This is a rather unusual song, lyrically. It's been called "the first existential country song." Songwriter Jimmy Webb was inspired by a seemingly endless stretch of highway in Oklahoma lined with utility poles that stretched into the distance. As he drove down this road, he spotted a solitary worker on one of the poles and described the scene as "the picture of loneliness." His description of the sounds created by the wind rolling over the wires and of the electronic pulses that course through the lines is reflected in the strings and keyboards of the song's orchestration. It's admittedly a little dated but retains its cleverness.

But it's the harmonic progression that holds my attention. The song begins with an intro that establishes the key of F (F -  Gm7/F -  F  -  Gm7/C) before pretty much abandoning it forever. That last chord (Gm7/C) is a staple in 1970s-era pop music. It's a variant of Bb/C (in fact, we could probably write it as Bb6/C and be just as accurate), which is a IV chord over a V bass. It functions as a dominant and typically proceeds to the tonic (in this case, F). 

But this is where Webb steers us away. Instead of proceeding to F, he deceptively resolves to Bbmaj7, beginning the verse on the IV chord. Bb will eventually be the doorway through which we will pass to get to the song's real tonal center D. Check it out.
Gm7/C(ii7/V)           Bbmaj7(IV7)
I am a lineman for the county
Am7(iii7)            Gm7/C(ii7/V)
And I drive the main road
Dm(vi)           Am(iii)   G(II)     D(VI)
Searchin' in the sun for another overload

By the time we land on the word "overload," the key of D has been established even if we don't quite sense it yet. To me, that moment itself sounds like a plagal cadence (IV-I) with a Picardy 3rd, as if we were in D Minor (the relative minor of F)—do you also hear it? But what follows really establishes the key of D in my opinion and I will analyze it as such (with traditional chord inversions):
D(I)                      C(bVII)
I hear you singing in the wires
C(bVII)             G/B(IV6)
I can hear thru the whine
Gm/Bb(iv6)      D/A(I6/4)
And the Wichita Lineman
G/A(IV/V)       Bbmaj7(bVI7)
Is still on the line

Toward the end of this verse (chorus?), we really start to gravitate toward D. If there were any doubt, it is almost entirely erased by the D/A, functioning as a I 6/4. Then, we get that magical '70s chord (IV/V)—the same chord we saw in the intro that helped to establish the key of F (Bb/C)—this time in the key of D (G/A). And then once again, we are deceptively led to Bbmaj7! Only this time, it is clearly the sound of a (borrowed from the parallel minor) bVI in the key of D Major.

I know this is heavy and if you're not familiar with or comfortable with the chord symbols or terms, you probably turned your brain off three paragraphs ago. But if you're still with me, isn't this insanely brilliant! I love it and I think it points to one of many reasons why this song has established itself as a standard in the modern pop canon. 

Back tomorrow in 1978.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Song #423 of 9999 - Sympathy for the Devil by The Rolling Stones

Song #423 of 9999

Title: Sympathy for the Devil
Artist: The Rolling Stones
Year: 1968
Album: Beggars Banquet

Man, did I ever miss an opportunity for a TWOsday! Yesterday, I featured William Shatner reading a translation of Baudelaire's "Spleen" and now here I am tonight with "Sympathy for the Devil," the idea of which Mick Jagger claims was taken from the work of Baudelaire! Que sera sera, I suppose.

I mean no discredit to the body of work that came before Beggars Banquet—there are some remarkable songs on those early records—but it seems to me this is the album where The Rolling Stones stopped trying to compete with The Beatles and went their own way. The failure (relatively speaking) of Their Satanic Majesties Request, with its knockoff Sgt. Pepper's... cover, must have felt like a low point for a band that had been on the rise since landing in America, especially given all of the strife within the ranks. (I talk about this in my discussion of "She's a Rainbow.") And no matter what kind of flack they took over suggestive lyrics in songs like "Let's Spend the Night Together," nothing could have been more brazen or brave than opening their new album with "Sympathy for the Devil."

It's not just the lyrics that make the song, but can you imagine the equivalent record being released in the USA by a major artist today? Bobby Kennedy was murdered just months before the release of a song featuring the lines "I shouted out 'Who killed the Kennedys?'/Well, after all, it was you and me." Just having the word "devil" in the title would probably get the album banned from major retailers here. To be fair, the Stones did fall under some scrutiny at the time and were accused of being Satanists by many but I imagine the backlash would be more severe in today's market. 

Of course, context is important and the setting of these lyrics is unique even 45 years later. Jagger's original idea was a Dylanesque folk song, which would have been okay, I think—the lyrics are strong enough to be laid bare against an acoustic guitar. But Keith Richards took the song in a gloriously different direction, presenting it as a samba with multiple percussion and disembodied woo's. This combination must have scared the hell out of middle America! This was already a time of civil unrest and the Stones had marked it with their single "Street Fighting Man," which was banned from being played by Chicago radio stations during the Democratic National Convention. And now here they were with these tribal beats singing about the devil. In return, they received the upward career trajectory of their lives and an astounding creative outburst. Even Faust would have been impressed.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Song #422 of 9999 - Spleen/Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds by William Shatner

Song #422 of 9999

Title: Spleen/Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds
Artist: William Shatner
Year: 1968
Album: The Transformed Man

My sincere hope is that you will come to this blog post late tonight in a haze of one too many glasses of whatever intoxicating beverage makes you feel warmest during this unusually cold November (here in the Northeast US at least).

Here we have William Shatner, star of the television series Star Trek (still running at the time of this record), with his debut album of spoken word poetry and music. The poems are classics (Hamlet, Cyrano de Bergerac, Romeo and Juliet) paired with arrangements of popular songs of the day. The orchestrations are clever and professional and Shatner is....Shatner. 

Is he serious? Is this a joke? It is bad or is it good? These are all the wrong questions. Is it entertaining? That's really all we should be concerned with and I say yes! Shatner is 100% game and he gives his all on each and every track. The original music that accompanies the poetry is well-composed and expertly orchestrated. The pop songs are chosen carefully and the matches work.

"Spleen" is a poem by the provocative French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), drawn from his famous collection Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil). The poem is dark and introverted. Maybe I'm being influenced by what I've read about Les Fleurs du mal, but the despair and loneliness depicted in the poem seem rooted in an urban society. Grey walls close in on a soul trapped within the confines of a rapidly developing city.

By contrast, "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" renders a fantastic countryside offering a feast for all the senses. Tangerine trees, marmalade skies, cellophane flowers, bridges and fountains, marshmallow pies—what's not to like? But most of all, there is the girl. She's the protagonist's way out, even when he sadly finds himself "on a train in a station," just the kind of urban environment this fanciful world was meant to replace.

Is this brilliant or absurd? Has the protagonist of Baudelaire's poem lost it completely and retreated into his own mind? Or is the message here that love (in the form of the "girl with kaleidoscope eyes") can save you from the pressure, the noise, the enormity of modern life by keeping you grounded or— perhaps in this case—skyborne. I'll let you decide.

Need to hear this again but with pictures? May I suggest this mashup with some Japanese animé!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Song #421 of 9999 - Hey Jude by The Beatles

Hey, it's Guest Blogger night! I get a break and you get to read writing that someone actually spent time on. Tonight, I present BF Baker—songwriter, recording artist, publisher, experimental music hack, data juggler, slice of life videographer & wacky inventor from Salt Lake City, Utah. I met Bryan during my early SongFight days when he was kind enough to feature an interview with me in the very first issue of a new webzine he had created. (I even landed the cover!) Check out his site at for a plethora of interesting stuff but especially check out his signature site where you can sample his interviews and writing. Thanks Bryan!

Song #421 of 9999

Title: Hey Jude
Artist: The Beatles
Year: 1968
Album: N/A - single release

Music played a huge part in my house and the neighborhood where I grew up -- a small town called Roy, outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. The radio was usually always on in our house in the upstairs I shared with my four brothers. The Beatles' "Hey Jude" was my favorite song. It was released in 1968. I was six-years-old. It was a summer of crisis in the U.S., and even at that young age, I could feel the tension.

"Hey Jude" was recorded in July, released a month later on August 26 and spent 9 weeks at #1 on the U.S. charts—the longest of any Beatle single. It was the first record released on the Beatles' new Apple Records music label—a "double A" side backed by the hard-edged "Revolution" on the reverse side. The group flexed its popular power by insisting on making it a 7+ minute single. Executives said DJ's would take liberties with the track or no one would play it. John Lennon insisted they would, "...if it was us." I remember DJ's often cutting it short, but not always. AM radio was still popular at the time, but FM was growing. KCPX with Skinny Johnny Mitchell was the cool station. We listened to a lot of radio on an old portable. We took the cover off to expose its glowing tubes.

The song was part of the neighborhood as the summer winded down in 1968. Myself and three other friends formed a Beatle pretend band and mimicked Beatle songs in a friend's basement. I was Paul. He was always my favorite Beatle. You had to have a favorite Beatle. It sort of defined who you were. Just like with KISS, years later. Then I was Ace. It probably happened later with Public Enemy. You were Chuck D or Flavor Fav or... Spice Girls, etc.

But this was 1968. It was a long summer filled with war, protest and social conflict in the U.S. Demonstrations at national political conventions, war death tolls on the evening news back when they showed the soldiers' caskets lined up, along with daily footage from the ground and newspapers tallied the tolls day by day. Our side and their side. It was the peak of the Vietnam War. The war was being fought at home as well, out in the open. War at home is different now. In 1968, it was all around us. Even in my Utah Mormon small town. I have a strong memory of riding my bike home and passing by the high school just around the corner from my house where this hippie guy was sitting on the grass and flashing me his "one way" hand signal. He was looking right into my eyes and it jarred me. The youth culture was in a constant struggle with established norms. My parents didn't like it. Nobody's parent's liked it. There were definite boundaries. Clearly us against them. As a kid, you don't really have a side, but you feel the tension. If you have older brothers or sisters you might see them battle with your parents at home. It's always been a part of growing up, but this was different. Society was in a larger cultural battle. Things were changing.

It's telling that "Hey Jude" and "Revolution" were created and released at the same time, during that period of struggle. Like 1967's single with Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever" and McCartney's "Penny Lane," here were the world's greatest songwriters with their takes on a theme. But this was a year later and times had changed. This time the theme was about conflict and whether you can challenge it. Both Lennon and McCartney, I think, decide you must do it within yourself and come out the other end better and all right.

Lennon chose the political battles raging around the world as his stage challenging the rhetoric and turning it on its head, saying, instead of changing institutions you need to change yourself first -- you need to "change your head." It's a precursor to his and Yoko's "War is Over" if you want it. Do that and "it's gonna be all right." That was "Revolution"'s mantra.

I think McCartney was writing about a similar resolution in "Hey Jude," only from a personal perspective of fallout from changing relationships. Paul McCartney says "Hey Jude" was written to John Lennon's son Julian to make him feel better as he was going through his parent's break-up. Like with many songs, I'm sure it had an inspirational spark and started with a real event, but became about something much more. Lennon said he always thought the song was directed toward him or possibly toward Paul himself as their own relationships were taking different courses. Others have suggested the song is about heroin, citing the line, "Remember to let it under your skin, then you'll begin to make it better." This has been denied by both McCartney and Lennon who have both been up front about lyrical drug references in other songs. Maybe it's about all these things, but I don't think it's ultimately important what the inspiration or what the possibly multiple hidden meanings might reveal.

What's important is what the song makes you feel. I think what lead to "Hey Jude"'s popularity in the summer of 1968 was what people generally felt when hearing the song everywhere on the radio through the din of social upheaval. The song is ultimately about hope and transcendence. It was something we needed, something we held onto. The best music goes beyond specifics and speaks to things we can't quite put to words. I think "Hey Jude" was saying, things are tough and maybe things have changed and will never be the same again; maybe we've lost something that will never be replaced, the innocence of youth is gone, but these are the times and you can move on. You can resolve to make things better, despite everything. Whether its love lost or you're a child caught up in divorce, or whether it's world turmoil, you can, "Take a sad song and make it better."

Structurally the song is split into two parts. It starts as a basic 3-chord verse with Paul alone on vocal and piano in the key of F. F-C-F-Bb-F-C-F with 7ths and sus notes on C augmenting a pop gospel feel. Two measures of verse followed by two bridge measures where McCartney drives his points home with advice as the F changes to F7. F7-Bb-Gm7-C7-F. "And don't you know that it's just you? Hey, Jude, you'll do. The movement you need is on your shoulder." When McCartney played this for Lennon the first time he said he was going to change that last line. John told him, "You won't you know. That's the best line it!"

In the book Many Years From Now by Barry Miles, Paul is quoted as saying, "That's collaboration. When someone's that firm about a line that you're going to junk, and he said, 'No, keep it in.' So of course you love that line twice as much because it's a little stray, it's a little mutt that you were about to put down and it was reprieved and so it's more beautiful than ever. I love those words now..."

Then the verse-bridge repeats, followed by a final verse with McCartney calling "Hey, Ju-u-u-ude" (I love waiting for that), tying in a line from the first verse and then guiding the song into its second half, a mantra-like chorus of nah nah nah na-na-na nahs beginning with one of the greatest rock'n'roll screams in music history.

It's at this point the chords flip, and the grand male chorus joins in singing a seemingly ever-upward progression: F-Eb-Bb. (vocals provided by the session musicians orchestra -- except for one player who refused). And then over the course of the next four minutes, Paul McCartney begs, cajoles, implores, pleads Jude in scat to make it better and we all believe it.

Forty-five years later it's still my favorite song.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Song #420 of 9999 - Care of Cell 44 by The Zombies

Song #420 of 9999

Title: Care of Cell 44
Artist: The Zombies
Year: 1968
Album: Odessey and Oracle

Almost a year ago exactly, I wrote a post about The Zombies' 1965 hit "Tell Her No" with an emphasis on the influence of Rod Argent, whose songwriting seemed particularly centered around the keyboard during a very guitar-centric time in pop music history. And now here we are in 1968 and, with keyboards playing a much more prominent role in pop, Argent is still writing hits. While The Zombies collected a much bigger paycheck for Argent's "Time of the Season," I'd like to focus on the lesser-known but no less impressive opening track from their sophomore (and final*) effort Odessey and Oracle.

The jaunty "Care of Cell 44" is written in the form of a letter to a prison inmate with an apparent impending release. (The title refers to a line in a mailing address, i.e. c/o Cell 44.) The tone of the song seems to belie the subject matter, although I suppose keeping a positive attitude about prison life is better than the alternative. Released in advance of the album, the song was not a hit and fueled tensions within the band that may have led to their split.

There are several aspects to the song I find intriguing. Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, the influence of Paul McCartney seems obvious in the verse with its staccato quarter notes and descending bass line. And how much have The Beach Boys made their presence known by 1967 (when the album was recorded)? Check out that pre-chorus! You'd swear Mike Love and company were right next door doing their warm-ups. But it's the next line that really hooks me. That a cappella break thins the texture nicely and diverts you from the powerful entrance that follows ("Feels so good you're coming home soon") with Colin Blunstone's soaring lead vocal piercing through Beatlesque harmonies. That's the moment that would have had me heading to my local record store if I had been…you know, born.

*not including the 1991 reunion

Monday, November 11, 2013

Song #419 of 9999 - Hurdy Gurdy Man by Donovan

Song #419 of 9999

Title: Hurdy Gurdy Man
Artist: Donovan
Year: 1968
Album: Hurdy Gurdy Man

Ah, Donovan. Donovan "Did I Mention I Use To Hang Out With The Beatles?" Leitch. Regardless of the excessive name-dropping, it is true he used to hang out with The Beatles, tagging along during the experimental time in their lives while they were searching for inner peace in India. Which is not to say he was merely a taker; apparently, he taught John Lennon a finger-picking guitar style that can be heard on "Julia" and "Dear Prudence" among others. So there is some give and take and perhaps it's not entirely unfair for Donovan to feel like he is underappreciated.

"Hurdy Gurdy Man" is Donovan's foray into a harder rock style with distorted guitars and heavy drums replacing flutes and bassoons. No flower power here. But the melodies are still catchy and sweet and the chord progressions simple but effective. Two things catch my ear as I listen analytically to what's going on.

First, there is some simple but elegant counterpoint in the verse with Donovan's descending vocal line (a recurring theme in the chorus) contrasted against the rising chord progression:

Notice how the melody in the voice arrives at the chord tone late, creating some nice suspensions (6-5, 4-3 and 9-8 in succession). This same idea carries over to the chorus—in fact, the melodic line is almost an exact transposition of the verse melody but over a different chord progression: 

Isn't it fascinating how the character of this melody changes when set over a different chord progression! Over I-iii-IV-V, it's pretty and lilting while it's transposition over bVII, IV, I is almost haunting. Could it be because one outlines a perfect 4th [G-D] while the other outlines a tritone [F-B]?

Which brings me to my second observation: the way the song begins harmonically. It's is in the key of G but the intro begins on the bVII (F)! The chord progression is presented exactly as appears in the chorus but, as listeners, we don't know this. So right from the start, there is some masking of the tonality.

Of course, it's easy to ignore all of these underlying structural elements with a song that has so many timbral delights, including a tambura ("I got it from George Harrison!") and some rhythmic pulsating vocal vibrato which I find to be an inspired choice. One thing we don't hear is a hurdy-gurdy itself (the tambura acts as a substitute), which is a buzzy ancient string instrument that sounds like this! 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Song #418 of 9999 - Weird Fishes/Arpeggi by Radiohead

No guest blogger last week means TWO guest bloggers this week! I bring back my good friend Erik Schlosser (not the food writer, the guitar player!) so he can riff on one of his favorite Radiohead tracks from 2007. Erik has just started writing a very interesting blog about musical creativity and I urge you to check it out. It's called The Musical Muse and can be found right here:

Song #418 of 9999

Title: Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
Artist: Radiohead
Year: 2007
Album: In Rainbows

Radiohead proved to be innovators once again in 2007. However, instead of presenting a radical new sound, this time they offered a radical new distribution method. In Rainbows was released in October first as a digital download (the CD was released a few months later). That is not that innovative in itself, but the pricing scheme was. Customers could “pay what they want” for the download from Radiohead’s site. If you wanted to pay $0.00 (plus a small download fee) you could. If you wanted to pay $100 you could as well. You would receive the same content. The band reported that most people paid what the standard price for a proper album would be. According to them only a few consumers paid nothing.

This way of selling an album was an interesting experiment. In 2007, the future of music distribution was uncertain (and still is today I guess). Offering an altruistic method for compensating a band may work well for an established group like Radiohead, but I doubt it could be replicated with success for other less known artists. Plus the 1.2 million sales on the day of its release is probably just because this was a novelty. Once the 3rd or 4th band offers the same model, I’m sure it would be met with significantly less success.

Let’s talk about this tune. As true to the title, harmony will play a key role. After a 4 bar drum groove, the guitars come in playing simultaneous arpeggios with different voicings of the same chord. Each part has its own unique syncopated rhythm which creates a hypnotic accompaniment for Thom Yorke’s haunting melody. As a guitar player, I love this sound because it is impossible to produce on one guitar. The combined voicings of the guitar arpeggios sound more like an intricate piano accompaniment which to my ears is very fresh.

There are four basic chords that repeat every 16 bars. If we consider the key to be D major they are:

                        ii   iii   V   IV
                        em   f#m   A   G

Functionally, this is the basic progression. However, the arpeggios also include the extensions of these chords. So it is actually something like em9, f#m9, A, A7, A6, Gmaj9. These lead to some lush harmonies that provide a soft bed for Thom to rest his stirring lyrics:

Turn me on to phantoms
I follow to the edge of the earth
And fall off
Everybody leaves
If they get the chance
And this is my chance

As this chord progression repeats for the first 3 minutes, the tune ramps up gradually in intensity thanks to the following features: steadily increasing dynamics, more complex arpeggio patterns, avoidance of a clear I chord. This last one is key. Even when we get to the “weird fishes” part we have the following chords:

                V7     vi  V7     vi  V  IV
                A7/C#  bm  A7/C#  bm  A  G

The V7 to vi chord is what we call in “music theory land” a deceptive cadence. You expect there to be a I chord but the V chord resolved to vi. As a result, to whole tune starts to feel like it is actually in b minor (which is the relative minor key of D major). So there is no D major chord in this tune? Can the first section actually be called D major then? (maybe there is a music theory teacher who can chime in here?)

This is made even more evident in the outro. The progression from 3:40 on is:

                vi  bVII vi  V  IV
                bm  C    bm  A  G

The tonic here is clearly bm so it probably would be better to analyze it in that key, in which case it would be (i, bII, i, bVII, bVI). No matter the roman numerals, it is clear the piece all along has been guiding us to this minor territory. As a confirmation, the piece ends with a single B note in the bass. With this knowledge I think we can retroactively go back and identify the whole piece as being in b minor.

The texture, harmonies, dynamics and lyrics come together to make this one of my favorite tracks on the album. Actually, the whole album is pretty good. It was worth the money I paid for it.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Song #417 of 9999 - Electric Feel by MGMT

Song #417 of 9999

Title: Electric Feel
Artist: MGMT
Year: 2007
Album: Oracular Spectacular

I love "Kids" and "Time to Pretend" makes for a tremendous first single, but "Electric Feel" is a damn near perfect pop song. I love the palette of colors that greets the listener from the outset: punchy mid-range bass guitar, funk guitar stabs and a hazy synth that just hangs in a halo above it all. If you listen closely, there are like five or six other things going on in the background (most enter after at the 0:10 mark), including bubbling synth pulses, sustained strings, jangly guitars—it's a richly layered production that works on your subconscious as well as your conscious.

Rhythmically, we're presented with a meter and drum pattern rare for dance or pop. I suppose the most logical time signature is 6/4 and the backbeat is presented as a sort-of half-waltz: boom chick boom boom chick chick. The bass alternates between a syncopated riff and straight eighths:

Elements of disco and synth pop come together to create this unique sonic environment. When the lead vocal enters, the drums adjust to a more straightforward pattern (boom-chick boom-chick boom-chick). In fact, we never hear that original drum beat again but for thirty glorious seconds we experience something truly unique.

The rest of the song is great too, of course. Hooks are set up nicely and lyrics are clever cheese in support of one great simile: Ooh girl, shock me like an electric eel. After an extended instrumental break, we even get a nice little anthemic encouragement to shout on the dance floor: Do what you feel now! Electric feel now! It's too bad that same advice has led to increasingly weak output from MGMT and their light has dimmed since the aptly titled Oracular Spectacular. Here's hoping they figure out a way to reconnect their power supply to the energy grid responsible for this gem.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Song #416 of 9999 - Flashing Lights by Kanye West

Song #416 of 9999

Title: Flashing Lights
Artist: Kanye West
Year: 2007
Album: Graduation

Yep, Kanye's rich and famous now. You can tell by all the glittery strings and synths that open the track "Flashing Lights" from his third major release Graduation. You can almost picture the limo pulling up to the curb, Kanye emerging in slow motion from the back seat with his crew. It's cinematic and y'all better take notice.

Of course, the lyrics that spill out in a droopy dog drawl tell a slightly different story, one of discontent with his newfound fame. Yeezy seems to have it all but is missing the things that make him happy. Feeling like Katrina without F.E.M.A/Like Martin with no Gina/Like a flight with no visa, the man is lost on the road and longing for home.

One of my favorite things about this song and about West's performance is how he's not afraid to come out firing on just one or two cylinders. This is a   s  l   o  w  groove and he starts each verse with lines that don't even try to fill the space. But by the time he starts rhyming more of the with Florida and ordered the with hors d'oerves, he's unleashed a liquid rhythm that fills all the cracks. There's plenty of space in the second verse as well as West tells the story like he's on his therapist's couch. It's the natural rhythm of speech and it lends an airy intimacy to a song that's at least partially about having no privacy at all.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Song #415 of 9999 - The Tape by Sondre Lerche

Song #415 of 9999

Title: The Tape
Artist: Sondre Lerche
Year: 2007
Album: Phantom Punch

There's this cadre of talented power pop artists that have received a modest amount of critical acclaim, little to no media attention and almost no commercial success. At the epicenter is Jason Faulkner, the former Jellyfish member who seems to exist almost in complete obscurity despite having legions of fans. His friend and collaborator Brendan Benson would likely be leading a similar existence if he hadn't formed The Raconteurs with Jack Black (oops) White in 2005. Michael Penn is somewhere in that mix but he's married to Aimee Mann and his brother is Sean Penn so it's hard to stay undercover in that company. Prior to 2003, Fountains of Wayne were one of the best examples but "Stacy's Mom" put them on a map they never really wanted to be on and they've been working like mad to dodge that spotlight ever since. Then there's a guy like Mike Viola, who opens for these obscure artists—the ultimate in obscurity!

I'm not sure exactly where Sondre Lerche lies on that spectrum exactly. I've been to Lerche's hometown of Bergen, Norway and, while I found it to be spectacularly beautiful, it's really not the kind of place you get discovered. But when you're this talented (and a little lucky, I suppose), the world will find you eventually. Now living off and on in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, I'm sure his dance card is full. Plus he's now on a Norwegian postage stamp! 

(As an aside, I first heard of Sondre Lerche when one of my friends—who exactly I cannot recall—said my music reminded him/her of Sondre Lerche. Of course, I had to immediately scope out the competition and in true Frank fashion, I fell in love with music so similar to my own! : )

I had a hard time picking a song from this album—there are so many I like—but "The Tape" has some qualities I really dig. First of all, I love the saturated guitar that opens the piece. Once past the intro, we're met with the syncopated groove of the verse with that driving snare placement:

This type of groove is a lot of fun, especially at 176 beats per minute, but I think it's all just a device to set up the pre-chorus at 0:31, which suddenly opens up the song by putting the snare on the backbeat where we normally expect it. This section of the song is strong enough to serve as the chorus but Lerche takes the song to greater heights by pushing it into overdrive at 0:39 and delivering a proper chorus featuring that fantastic rising melody at 0:44 which sets up the break at 0:49. If you're not hooked at that point, there's really no hope for you. (j/k) (but not really)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Song #414 of 9999 - Sea Legs by The Shins

Oh, how I love me some guest blogging! Tonight, direct from the left coast, Berkeley's own Erin Lyman waxes nostalgic about her love affair with The Shins. Erin is the lead singer of Berkeley Social Scene and half of the spectacular duo Merisan. She's probably in five or six other bands too. She also has a rad haircut. And she cooks a mean plate of root vegetables. What I'm trying to say is you could all do worse than to call Erin Lyman your friend. Also, she wrote tonight's blog post. Ladies and gentlemen, Erin Lyman!

Song #414 of 9999

Title: Sea Legs
Artist: The Shins
Year: 2007
Album: Wincing the Night Away

Four years after the release of 2003's Chutes Too Narrow, indie sweethearts The Shins delivered their third and final album under their Sub Pop contract (2001-2008).  Wincing the Night Away was a highly anticipated album, as every track on Chutes was practically an instant indie-rock hit. How do you follow up your genre's equivalent to Thriller?
If I had not been so enamored by their previous album, I might have been able to enthusiastically commit to Wincing the Night Away.  Even through slightly disappointed ambivalence, I did find several delicious tunes to savor, and despite my rumblings, this whole album is solidly enjoyable.
"Sea Legs" draws me in with simple yet interesting percussion arrangements and its catchy beat. Bass and keyboard float in and, soon enough, word-smith James Mercer delivers vocals just in time to remind me that this is an indie-rock song, and not going to be a dance groove. My hands rise from my lap to clap along, and my head bobs.
What really connects me to this song and keeps it in heavy rotation on my playlist are the haunting lyrics and the lush instrumental outro.  While Mercer's lyrical style is much wordier than Ian McCulloch's, I find his delivery and tone to be reminiscent of Echo and the Bunnymen, and possibly a few other new wave favorites of the 80's. This song manages to blend a little of the cold-wave synth properties that make me love that genre with modern acoustic arrangements.  It sounds fresh, yet feels like something I know and love all ready.

That isn't a quality that I am always looking for in a song, but am pleasantly surprised that after multiple listens over the years, I still find new things about the song that I haven't noticed before. Maybe it's an overlooked lyric that stands out, or maybe it's the dreamy Rhodes in the outro… We don't have to decide, we can just listen again.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Songs #412 & 413 - It's TWOsday!

Song #412 of 9999                                   Song #413 of 9999

Title: Bird Flu                                            Title: Thiruvizhannu Vantha
Artist: M.I.A.                                              Artist: R.P. Patnaik (composer)
Year: 2007                                                Year: 2003
Album: Kala                                              Album: 
Jayam - Original Soundtrack


I'm pretty fascinated with the music of M.I.A. In an earlier post, I compared her beats to those produced by Public Enemy's Bomb Squad in terms of their complexity and dissonance. I also misidentified the sampled chants of children as being "African," a mistake I wish to set straight in tonight's post! (I am a stupid American—anything that's rhythmic and not South American is "African.")

"Bird Flu" is the song I referred to in that erroneous post and the children are actually from the Tamil Nadu region in southern India. The prominent drums are called urumee and the native music is known as gaana. Okay, now that I have all my facts straight (I think!), let's talk about this song. The meter is duple compound—two beats per measure, each divided into three equal parts—presented at a tempo which gives the song an unusually long stride. M.I.A. delivers her half of the call-and-response with a rhythm that hits hard on the downbeat while the children's chants emphasize the upbeats. An examination of the words themselves will disappoint you so I'll leave them to your imagination. Like Public Enemy, M.I.A. too is a militant and she's got the music to engage but lyrics that don't quite measure up.

So you've heard of Bollywood, right? If not, it's the informal name for Indian film industry, which has gained global popularity over the past 15 years or so. Well, it turns out "Bollywood" really refers to films specifically made in the Mumbai area and, in fact, there are smaller cinema centers all over the country. One such place is "Kollywood," named for the Kodambakkam region in Tamil Nadu, where Tamil cinema is produced. As with most popular Bollywood films, music and dance play a major role in these productions and the Tamil music is on prominent display in the 2003 film Jayam. Take a listen to the song "Thiruvizhannu Vantha" and what do you discover? Enough similarity to earn composer R.P. Patnaik a writer's credit for "Bird Flu"! Of course, the music takes on a completely different tone in this context and I love the dichotomy.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Song #411 of 9999 - Hope For Us All by Nick Lowe

Song #411 of 9999

Title: Hope For Us All
Artist: Nick Lowe
Year: 2007
Album: At My Age

Let's start soft this week. I know it's not the rock and roll way, but it's nice to see an artist age gracefully. With nothing left to prove or lose, 58-year-old Nick Lowe put away the Rickenbacker 4001 and Fender Telecaster that graced the cover of 1978's Jesus of Cool and replaced them with an upright bass, a restrained Hammond organ and a smooth jazz horn section for At My Age. (Unfortunately, only this live acoustic version of "Hope For Us All" was available on YouTube.)

Lowe has shown a penchant for earnestness before (see "[What's So Funny 'Bout] Peace, Love and Understanding") but you'd be forgiven for suspecting a hint of sarcasm from the same pen that wrote "Cruel to Be Kind" and "Little Hitler." On this golden years release, however, Lowe assumes the persona of a hopeful crooner, delivering secular sermons on love, patience, and perspective. "Hope For Us All" speaks to those wallowing in self-pity or self-doubt, suggesting that even a "feckless man" can find love. Even a feckless man!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Song #410 of 9999 - Richard III by Supergrass

Song #410 of 9999

Title: Richard III
Artist: Supergrass
Year: 1997
Album: In It for the Money

As sophomore efforts go, you really can't do much better than Supergrass's In It for the Money. The Oxford-based band, who sadly went their separate ways in 2010, have produced a collection of songs with enough rough edges to require a steady supply of Band-Aids® but also enough energy to make sure you bleed out quickly. (Ladies and first official submission for over-the-top analogy of the year!) If you think a band like Oasis is good, this album will punch you in the face until you think again. (My second submission!) What I'm trying to say is this album is good. Really good.

In the UK (where such a band can still find success), "Richard III" was released as the second single from the record (of five!) and peaked at number 2. The song has nothing to do with Richard III the king or Richard III the play—it was simply a working title that stuck as the band felt it suited "the menacing tone of the song." (Thanks again, Wikipedia.) In fact, the lyrics really aren't important—they're more like words put in order to deliver the riveting vocal performance of Gaz Coombes.

But of course, it wouldn't be 9999 Songs if we didn't take a closer look at what makes the song sound "menacing." No super-tricks here—it's a method as old as Oxford itself: the tritone. Yes, our friend diabolus in musica pops up frequently in the music of bands like Black Sabbath but we don't typically hear such prominent use in Britpop. But considering In It for the Money opens with an organ playing a diminished chord, should we be surprised?

So here is the so-called tritone (three whole steps or "tones" as they are known by most of the Western world), bookending an arpeggiated diminished triad (shown in red) and serving as the intervallic relationship between the two power chords that alternate during the verse:

This chord relationship allows Coombes to sing a melody that descends by half-step and continues to outline the same diminished triad. (E-Eb-C-A). This descending half-step idea returns in the chord progression that follow the verse: C - Ab - G - C. The song is filled with sinister touches, including an eerie Theremin, some similarly eerie backing vocals, and a killer guitar break at the two-minute mark. Fun stuff from one of my favorite bands. (Author's note: if anyone out there wants to start a band that sounds just like this, I'm in.)

See you tomorrow in 2007.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Song #409 of 9999 - Airbag by Radiohead

Song #409 of 9999

Title: Airbag
Artist: Radiohead
Year: 1997
Album: OK Computer

Okay, I get it. Maybe it does seem a little odd to be constantly measuring popular music in terms of the rules of functional harmony, developed hundreds of years before electricity let alone Pro Tools. And these are rock and roll musicians and they're the rulebreakers anyway, right? And for that matter, even classical composers tore up the rulebook in the twentieth century so what about that, Mr. Music Theory? All true. And if I could write a blog about something more progressive and current and topical, I would but I just haven't learned enough about gene splicing or Candy Crush Saga to do that.

But really, by using this common ground as a starting point—most of us know what a I-IV-V progression is by now—we can see how creative a band like Radiohead can be with their harmonic progressions and better understand why their music delights so many people, including classically trained pianists (see Christopher O'Riley) and jazz musicians (see The Bad Plus).

Which brings me to "Airbag," the first track from Radiohead's groundbreaking record OK Computer. Before delving into the harmony, let's acknowledge some of the surface elements. This is a groove-based song after all and much of its appeal can be chalked up to the piecemeal drum pattern, assembled by the band from heavily processed short samples of drummer Philip Selway's playing. This slightly off-kilter drumming drives a production rich with sonic pageantry: guitars swirl as they enter and exit the fray, electronics peek in and out of the mix, a minimalist bass guitar riff pops up almost at random intervals. And for good measure, sleigh bells jangle metronomically in the distance.

Strip all of this away and you're left with a fairly sparse harmonic structure but one that takes advantage of two very broad-sounding chord relationships. The first, "Progression 1," opens the piece in support of Jonny Greenwood's opening guitar melody. The piece is in the key of A Major but begins on the lowered submediant (bVI—borrowed from the parallel minor) before quickly resolving to the tonic (I): Fmaj -> Amaj. This is a very dramatic chord progression, one which momentarily obscures the key of the song. "Progression 2" occurs when Thom Yorke's vocal arrives. The verse begins with the tonic (A) which proceeds to a major supertonic (II-B Major) over an A pedal tone. This is another very dramatic sound, borrowing from the Lydian mode with its raised 4th (D#). The diminished chord that follows (also borrowed from the parallel minor) allows the progression to cascade chromatically back to the tonic, with the entire progression reading as:

                              Amaj      Bmaj/A        Bdim/A          Amaj
                               (I)            (II/I)           (ii°/I)              (I)

The harmony is interesting in that it balances broad whole step relationships between chord roots (F-A is two whole steps and A-B is one) with chromatic relationships between the chord tones (for example, F-A-C and A-C#-E in progression 1) and chromatic adjustments to the chord tones that create new chords (B-D#-F# to B-D-F in progression 2). Greenwood takes advantage of these chromatic nuances by incorporating them into his melodic lines, including the riff that opens the work (E-F-C-B-C#-A) and the descending tremolo line that accompanies the second verse (A-G#-F#-G#-F). I would contend that this emphasis on chromaticism is a central tenet of the band's compositional approach.

This get a little dense, I know. But that's what's so fun and interesting about Radiohead's approach to harmony. And whether conscious or not, they always seems to take full advantage of these attributes in the melodies they play and sing which makes them musically sophisticated and/or instinctively gifted. Qualities which would certainly appeal to purveyors of classical and jazz and which set them apart from most of their contemporaries.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Song #406 (and 407 & 408!) of 9999 - "Torn" by Natalie Imbruglia (plus 2 bonus songs!)

Song #406 of 9999 

Title: Torn
Artist: Natalie Imbruglia
Year: 1997 
Album: Left of the Middle

It's Friday. I'm tired. These are weak moments. And so it makes sense that I should feature one of my many "guilty pleasure" songs. (A close friend reminds me regularly that I don't seem to express any guilt at all about liking these songs—he's right, of course.) But it's also a good night for high content and low input!

So yes, I give you Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn," a song that I admit is not holding up well. I set out to determine why I liked it so much in 1997, what with her wispy voice and its generic arrangement. I drew two conclusions. The first: she was just too damn cute. "Torn" was a Siren song and I a sailor being lured toward mediocrity. This is a reasonable conclusion.

Song #407 of 9999 

Title: Torn
Artist: Ednaswap
Year: 1997 
Album: Wacko Magneto

Before I get to the second also very reasonable reason, check out the original version of the song by little known alt-rock band Ednaswap. No-one could blame me for enjoying this version, with its fine guitar work and emotional vocal performance by frontwoman Anne Preven. Preven would go on to pen songs for most of today's top female artists, including Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Jordin Sparks, Mandy Moore and Beyoncé.