Monday, December 30, 2013

Song #461 of 9999 - Psykick Dancehall by The Fall

It's 1979 on 9999 Songs! And I'm already shirking my responsibility!! Tonight, one of my former students and a staunch purveyor of excellent pop/rock, Thomas Neufeld, chimes in with his take on The Fall's sophomore effort. Enjoy!

Song #461 of 9999

Psykick Dancehall
Artist: The Fall
Year: 1979
Album: Dragnet

“Psykick Dancehall” is not my favorite song by The Fall. It’s not my favorite song from Dragnet, and it’s definitely not my favorite song of theirs from 1979. But I have picked it to try and work out some feelings about why their early music hits me harder than nearly any other music, rivaled only by the harmonies of our friends John and Paul or what Guided By Voices accomplished in laundry rooms and basements (Robert Pollard being a strange doppelganger of Mark E. Smith in age, prolificacy and lyrical inscrutability). It may seem a sign of severe mental illness to admit tearing up to The Fall, but I have, listening to their first Peel Session in 1983, where they had two drummers and sound as hypnotic and absolutely perfect as any band I’ve ever heard.

“Psykick Dancehall” kicks off Dragnet, their second album and the first with bassist Steve Hanley and guitarist Craig Scanlon, two absolutely vital components of their sound and deeply underrated musicians. I’m not the first to point out that Hanley’s bass is the Sound of the Fall. His booming tone always cut through the racket of the guitars and vocal squeals of MES, providing a melodic signpost even in impenetrable gusts like 1981’s “Prole Art Threat” or the foggy terror of 1979’s “Spectre vs. Rector."

The track starts off with a voice asking “Is there anybody there?” to which he receives an enthusiastic yell of “yeah!” It’s both a snotty punk call and a more subtle announcement of themes– we are going into the land of spirits, of ESP and mediums. An off-kilter groove develops, with most instruments sounding as if they were recorded in tar pits before Smith’s voice cuts through, at once ranting and precise; note his voice dipping to a pinched whisper for ‘twitching out’ and adopting a rounder tone for ‘bumble, stumble’ in the second verse.

Smith tells a story of a dancehall for ghosts, or by ghosts. People come to dance, but seemingly not to records, but to vibrations and voices of those long past. It’s a striking image, fitting with the paranormal themes of Smith’s early lyrics, a strange mix of the dull and normal with the oblique and haunting (the narrator lives near a computer center, but sees a glowing monster on its roof.) The last verse is particularly striking. “When I’m dead and gone,” the voice assures us, his “vibrations will live on in vibes of vinyl.” People will “dance to his waves” as the years pass. It’s an unsettling yet joyous song, and the words match perfectly.

All the while Hanley leads the way. Scanlon and second guitarist Marc Riley prove a deadly team, their interweaving lines emerging in dissonant pinpricks and oddly voiced chords, with the coda serving as a strong example, one guitarist repeating a queasy cluster while the other plays a spiny, up-and-down riff. An indecipherable vocal sample, and the song ends. Good evening, here is The Fall.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Song #460 of 9999 - My Way by Frank Sinatra

Song #460 of 9999

Title: My Way
Artist: Frank Sinatra
Year: 1969
Album: My Way

So very short on time tonight so here I go. Fifteen-minute post. :-O

I made reference in a previous post to a Steven Sondheim documentary I saw recently on HBO (check it out!), which I followed up with an old Fresh Air interview later on. One of the things Sondheim talked about is how people always think composers are writing autobiographical song and he was almost always writing for characters so the songs were very rarely ever reflective of his personal story. Paul Anka tells a similar story about writing "My Way," which he consciously wrote in Frank Sinatra's voice, using phrases he would personally never use like "I ate it up and spit it out." In fact, the song was not only written in the "language of Frank," it was written about Sinatra's personal circumstances, i.e. he had decided to leave show business. So, in essence, the song is biographical but written in the first person, making it seem autobiographical, which it is when Frank sings it. Got that?

And of course, that's why it works so tremendously well. Sinatra sells the song so convincingly and easily because the words were tailor-made for him. That it took Anka only four hours to write the whole thing shows just how attuned he was to Sinatra's personality and persona. It is perhaps the most perfect pairing of singer and song ever.

And I'm out of time.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Song #459 of 9999 - Good Times Bad Times by Led Zeppelin

Song #459 of 9999

Title: Good Times Bad Times
Artist: Led Zeppelin
Year: 1969
Album: Led Zeppelin

So much good music came out in 1969, it would be easy to pass over the obvious major releases, which have been written about so much already by so many talented professional writers, in favor of lesser-known gems. But I know my audience and you're all about the hits. Er, what I mean to say is, the hits are important too! In this year when The Beatles were releasing their final records, we have the the first two LP releases from the next really significant band in the lineage of pop superstardom: Led Zeppelin.

In Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, he attributes the success of The Beatles in part to the endless hours they played together in (primarily German) clubs prior to landing in America. In support of his theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something, Gladwell contends that The Beatles were already so good at playing together that they arrived performing at a master level. Many of the other bands of the era were releasing records just after forming or were brought together by managers to record music without ever playing together before. Even a band as accomplished as The Rolling Stones sounds so green and inexperienced when its early albums are compared to those of The Beatles.

And here we have Led Zeppelin, sounding very polished on their eponymous debut, despite having been together for mere months before banging out the album in nine days. So how does this happen? Are these four guys simply more talented than The Beatles?

Well, no. But there were other extenuating circumstances. When Led Zeppelin was formed, Jimmy Page was 24 and had already logged five years as a session musician after already having been in a touring band for two years as a teenager. His time in the studio would prove particularly beneficial as Page shepherded Led Zeppelin into the studio armed with knowledge few musicians would have. The Beatles had George Martin to guide them but Page was calling the shots during the recording of Led Zeppelin as well as financing the entire project! John Paul Jones arrived with a similar pedigree, having logged at least four years of studio time prior to joining Led Zeppelin. And the other two guys....well, they're just gifted I guess.

I could go on forever about the background of the band but let's get into the song. "Good Times Bad Times" is almost the perfect introduction to Led Zeppelin as it highlights each band member's contributions to the song and foreshadows the roles each will play over the course of the band's career. The first thing that really grabs my attention in the song is the stylized drumming of John Bonham. As his drumming becomes more syncopated and complex during the intro and ensuing verses, one quickly realizes this is no ordinary drummer—he's doing things with his bass drum pedal that still seem impossible with a single drum. The complex riff played in unison by guitar and bass during the verses is attributed to John Paul Jones who would embrace the role of band arranger and contribute many of the most intricate ideas to the band's later records. In addition to the sterling production achieved by Page, we also hear his tremendous skill as a lead guitarist at 1:30 and beyond as he manages to set a new standard for rock guitar players in less than three minutes. Robert Plant's contribution seems bit muted until 2:09 when we get a real glimpse of his vocal style during his ad libs. (Listeners to the entire album get more than an earful from Plant, who dominates the second track, "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You.") Of course, his vocal tone quality was so unique that even the more sedate stuff of his vocal track must have seemed unique to listeners in 1969.

And thus the world was introduced to Led Zeppelin. The best was yet to come.

Song #458 of 9999 - Make Your Own Kind of Music by Cass Elliot

Song #458 of 9999

Title: Make Your Own Kind of Music
Artist: Cass Elliot
Year: 1969
Album: Bubblegum, Lemonade, and... Something For Mama

Mama Cass Elliot's "Make Your Own Kind of Music" has found a new audience over the last decade or so, having appeared prominently in TV's Lost and Dexter. And due to the trend of watching and re-watching these shows on streaming services like Netflix, I reckon the song will remain popular for years to come. Which I find interesting, considering it had all but been forgotten before J.J. Abrams decided it was right for Desmond's turntable. 

So just why was the song chosen? What attributes made it right for two shows that are rather mysterious and dark? In the case of Lost, we must first start with the obvious, i.e. Desmond had been there for a long time and the song would have been popular during the time that the Dharma Initiative set up shop. But of all the songs from the late 1960s/early 1970s, why this one? 

I'm speculating of course, but I think one aspect of the song Abrams may have found attractive was its sunny optimism, which makes for nice dramatic contrast with the bleakness of Desmond's situation. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you may want to go grab yourself a 2-week trial subscription to Netflix and get started.)  But there are some other, musically structural, aspects that make it attractive. Here is a song from that time period that takes less than thirty seconds to get to the chorus! This is quite normal for today's pop songs, which aim to account for the decreased attention spans of teenagers (well, everyone) by getting right to the hook, but not in 1969. Songs were getting longer, not shorter, and it's rare to find a song with such a quick verse/pre-chorus/chorus succession. I think this would have been deemed ideal for a television scene where you may not have time to wait a minute or longer to get to the chorus. 

And once that chorus comes, it's a doozy. A rising harmonic progression (I-iii-IV-V) is punctuated by snare hits on every beat, with Elliot's powerful voice imparting an earnest bit of advice to go your own way—just as she had from The Mamas and The Papas a year earlier. And in conclusion, a bevy of dramatic quarter note triplets spread across six beats that spills out onto a dominant with 4-3 suspension. It's a really well-construed piece for any decade and was definitely ready for today's primetime.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Song #457 of 9999 - Don't Let Me Down by The Beatles

Today, I give myself the gift of the Guest Blogger. Monty Smith is one of my closest friends, an excellent guitarist and singer, and an astute observer of life. I'd rather spend an afternoon with Monty than do almost anything else. He brings his southern-born charm to this post about The Beatles, which I am sure you will enjoy as much as the song itself. Happy Christmas everyone!
Song #457 of 9999

Title: Don't Let Me Down
Artist: The Beatles
Year: 1969
Album: Let It Be

I suppose if you're writing about popular music during the '60s, choosing to write about a Beatles tune is rather obvious. On the other hand, they're the Beatles, fergodsakes. Why wouldn't I pick them? I'm hoping that my song choice, "Don't Let Me Down," is at least a bit off the beaten path.

I was born four months before the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. This means that, lucky for me, they were still together for most of my childhood, and still in very heavy rotation on radio until I was fully growed up and haired over. At first I was drawn to them by Paul's gorgeous and profoundly accessible melodies, as is no doubt the case for many people. But by the time I was eight or ten I was already starting to realize that the confessional, heart- on-the-sleeve nature of John's lyrics was where the real pay dirt was for me. Although I was too young to have any personal experience with the things he was writing about, it was clear to me even then that many of his songs were nakedly personal in a way I'd never heard from anyone else at that point in my life.

Forty years later, I'd still have a hard time thinking of a song that better embodies what I'm talking about than "Don't Let Me Down." I know there are more emotive songs in Lennon's catalog -- most obviously those from his post-Beatles primal scream period. And arguably some tracks from the Double Fantasy / Milk and Honey years were lyrically more personal. (Maybe even too much so.) But for me, at least, "Don't Let Me Down" is a nearly perfect blend of melody and emotion in terms music, of fear and cautious optimism in terms of lyrics, and of plaintiveness and angst in terms of vocal performance.

There are some interesting nuts-and-bolts kinds of things to mention about the song, such as the fact that it is comprised of three song fragments Lennon was working on for the Get Back album, which eventually morphed into the Let It Be album. Apparently it was also inspired by (or at least lifts from) the chord progression from the 1968 Fleetwood Mac song "Albatross." And there are some unusual counterpoint melody and metric things going on that Frank would undoubtedly point out and explain if he were writing this (because he is equipped to do so), and which I can hear but am not going to address further (because I am not equipped to do so).

So lastly, I will just point out that there are several versions of this song floating around. They recorded multiple versions during the Get Back sessions (one of which was released as the b- side of the "Get Back" single), and the version on the 2003 Let It Be...Naked album is actually spliced together from two different takes recorded during the famous rooftop concert on January 30, 1969. When I first decided to write this my intention was to determine which version is my favorite and recommend it specifically. But the truth is they're all great. Just pick one and listen. It'll be good for what ails ya.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Songs #455 and 456 - It's TWOsday!

Song #455 of 9999                                    Song #456 of 9999

Title: Never Learn Not to Love                Title: Cease to Exist
Artist: The Beach Boys                            Artist: Charles Manson
Year: 1969                                                Year: 1970
Album: 20/20                                           Album: Lie: The Love and Terror Cult


In 1968, Dennis Wilson developed an unlikely friendship with a fellow musician named Charles Manson. Impressed by his music and fascinated by his "family," he did his best to get Manson a record deal but it never materialized. One of the people he introduced to Manson was producer Terry Melcher, whose home would later serve as the scene of the grisly murders of Sharon Tate and three others. One can only speculate whether Manson would have taken a different path had the music industry embraced his songs.

At any rate, Wilson liked Manson and his music enough to agree to record his song "Cease to Exist" for an upcoming Beach Boys album. Wilson made several changes to the lyrics and music, including writing a new bridge (at 1:15) that features a perpetually rising vocal line. He also reset the lyric at 0:40 to a 3/8 meter which is quite effective in this psychedelic arrangement.

Word is that Manson was furious upon learning about the lyric changes. It certainly is interesting to observe how changing even one word (cease to exist became cease to resist) can alter the entire meaning of the song. Van Dyke Parks tells the story of Manson showing up at Wilson's house threatening to kill him over the changes, a move which resulted in a beating from the Beach Boy.

I personally don't think either song is all that good. But at least a few modern artists (Rob Zombie, Guns 'n' Roses, The Lemonheads) have covered "Cease to Exist" or other songs appearing on Manson's 1970 album, which has been re-released at least a half-dozen times since its original pressing. (All proceeds go to funds for the victims of violent crime—Manson has never received any royalties for his music.) Today, Manson remains our most notorious criminal, serving a life sentence for his part in the Tate and LaBianca murders. Dennis Wilson struggled with alcohol abuse for much of his life and, in 1983, he drowned in the Marina Del Ray at the age of 39.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Song #454 of 9999 - Everyday People by Sly & the Family Stone

Song #454 of 9999

Title: Everyday People
Artist: Sly & the Family Stone
Year: 1969
Album: Stand!

Let's start 1969 with a positive message and an irresistible song. Too bad that Sly Stone's message of equality still resonates nearly 45 years after its initial release. That it appears on a record featuring the (now) shockingly entitled "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" may be a sign of some progress but it seems like the smallest of victories in a world still fraught with racial and economic disparity.

But back to the song. Sly needs just two minutes and one chord (well, technically two) to deliver the dogmatic message shared by so many who carried the banner of peace in the late 60s. He uses the harmonic stasis to his advantage, scattering descant horn and vocal lines wherever he pleases, as they all fit perfectly over Larry Graham's off-the-beat single-note bass track. For example, listen to the horn line that emerges during Rose Stone's first playground chant chorus—it's an exact repetition of Sly's verse melody. He can get away with this mixing and matching because the song is, with few exceptions, entirely pentatonic—use F# as your bass note and you'll never need the white keys! 

But I can't leave this post without mentioning my favorite moment of the song, when Sly sings "I-----am everyday people." I wondered what made that bit so special and I found upon closer examination that the long high note Sly sings is actually the 9th above the bass note. It's a soft dissonance that resolves even before the monosyllabic word is complete. Yet it's so effective—especially in combination with the vocal harmonies—in making that refrain as bold as the idea it espouses.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Song #453 of 9999 - St. Peter's Day Festival by Ra Ra Riot

Song #453 of 9999

Title: St. Peter's Day Festival
Artist: Ra Ra Riot
Year: 2008
Album: The Rhumb Line

I'm not exactly sure if the comparison is apt but Ra Ra Riot is my answer to The Killers. I recommend that, when you find yourself reaching for Hot Fuss, you pause and look up The Rhumb Line instead.

I found it really difficult to choose a song to feature from the band's major label debut. The lead single "Dying is Fine" is, well...fine but suffers a bit from e.e. cummings-inspired lyrics that I find silly and uninspiring. The opening track "Ghost Under Rocks" has a busy drum beat under an 80s-era groove that has the added bonus of replacing what would have been a synth cello line in 1985 with an actual cello. On the other hand, "Too Too Too Fast" puts that synth front and center, a reminder that the 80s new wave revival is in full swing and these guys are on board.

I finally settled on "St. Peter's Day Festival" because a) I think it features the most representative sound of the band and b) it's quite beautiful and a little bit heart-breaking. "St. Peter's Day Festival" is the last song written by original drummer John Pike, who tragically drowned the year before this record was released. (Pike wrote all of the songs I cite in this post.) The song makes great use of the string players who make up one-third of the sextet. The interplay between these instruments and the traditional guitar-bass combo is particularly well-designed and -executed. Like many of the band's songs, the song relies on very creative drumming, lovingly reproduced by new drummer Cameron Wisch—I'm particularly fond of the feel change at 1:52. And, of course, singer Wesley Miles has the perfect voice for cutting through this blend of instruments with its prominent mid-range. It's a really pleasant mix of sounds—a real victory for whoever called the shots in arranging the songs. One of my favorite records of 2008—I think it deserves more attention and I hope you agree.

That's it for 2008! Back tomorrow with 1969.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Song #452 of 9999 - Frankie's Gun! by The Felice Brothers

Song #452 of 9999

Title: Frankie's Gun!
Artist: The Felice Brothers
Year: 2008
Album: The Felice Brothers

I don't own a gun but if I did, this would be its theme song.

"Frankie's Gun!" is one of those songs that could have come from almost any of the last five decades. If not for the drum track and the reference to a rest stop at McDonald's, you could probably add another thirty or forty years to that range. The most prominent song from the band's major label debut, "Frankie's Gun!" rolls off the tongue of Ian Felice like he just thought of it. 

The brilliant lyric tells the story of the last illegal cargo run for an unnamed driver who is apparently skimming some money from the boss's take. His regular traveling companion, Frankie, has apparently been ordered to put a stop of to it in the most permanent of ways. I love the cadence of the lyric and the alliterative conversational style:

My car goes, Chicago, 
Every weekend I pick up some cargo
I think I know the bloody way by now, Frankie
Turn the goddamn radio down, thank you
Pull over, count the money
But don't count the thirty in the glove box buddy
That's for to buy Lucille some clothes

The chorus is tailor-made for a public house singalong with its He shot me down Lucille response and backbeat handclaps. While I'm sure I would ultimately lament its lack of versatility, Felice's hard-traveled gravel road of a voice makes me jealous. And good for him for finding a style that really suits him. To quote a YouTube commenter, "Makes Mumford and Sons sound like crap." Heh.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Song #451 of 9999 - You Belong With Me by Taylor Swift

Song #451 of 9999

Title: You Belong With Me
Artist: Taylor Swift
Year: 2008
Album: Fearless

I've managed to avoid most of the Disney-esque pop music that has been churned out over the last decade or so. It wasn't a conscious effort—I'm just old. But I teach teenagers and tweens and sometimes the music finds you. To my credit (and yes, I'm patting myself on the back here), I'm pretty good at keeping an open mind about the music my students suggest to me and, quite often, I'm pleasantly surprised by what I hear. 

That's certainly the case with this Taylor Swift single, the third from her Fearless LP (and I promise you I have no idea what the first two were). On a completely visceral level, I really enjoy this song. It's as slight as a Dixie cup but it's cute and catchy. And while the lyric may seem jejune to your ears and mine, it's worth reminding ourselves IT'S NOT FOR US. Some twelve-year-old really related to this and that's not insignificant. It's bubblegum and we're allowed to enjoy it every once in a while but we're not the target demographic.

So let's set the entirety of our hip quotient aside and marvel at the production of this single. We're presented with an amazing amalgamation of sounds just within the first thirty seconds: light acoustic guitar, light distorted guitar, light banjo plucking, light bass plunking, light pedal steel—yes, it's all dotted into place like a Pissarro painting of Swift's blond locks. When the song picks up and the chorus kicks in, we enter a cloudland where that wispy banjo gets to stand on even ground with a heavily distorted guitar and it still seems to make sense. Even if you hate the song, you have to admire the remarkable skill that went into this arrangement and production. There's just enough country, just enough indie rock, just enough pop to suit every kid on the playground. And there's Swift's voice, the needle that threads the entire piece, sounding like a real teenager by not oversinging or trying too hard like some of her predecessors. It's a great performance of a perfect modern pop single. I'm really glad a teenager introduced me to it.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Song #450 of 9999 - Gobbledigook by Sigur Rós

It's Guest Blogger night and here's Greg Madden! Greg is a fascinating guy with a lot of creative energy and a pioneering spirit. He has been making musical bits and electronic pieces under the name Mister Stereotype ( since 2008, releasing 13 collections with more than 120 songs and 50 videos over the last five years. He is also the inventor of the new ball game Synthball. Who the hell invents a new ball game in 2013?! Greg Madden does and that's one of the many reasons I like him so much. Thanks Greg!

Song #450 of 9999

Title: Gobbledigook
Artist: Sigur Rós
Year: 2008
Album: Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust

In 2008 my daughters were still in high school and we were in the midst of a period of musical cross pollination in which I introduced them to (among others) Radiohead and Gorillaz and they introduced me to (among others) Sigur Rós and Final Fantasy. This was the year in which we started a two-year run of live shows that included Radiohead, TV on the Radio, The Decemberists, Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, Final Fantasy, The Mountain Goats, The Flaming Lips, Arcade Fire, and Gorillaz. It was a good time, a time I look back on as a sort of golden age of music. The culture at large was arguably near both Peak Indie as well as Peak Hipster, and the backlash against both the genre (self serious, derivative, unlistenable, relentlessly mid-tempo) and its lovers (unbearably smug skinny-jean wearing post-ironic know-everythings) had not yet metastasized into the cancerous hatred of hipsters and complete lack of awareness of Indie that characterizes the situation today. 

(Or maybe Indie has simply been assimilated into Pop along with every genre that preceded it, and it isn’t that people are unaware of Indie, it’s that Indie no longer exists as a genre to be aware of. I mean, hey, Arcade Fire is huge, right? Does that mean Indie is huge, or does that mean Indie no longer exists, or does that mean Arcade Fire is no longer Indie? These are the kinds of questions I would debate endlessly if I were 15. I am not.) 

When you see your share of shows, you see your share of venues, and up until 2012 I would have told you the Mann Center Main Stage was my least favorite venue on the East Coast; it just seems to suck the life out of music. In its favor, however, I will say that it is much better than the new Mann Center Skyline Stage, which opened in 2012. The Skyline Stage has a wonderful view of downtown Philly, but it looks like it’s been strung together out of leftover stage parts, the sound mix is muddy, and the on-ground seating slopes downward away from the stage, for a sort of opposite-of-stadium-seating effect in which everyone in front of you is higher than you. It is a remarkably bad design. 

The point of that little digression is that I didn't finally see Sigur Rós in concert until 2012, and I saw them at the Skyline Stage at the Mann. As much as I always thought I liked Sigur Rós, it was one of the few shows I have ever left early. If you aren’t familiar with Sigur Rós, they are an Icelandic band with a well-deserved reputation for writing 12-minute songs in which nothing happens over and over again. Their tracks often swing wildly back and forth between drone rock, melodic operatic synthesizers, and blistering guitar solos apparently disconnected from the underlying music. Whereas operatic Icelandic drone rock can be a joy to listen to in the peace of your own home or car when there are other things to do to keep you busy, it just isn't the same when you are sitting on a blanket on a downslope listening to a muddled sound mix and looking uphill at the band. Alas. 

But none of that takes away from the beauty of "Gobbledigook." With its opening of distant drumming and voices interrupted by short sharp acoustic guitar chords and La La Las joined quickly by pounding drums, it immediately builds a pulse it never loses. Although I can’t understand a word they are saying (it’s Icelandic), "Gobbledigook" surely features the most effective use of incessant La La Las outside of holiday music. For a band prone to tedious 12-minute drone rock pieces, "Gobbledigook" comes in at a very manageable 3:12 and proves that, when they want to, Sigur Rós can create top-notch, happy, compelling, listenable, audience-friendly music. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Song #449 of 9999 - A Sky For Shoeing Horses Under by Why?

Song #449 of 9999

Title: A Sky For Shoeing Horses Under
Artist: Why?
Year: 2008
Album: Alopecia

I'm not sure what to make of Why?, the band formed in Oakland by Yoni Wolf, who performed under the name "Why?" as a solo artist prior to launching the band. They seem to be fully dedicated to being an indie-rock band at this point, but shades of Yoni's hip-hop past with the group cLOUDDEAD sneak into their music from time to time. 

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the song "A Sky For Shoeing Horses Under," whose cryptic lyrics refer to his past with his former band, name-dropping DJ Odd Nosdam in the first line. The rest of the song appears to be self-referential and perhaps full of regret but it's hard to tell. The lyrics are as obtuse as they are vivid and the title alone is full of intrigue.

If I remember correctly, I first heard Why? on The Stephen Colbert Show (he's really good at showcasing lesser known talent) and was impressed with the performance, which utilizes real mallet instruments to create the Steve Reich-inspired foundation of the song. It's rare that I hear a song that leaves me wanting more but "A Sky For Shoeing Horses Under" seems at least one verse too short. It seems a shame to limit that hypnotic kaleidoscope of sound to just two-and-a-half minutes.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Songs #447& 448 of 9999 - It's TWOsday!

Song #447 of 9999                                    Song #448 of 9999

Title: Make You Feel My Love                 Title: Make You Feel My Love
Artist: Adele                                              Artist: Bob Dylan
Year: 2008                                                 Year: 1997
Album: 19                                                  Album: 
Time Out of Mind

                           click here for video

Let's face it: Bob Dylan does not have the best vocal tone quality. Settle down. I didn't say he couldn't sing. I didn't say he's not a legend. I didn't even say his version of "Make You Feel My Love," a song he penned for his 1997 comeback album Time Out of Mind, is worse than Adele's. But I think it's safe to say that if he were not Bob Dylan, his version of this fine song doesn't get recorded and released. Because of his voice. Period. (And no amount of weird Daniel Lanois production can help—it just makes it worse. Damn you Lanois!!)

We could probably say the same thing about Billy Joel's forgettable version, which actually appeared before Dylan's on his Greatest Hits, Vol. III. We couldn't say the same thing about Garth Brooks' cover, which is as weak and inconsequential as the rest of the Brooks catalog. But the song is sappy in his hands and modern country people can get pretty sentimental, especially when there's beer involved. (Oh come on, it's just a joke!) And there are LOTS of other versions too. It's a good song but I am not reviewing the 916 available recordings on Spotify, even if the majority of them are karaoke tracks and instrumental piano versions.

And then we have Adele. I must admit I've mostly ignored this immensely popular and talented singer and I had never heard her version of this song before tonight. There is really no denying the effectiveness of her cover—she's a fantastic singer and makes the most of the song's built-in melancholy. But as I listen to the record for the fourth time tonight, I'm feeling regret over one or two of her choices. The song begins like a spiritual and I'm down with that—the first 90 seconds are brilliant. In the third verse, however, she incorporates some bluesy inflections that seem a little overconfident for the lyric. By the second chorus, with the support of modest strings, she recovers and gets back to simply letting her lovely voice do the work. It's not a song that needs bells and whistles. (Do you hear me Lanois!!)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Song #446 of 9999 - My Funny Valentine by The Jimmy Amadie Trio

Song #446 of 9999

Title: My Funny Valentine
Artist: The Jimmy Amadie Trio
Year: 2011
Album: Live at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

I'm going to break from my normal routine tonight and feature a performance by Philadelphia-based jazz pianist Jimmy Amadie. I learned today that Jimmy died last Tuesday after a six-year battle with lung cancer.

I met Amadie six years ago when I enrolled in a one-week Jazz Harmony class at Villanova University. After the first day, I considered dropping the class after enduring the recitation of his entire life story in what seemed like real time. I was there to learn about Jazz Harmony and this guy wouldn't shut up! After the second day, I felt better. By the end of the third day, I knew this was going to be one of the greatest academic experiences of my life. The guy turned out to be brilliant.

The story he told on day one was heart-breaking and inspiring to anyone willing to listen (not me at the time). Amadie was on the road to jazz stardom in the 1950s, touring with Woody Herman, Mel Tormé, and Coleman Hawkins among others. But just a few years into his career, his tendency to spend as many as 70 or 80 hours per week at the piano resulted in severe tendinitis that ended his career as a performer. His personal loss was the gain of the music education community as Amadie immersed himself into jazz theory and began teaching summer sessions at the Berklee School of Music and the Villanova summer sessions for music educators. 

After a series of surgeries, Amadie was eventually able to play the piano again but only for a few minutes at a time before experiencing a tremendous amount of pain. He supplemented his lack of physical playing time with mental practice! Through this approach, he was able to record several albums between 1994 and 2011, many of which featured saxophone great Phil Woods. But he never played in public again until October 14, 2011, when he took the stage at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the first time in over 44 years. In an interview from the documentary Get Me a Fight, Amadie admitted that he would pay a painful price for this hour-long performance but he didn't know how much longer he would live and he didn't want to die without having played once more in front of an audience. I regret not getting to that performance but I'm happy it was captured in this fine recording by an obscure jazz legend. Rest in peace, Jimmy.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Songs #444 & 445 - A Special Two-Headed Sunday!

Song #444 of 9999                                   Song #445 of 9999

Title: Foolish Love                                     Title: Two-Headed Boy/Fool
Artist: Rufus Wainwright                           Artist: Neutral Milk Hotel
Year: 1998                                                  Year: 1998
Rufus Wainwright                         Album: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea


Developed a case of lethargy and took a couple of unscheduled days off so I thought I'd come back strong with songs from two of my favorite albums from 1998. 

I could say you would be hard-pressed to find two artists more different than Rufus Wainwright and Neutral Milk Hotel and many people would agree, but of course, that's a gross overstatement—I suppose they're both considered "indie rock." But if we limit our thinking to that rather broad (or narrow, depending on your perspective) spectrum, they are quite different on the surface. One is practically a sequined crooner while the other is a proverbial "diamond in the rough." But I propose they have more in common than first meets the ear.

First, and perhaps most significantly, both artists have a penchant for the grandiose. "Foolish Love," as lush and operatic as it is, is likely not even the most majestic song on Wainwright's debut, let alone his catalog. The Schubertian piano, theater organ, lush strings—Freddie Mercury would feel right at home in this musical suit. "Two-Headed Boy" from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea expresses its grandness in other ways but is no less imposing a force. Listening to the acoustic guitar played in stadium rock style, you'd think someone forgot to unmute the rest of the band while mixing the track. Jeff Mangum's vocal performance is so huge it can't be contained by the recording, clipping unapologetically during the chorus.

The second parallel between the two artists is their shared interest in nostalgia. "Two-Headed Boy" transitions immediately into "Fool," a waltz that takes advantage of variety of winds and percussion to render something like the sound of a turn of the (20th) century New Orleans funeral procession. "Foolish Love" sounds like Tin Pan Alley even before the 2:00 mark when old-timey chords and colors (saloon piano, accordion and strings) wrest control of the song.

Finally, it's worth noting the similarities in tone color between Wainwright's and Mangum's voices. They use their voices in almost completely different ways—Wainwright the cabaret singer and Mangum the emotional folkie. But they both sing way up in their heads in what can affectionately be called a "nasal sound." This is the least significant commonality (I hate to use the word similarity—its more interesting to think these two artists can take common concepts and still be so dissimilar) but certainly one of note. Whether you love or hate them both or hate one and love the other, I think you must admit Rufus Wainwright and Neutral Milk Hotel have more in common than you thought!

See you tomorrow in 2008. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Song #443 of 9999 - Saint Mary by Sparklehorse

Song #443 of 9999

Title: Saint Mary
Artist: Sparklehorse
Year: 1998
Album: Good Morning Spider

It's interesting how one's perspective toward an album can change with the passing of the artist. Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous was reputed as a trouble guy since his 1995 debut Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot and its ensuing tour in support of Radiohead. I really had no idea to what extent until I began researching this post. During the tour, Linkous overdosed in the bathroom of his hotel and collapsed, pinning his legs beneath his body. When he was found 14 hours later, the lack of circulation to his legs had caused considerable damage. When paramedics attempted to straighten his legs, he experienced a heart attack and was clinically dead for several minutes. After surgeries and a three-month stay in the hospital, he was released in a wheelchair, where he would remain for six months. The songs he wrote following this experience would become Good Morning Spider.

As you might expect, it's a dark, depressing album. But sometimes, dark and depressing is what you crave in a musical experience. I'm not depressed but I get sad and it's comforting to listen to a slightly comatose record like Good Morning Spider. Not every song is a downer but the ones that are are perfectly resigned to meet you on that level. "Saint Mary" was written for the nurses who cared for Linkous during his stay at St. Mary's Hospital in London following his accident. Linkous over-enunciates the plosives that frame his lyric about getting back home while the lethargic waltz time mocks his inability to get out of his chair (let alone dance). It's sad but lovely, with musical interludes pitting subdued strings against spare piano. Weighty chromatic passages, both ascending and descending, connect verse to chorus and back again.

I listened to this album a lot in 1998 and it was satisfying to share in Mark Linkous's pain. But in 2010, Linkous put a shotgun against his chest and pulled the trigger. His suicide makes the record harder to enjoy. I don't feel that way about Nirvana records or even Elliott Smith records and I'm not sure why. There seems to be more of a vulnerability to Good Morning Spider perhaps. Or maybe it's just too soon.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Song #442 of 9999 - God Give Me Strength by Burt Bacharach & Elvis Costello

Hey, it's Guest Blogger Night! Tonight, my good friend Niveous lets us in on his soft side with this delicate number from Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello. Among other things, Niveous is the creative force behind a multitude of SongFight-related side projects, most notably the competition known as Nur Ein. He also writes and records music under the name Niveous and is an all-around nice guy. Let's give him that patented 9999 Songs welcome!

Song #442 of 9999

Title: God Give Me Strength
Artist: Burt Bacharach & Elvis Costello
Year: 1998
Album: Painted From Memory

Hey there. I’m E. Niveous Rayside, filling in for Frankie today with another look back at 1998. I’m a rock guy and a big chunk of my music collection is full of crunchy guitars, brutal vocals, dark themes and skull caving drums. So when looking at all the potential songs to write about, I considered the punchy Terraform album by Shellac, featuring one of the best under two minute songs you'll ever find (“Copper”). There was also the synth heavy double shot of Stabbing Westward's Darkest Days and Pitchshifter's horribly titled Maybe I would write about polarizing Cruelty and the Beast by Cradle of Filth or A Thousand Leaves by Sonic Youth. There were so many choices: Freak*on*ica by GVSB; Diabolus in Musica by Slayer; Powertrip by Monster Magnet (!!!); the debut albums by System of a Down and Queens of the Stone Age; Korn’s #1 album Follow the Leader

And yet, I went with Burt Bacharach.

I may be into music with sharp edges but I know when I’m in the presence of greatness and that’s exactly how I felt when I first heard Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach’s Painted From Memory. If you aren't familiar with the name Burt Bacharach, because it hasn't been very prevalent in the last decade or so, here’s a quick refresher. Bacharach is a songwriter who, usually with some help from lyricist Hal David, wrote a metric ton of hit records in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s including “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” “I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself,” “Always Something There To Remind Me,” and “What The World Needs Now Is Love.” Here’s the thing: by 1998, the music that Bacharach makes was very dated. This was a world that just learned what a Limp Bizkit is and still cared about Marilyn Manson’s shock tactics. Bacharach didn't fit in. And frankly, Elvis Costello didn't either. This wasn't the Elvis Costello punk that had been banned from SNL. This was almost a decade after “Veronica,” his hit single co-written by Paul McCartney. This was a more subdued Elvis Costello. For all intents and purposes, I probably should never have heard of this album. It should have made the same ripples in my life as Juice Newton's or Lionel Richie's 1998 albums (I’m not comparing skill there, just cultural relevancy at the time).

How did I come across this gem? The movies. Grace of My Heart is a flick that came out in 1996 about a young female singer trying to make it in the music business in the 60's and 70's. In the movie, the main character writes the song “God Give Me Strength.” She's bleeding her emotions into a song and the results are amazing. In the film, the song ends up as a flop. But to my ears, it was one of the most amazing things I had ever heard. At the end of the film, the song got played a second time. This time, it was being performed by the songwriters: Costello & Bacharach. It resonated with me, so much so that two years later when I heard that Costello & Bacharach had turned that collaboration into a full album, I had to seek it out.

There is nothing like a well written song and here were two masters of the craft. It didn't matter that they weren't crafting the music of the time; one listen spoke to you. “God Give Me Strength” speaks of heartbreak in such a way that it tears me up listening to it. Even back in 1998, when I hadn't yet known that kind of world-quaking loss, I could still feel it. It made me understand. From the first lyric, there is such pain:
Now I have nothing/ So God give me strength/'Cos I'm weak in her wake.
And with every passing verse, that feeling just gets deeper:
I can't hold on to her/God give me strength/When the phone doesn't ring/And I'm lost in imagining
But Costello's vocal and the music behind it begins to grow, subtly at first. Then comes the bridge. If you didn't understand the emotions behind this song before, it crashes into you. First comes a bit of bitterness:
I might as well/ Wipe her from my memory/ Fracture the spell/ As she becomes my enemy
And then the music pulls back and Costello very delicately sings:
Maybe I was washed out/ Like a lip-print on his shirt/ See, I'm only human/ I want him to hurt/
Which leads to an amazing crescendo.

The song is so spectacular in the way it speaks to the emotions. In fact, the entire album is twelve songs that punch you in the gut. “I Still Have That Other Girl,” “This House is Empty Now,” “In the Darkest Place,” “Tears at the Birthday Party”… It may be an emotional album but it reminds you that one of the great experiences of music is when it moves you.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Songs #439, 440, and 441 - It's THREEsday!

Song #439 of 9999                    Song #440 of 9999                           Song #441 of 9999

Title: California Stars                 Title: Secret of the Sea                       Title: Listening to the Wind That Blows

Artist: Billy Bragg & Wilco         Artist: Billy Bragg & Wilco               Artist: Billy Bragg & Wilco
Year: 1998                                Year: 2000                                         Year: 2012
Album: Mermaid Avenue          Album: Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II      Album: Mermaid Avenue, Vol. III


Today, I watched a new documentary about Stephen Sondheim and he addressed one of the most often asked questions of songwriters: "What do you write first, music or lyrics?" He didn't really answer the question because for him, as for most songwriters, there really isn't an easy answer. But he did talk about innate musical elements within words, most obviously related to rhythm, and how words can suggest or even dictate a musical phrase. (I'm paraphrasing.) He also talked about the difference between poetry and lyrics, suggesting that poetry is often about economy of words while lyric-writing often involves communicating an idea over a long stretch of time.

Which brings me to my featured trio of songs for the day, all of which feature lyrics left behind by the late Woody Guthrie and set to music by Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett of Wilco. I have to wonder whether Tweedy and Bennett had a similar experience when faced with the prospect of turning Guthrie's lyrics into new songs. (I realize there's a whole movie about the project so the answers may be readily available but I write a daily blog so research is limited. :) And I wonder if they looked upon the lyrics as poetry or not. In the case of "California Stars," the imagery and repeated refrain suggest poetry although the meter is perhaps not as regular as one would expect. Same goes for "Secret of the Sea" which has plainer language but it no less eloquent. However, the lyric practically has a song chorus built into it with its identical first and third stanzas and repeated first line of each.

By contrast, "Listening to the Wind That Blows" reads instantly as a song. It has a cadence and rhyme scheme to the lyric that strongly suggests it be sung. It features a chorus with two lines that beg for a singalong moment ("Blow, wind, blow...") and a turn of phrase in the remaining lines perfectly suited for a hook. Tweety recognizes these moments and takes full advantage, inserting an extended pause between the third and fourth lines to heighten the effect. With acknowledgement to the fact that Stephen Sondheim's lyrics serve a much different purpose
 than Woody Guthrie's (i.e. musical theater is different than folk music—duh.), I also think this song is the best example of the three for supporting Sondheim's contention of how ideas are stretched over time through song lyrics.

Whatever your view on the poetry vs. lyrics argument, I'm certainly glad Wilco participated in this project with Billy Bragg, the driving force behind the project whose contributions to the records are worth a listen. These records provide us with some Summerteeth-era Wilco and serve as reminders of just how much Jay Bennett brought to the band before his departure and untimely death.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Song #438 of 9999 - I Never Want to See You Again by Quasi

Song #438 of 9999

Title: I Never Want to See You Again
Artist: Quasi
Year: 1998
Album: Featuring "Birds"

I've been watching a lot of Portlandia lately, whisking through the third season on Netflix. So it only seems appropriate to serve up some Portland, ORgan music from Sam Coomes and his bandmate, drummer Janet Weiss, who together make up the band Quasi. You'd be forgiven if you've never heard of them even as they celebrate the recent release of their 11th LP. But Coomes (formerly of Heatmiser and The Donner Party) and Weiss (formerly of Sleater-Kinney) have managed to outlast their associated acts and survive a divorce from one another on their way to twenty consecutive years of working together.

I first heard Quasi when they opened for and served as backing band for Elliott Smith on his XO tour in 1998. Years before White Stripes and Mates of State, Quasi was exploring the sonic possibilities of the rock duo, a rarity prior to the emergence of these acts. Sounding a bit like Built to Spill (Coomes is a guest keyboardist on almost every one of their albums), their sound is very much in line with the "Northwestern sound" of the late 90s acts that emanated from Washington, Oregon, and northern California. 

I chose the song "I Never Want to See You Again" because I think it's a great example of the musical complexity that can be achieved with just two players. Layers of keyboard sounds, including clavinet, organ, acoustic piano and an electric piano played both clean and through a distortion box, provide a range of colors that would rival a much larger band. (I realize there are likely overdubs on this recording but, according to the liner notes, no bass guitar(!) and Quasi are the only performers.) The way Coomes and Weiss work together rhythmically is impressive and I ascribe most of the credit to Weiss, who drums with originality and economy. Coomes does not have the kind of voice that is going to land him on pop radio but it works here and is especially nice when layered with Weiss's vibrato-less alto. (Check out "Tomorrow You'll Hide" for a lead vocal from Weiss.)

Finally, I think the song is pretty interesting and may appeal to a wide variety of tastes. Across nearly four minutes, it progresses through an assortment of styles, tempos and meters on the way to its dramatic conclusion.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Song #437 of 9999 - Passionate Kisses by Lucinda Williams

Song #437 of 9999

Title: Passionate Kisses
Artist: Lucinda Williams
Year: 1988
Album: Lucinda Williams

A decade before Lilith Fair and "Sunny Came Home," Lucinda Williams was making blues-tinged country folk-rock (whatever) female empowerment music and no-one even noticed. It would be five years before Mary Chapin-Carpenter's cover of "Passionate Kisses" would earn Williams a much-deserved Grammy for Best Country Song and another five before she would find her own moderate level of success with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Maybe it's because her first major release came courtesy of Rough Trade Records, a London indy known more for The Smiths and Buzzcocks, or because her album jacket featured a rather tough-looking Williams in front of a rusty....trailer?—I don't know what that thing is. But the country and western fans weren't biting.

Too bad for them because Williams's brand of country is the real deal, cut from the same cloth as Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin. It's hard to quantify why I like Williams's version of "Passionate Kisses" so much more than Carpenter's—they're almost identical, save for the piano intro that prefaces the latter version. But I think it comes down to vocal tone quality and phrasing. Carpenter is a fine singer but her voice lacks the natural character of Williams's. Listen to the crack on the word "ask" in the first line or the way she bends the note on the first word ("food") of the very next line. Those artifacts comprise the rough edges that make Lucinda Williams convincing. But it's the way she sings the pre-chorus (my favorite part of the song) that really draws me in. There's something special about how she phrases the repeated line shouldn't I have this? that projects a sense of longing absent from Carpenter's record. (I chalk it up to a more skillful handling of the syncopation.) That the original song is pitched a full step higher than its more successful cousin probably adds a bit of brightness, but Williams herself performs the song live in Carpenter's key of choice (D for those who are curious) and the results are similar.

Finally, I like the fact that the song clocks in at a lean 2:35 (almost a full minute less than Carpenter's), which signifies to me that Williams trusts the song on its own terms without the bells and whistles present in so much of modern country.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Song #436 of 9999 - Gigantic by Pixies

Song #436 of 9999

Title: Gigantic
Artist: Pixies
Year: 1988
Album: Surfer Rosa

Every once in a while I get a request to arrange music for a wedding, usually for a string trio or quartet. It's the same client every time and, while he has the usual stuff covered (Vivaldi's "Spring," Pachelbel's "Canon," etc.), he knows I'm up for arranging just about anything—for a price. And people really want to put that personal stamp on their wedding. If that means processing to the theme from ABC's Pushing Daisies, so be it! (That's a real gig—I did not make that up.) I've arranged Paramore's "Hallelujah," stuff from West Side Story, Phantom of the Opera and Fiddler on the Roof, "At Last," "All You Need is Love"—the list goes on. One particularly memorable job from 2007 consisted of several instrumental tunes from Amelie and The Pixies' "Gigantic."

If you really want to get to know a piece of music intimately, break it down into little parts you assign to single-line melodic instruments. Before the re-imagining process, wherein one tries to find a way to express Black Francis's guitar feedback on 2nd violin and decides whether to try to notate the slightly flat singing of Kim Deal, you've got to sit down and transcribe every note the band played. This is time-consuming but illuminating. For me, part of the fun of turning "Gigantic" into a string quartet was balancing the expectations of the people who would choose such a song for their recessional with how far I could push stodgy string players to let loose. For this tune, I wrote in hand claps, "gruff" bow noises, and simulated feedback and suggested beneath the tempo mark (Medium Rock) that "Ideally, players should stand and try to rock out a little."

Sadly, I never get to hear these performances. I usually ask whether the chart was well-received and so far I've received no complaints. Such is the way of one-and-done custom arrangements, I suppose. In the meantime, I've built quite a collection of these oddities so maybe it's time to take them for a spin with some of my more adventurous students.