Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Blog on Strike

Those greedy writers and analysts at 9999 Songs are demanding more pay and shorter hours! This has resulted in a work stoppage. Should have it worked out in a few days, a week at most.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Song #496 of 9999 - Horchata by Vampire Weekend

Song #496 of 9999

Title: Horchata
Artist: Vampire Weekend
Year: 2010
Album: Contra

As much as I loved The National's High Violet, Vampire Weekend's sophomore effort Contra takes my prize for most creative pop record of the year. Even while wearing its influences on its sleeves (I hear a lot of Paul Simon and a little Elvis Costello among others), the band delivers a truly unique blend of guitars, synths and percussion in support of cleverly constructed songs. Brilliant production from band member Rostam Batmanglij pushes the record to crazily gratifying heights.

There are a lot of great songs on Contra but "Horchata" never disappoints me. Syncopated rhythms wend their way through African percussion, strings, synthesizers and pulsating beats that keep you guessing where they may land next. Ezra Koenig's voice is everything I've always hoped The Shins' James Mercer's could be—playful, youthful, but, most of all, controlled. As with most every song on the album (but perhaps not to the same extent), all the instruments on "Horchata" are simultaneously percussive and melodic—the musical equivalent of pointillism. If the song has a weakness, it's the lyrics. But even if they're not that great, they're evocative and interesting, which is more than I can say for most of what I hear today.

I realize this post is comprised mostly of gushing about a song and a band that have already received a lifetime's worth of praise, but it's Saturday and I'm tired and this is all I can muster. Peace out!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Song #495 of 9999 - You Are Not Alone by Mavis Staples

Song #495 of 9999

Title: You Are Not Alone
Artist: Mavis Staples
Year: 2010
Album: You Are Not Alone

I'll be home this evening. And not just because Valentine's Day is a stupid made up holiday. I don't have a sweetheart to take to the movies or out to a fancy dinner or to a monster truck rally. It's just the current way of my life. And since you're reading this blog, it may also be the way of your life. And that's okay. I'm here for you. And so is Mavis Staples. You Are Not Alone. *sniff*

Something special happened when Wilco's Jeff Tweedy decided to team up with then 71-year-old Staples, a longtime, er....staple of the gospel music scene. Tweedy and Staples both hail from Chicago, where baby daughter Mavis got her start with sisters Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne as members of The Staple Singers way back in 1948, nearly twenty years before Tweedy was born. And while most of the Tweedy-produced You Are Not Alone is pretty standard gospel, the title track (penned by Tweedy) is a beautiful synergy of alt-country and gospel that highlights the common ground of the two styles.

Despite being pitched in the key of F Major, the song establishes a solemn tone immediately by beginning the verse on the submediant (vi), D minor. In fact, there is a strong tendency toward minor chords throughout the song but these periods of minor key activity are invariably met with the comforting and familiar sounds of the major plagal cadence (IV-I): 

Verse: vi  /   /   iii  |  vi   /   /   /   |  I  /   /   IV  |   I  /   /   /   |
           vi  /   /   /    |  vi   /   /   /    |  ii  /   /    /   |   I  /   /   IV  |   I  /   /   /   |

Notice the extra-long phrase in the second half of the verse (on the vi chord). And that extra space is filled with...nothing. Space. It's one of the subtle touches a composer like Tweedy brings to a genre that can be somewhat predictable. Another of these moments occurs during the chorus in the form of a lyric most likely never before heard in gospel ("open up this is a raid") and in the setting of that lyric. Where the verse is left deliberately open and spacious, the chorus is intentionally cluttered, with this specific line being shoehorned into a space where no line is necessary. Let me show you what I mean: 

You may say "ew, it sounds weird" and sure, it does in retrospect. It is certainly a lesser chorus without the line but it still works without it. And that's what makes it so brilliant. Not only is its placement perfect, but it's that particular line, which is so unusual in this context and also a great metaphor. Without it, the lyric is rather plain and the chorus's effectiveness significantly diminished. Whether through intuition or hard work, this is the kind of moment that exemplifies Tweedy's mastery of the craft and turns this song into a highlight of 2010.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Song #494 of 9999 - Don't Cry by Deerhunter

Song #494 of 9999

Title: Don't Cry
Artist: Deerhunter
Year: 2010
Album: Halcyon Digest

It's rare that I remember the very first time I heard a song. But in the case of "Don't Cry" by Deerhunter, I can pinpoint the moment almost exactly. I walked into a record shop in London sometime over the 2010 Thanksgiving holiday and was captivated by this song, which was playing on the instore stereo. I remember asking the guy behind the counter who it was and being surprised to learn the band was from Atlanta, Georgia. (He also seemed surprised that I didn't know—I am American, after all!) I wrote down the name of the record and bought it when I returned home. (Yes, I know, support local businesses, blah blah blah—do you know how hard it is to transport vinyl records across an ocean!?) 

The album ended up on a bunch of "Best Of" lists and it feels good to know I still have an ear for spotting new music. (pause for self-adulation) Except not really because my initial thought was that it must be something quite old I had missed. The song has an early-60s psychedelia vibe marked by its midtempo double-backbeat, fuzz guitar and lead vocal all awash in thick, foggy reverb. Add in the excessive stereo separation and you almost expect to see "Stereo" stamped in the upper right corner of the front cover. Although the lyrics were difficult to comprehend in the shop, I distinctly remember being struck by the repetition of the phrase "...cry your eyes out," which becomes progressively more creepy and literal each time it is sung.

Structurally, the song is unusual in that, while its verses use the same chords in the same order, they are distinctly different in terms of how long and how often each chord is played:
Verse 1:   B  /  G#m /  |  B  /  G#m /  |   E  /  F#  /   |   E  /  F#  /   |   (2X)
Verse 2:   B   /   /   /     |  B   /   /   /     |  G#m  /  /  /  |  G#m  /  /  / |  E  /  F#  /   |  F#  /  /  /  |  E  /  F#  /  |  E  /  F#  /   |  (etc.)
I think there's also something intriguing about the way the E and F# chords function relative to the tonic (I) and major supertonic (II—C#M). I would go so far as to say the bridge that connects the verses is actually in the key of C# and the E and F# chords function as bIII and IV, while during the verses (in B Major), they function more predictably as IV and V. Anyway, if you haven't heard this album and you appreciate the neo-psychedelia movement, you should check it out. Stay warm! (or, if in London, dry!)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Song #493 of 9999 - Numbers Don't Lie by The Mynabirds

Song #493 of 9999

Title: Numbers Don't Lie
Artist: The Mynabirds
Year: 2010
Album: What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood

Here's another song from the I-have-no-idea-how-this-got-in-my-playlist collection. Led by singer-songwriter Laura Burhenn, The Mynabirds are a "collective of musicians" (according to their website) with close ties to label-mate Bright Eyes, former Pedro the Lion David Bazan and indie darlings Crooked Fingers. 

Skimming the band's 2010 debut, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, I found that Burhenn has a penchant for digging in the past and "Numbers Don't Lie" sits firmly in the trench dug by Phil Spector. I'm hooked almost immediately upon hearing the syncopated backbeat that emerges in the piano following a noisy intro of fluty synths and distant footsteps. The harmonic progression that follows is just pure pop of the pre-Fab Four 60s:
Verse (key of E):     I     iii     IV     I   (2x)
Pre-Chorus:            vi     iii     IV     I
                               vi     iii     IV     V      (descending piano fill)
Chorus:                  IV     I      IV   (descending triplet)     I         (2x)
My favorite moment comes during the transition from pre-chorus to chorus, where she avoids an authentic cadence by interjecting a subdominant (IV) prior to proceeding to tonic (I). A simple idea but so effective in creating a superb gospel-tinged hook, especially when preceded by the falling leaves piano fill. Second favorite moment is the descending triplet pattern toward the end of the chorus, a detail which contributes to the vintage sound of the track as it hearkens back to a time when quarter-note triplets were all the rage. (not really, but sort of)

This would be enough to make for a good song but Burhenn also includes a nice bridge with a driving four-on-the-floor drumbeat, some choice backing vocals, strings, a detuned piano—it's a nice piece of production and arranging. The song's (and album's) weakness are the lyrics but, to her credit, Burhenn meets every cliché (and there are plenty) with a clever songwriting twist or an inspired tone color. It's a promising debut and I'm very glad I stumbled upon it.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Song #492 of 9999 - Latinoamérica by Calle 13

Yo yo yo, it's Guest Blogger Night! Tonight, I turn things over to my sole Colombian friend, Andres Cardona, to share his personal connection with Calle 13's "Latinoamérica." I asked Dre for some biographical info and this is what he said:
Former Songfighter Dre resides in the Pacific Northwest, where he enjoys; Dirt Biking, Snowboarding, and rock climbing. He spends way too much time reading books on “Songwritting,” or “Psychology / History of music,” and way too much money building his record collection. His last successful music project was the 2011 RPM Challenge, where he collaborated with strangers from craigslist to write and record an album in 28 days. http://tokyoexpressway.bandcamp.com He still locks himself in his room, to write or record new music, depending on season and mood. He is currently trying to hack the Florida Lottery, with his mad programming skillzz, with no luck yet.

Song #492 of 9999

Title: Latinoamérica
Artist: Calle 13
Year: 2010
Album: Entren Los Que Quieran

I first heard Calle 13's "Latinoamérica" via Facebook from my friend Otho.

The year was 1991; I was an anxious and timid 5th grader, attending a new school. Unlike most anxious 5th graders starting a new school, I also didn't know any English, as my family had just migrated from Colombia to Florida, earlier that year.

Sitting in a classroom amidst other immigrant children, mostly from Latin America and the Caribbean, we would all try to crack this code, called English. Some of the most outspoken and rebellious kids in the classroom, were from the small island of Puerto Rico, one of the most laidback and easy going of them all was named Otho. Otho, was my first friend in the United States.

Growing up within a strong Puerto Rican culture, while being embraced by them, I learned to love and hate everything about them. They can be loud, obnoxious, argumentative, but also warm, caring, unstifled, and most importantly, fun. Till this day, I think Puerto Ricans, like the black ghetto family you always wish you had, are the most fun people to be around. It must be an island thing.

The Puerto Rican stepbrothers known as Calle 13 have built a successful musical career by knowing who they are, and where they're from. Their 2010 release, Entren Los Que Quieran (Enter Those Who Want to), won Latin Grammy Album of the Year, for its eclectic musical style, including Rock, Ska, Reggaeton, and Bollywood. Its fifth single "Latinoamérica (Latin American)," later won song of the year 2011.

No other modern pop song paints such a picture of what it means to be of Hispanic descent. Where family, hard work, resilience, and love for thy neighbor, is all that matters. Where you are expected to make the most with what you have, even if it’s very little, just like everybody else.

So do yourself a favor, especially if you're planning on visiting Machu Picchu in Peru, or the Jungles of Costa Rica, go volcano boarding in Nicaragua, or Patagonia in Argentina. Don’t just be a souvenir buying gringo, watch this music video, and understand how these people truly feel about their daily lives, and you too would be able to relate.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Song #491 of 9999 - Poison & Wine by The Civil Wars

Song #491 of 9999

Title: Poison & Wine
Artist: The Civil Wars
Year: 2010
Album: Barton Hollow

I'm not really a "Best Of" guy. I couldn't tell you my top 10 favorite albums of 2010. Or 2011. Or any year, really. But I do know that The Civil Wars' Barton Hollow has spent (and still spends) an awful lot of time on my turntable. It's not a record I listen to intently—it's pretty easy to relegate to the background. In fact, to be honest, as I'm sitting here listening as closely as I ever have, I have to say Joy Williams is a pretty annoying singer. It's no wonder they don't get along.

But when they click and their voices blend, the results can be pretty sensational. They're like a polished (almost to the point of sterilization) version of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (who I would most definitely pick in a knife fight between the two duos). And yet, I'm sold.

"Poison & Wine" relies on inverted pedal tones to create the soft dissonances that seep through the cracks created by the ticks and tocks of John Paul White's staccato guitar. What I mean is there are notes (Db & Ab in this case) that are sustained throughout the three-chord progression (Db-Ab-Gb) that are sometimes consonant and sometimes dissonant depending on which chords they interact with. In this case, the Db & Ab (heard most prominently in the piano) begin as chord tones with the tonic Db, but become dissonant when played over the dominant (Ab) and subdominant (Gb), like this (the red notes are the dissonances):

As you can see, the notes in the right hand almost never change, at least not until the last measure where the Db moves down by half-step to created a nice augmented 4th dissonance (labeled here as #11) against the bass. These dissonances are rendered even more harmless (and, by extension, more lovely) by the absence of thirds in these chords—notice how the left hand is made only of open fifths. And though I haven't depicted it in this graphic, the vocal melodies sung by Williams and White almost always end on an Eb, a dissonant sixth above the Gb in the bass of the final chord. It is this bundle of dissonances that fuels the slow burn of this beautiful song.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Song #490 of 9999 - From a Sinking Boat by The Magnetic Fields

Song #490 of 9999

Title: From a Sinking Boat
Artist: The Magnetic Fields
Year: 2009
Album: Realism

The Magnetic Fields' Realism is the aural equivalent of folk art. I can almost imagine Stephin Merritt sending everyone in the band a handwritten letter (natch) inviting them to the back warehouse of a thrift store where they are invited to play any instrument they can get to work provided it doesn't require electricity. The results are creative, if not inspired. And, of course, all the coolest people would be there, even Lemony Snicket himself, Daniel Handler, with his antique accordion in tow. A hootenanny of hipsters.

"From a Sinking Boat" doesn't showcase the most striking sounds from the album, which include toy pianos, banjo, folk harp, hammered dulcimer, vibes, tuba and woodblocks. But its whimsical blend of guitar, piano, accordion, cello, and sitar make for a more-than-suitable backdrop for this two-chord tale of love and despair. Merritt's lyric is splendidly naïve, a miniature poem of just 77 words that could have been composed by just about anyone over the age of twelve. Yet it all seems to work just fine, emerging as a poignant assemblage of junk that could hang alongside the best outsider art.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Song #489 of 9999 - A Song for a Son by The Smashing Pumpkins

Song #489 of 9999

Title: A Song for a Son
Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins
Year: 2009
Album: Teargarden by Kaleidyscope

In my (futile) search for engaging music from 2009, I stumbled upon an interesting story about The Smashing Pumpkins, who seem to be engrossed in a two-decade-long identity crisis. In early 2009, Billy Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, the last remaining members of the original lineup, announced they "would not make another traditional studio album, citing changing listener habits." A couple of months later, Chamberlin promptly split. Corgan soldiered on, convinced that the way to make records was to write, record and release one song at a time. He announced a 44-song project, all of which would be made available for free on the band's website, but would eventually be compiled into some sort of physical deluxe edition and made for sale. The first song he produced for this project is "A Song for a Son."

I don't particularly like the song—it's all right—but I am certainly intrigued by the concept, especially as a songwriter who has released way more one-offs than albums. There's something nice about the immediacy of setting a song free as soon as it's complete and in getting instant feedback, both good and bad. And I think it's a good idea for a guy like Corgan, who seems to have a need for constant adoration but whose records don't have the far-reaching or sustaining power they once had. He can keep his diehard fans and himself sated while maintaining (and perhaps growing) a connection to those who may otherwise stray.

I just think he should do it as a soloist. I'm afraid the brand name "The Smashing Pumpkins" has run its course and, frankly, I think Billy has trouble playing well with others. Unfortunately, Corgan and Co. have only made it halfway through the proposed run of 44 songs and they released a commercial album in the process, which was antithetical to his stated goals. Further, the tracks that were released for free have all disappeared from the band's website, but are now commercially available (natch) as a pair of EPs. I do hope the talented Corgan completes his journey and emerges from the other side with a clearer picture of who he is an artist.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Song #488 of 9999 - Bang! by The Raveonettes

Song #488 of 9999

Title: Bang!
Artist: The Raveonettes
Year: 2009
Album: In and Out of Control

I have often complained about my TJ Maxx shopping experience in these pages, my main issue being their great values come paired with equivalently horrendous music. But I do have to thank the curators of crap (new band name!) for introducing me to The Raveonettes in the form of their blandly entitled (but splendidly catchy) "Christmas Song" (profiled in post #61). So, in a rather thin year for music, I turn to the Danish duo's 2009 offering In and Out of Control for some inspiration.

It may be cruel to feature "Bang!" in the dead of winter—the song seems tailor-made for the top-down experience. Made from equal parts fuzz and fun, the Raveonettes single plays like The Beach Boys with no production budget or maybe The Velvet Underground (a primary influence) with hooks. Known more for shoegazing than toe-tapping, "Bang!" is a charming bit of American Bandstand-style pop that could have played well in almost any decade but probably missed its chance to be lucrative by about 45 years.

Need an example of how creative you can be with nothing but the I-IV-V progression? Verse: I-IV-V, Bridge: V-IV-V-IV-V; Chorus: I-IV-V—there, I just taught you the whole song. (Well, not entirely. The instrumental solo features the equally familiar I-vi-IV-V progression found in the remainder of songs from the 1950s.) One of the standout details for me in this twee pop gem is how the backing vocals during the bridge (Bang bang b-bang, b-bang bang b-bang...) kind of forecast the rhythmic feel of the chorus. I'm also a sucker for the syncopated stutter of the previous example and on the word "fun" during the chorus. It's an adorable song until you notice the lyrics:
Bang you're so vicious baby
Bang you sure know how to control me
You're as cool as ice cream
Bang you're so evil baby
Bang you're no sweetheart baby
Bang you keep me blushing all the time
These lyrics are par for the course for The Raveonettes, who are partial to dark topics even when they paint with pastel brushes. If you like noise and melody, I recommend you check out more songs by The Raveonettes!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Song #487 of 9999 - My Love by The Bird and the Bee

Song #487 of 9999

Title: My Love
Artist: The Bird and the Bee
Year: 2009
Album: Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future

Since the advent of Spotify, I don't really look at my iTunes very much anymore. But every once in a while, I notice a record I have no recollection of buying or even listening to. Such is the case with the debut album by The Bird and the Bee, a Los Angeles duo who scored a minor club hit with (mostly remixes of) the provocatively titled "Fucking Boyfriend." I think it's a record I saw on sale for $5.00 on Amazon or maybe it was a free download or perhaps I read a review of it and thought I needed it. Anyway, it's on my computer now and I don't know why.

I also own the song "Love Letter to Japan" from the group's 2009 follow-up Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future. Don't know how I ended up this this song either, but it was intriguing enough to send me in search of the album (which is good, but uneven) where I latched on to tonight's feature, "My Love." 

On the album, "My Love" is introduced by a brief instrumental track (called "Fanfare," absent here, unfortunately) which sets up the playground handclap drumbeat quite nicely. The juxtaposition of keyboardist/producer Greg Kurstin's synthesized landscapes with Inara George's nearly emotionless vocal delivery is captivating in the way I always expect Imogen Heap to be (but rarely is). Kurstin's ability to stay out of the way with his keyboard concoctions is admirable—he seems to know just how much is enough.

The verse is a nice study in the use of the interval of a 6th to create a broad singable melody. George teeters between B and G# at the outset over an E Major chord, then shifts a half-step higher (C to A) to do the same over the minor subdominant (A minor). As many times as I've heard the iv chord used in pop songs, I don't think I've ever quite heard it used in this manner—it's really quite creative. Kurstin uses a nice trick to set up the key change for the chorus, arpeggiating a V chord (B Major), which he then shifts a semitone higher to C Major, which serves as the IV chord in the new key of G Major. He uses a similar trick coming out the chorus as his bass descends chromatically (G-F#-F) to settle on F Major, which serves as the bII (Neapolitan!) in the original key of E Major, where he ultimately proceeds in time for the next verse. This exploitation of half-step relationships between chords reinforces and mimics the half-step relationship mentioned earlier in the melody. Whether intentional or intuitive, it's the kind of observation that just makes the music theorist in me giddy with delight!

P.S. The video is not the official video but had much better sound quality in addition to being quite cute and funny and sad all at once. Enjoy!

P.P.S. Just had to come back and point out there are more 6ths in the backing vocal of the chorus. Just sayin'.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Songs #485 & 486 - It's TWOsday!

Song #485 of 9999                                                 Song #486 of 9999

Title: Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart               Title: I Would Die 4 U
Artist: Alicia Keys                                                  Artist: Prince
Year: 2009                                                              Year: 1984
Album: The Element of Freedom                          Album: Purple Rain

                                 Try this link for Prince song. (No YouTube.)

I'm getting started a little late tonight so forgive me if I fall as short on insight as I am on time.

To me, "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart" and "I Would Die 4 U" are sisters born 25 years apart. And good for Alicia Keys and Co. for taking a risk and producing such a touching and understated record. Not since Giorgio Moroder met Donna Summer has a diva been so firmly held in check by swirling synth lassoes. Keys's breathy—nearly breathless—delivery of phrases of uneven length gives the song a sense urgency that is masterfully echoed by the rising synth line that immediately precedes the chorus. I love the way the filter is gradually burned off the top and that nice analog fuzz is allowed to emerge. It warms my robotic heart.

I'm not the first person to compare "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart" to 80s-period Prince but I found it a challenge to put my finger on exactly which song makes for the best comparison. I chose "I Would Die 4 U" for a few reasons, not the least of which is the similarly spare electronic drum beats that insistently plant themselves front and center of each track. Prince delivers a squarer phrase (at least during the first verse) and the song tends to limp where Keys's strides. They both employ the type of three-part harmony Prince trademarked in those early years with The Revolution although Keys's is more politely consonant. In the end, I think Prince takes more risks vocally but, given that the whole album was a risk for Keys, we should cut her some slack for taking a more traditional approach to phrasing and tone color.

Frankly, I think they're both great songs and it feels right to reunite them after all this time apart. Good night!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Song #484 of 9999 - Meet Me Halfway by The Black Eyed Peas

Song #484 of 9999

Title: Meet Me Halfway
Artist: The Black Eyed Peas
Year: 2009
Album: The E.N.D.

Reviewing all the records released in 2009 made me feel old and out of touch. Which is only partially true (on both counts), but more so when it comes to mainstream music releases. A quick survey of the top records told me I probably didn't miss much—we seem to be firmly entrenched in an age of simplistic songwriting and arranging in support of technically stellar, but emotionally stunted, voices. Nonetheless, it's 2009 on 9999 Songs and I'm going to do my best to highlight some standout tracks.

One advantage of being so out of touch is bands like The Black Eyed Peas still seem fresh and listenable to me. I don't mind hearing "I Got a Feeling" or even "Boom Boom Pow" again, whereas I'm sure some of you would rather die. While those tracks represent the biggest hits from The E.N.D., I'm partial to "Meet Me Halfway," which I can amiably admit to hearing first in a DirecTV commercial. This was probably the best way to come to the song as the ad featured what I can only surmise is the best hook of 2009 and leaves out most of the vapid rapping.

In keeping with the mission of this blog, I sat down to figure out what appeals to me so much about this chorus. If you want to get technical (you know I do!), the song is in G Lydian and features essentially just three chords, presented in a variety of forms but most richly as Gmaj7 A6/9 F#m7 Gmaj7. (N.B. I'm ignoring the fact that the very first "chord" of the song appears to be B Minor—the G is added later. Feel free to argue for the key of B Minor in the comments.) I do love me some Lydian mode, though I don't hear the normal expansive quality I've come to expect from that raised 4th—it's pretty soft in this context.

Add Fergie's vocal melody and you get all kinds of additional dissonances added to the chords: a 6th (E) over the Gmaj7, an 11th (B) over the F#m7. These are not passing tones—these are the notes upon which she comes to rest during the early part of the chorus. In the second half of the chorus, we're presented with a nice countermelody in the backing vocals, which plays upon the augmented 4th from tonic (G-C#) and acts as the call to Fergie's response, which accentuates the longing in the lyric through the use of quarter note triplets. It's at this point I'm absolutely sold.

For me, the proof that this is a great chorus came in sitting at the piano and playing it like a ballad, away from the pulsating dance beat and the moon-meets-Garden of Eden video. Even in (especially in?) that context, I found it to be quite striking.