Monday, January 27, 2014

A Good Time to Catch Up!

I have something going on every night this week so it seems like a good time to take a break. Don't want to shortchange the fine music of 2009! This would be a good time for you to catch up on some older posts. Go ahead! Do it!!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Songs #482 & 483 - It's a Beck x2 Sunday!

Song #482 of 9999                                             Song #483 of 9999

Title: Get Real Paid                                             Title: Nobody's Fault But My Own
Artist: Beck                                                         Artist: Beck
Year: 1999                                                           Year: 1998
Album: Midnite Vultures                                    Album: Mutations


Last month, I ran out of days in my week of 1998 to feature a song from what is probably my favorite Beck album, Mutations. I promised myself I wouldn't make that mistake again this month with Midnite Vultures, a record that seems less attractive to me now than it did 15 years ago but retains most of its charms.

It's kind of difficult to know what was going on with Beck following the critical and commercial success of Odelay in 1996. Did he reach an artistic impasse and find himself temporarily lost, not knowing what to do next? Or did he feel a sense of relief that he had found some financial success and could now make whatever music he wanted without regard for commercial reward? Recent interviews suggest he was trying to anticipate what people wanted from him and he was sort of reacting to their responses. Given that neither of these albums (which couldn't be more different) did not achieve anything near the success of Odelay, perhaps that wasn't a very good strategy. But in terms of creativity, it worked out really well in my opinion because this pair of unusual records mark a time when Beck was the most unpredictable and versatile musician making music.

I suppose many consider Midnite Vultures to be a parody. It certainly has a sense of humor but I've never viewed it as insincere. Beck has always shown a penchant toward hip-hop and R'n'B is just down the street. Beck has acknowledged the influence of R. Kelly on many of the tracks (most notably "Debra") and it seems to me there is an obvious nod to Prince. "Get Real Paid" owes a debt to Kraftwerk and apparently vocal processors (yes, that is Beck singing). I love the jittery synthwork and vocal polyphony that rounds out the final minute of the record. And who can resist the couplet Thursday night, I think I'm pregnant again/touch my ass if you qualify?

The dirgelike "Nobody's Fault of My Own" from Mutations blends Beatles-style Indian accents with unplugged Nirvana (think "The Man Who Sold the World"). I find this song to be intriguing in the way it avoids making a decision about whether its major or minor—the tonic chord (C) is almost always absent the third and the prominent use of the bIII (Eb) and bVI (Ab) serve to keep the key of C Major obscured. (I drew the conclusion of major based on the vocal melody.) Many, if not all, of the songs on Mutations use similarly creative chord progressions and the songs themselves are granted center stage thanks to stripped-down arrangements. 

Since this pair of albums, Beck seems to have found his "sound" which is kind of unfortunate in some ways. The more mature Beck still makes great records and writes great songs but I find myself longing for the surprises that met me with Mutations and, especially, Midnite Vultures.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Songs #480 and 481 - It's Friday but it feels like TWOsday!

Song #480 of 9999                                           Song #481 of 9999

Title: My Name Is                                            Title: I Got The...
Artist: Eminem                                                 Artist: Labi Siffre
Year: 1999                                                        Year: 1975
Album: The Slim Shady LP                             Album: Remember My Song


Hip hop can be a real education if you let it. I've learned about so much music doing research for the hip hop songs featured in this blog. (Thank you again Wikipedia!) For example, who the hell is Labi Siffre? This I did not know—but Dr. Dre did! While working on Eminem's sophomore effort, Dre sought permission from Siffre to sample his 1975 song "I Got The..." for Eminem's lead single "My Name Is." Siffre refused on the basis of the song's anti-gay and misogynist lyrical content. Ultimately, Eminem tweaked the lyric and Siffre relented. The sampled portion of the song begins at the 2:10 mark.

The sample is so perfectly paired with Eminem's chorus, I never would have guessed it came from a song written 25 years earlier. Notice how the ascending Rhodes keyboard lick alternates in rhythmic sympathy with "My name is" while the descending fourth lick perfectly aligns with "Slim Shady." Right out of the gate, there is some pretty deft musical thought being employed. Once we're into the song, the slapstick special effects combined with the classroom setting plays like a demented episode of Pee-Wee Herman's Playhouse where the show has been hijacked by the vile Slim Shady and Pee-Wee is duct-taped to Chairy.

Setting aside the violent imagery and profanity (I know that's a tall order for many of you and there are plenty of alternate versions out there—all of them inferior), the striking thing about this song is the unique flow of Eminem's rap. I don't think I've ever heard rap sound so natural and free. It's like he's telling a story—there's no affectation or posturing. He plays this bratty kid in a free and easy way, dispensing with ornate wordplay that would be out of character. It just sounds like talking that happens to rhyme and that's what makes it brilliant.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Song #479 of 9999 - She's a Jar by Wilco

Song #479 of 9999

Title: She's a Jar
Artist: Wilco
Year: 1999
Album: Summerteeth

I like to think my blog is about answers. Most of you who tune in are looking for some insight as to why I think a song "works" even if you don't personally think it "works" or if we don't even agree about what "works" means. But my commentary is usually rooted in some universally accepted truths about harmonic analysis or whatever. (It's the "whatever" you really want!) So what happens when I want to share a song that raises more questions than it answers?

That's the dilemma I faced last night when I sat down and listened to "She's a Jar" about eight times in a row. Today, I had a lengthy discussion with my good friend and fellow blogger Erik Schlosser (not the food author) about the song and, by the end, I had threatened to simply write the words "this song is awesome" in my blog post and walk away. And if you want, you can stop reading this now and go enjoy the song with no interference from me!

But it wouldn't be 9999 Songs if I didn't prattle on about some such something or another. So what are these "questions" raised by the song? For starters, what is the song about? I mean, that's the main question as the musical elements are pretty straight-forward (a nicely placed diminished chord in the chorus, a cool descending chromatic progression shortly thereafter and lovely colorful accents courtesy of Jay Bennett—there, done). Jeff Tweedy pulls off a pretty neat trick with this tune, offering the strong impression of an idea without actually revealing any sort of true meaning in the song. There are songwriters who are really good at this—Bob Dylan, for example; maybe Thom Yorke—but not many. It's a dangerous line to walk and Tweedy treads it like a pro.

Is the song about a relationship? Is it about drugs? Is it about a relationship with drugs? I read a dozen interpretations on the internet and they all seemed plausible and that's what makes the lyric so remarkable. Much has been said about the last line of the song—she begs me not to hit her—with most people remarking that the song takes such a "dark turn"; however, they may be missing the antonymic connection to the last line of of the nearly identical first verse—she begs me not to miss her. If we consider the song to be about intravenous drug use (the beginning of the chorus—climb aboard the tracks of a train's arm—certainly suggests this is a possibility), the word "hit" can take on a whole new meaning. If the "her" in this case is the drug itself (Erik's suggestion!), the lines means something completely different. 

Consider this brilliant verse, which seems to be (in an obvious sense) about a photograph, but could also be about the immediate effects of drug use:
When I forget how to talk I sing
Won't you please
Bring that flash to shine
And turn my eyes red
Unless they close
When you click
And my face gets sick
Like a question unposed
In the end, I don't know for sure what the song is about and I suspect Tweedy, who was under the influence of both prescription painkillers and fine literature, doesn't know either. But I do know I feel something every time I hear it and the murky lyric somehow makes it seem more genuine.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Song #479 of 9999 - Muscle Museum by Muse

Was having a little trouble coming up with a good idea for tonight's blog so I did what any self-respecting person would do: delegated it! And that means it's Guest Blogger Night! Tonight, we get some young blood in here as college freshman and former Caravella protégé Kelsey Bomboy weighs in on a song that may or may not have been written before she was born. ;) And by the way, Kelsey is also a very fine singer—you can check out some of her video performances here.

Song #479 of 9999

Title: Muscle Museum
Artist: Muse
Year: 1999
Album: Showbiz

There is not a single album by Muse that I don't fully enjoy listening to, and Muse is one of the very few bands who I can say that about. From their debut Showbiz in 1999 to their most recent The 2nd Law, Muse's frontman, Matthew Bellamy, has continued to bring new ideas to each album which has only left me coming back for more.

Those who lost their Muse virginity by hearing "Madness" on the radio within the past year would probably be surprised to learn that they didn't always use thick synth beats and sing in major keys. “Muscle Museum” is a prime example of quite the opposite.

When I heard "Muscle Museum" for the first time back in 2007 I was instantly hooked. As an awkward and musically ignorant pre-teen in the seventh grade I had no idea why I loved this song so much. However, after being a survivor of AP Music Theory (thanks to Frankie Big Face!), I now can articulate why.

The first thing that jumps out at you is the alternating eighth notes of F# and C# in the bass guitar. Then comes the piercing harmonies in the lead guitar it soon becomes clear that Bellamy composed this song in the key of F# minor, one of the darkest sounding keys in existence. When Bellamy enters in the first verse with his breathy, British voice you can tell that there's an emotional lament coming your way (not to mention some sweet falsetto).

The chord progression in the chorus is a common [i-V-i-iv]. I am always moved by the last line in the chorus. Its progression truly feels like, well...progression and pushing forward as he slowly slides up to the leading tone and then resolves. After the second chorus Bellamy plays around with the microphone and makes his voice sound like an electric guitar – you gotta admit that's pretty cool. The song fades out with a creepy sounding piano repeating the intro which leaves the listener feeling empty and haunted.

I do think there is something to be said about the relationship between the meaning of this song and the key that it's in. In an interview Bellamy said that this song is about the frustration of putting in so much effort into a relationship and not getting anything in return:
Can you see that I am needing
Begging for so much more
Than you could ever give
And I don’t want you to adore me
Don’t want you to ignore me
When it pleases you
Maybe Bellamy carefully considered the key, or maybe he didn't. But for my own peace of mind, I like to think that he chose a depressing key for a depressing and emotional song.

Fun fact: Muse had a hard time coming up with a name for this song, so they chose the words that come right before and after the word "muse" in most dictionaries: "muscle" and "museum"

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Songs #477 & 478 - It's TWOsday!

Song #477 of 9999                                    Song #478 of 9999

Title: Genie in a Bottle                              Title: ...Baby One More Time 
Christina Aguilera                          Artist: Britney Spears
Year: 1999                                                 Year: 1999
Christina Aguilera                        Album: ...Baby One More Time


While we all waited for the world to end (admit it, you bought and stored canned goods in anticipation of the Y2K bug), two former Mickey Mouse Club members emerged as harbingers of the forthcoming apocalypse. I'm kidding—they weren't as bad as they seemed at the time—but it is interesting that these barely legal nymphs showed up almost simultaneously to inject a little bit of teen raunch into popular music while simultaneously siphoning BPM from the dance circuit.

Setting aside the sex factor (NBC's worst fall offering!), let's examine the similarities between the debut singles of our two most popular turn-of-the-millennial singers. Both are in minor keys (F and C respectively) and clock in well under what we might consider to be dance tempos. Christina's tune slinks a little slower at approximately 88 BPM while Britney's struts in the 94 BPM range. Both fall into the range we would call Andante, which is Italian for "sexy walking tempo."

Harmonically, each song features a single chord progression that repeats for the duration of the song, through verse, chorus and even bridge (where applicable). Aguilera's synth-rich setting employs a descending ground bass technique (i VII VI V), which works well to showcase her considerable vocal talent, which was well-honed even at such a young age. But just in case it wasn't enough, the arranger worked overtime to fill every empty space with enough faux trumpet, piano and synth licks to create a polyphonic environment busy enough to satisfy even the shortest attention span.

Spears's single has a little more going on harmonically, some of it quite clever. The basic progression is i-V6-III-iv-V (Cm-G/B-Eb-Fm-G) with the last chord constantly being challenged by the dissonant (and "bluesy," I guess) Bb that appears in the piano riff that opens the piece. I think the motion from G/B to Eb is really cool (that's the technical term), and it points to a fundamental difference between these two tunes: where Xtina's bass consistently moves away from the tonic by descending step, Britney's approaches the tonic by ascending step. (you probably already knew this from the VH1 pop-up video) With fewer bells and whistles and a much weaker singer, Spears's song relies on better construction to get the job done. The best example of this comes during the chorus when the repetitive progression is interrupted at the best possible moment ("give me a siiiiiign") by a couple of quick chords on beats three and four (Ab Bb) before proceeding to the (Eb):

There's some additional harmonic trickery during the bridge that's really effective—again making use of the Ab Major chord (VI)—but the writers don't stray far from the original progression.

I'd be lying if I didn't say I think "Genie in a Bottle" holds up better than "...Baby One More Time" and it's primarily due to Aguilera's singing skill, although I do think both songs have merit. It's kind of interesting to compare the presentations of these two stars-to-be and hard not to believe the producers knew exactly what they had in each. I may be reading too much into this but I'll even put forth the supposition that Aguilera's LP debut is self-titled (i.e. "check out this new singer!") while Spears's is named for the title track (i.e. "check out this new song!") as proof.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Song #476 of 9999 - I Try by Macy Gray

Song #476 of 9999

Title: I Try
Artist: Macy Gray
Year: 1999
Album: On How Life Is

I really don't know anything about Macy Gray and I don't know any other songs by her. I also don't know whether "I Try" was overplayed to the point of making people sick or barely made it to the surface but I'm going to surmise the former based on all the awards it won and the fact that someone as out of touch with mainstream pop in 1999 as I heard it at least a few times. And so I begin by apologizing if you all hate this song. I'm sorry.

But I love it and I can pinpoint the very moment that makes me feel this way. Last week, I was talking about how difficult rhythm is to quantify. This song has a rhythm pattern toward the end of the chorus that commands my attention every time I hear it. For a while, I couldn't even figure out what was going on as I fruitlessly tried counting a bunch of irregular rhythm patterns to match what she is doing on the words "crumbles when you are not near." In the end, I concluded the lyric was simply set to quarter note triplets (EDIT: sort of) and that made me feel stupid and incompetent (EDIT: but less so now).

So I thought about it more. And more. And more and more. Why does this rhythm sound so exotic to me? I considered just writing it off as quarter note triplets just don't show up in pop songs very often. But I don't think it's that simple. From my perspective, the song sits on the edge between straight time and a shuffle. Listen to the drums and you'll hear straight eighth notes played on the hi-hat and bass drum. These straight patterns contrast with the gospel swing time that informs the piano, bass and occasional drum fills. This isn't anything new—this is pretty much the definition of the style. But when you add the quarter note triplets I talked about earlier, you get some unusual polyrhythms that go beyond the norm. In fact, when I sat down to notate it, I found that the only way to align everything I was hearing was to put it in cut time, like this:

(EDIT: I knew the note on the word "here" came just after the beat but I thought I could sneak it by y'all. My friend Sam spotted it right away—that's quality control!—so I went back to the drawing board and I think I have the rhythm notated exactly now. Sam?)

Now I realize the "underlying shuffle" I included in the middle line is intermittent, showing up only in fills and phrasing, but I don't think you can deny its existence. And when you contrast it against those quarter note triplets, you really do get something rather unusual for this genre. When you consider how the melody and rhythm depict the lyric ("my world crumbles when you are not near")—i.e. descending by leap somewhat erratically—it's really quite clever.

I hope that made sense. This was a tough one. :-/

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Song #476 of 9999 - Debaser by Pixies

Song #476 of 9999

Title: Debaser
Artist: Pixies
Year: 1989
Album: Doolittle

It's kind of hard to believe the album Doolittle came from 1989. With just a few notable exceptions (Nirvana's Bleach, Soundgarden's Louder Than Love), almost everything released during the last few years of the 1980s sounds very processed and clean. I reckon much of this was due to the early digitization of music—my most common thought listening to music this week was "boy, does this record need to be remastered." But also, there just seemed to be a huge trend toward making everything sound shiny and pristine. Of course, in hindsight, we all know what's coming, with the dawn of grunge just around the bend. But even the most popular grunge record of all time, Nirvana's Nevermind, sounds polished after soaking in the heavy-handed production of Butch Vig. 

Which brings me back to Doolittle. Is there another record from the 1980s that sounds this visceral? Kudos to producer Gil Norton for truly capturing the manic energy of Black Francis and company, whose no holds barred approach makes for one of the most energetic records you will ever hear. Ignoring the trend of filling every nook and cranny of a 76-minute CD, fifteen songs are packed into a 40-minute package that seems to emanate directly from Francis's id. Themes of surrealism, death, religion, and torture are played and sung with vigor but not abandon—the songs are somehow cohesive and unrestrained simultaneously.

"Debaser" is a fine representative of this superb album. From the outset we're dealt a bit of a surprise as Francis's ringing guitar line forms unexpected chords against Kim Deal's articulate bass (Dm7 F/A Bb9 F/C). Maybe this isn't really a big deal—these mild dissonances are common in the music of Pixies—but I found it to be rather riveting. Once Francis opens his mouth to sing, attention to such details is impossible as a lyric about "slicing up eyeballs" sung by a maniac is not easy to ignore. Before you think the man completely out of his mind, you should know Francis is merely communicating concepts presented sixty years earlier by Spanish surrealists Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí in their 1929 silent film Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), which famously features an eyeball-cutting scene. Yikes!

See you tomorrow in 1999.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Song #475 of 9999 - Shake Your Rump by Beastie Boys

Song #475 of 9999

Title: Shake Your Rump
Artist: Beastie Boys
Year: 1989
Album: Paul's Boutique

In retrospect, it's hard to believe Paul's Boutique was viewed as a sophomore slump for Beastie Boys. A commercial and critical disappointment upon it's release, it has more recently been hailed as groundbreaking and typically appears on all kinds of "Best of" lists. The record finds the B-Boys drifting not too far from their "frat rap" debut in terms of their brattiness ("Like Sam the butcher bringing Alice the meat") but miles away from home in terms of their beats and samples.

Literally miles from home as it turns out. The least amount of research possible (hello Wikipedia!) reveals that the band set up shop in Los Angeles and began writing with the Dust Brothers who had heretofore only worked with rapper Tone-Loc. It was an interesting surprise to learn that many of the backing tracks had already been assembled by the Dust Brothers (who would later go on to produce very successful records by Beck Hansen as well as, er...Hanson!) for an instrumental album, including the sample-rich tapestry that would become "Shake Your Rump."

"Shake Your Rump" finds the Beasties doing what they do best: spouting clever rapid-fire rhyming, dropping pop culture references left and right, and exploiting their rap trio...uh, -ness. That's one of the things I like the most about this track, how they dialogue with one another. But the real innovation here is presenting all those great qualities in such a rich and vibrant setting. The Dust Brothers assembled over a dozen of the coolest samples, including that great funky guitar part from "Tell Me Something Good" and several from Rose Royce's Car Wash, including a kickass bass line from "Yo Yo" and the synth drop from "6 O'Clock DJ." The record almost dares your ears to keep up!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Song #474 of 9999 - Back to Life by Soul II Soul

Song #474 of 9999

Title: Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)
Artist: Soul II Soul
Year: 1989
Album: Club Classics, Vol. One

I write a lot about harmony in my blog. I must admit it is the musical element that most captivates my imagination, with melody taking home the silver and rhythm the bronze. For many people, this would be a crazy miscarriage of musical justice and I understand. Rhythm is the only element that can stand on its own as a musical force and I have certainly been moved by purely rhythmic performances. But rhythm can be hard to explain in terms of its efficacy—it's like trying to explain a feeling—so maybe that's why I avoid the discussion.

Anyway, I thought of this when listening to this remix of "Back to Life" from Soul II Soul's 1989 debut. I'm not a big R'n'B guy but man, those Brits can suck me in with their reserved, often spare, approach. Produced by Nellee Hooper (who else?), the version of this tune that ended up on the album is almost entirely a cappella. Despite Caron Wheeler's lovely voice and pristine harmonies, it's one of the more confounding things I've heard. I have to believe the band made the decision to remove the instruments after recording the song because there are these long silences between phrases that seem timed for accompaniment. (Actual research has revealed the opposite to be true but I'm still skeptical.) But there's enough information in the vocal tracks to inform the harmony and it's fair to make the case that the a cappella version is holding up better after 25 years.

So back to rhythm. Setting aside the shuffling groove of "Back to Life," I'd like to focus on the rhythm of the melodies. I really like the snappy quality of the dotted rhythms that pepper this piece and the care that is taken with what to place on or off the beat. In the initial lyric (back to life/back to reality), every syllable is set squarely on a beat, with only the "re" in "reality" preceding the beat by a sixteenth note (the snappiness!). Wheeler maintains this firm placement until 0:29 when she suddenly lets out a flowing stream of notes on the word "you." This is precisely when the hook emerges and the song really blossoms. The rhythmic treatment of "however do you want me" is almost the exact opposite of the opening: the first, second and fourth occurrences land just before the fourth beat while the third sounds "early" when hitting squarely on beat three. I love that third phrase so much, serving as the exception that proves the metric rule. The remainder of the song exploits this contrast of on-the-beat stuff with off-the-beat stuff—listen to the strings from 1:17 through 1:55 for another good example of this dichotomy. 

Maybe this all seems obvious but I find that we often take rhythm for granted when it comes to analysis because it's easier to just say it "feels right" or it "grooves." But closer examination can often reveal helpful details about just why it works so well.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Song #473 of 9999 - Wicked Game by Chris Isaak

Song #473 of 9999

Title: Wicked Game
Artist: Chris Isaak
Year: 1989
Album: Heart Shaped World

I was surveying songs that came out in 1989 and listened to "Wicked Game" for the first time in...decades surely. And the first thing I thought was "this just has David Lynch written all over it."

Of course, it has already been in a Lynch film—featured prominently in 1990's Wild at Heart—and I can't be sure whether I subconsciously remembered that or just recognized the traits Lynch finds so appealing. Lynch has always been drawn to this sort of rockabilly on quaaludes sound and Isaak's arrangement is right in his wheelhouse.

The arrangement has a lot of space. There are only three chords (Bm A E), presented in one perpetual progression. This harmonic foundation is provided by bass and drums that, according to an article in Mix magazine, were assembled from samples in the studio from the many performances of the song Isaak and his band, Silvertone, had made over the years. I would never have guessed this—the song sounds like a live recording to me—but maybe this contributes to the otherworldliness of the recording. Combined with Isaak's gentle acoustic strumming and disembodied female backing vocals, the core of the song seems coolly detached from the simmering dramatic performances of Isaak and lead guitarist James Calvin Wissley (whose parts were apparently also spliced together—say it isn't so!).

And those two are the real stars here. Isaak evokes Roy Orbison's "Crying" as he leads us through his own personal five-stages-of-grief reading. Wissley is there to do the actual wailing for him, expertly maneuvering the tremolo bar of his guitar to create a melody composed more of smears than notes. He also provides some beautiful arpeggios that captivate me every time I hear them. Together, they deliver a quietly intense performance that contrasts with the measured groove of the rhythm section. If you haven't listened to "Wicked Game" for a while, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by how well it's aging.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Song #472 of 9999 - Wishing Well by Bob Mould

Song #472 of 9999

Title: Wishing Well
Artist: Bob Mould
Year: 1989
Album: Workbook

Since I started buying vinyl records again, there are a number of albums I look for periodically in remastered versions on 180-gram vinyl. It's kind of fun and very reminiscent of the exact opposite quest I was on in the late 1980s when everyone (including me) was conned into thinking CDs were far superior in terms of sound quality. Bob Mould's Workbook is one of those albums. And not mostly because it needs a serious remastering job but because it's a masterpiece of its time. (SIDE NOTE: Just realized I already bought the 1989 version on vinyl BUT new 25th Anniversary heavy vinyl version out February 25th!)

Workbook is the first record Mould made after the messy dissolution of Hüsker Dü, the seminal American punk band that emerged in the early 1980s. The story goes that Mould holed himself up in a farmhouse in his native Minnesota, kicked his drinking and drug habits and set to writing one of the most personal records of his career. The result was so different than anyone could have imagined, with Mould setting aside the "wall of noise" distorted guitar sound that defined his former band in favor of acoustic guitars and (gasp) cellos.

An examination of "Wishing Well" will reveal that, despite these changes of instrumentation, Mould's style is firmly intact. The jangling acoustic guitars ring out the same open string drones that were formerly drenched with loads of distortion and Mould's voice still bellows but with a prominence that implies he has something significant to say. For those missing the electric guitars, Mould offers a characteristic guitar solo in anticipation of what is possibly my favorite moment of the song: the fiery bridge at 3:15 with its ascending bass line and accelerating chord progression. The song may not rock as hard as a Hüsker Dü song but it possesses a brimming intensity that I actually prefer.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Songs #470 & 471 - It's TWOsday!

It's Guest Blogger night! My old friend Ted Snavely becomes the first guest to take on a TWOsday with his reminiscence of our tie-wearing, record-selling days at something called a "Superstore" on Columbia Ave. (It's a Lowe's now.) Today he lives in Arlington, Virginia, where he continues his very important work in the Sound & Video industry as a colorist, whatever that is. (Just kidding Ted!)

Song #470 of 9999                                    Song #471 of 9999

Title: Mayor of Simpleton                         Title: Veronica
Artist: XTC                                                Artist: Elvis Costello
Year: 1989                                                  Year: 1989
Album: Oranges and Lemons                    Album: Spike


I worked with Frank in a record store (Wall-To-Wall Sound & Video) in 1989 (see Entry #432 for more). We were music snobs and we had to wear ties to sell our wares. We would direct customers to albums they were looking for and, if it was something we didn’t like, it would be with much disdain.

We had a very knowledgeable group of sellers whose only common denominator was (maybe) The Beatles and we would often fight over which CDs we got to open and play in the store. We were only allowed to open a limited number of CDs per month (as it ate into the profits), so we had to be very selective of our choices. Two highly anticipated albums that year that we all agreed on were Elvis Costello’s Spike and XTC’s Oranges & Lemons, which were both opened shortly after they got off the FedEx truck.

XTC was a quirky pop band that grew out of the post-punk new wave era in England in the late 70’s and evolved into a well-crafted songwriting unit. Their previous album was the highly acclaimed Skylarking, a conceptual album of sorts produced by Todd Rundgren, and we were all curious what they would follow it up with. They delivered Oranges & Lemons with cover art by Yellow Submarine artist Heinz Edelmann, which immediately screamed Beatles. The first single was “Mayor of Simpleton” which was a boppy, happy pop masterpiece with an endless supply of overdubs that
never ceases to bring a smile to my face. It remains their highest charting U.S. single.

In 1989 Elvis Costello had just ended his Columbia Records contract and signed with Warner Bros. We knew he wanted to make a big splash on his new label and he did so with Spike. Warner Bros. gave him the budget of a small independent movie and he was able to book four studios with four different groups of musicians to give the album a wide range of feel. During this time he was doing a lot of writing with Paul McCartney and two of the tracks they co-wrote appear on this album. The first single was one of these, “Veronica.” Even though it deals with an Alzheimer’s patient, it is a very upbeat poppy song that supplies happiness to my soul. It also remains to be his highest charting U.S. hit.

Both of these songs remind me of what a well-written, well-produced (but not overproduced) pop song should’ve sounded like in the late 80’s. They remind me that I was not qualified to sell CDs unless I was wearing a tie (still bitter about that). And they remind me of Frank. They live on in my iTunes and on my Pandora station titled “Good Pop.” If Frank has a Pandora station of the same name, I’ll bet you might find them there as well.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Song #469 of 9999 - Snagglepuss by Naked City

Song #469 of 9999

Title: Snagglepuss
Artist: Naked City
Year: 1989
Album: Naked City

Avant-garde composer and saxophonist John Zorn has always worn his influences on his sleeves (he needs both—there are a lot of them). Designed to "test the limits of the rock band format," the collaborative effort that would become Naked City features nods to Ennio Morricone, Henry Mancini, Ornette Coleman, James Bond, film noir, 50s rock and roll, punk rock, Japanese punk rock, grindcore, country and western, New Orleans jazz, bebop, noise and more. 

But perhaps most of all it is the influence of Carl Stalling, the famed Warner Bros. cartoon composer, that is responsible for some of the more unique tracks on the record. After hearing Stalling's cut-and-paste style featured in Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies of the 1940s and 50s, Zorn developed a file card system of composing, whereby he would notate short ideas on index cards and then arrange them randomly or in an order of his liking. The cards are not related by style, key, meter or any other traditional musical means and there are no transitions between the ideas. 

As demonstrated in "Snagglepuss," the results can be jarring at times but never less than exhilarating. Zorn acknowledged the often violent nature of these compositions by featuring a gruesome photo by crime photographer Weegee on the cover of Naked City along with grotesque illustrations by Japanese artist Suehiro Maruo in the liner notes. (Zorn maintains apartments in New York City and Tokyo, two cities which continually inform his work.)

Naked City is an exhausting record. I reviewed nearly all of it searching for the right track for this post. It was hard work just listening to it so I can only imagine the sessions that produced this groundbreaking album. This is music that can only succeed in a face-to-face setting with tremendous levels of mutual understanding and communication. To quote Zorn on this type of collaboration, "At the end of the day, I want players to say: this was fun - it was a lot of fucking work, and it's one of the hardest things I've ever done, but it was worth the effort."

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Song #468 of 9999 - I Can't Tell You Why by The Eagles

Song #468 of 9999

Title: I Can't Tell You Why
Artist: The Eagles
Year: 1979
Album: The Long Run

There are so many good songs from 1979 I may need to return to it for another go-round. Thus, it may seem odd that I'm ending not with The Wall or even Off the Wall, but I've been listening to this Eagles song for a few days and I think I should give it its due.

I feel like The Eagles get a bad rap these days. They were enormously popular but perhaps they didn't make anything of real lasting significance. I suppose they're kind of in the same category as The Doobie Brothers and Little River Band in that regard—breezy pop that really hit the spot on AM radio in the 70s but seems rather forgettable in today's rearview mirror.

Maybe "I Can't Tell You Why" falls into that category too. But I like it. And I can tell you why. (Couldn't resist.) First, it's sung by bassist and composer Timothy B. Schmit in a voice that seems impossible. For a band that relies so heavily on vocal harmony, the addition of Schmit following the Hotel California tour must have been tremendous, given his range and clarity. 

Second, I really like the simplicity of the song and I'm especially fond of the way it exploits the relative major key during its verses. The song is in B Minor, which is well-established in the opening bars. But when Schmit opens his mouth for the first time, his lyric is supported by a I - IV7 progression in D Major. The song really seems to open up at the moment and I like the effect. By the end of the pre-chorus, we're solidly back in B Minor, although with a dominant chord (F#) that teeters between major and minor.

Finally, I think the song is nicely appointed in terms of vocal counterpoint and instrumentation. The arrangement may seem rote but it's reassuring to hear so many things in their right place. Does it go on for a minute too long? Of course, but that's likely just the result of a specific clause in the contract between banal guitarist Joe Walsh and The Devil.

See you tomorrow in 1989.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Song #467 of 9999 - My Sharona by The Knack

Song #467 of 9999

Title: My Sharona
Artist: The Knack
Year: 1979
Album: Get the Knack

Sometimes what you leave out of the harmonic gene code of a song (I just made that up—you're welcome) is what makes it special. Ask yourself the same question I asked myself tonight. Is "My Sharona" in a major or a minor key? Go ahead, grab your guitar or your piano or your harpsichord—whatever you have lying around. Play it a few times, let yourself rock out a little. Figure it out yet? I know. You won't. It's a trap!

Everyone knows the main riff of the tune, penned by lead guitarist Berton Averre, who took it to singer Doug Fieger for lyrics and melody. But the riff gives us only partial information about the key, which is that it is in G. The triads that conclude the riff (C and Bb) aren't much help because the first belongs to G Major and the second to G Minor.

The next place to look for clues is the melody. Guitarists frequently leave out the thirds of chords and we often find them in the vocal melody. So what is Fieger singing? One note—F! Fieger sits on the flat-7th above the tonic for almost the entire verse. His vocal dropoffs at the ends of each line (on one and run, for example) are of indeterminate pitch—I could not match them with any note of the chromatic scale even though I found them easy to replicate with my voice. One could suggest that the F-natural suggests G Minor, but in a song that is blues-based (as this one is...loosely), a minor 7th on a major tonic would not be out of place at all. Back to the drawing board.

The chords that precede the chorus—G Bb C Eb—also suggest G Minor to an extent but they are built on scale degrees related to a blues scale which works fine over a major key and the Bb and Eb really sound more like borrowed chords than diatonic chords. Maybe the long instrumental section (that no-one probably even remembers) will shed some light on the mystery! Well, it is in a major key, but the key is C, not G. Rats.

In the end there is only one conclusion to be drawn and that is the song is in the key of G, period. No major, no minor—just G. If someone forced me to choose, I would say it's in G Major and my proof would be the use of C Major as the subdominant chord. It's the only bit of real evidentiary support of one over the other. But it's more fun to conclude that The Knack—yes, The Knack—confounded and conquered tonality through their deliberately nebulous selection of notes and chords!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Song #466 of 9999 - Is She Really Going Out With Him? by Joe Jackson

Song #466 of 9999

Title: Is She Really Going Out With Him?
Artist: Joe Jackson
Year: 1979
Album: Look Sharp!

A song that begins with the line "Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street" gets my respect and attention immediately. Revisiting "Is She Really Going Out With Him?", I particularly enjoyed being reminded of that line, which would have meant nothing to me in 1979 but certainly resonates today. (Although, in retrospect, this is probably exactly what Luke Skywalker was thinking when Princess Leia kissed Han Solo. But I digress.) My record collection's equivalent is probably "Radiation Vibe" by Fountains of Wayne, which opens with the couplet "Are you alone now/Did you lose the monkey".

I suppose the way for Joe Jackson was paved by Elvis Costello, a fellow Englishman whose sardonic wit and penchant for American-style rock and roll was well-established by 1979. While Jackson's songs didn't have quite the sting of Costello's, they had a uniqueness to them that I believe emanates from his being a pianist rather than a guitarist.

The evidence in "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" is present not in the verse, where a typical guitar-rock progression is utilized (I-V-bVII-IV in the key of Bb), but in the chorus and bridge. The chord that strikes me as being so idiomatic to the piano occurs at the end of the hook on the word "out":
                                      Eb                          F/Bb    Bb
                                      Is she really going out___ with him

It's a wonderful moment. The F Major over Bb is such a well-placed dissonance and, while it's conceivable that a guitarist comes up with this idea, it's such a natural fit for the piano.

The bridge offers even more pianistic delights:
                       Dm7                     Eb                 F7sus4                G7sus4               Dm7
                       But if looks could kill, there's a man there who's marked down as dead...

Again, there are plenty of guitarists with the skill and intuition to grab those suspended chords but they fall so easily into the hands of a pianist (even one as bad as me!) who can simply play them as stacked fourths (F-Bb-Eb for F7sus4 and G-C-F for G7sus4—go ahead and try them!). These colorful sonorities lend a richness to the bridge that works quite well in contrast to the thin texture of the verse.

Of course, it's hard to be a piano player in a rock band and eventually Jackson's tendencies led him down the dark path of jazzy pop. So sad. ;)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Song #465 of 9999 - Dream Police by Cheap Trick

Song #465 of 9999

Title: Dream Police
Artist: Cheap Trick
Year: 1979
Album: Dream Police

I hadn't intended to write about Cheap Trick's "Dream Police" tonight. It seems a little too silly for such a...serious blog. But I saw it on my list and hadn't given the song a proper listen for quite some time so I gave it a (virtual) spin. 

The dream police, they live inside of my head
The dream police, they come to me in my bed
The dream police, they're coming to arrest me, oh no.

So it's not Bob Dylan. But it may be Paul McCartney. Are the lyrics really any more ridiculous than "Band on the Run"? In fact, the two songs kind of remind me of one another except "Dream Police" manages to be even more ambitious in terms of harmony, yet more cohesive in terms of structure. The two songs are certainly equals where bombast is concerned.

But let's look at the harmony because, as my three regular readers will tell you, that's where I live. The stupidly catchy chorus that opens the tune offers nothing spectacular, I-V-IV in the key of E major. But the next bit, centered around F# Minor offers some fine counterpoint between Robin Zander's lead vocal and Tom Petersson's bass:

Bang this out on the piano and you'll be amazed at how classical it sounds. The next section ('cause they're waiting for me) benefits from the combination of a pedal tone in the bass and some great syncopation (on the words every single night) that sets up cascading chords, most of which are borrowed from the parallel minor (E D C Bm A). In fact, on the second descent (those men inside...), even the tonic (I) is replaced with its minor equivalent (Em D C Bm B).

After the repeat of these three sections (let's call them A B & C), we're presented with a D section (I try to sleep...) in E Minor that is adapted from the bass line in the first two measures from the graphic above (E B C G | A E F C). And when it's time for the guitar solo to begin, the band simply returns to the pattern in F#m as before—brilliant!

Following the third C section, guitarist Rick Nielsen plays a rising chromatic line over the dominant B Major which hints at a dramatic fifth section that makes extensive use of chromaticism. This rather dissonant instrumental interlude is made even more riveting by meter changes and syncopation. But the band doesn't forget who they are, wisely returning to the catchy chorus that opens the tune. For those keeping score at home, the final structural form of the song: A B C A B C D B C E A.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Songs #463 & 464 - It's TWOsday!

Song #463 of 9999                                    Song #464 of 9999

Title: I Zimbra                                           Title: Hammond Song
Artist: Talking Heads                                Artist: The Roches
Year: 1979                                                 Year: 1979
Album: Fear of Music                               Album: The Roches


Tonight, let's take a look at a couple of songs that benefit from the work of guitarist Robert Fripp. Most people know Fripp from his work with the progressive rock band King Crimson, who have remained active off and on (and in various incarnations) since 1968. But Fripp has appeared on over 700 releases as a performer and producer, with acts ranging in style from Daryl Hall to The Damned. Known as a guitar innovator, he has developed such (rather pretentiously named) creations as Frippertronics and the New Standard Tuning.

Together, the two songs featured in this post serve as a fine example of Fripp's range of activity. While they are quite different songs, they share a trait which is quite common in the music of Robert Fripp, i.e. intricate rhythmic activity within a context of nearly static harmonic progression. They individually showcase two of the more prevalent styles featured in the guitar playing of Fripp: the nearly robotic repetition of a single melodic line and sustained fluid solos that seem to pour out of his instrument.

Of the two songs, "I Zimbra" from Talking Heads' Fear of Music sounds most obviously like Fripp. Listening to the moto perpetuo guitar line that emerges at 0:13, one can't help but be transported two years into the future to King Crimson's Discipline. If you weren't yet convinced that this is the prototype to such songs as "Frame By Frame" and "Thela Hun Ginjeet," the kaleidoscope of melodies that appears at 2:03 should do the trick. But since this is Talking Heads (with Brian Eno producing), the song is presented in a nice neat single-serve package that doesn't suffer from the excess of progressive rock.

"Hammond Song" from The Roches' debut LP is a testament to Fripp's ability to resist precisely those urges. For nearly six minutes, Fripp the producer keeps the song clean and clutter-free, wisely maintaining focus on the preternatural blend of the three sisters' voices. The song is nearly as hypnotic as "I Zimbra" but in a completely different way as a seemingly endless variety of vocal combinations is presented over a syncopated acoustic guitar pattern. The Roches' voices are so identical that unison singing creates a phasing effect that sounds almost synthesized—it's really quite fascinating. When Fripp's unmistakable guitar bursts in at 2:08, it is a startling complement. Two well-placed (and well-hidden!) key changes along with the occasional meter change help the song avoid a sense of stagnation. I had never heard this song or album before writing this blog and I'm claiming it as a great discovery! Thanks Robert Fripp!!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Song #462 of 9999 - Yassassin (Turkish for "Long Live") by David Bowie

Song #462 of 9999

Title: Yassassin (Turkish for "Long Live")
Artist: David Bowie
Year: 1979
Album: Lodger

The blog is BACK! And I thought I'd start with a song from what is probably my favorite album of 1979 even though I surely did not discover it until at least ten years later. Lodger is the third and final record of David Bowie's so-called Berlin trilogy, which also includes Low and "Heroes", both of which were released in 1977. Bowie embarked on a world tour following the release of "Heroes" and the recording of Lodger was undertaken between legs with the touring band. While most of the musicians appeared on the other two records, the most notable changes include the absence of Robert Fripp (replaced by Adrian Belew) and the addition of violinist Simon House whose presence is particularly felt on "Yassassin."

Lodger is a quirky hodge-podge of a record, with musical influences from all over the globe and random experiments including musicians swapping instruments, different songs using identical chord progressions, and guitar solos being recorded in complete isolation with Belew not even knowing the key of the song. So it's no surprise that "Yassassin" features a rather unusual blend of reggae and Turkish music!

The harmonic progression consists essentially of just two chords set a semitone apart: E7 (I) and F (bII). This chord relationship suggests Phrygian mode and, in fact, the scale employed by Bowie's synthesizer parts and House's violin solos is essentially what jazz musicians may call a Phrygian dominant scale (in this key: E F G# A B C D E). But the 7th scale degree is raised (D-->D#) in keeping with the Turkish scale known as the Hijaz Kar Makam. (What? You didn't know that?) For those unfamiliar with Turkish (or Arabic) music, the makam is a system of melodic modes for composing and performing music.

So what is Bowie doing messing around with Turkish music while hanging out in Berlin anyway? The connection seems to be the so-called Gastarbeiter, "guest workers" who came primarily from Turkey to Germany to work for a specified amount of time during the 1960s and 1970s. The song's lyric appears to comment on the state of these workers, many of whom stayed in Germany after the program officially ended in 1973 and were perhaps disadvantaged or victims of discrimination. Bowie chooses to alter the spelling of yaşasın ("long live"), apparently combining it with the word assassin, and perhaps suggesting that his protagonist is in Germany to perform a rather different job!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Blog on Break

I hate to do this, having just started 1979 with Thomas Neufeld's excellent post, but I need to take a few days off from the blog. Will return on Sunday or Monday. Use this time to catch up on the posts you've missed!