Friday, May 8, 2015

Song #529 of 9999 - Sealed With a Kiss by Brian Hyland

Song #529 of 9999

Title: Sealed With a Kiss

Artist: Brian Hyland
Year: 1962
Sealed With a Kiss

By 1962, the days of teen idol bubblegum pop stars like Brian Hyland were numbered. The tsunami that was the Beatles was brewing in the Atlantic Ocean and by 1964, this rather dark and dull age of pop would be washed away forever. 

But that doesn't mean there aren't a few gems to uncover amongst the wreckage. "Sealed With a Kiss" didn't reach the platinum status of Hyland's 1960 novelty hit "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," but it hit #3 on the charts in both America and the UK while simultaneously featuring some sweet harmonica playing from the spectacularly named Blackie Shackner.

I enjoyed uncovering the harmony at the root of this minor key hit. Although it's a pretty straight-forward progression, there is a particularly clever use of the subdominant (iv), especially coming out of the bridge. Let's have a look.

(Though we gotta say good-)
Bbm(iv)            Fm(i)   
bye      for the | summer        |
Bbm(iv)    Eb(VII)      Ab(III)        F(V/iv)
Darling I promise you | this      I'll send you all my | 
Bbm(iv)    Eb(VII)      C(V)     Fm(i)
love            every | day in a letter |
Bbm(iv)    Eb(VII)         Fm(i)
           Sealed with a | kiss.

As you can see, each line of the verse begins on the subdominant (iv), although they take different paths, with the two inner lines straying further from the tonic f minor (i). This isn't really all that unusual—the iv-VII-i is perhaps a folkier substitute for ii-V-i so often seen in jazz and classical music. But what I really like is the moment that occurs following the bridge.

     Bb(IV)         Fm(i)
I'll see you in the sunlight
     Bb(IV)         Fm(i)
I'll hear your voice everywhere
     Bb(IV)         Fm(i)
I'll run to tenderly hold you
     G(V/V)              C(V)                             Bbm(iv)
But darling you won't be there. I don't want to say good | bye

First, notice the borrowed Bb Major chord (IV), which comes from the parallel F Major. A simple yet elegant contrast to the original iv-i progression of the verse. On the final line of the bridge, we hear a secondary dominant (the dominant of the dominant) G Major which proceeds to the dominant C. At this point, we would expect a cadence on the tonic f minor (i). But, because of the way the verse is structured, we return not on the tonic but on the subdominant (Bbm--highlighted) in what theorists describe as a "deceptive cadence."

Maybe this is no big deal but I found it to be a nice moment in a cleverly crafted piece of pop. Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Songs #527 & 528 - It's TWOsday, Part TWO! (aka Wednesday)

Song #527 of 9999                                         Song #528 of 9999

Title: Are You Lonesome Tonight?                
Title: Are You Lonesome Tonight?
Artist: Elvis Presley                                        Artist: Vaughn de Leath
Year: 1961                                                     Year: 1927
Album: N/A - single release only                   
Album: N/A - single release only


Yesterday, I offered an glimpse of how music was frequently repurposed in the early days of rock and roll and today I'm back with another fine example.

By 1961, Elvis Presley could have sung the phonebook and hit the top of the charts. But manager Colonel Tom Parker and Presley's record company were aiming to do more than just crank out hit after hit. They were cultivating an icon by carefully curating the songs Elvis would release to his adoring public. It tooks months of discussions before "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" was deemed worthy of Elvis's evolving style but just weeks for it to cement itself as Elvis's 15th consecutive #1 single.

I find the first 75 seconds of Elvis's melancholy rendition to be right on target. It's sad, contemplative, sensitive, maybe even moving. And then comes the spoken word and it reads almost as parody. Am I just too jaded? Did this really work fifty years ago? I guess it's worth noting that Elvis had just returned from Germany, having been honorably discharged from the army, and I suppose it makes sense that songs like these could temper the loneliness felt by military families separated by thousands of miles. Not something we think about much in the days of the internet. Anyway...

Interestingly, Vaughn de Leath uses some spoken word herself on her very successful 1927 release. This version reveals how much was excised from the original song, written by Lou Handman and Roy Turk in 1926. We have a typical Tin Pan Alley introduction preceding the refrain that becomes the basis of Presley's hit. This introduction returns (is it actually a verse?) prior to the second refrain (chorus?), where de Leath rolls out her own more matter-of-fact spoken word section. De Leath's version went to #4 on the charts, but I find the earlier Charles Hart version (also from 1927) with its out-of-tune orchestra more charming. Here it is for your (bonus) enjoyment:

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Songs #525 & 526 - It's TWOsday!

Song #525 of 9999                                          Song #526 of 9999

Title: Beyond the Sea                                      Title: La Mer
Artist: Bobby Darin                                         Artist: Charles Trenet
Year: 1960                                                       Year: 1946
Album: That's All                                            Album: N/A - single release only


Bobby Darin's 1960 hit "Beyond the Sea" has such a nostalgic sound you almost can't listen to it without imagining a cheesy movie montage of a couple getting to know each other by walking the dog, eating ice cream in the park, buying each other the same anniversary present, and sitting side by side on a bench in the moonlight. And no wonder! The song started out with a nostalgia head start, having been co-opted from Frenchman Charles Tenet's equally, if not more, popular 1946 hit "La Mer"! Did I know this already? I don't know—I can't remember. Did you? What I do know is your classier movie montage will opt for the (probably cheaper) French version.

They're both fine, if not overly sentimental. I like Trenet's version more for its breezy seaside phrasing and mostly understated arrangement. When Trenet does go overboard, it's because his passion de l'amour cannot be contained! Bobby Darin's version, with new lyrics by Jack Lawrence, seems calculated by comparison and Darin let's the band run wild while he presumably grabs a sandwich from the studio commissary. (All those drum breaks...ugh.) Still, it's a good example of how music was repurposed during this time period—Elvis had a hit that same year with "It's Now or Never," adapting the 1898 Neapolitan aria "O Sole Mio"—and just one of many many reasons why The Beatles would soon be taking over America.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Now What?

Back when I started this blog on October 31, 2011, I just posted random songs I wanted to share and/or talk about. The posts weren't all that long (the first one weighs in at just under 200 words—more recent posts are closer to 500) and some of them didn't even have anything to do with music theory! (The horror...)

Then on January 1, 2012, I decided to give the blog some shape by devoting a week to a specific year, beginning with 1960 and progressing to the present. The idea was that by December 31, 2012, I would have covered 1960-2012 (i.e. the present).

Well, I didn't reach 2012 until April of 2014 and then I promptly took a YEAR off from writing. But now, here I am in 2015 and I've worked my way through all those years, devoting a week to each. Along the way, I had to make some tough choices and many songs were left in the bag.

Now I'm trying to decide what to do next. Some people have suggested theme weeks and I think that's a great idea but requires a certain amount of planning. I'm worried I will stall the blog while trying to come up with good ideas. So I think I'm going to take a one-song-per-year pass through the decades again, catching some of the songs I missed, while simultaneously working on some "theme weeks" for the future. That will keep me going for another year, at least. It's possible I may even interrupt the flow of the timeline posts for a theme week. We shall see.

Someone asked me if I take requests. Sure! I'm game. The only caveat is if I really don't like the song, I may reject it. But send them my way and I'll see what I can do.

The blog should resume soon with a song from 1960.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Song #524 of 9999 - Shake It Off by Taylor Swift

Song #524 of 9999

Title: Shake It Off

Artist: Taylor Swift
Year: 2014
Album: 1989

First, an admission. I don't really know Taylor Swift's entire catalog or history or much of anything about her. So, if you're a big fan, you may find my comments and, especially my generalizations, to be off-base. I'll try not to do that! Second, you should know that I like Taylor Swift, at least what I've heard, which is often just bits and pieces. I've said before that I just barely exist on the periphery of pop culture. I know it's there—I just don't pay much attention to it. Usually, when I write about a current pop song in this space, I am hearing it for the first time in its entirety. I know, it seems impossible, but it's true.

For example, I didn't know this little cheerleader section existed in the middle of "Shake it Off." Like, why is that there? It adds nothing to the song except time (although it does set up that nice little vocal run into the high note at 2:43) and interferes with what I think is a superb example of what you can achieve with three simple chords and some imagination. 

I also thought this album was going to be more 80s-influenced. I get it, she was born in 1989. And she was supposedly influenced by the music from that period while writing this song, but the fact that she uses so many current (and soon to be retired) phrases like "haters gonna hate" and "this sick beat" tells me she's not very interested in this music having much longevity. Which is fine but unexpected.

But I digress! As I mentioned earlier, this song has three chords: Am C G (ii IV I). That's it. You can play it now. You just learned it. It also has a killer beat and clocks in at 160bpm so you're going to bop around to it whether you like it or not—it's in your DNA. That's just science. 

But back to the harmony. Once again, my friends the major 7th and major 9th show up in a modern pop song. Can you believe this? Check out the verse. The entirely pentatonic melody lands on a B each of the first two times it's sung, the first time creating a 9th against the Am and the second time a major 7th against the C. It only becomes consonant at the end of the verse when sung over the tonic G Major. Maybe this happened all the time for the last 50 years and I'm just noticing, but I don't think so.

I really like Swift's voice in this upper register. Maybe she's hung out there before (remember what I said at the outset!) but I don't think I've ever heard her in this range. Lyric quibbles aside, I think this is a great song and anyone who doesn't like it is, well, you know....haters gonna hate.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Song #523 of 9999 - Wrong Club by The Ting Tings

Song #523 of 9999

Title: Wrong Club

Artist: The Ting Tings
Year: 2014
Album: Super Critical

Don't think about it; just dance.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Song #522 of 9999 - Habits by Tove Lo

Song #522 of 9999

Title: Habits

Artist: Tove Lo
Year: 2014
Album: Queen of the Clouds

The blog was off on Tuesday so I didn't get to engage my usual TWOsday connecting device and feature two songs. I realized later I missed a chance. After writing yesterday's post about "Boom Clap" by Charli XCX, I remembered my mid-2014 obsession was another downtempo dance number by relative newcomer Tove Lo. This Swedish artist was also brought to me by NPR (probably Ken Tucker) and damn, I could not get enough of this hook for about a month.

The first time I heard "Habits," I was kind of put off by the opening verses, which are a little too graphic in their description of the protagonist's junkie lifestyle (I get home/I got the munchies/Binge on all my Twinkies/Throw up in the tub/Then I go to sleep). The tub! That's where she eats!!

But when that hook arrives, all is forgiven.

You're gone and I gotta stay 
High all the time
To keep you off my mind
Ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh 

Damn, that's clever. And I would have been fine with that hook plus the little vocal siren at the end, but Lo (is this a last name?—I have no idea) introduces a new melody for the third quarter of the chorus that just ramps it all up a notch.

Spend my days locked in a haze

Trying to forget you babe
I fall back down

I remember talking to my colleague about this song and we both just drooled over the minor mediant (iii) chord in the middle of that passage. But as it turns out, the whole song has the same progression (I-iii-V), so why did we hear something special in that moment? I think it's because Lo sings a Bb (Trying to forget you babe) that rubs against the D minor triad (iii) and that dissonance (coupled with a sweet spot in her voice) increases the sense of longing already inherent in the chorus.

And listen, in case you were worried about Tove, her next single let us know once and for all she's "Not on Drugs." Okay? So stop worrying.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Song #521 of 9999 - Boom Clap by Charli XCX

Song #521 of 9999

Title: Boom Clap
Artist: Charli XCX
Year: 2014
Album: Sucker

Like all old people, I learn about new music from Fresh Air's critic-at-large Ken Tucker on National Public Radio. Tucker is pretty open-minded and sometimes he likes crap and I sometimes I like it with him.

This is one of those times. "Boom Clap" by London's Charli XCX first appeared on the soundtrack to the teen sobfest The Fault in Our Stars (didn't see it—you?). It's not a particularly brilliant song or anything. In fact, it may not even be the best song on Sucker, her sophomore effort. (I'm partial to "Break the Rules" for its anthemic call to all the boys and girls around the world to skip school and go dancing and get high instead. Sounds like a plan!) But something about this song and those that surround it on this slick electropunk collection elicits a Pavlovian response that transports me right back to a time when Missing Persons was lodged in my cassette deck.

I don't want to let you go without talking a little bit about what makes this chorus so ridiculously catchy. The lion's share of the credit must be given to the jaunty syncopation in the vocal melody, which is made even more evident by the use of the angular perfect fifth interval. Look at how busy the rhythm is while the harmony sludges along underneath at an 84bpm crawl.

But it's those specific intervals she sings that has my interest piqued because I think I may have discovered the melodic/harmonic secret of today's pop. Remember last week when I got all excited about the major 7ths and 9ths in the vocal melody of Bruno Mars's "Locked Out of Heaven"? Well, here they are again—the G# set a major 7th above the A in mm. 1 and 3 and the F# set a major 9th above the E in mm. 2 and 4! It's such a neat trick and it works on me (and probably you) every time. Maybe this is a brilliant song after all.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Song #520 of 9999 - The Writing's on the Wall by OK Go

Song #520 of 9999

Title: The Writing's on the Wall
Artist: OK Go
Year: 2014
Album: Hungry Ghosts

I just spent a couple of hours pouring over the albums of 2014 and I discovered a few decent songs but now I don't have any time to write about them! But since I couldn't post last night, I thought I would at least put something up tonight. I'll keep it short.

I like OK Go. I still like Ok Go. Even now, I like them. A few minutes from now, I expect I will still like them. 

I liked OK Go before they made their first Rube Goldberg-inspired video and I suspect I will like them after they've made their last. And while their videos are fascinating, if you listen really closely, you'll find that there's actually a song accompanying the images! And a pretty good one at that.

And thus ends the post. I still like OK Go. With or without the videos.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Song #519 of 9999 - Low Key by Tweedy

Song #519 of 9999

Title: Low Key
Artist: Tweedy
Year: 2014
Album: Sukierae

In my estimation, Sukierae, the "solo album" by Jeff Tweedy and his teenaged son Spencer, is as good as (almost) any Wilco album. It's underproduced and the musicianship is not as stellar as that on, say, Sky Blue Sky, where guitarist Nels Cline plants his indelible flag of virtuosity. But in its place are more than a dozen great songs (there are 20 total—let's not throw the word "great" around willy-nilly) and intimate reflection we rarely get from the Wilco's recordings. Tweedy describes the recordings as having "unrealized potential" and he celebrates the idea of leaving the recordings in a spare state and not overworking them.

On Halloween Day last year, I was lucky enough to be one of about 30 people in attendance at a live radio broadcast from the SiriusXM Studios that featured Jeff and Spencer Tweedy performing a handful of songs from the record and discussing the inspiration and making of the record. The interview was illuminating as the charming duo talked about Jeff's wife going through cancer treatment, what it's like to be touring as father and son, what kinds of guitars Jeff prefers and, most important, how the songs are written. It had been reported that Tweedy wrote over 90 songs prior to recording and, when asked, he responded with an answer only a songwriter would understand: "What you think of as a song and what I think of as a song are probably pretty far apart." (paraphrasing) Basically, he said he had 90 ideas he felt he could develop into full-fledged songs with a lot of work. This is something I think is often lost on people: that a songwriter can get pretty excited about the smallest spark of an idea and see the potential of that idea very early, even if he never actually fleshes it out. (I have a lot of "songs" like that, just sitting around my brain, collecting dust. They're the best songs I've never written.)

Anyway, I could have chosen any number of songs to feature from Sukierae. It's a spectacular album and the understated, but extremely effective, drumming of Spencer Tweedy is one of the most pleasant surprises on the record. I chose "Low Key" because it has a really interesting harmonic structure that relates to one of my recent posts. Back in Song #509, I talked about how the tonal center of Maroon 5's "Payphone" is hidden somewhat by the circular progression that begins on the dominant (V) and ends on the subdominant (IV) with the tonic (I) tucked in the middle. "Low Key" does something similar in that the verse avoids the tonic (E) altogether:

Chords: A            G#m     F#m         F#m                    B 
Words:  I want to let it be known  |   Ever since I was young      
      I've always been a refugee    |   Of the very high strung           
           I've always been low key  |   Let's let the record show    |  No....

When the tonic finally comes on the word "no," it's a very satisfying arrival because it has been kept from us for so long! There's an unusual meter thing that adds another level of intrigue. Each line of the verse is actually 4.5 bars long (18 beats total) except the final line, which is the more traditional 4 bars long. This gives the effect of arriving to the chorus a bit early, which is kind of interesting. But the real pièce de resistance for this music theorist happens on the final line of the chorus. When Tweedy sings "I'm gonna love you the same" over the chords A G#m F#m (remember those from above?), the line both ends the chorus and begins the second verse. Love it.

And as if that weren't enough, they made a really cute video for the song (directed by Nick Offerman) that you can watch here.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Song #518 of 9999 - Do You Love the Sun by Scud Mountain Boys

Song #518 of 9999

Title: Do You Love the Sun
Artist: Scud Mountain Boys
Year: 2013
Album: Do You Love the Sun

Is there still a place in this world for a band like Scud Mountain Boys? The Massachusetts band recorded three records in the 90s before disbanding and sad-sack leader Joe Pernice went on to have a modicum of solo success outside of my house, where he is a mega-superstar. Their reformation in 2013 was met with praise but praise doesn't pay the bills, does it!

So what do we do with a band like this? They seem ready-made for the extinct AM Radio of the 1970s. I think one or two of Pernice's songs have shown up in "hip" TV shows like Gilmore Girls (where Pernice actually had an acting cameo as a roving troubadour) but it hasn't translated to widespread success.

Hell, they can't even get a weekday spot on my blog. Everyone knows no one reads it on the weekend, Frank. But, if you're one of the few who is checking in, take 37 minutes to check out Do You Love the Sun. You won't be sorry.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Song #517 of 9999 - Closer by Tegan and Sara

Song #517 of 9999

Title: Closer
Artist: Tegan and Sara
Year: 2013
Album: Heartthrob

In 2013, identical twins Tegan and Sara Quin traded their guitars and indie angst in for a large bank of synths and pop success. I remember hearing "Closer" for the first time and wondering whether this extreme departure would alienate their fan base. After all, the eponymous band who made their name playing Lilith Fair and the Newport Folk Festival suddenly found themselves opening for Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. Would their adorers balk? Apparently not. Heartthrob debuted at #3 on the Billboard Charts and won the Album of the Year Juno Award in their native Canada.

Truth be told, the sound is not the great departure touted by the media. A quick sampling of previous records will show that Tegan and Sara were already working more and more keyboards into their music and the songs were reaching toward the pop charts, if only falling short.

Enter producer Greg Kurstin, who had already achieved plenty of mainstream success with artists like Pink, Kelly Clarkson, and Lily Allen. Kurstin has a real way with synth color, as demonstrated on "Closer," which sparkles and percolates beneath the siblings' matched set of voices. And while none of the songwriting on Heartthrob gets me as excited as Kurstin's own work with The Bird and The Bee, lines like "I won't treat you like oh so you're typical" hit their mark.

And anyway, if this is the record that got us all a little bit closer to 2014's "Everything is AWESOME!!!," then it was well worth it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Song #516 of 9999 - Jobseeker by Sleaford Mods

Tonight, I invite Paul Costello back to the pitch while I'm away seeing Neutral Milk Hotel. Like the true British punk he is, he's gone way off the charts for this underground offering. As he said in his message to me, "I don't think you're going get it but it's words, right?" Yes! And some of them are bad so don't play this for your mum.

Song #516 of 9999

Title: Jobseeker
Artist: Sleaford Mods
Year: 2013
Album: Chubbed Up. The Singles Collection.

It's 2013 and Lester Bangs is still dead. November: I hear a song. Sounds like like that old bloke down the pub who's always had one too many. Hearing fury, resentment, wish-it-was-better-but-it-isn't resigned attitude - all good. I'm also laughing my arse off. Buy the cheeky f*cker a half to keep him going.

Been here a hundred times - only now that old drunk rascal's only gone got himself a slightly creepy-looking bloke in a tracksuit with a cracked copy of 'Logic'. Sure, they haven''t quite figured out how the software works, exactly but there's a damn good noise out coming out of it anyway. Minimal, repititious groove? Check. Foot-tapping, wriggly bass loops and grime/dubstep drum patterns? Check check. A splatter of keyboard here or there, an intentionally cheesy my-first-casio sample thrown into the mix? Check cubed.

Sleaford Mods are the sound of a hypnotic UK 2013 mantra - 'everything's shit - what you going to do about it'?

This band shouldn't work on any level but do, on every single one. Gasping, confused, struggling to get a handle on whether they're artful or just Art? Doesn't mattter. Yeah, they're full of swears; who ever thought music should be SFW? Yeah, they're more English than Viv Stanshall; who ever thought music needs to talk to *everyone*? The best thing about this band? 90% of those who hear them will shrug, murmuring "I don't get it" to themselves. That's fine. The 10% will proclaim. Who ever believed music belonged in the middle?

Here endeth the sermon. Top!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Songs #514 & 515 - It's TWOsday!

Song #514 of 9999                                             Song #515 of 9999

Title: Get Lucky                                                 Title: Good Times
Artist: Daft Punk                                                Artist: Chic
Year: 2013                                                          Year: 1979
Album: Random Access Memories                    Album: Risqué


I've said this before and I'll say it again: I am quite possibly the least informed human being on the planet. Yesterday, I heard "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk for the first time. No, I do not live under a rock. No, I am not deaf and therefore physically unable to hear the song. No, I did not take a three-hour tour and end up on a deserted island with a rich couple, a couple of hot babes and an idiot. I just...I don't know...I'm conducting a Kurt Weill symphony right now! I live in a strange and complicated world.

Anyway, it doesn't matter because I already heard "Good Times" thirty years ago. I never hated disco the way people like me were supposed to. It was already fading by the time I was getting old enough to really despise a genre of music so I hated New Wave instead. In retrospect, I was wrong on both counts and it seems to me they're both tolerable, even enjoyable, in the right amounts. And now that I'm older, it's kind of fun to monitor the resurgence of styles I experienced firsthand as younger generations discover and emulate music that was produced before they were born.

Except that's not at all what happened in this case! I mean, okay, the members of Daft Punk were not even enrolled in French kindergarten (if that's such a thing) when "Good Times" was released, but they were technically alive. And singer Pharrell Williams was definitely not born, right? Wait, he's how old? Okay, Williams is 42 so he was also alive but again, not hitting the dance floor at Studio 54 so much as gym floor at PS37. (He actually grew up in Virginia Beach, but that's not as funny.)

But guess who was alive and living (clearly not the same thing!)? Famed producer and founding member of Chic, Nile Rodgers. And it's the 62-year-old Rodgers who co-wrote and plays guitar on both of these tracks. In fact, the Daft Punk record was recorded in the same New York studio where Rodgers and Chic recorded their first single. So, the next time someone says "This ain't your father's disco!", you can say "Well, yeah, actually it is."

Monday, April 13, 2015

Song #513 of 9999 - Entertainment by Phoenix

Song #513 of 9999

Title: Entertainment
Artist: Phoenix
Year: 2013
Album: Bankrupt!

I love the Shazam app. I use it almost exclusively to identify songs I don't like. It's important to be informed about the things you despise.

But every once in a while, I hear a song I really like and I ask Shazam for a little help. And more often than not, the band is Phoenix! Okay, that's a bit of an overstatement, but it happened two times so that's something.

One such song is "Entertainment" from the French band's fifth album, Bankrupt! I've read a lot of criticism of the album, mostly revolving around a lack of creative progress from previous efforts. But since I haven't heard any of those albums (ignorance truly is bliss), the big banks of fuzzy synths and singer Thomas Mars's double-tracked tenor are satisfying enough. And the video has some pretty pictures of the Korean countryside.

I don't really have anything else to say. Truth be told, I spent the last couple of hours sifting through a pretty sad collection of records from 2013 and I'm pretty burnt out. Check back in with me tomorrow and maybe I'll have a better perspective.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Song #512 of 9999 - Locked Out of Heaven by Bruno Mars

Song #512 of 9999

Title: Locked Out of Heaven
Artist: Bruno Mars
Year: 2012
Album: Unorthodox Jukebox

One of the issues I face when writing this blog is whether I can successfully shed light on a popular song that is still a little too present in the minds of listeners. What I mean is, if you are a regular listener to pop radio (I'm not) and you've already heard "Locked Out of Heaven" over a hundred times (I haven't), then you probably aren't really very interested in dissecting it. You probably don't even want to hear it at all. Maybe ever again.

But it's so good! So I'm going to talk about it, at least for a few minutes. It's fun to see The Police influencing a new wave of pop singers. I don't know if Gotye ever actually acknowledged that "Somebody That I Used to Know" sounds like Sting and Co. but Bruno Mars went so far as to say the band influenced him to write the song. This is a refreshing admission in a time when Robin Thicke would rather go to court than give credit to Marvin Gaye. But I digress.

Anyway, it's Sunday and we're all tired and you don't want to hear this song anyway so I'll just talk about the one thing I think is just so cool about it. For 45 seconds, we have this riff-based pseudo-reggae funk and you just expect this to continue because that's what today's pop does, right? But then what the hell is going on at 0:49! That rising synth portamento! That I-III-IV progression! (the best) And then suddenly the backbeat gives way to four on the floor! We're suddenly in the 80s and analog synths rule the day! And now there's like this syncopated drumbeat on the toms! WHAAT!! And then he's back on terra firma at 1:23—couldn't get into heaven. It is as cool and creative a moment in pop as you will find in the last decade. How could anyone be sick of it. (And now what's this at 3:23? Half time in the drums?! Oh no he didn't!)

By the way, if I could stop being a fanboy for a minute, let me point out some great dissonance in the chorus. A friend of mine recently asked me for some advice about harmonizing melodies and I gave him some examples of how a lot of pop songwriters add major 7ths and 9ths to chords with their vocal melodies but not in the supporting chords. This separation keeps the songs from sounding like jazz but adds some nice colorful dissonance. Here's a great example:

Check out the bracketed notes: a major 7th over a Bb on the word like and a major 9th over the Gm on heaven. Unexpected and just one more interesting element in a great great song. 

See you tomorrow in 2013.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Song #511 of 9999 - 4 Broken Hearts by Norah Jones

Song #511 of 9999

Title: 4 Broken Hearts
Artist: Norah Jones
Year: 2012
Album: Little Broken Hearts

About a year and a half ago, I heard an interview on NPR with Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day and Norah Jones, who were promoting their collaboration Foreverly, a recreation of a 1958 album by The Everly Brothers. They seemed like such an odd duo but I could not deny how well their voices blended and their tribute to Don and Phil Everly was genuine and, I think, good! (I'll check it out next week when I get to 2013.)

I didn't give this much thought until I stumbled upon Little Broken Hearts while researching music for this blog. Ten years removed from Come Away With Me, which spawned the light jazz mega-hit "Don't Know Why," Norah Jones is sounding like a whole new person. Not better, just different. Engaging with another odd counterpart, producer Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse), Jones produced a breakup album which showcases the smokiness in her voice in a moody indie rock setting. I love this quote from Daily Telegraph writer Helen Brown who wrote: "In the past decade, it seems Jones has made a sneaky transition from dinner party backdrop to David Lynch soundtrack."

Too bad the songs aren't better. I sampled all the tracks and "4 Broken Hearts" is the only one that held my attention for very long. But it's still nice to see an artist taking chances and kudos to Blue Note for releasing the record, which could not be classified as jazz by anyone's definition. (Of course, Blue Note probably doesn't have many new releases that sell a million copies worldwide so I guess it wasn't exactly a risk for them, other than to their reputation.) If nothing else, I can say with certainty that Ravi Shankar's daughter (who knew!) has stirred my interest for the first time in a decade and that's worth something.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Song #510 of 9999 - I'll Be Alright by Passion Pit

Song #510 of 9999

Title: I'll Be Alright
Artist: Passion Pit
Year: 2012
Album: Gossamer

I'm not sure you'll find an album more exhausting than Gossamer. I can't deny that it's interesting and I really like the frenetic energy of the second single, "I'll Be Alright." It's the kind of track that probably could not have existed before the advent of digital recording and so, in that sense, it seems like the perfect ambassador for its time. The cut-and-paste opening, the pitch shifted gnat vocals, the EXTREME VOLUME COMPRESSION—these are all attributes unique to this century and, especially, the last five years or so.

But if you work your way through the intricate tangle of sound to the beating heart of this track you find a quality song with a poignant lyric. (There's a video of an acoustic version that sort of proves this point but I don't recommend it because...well, let's just say you may experience a wizard-behind-the-curtain moment.) Singer and sole permanent member of the band Michael Angelakos wrestles with the uncertainty of a broken relationship and tries to convince himself that he's in control...
You should go if you want to
Yeah go if you want to
I’ll be alright, be alright
Well I've made so many messes
And this love has grown so restless
Your whole life has been nothing but this
I won't let you go unless
I’ll be alright
I’ll be alright
...but the chaos swirling around him belies this message. It's an interesting contrast and I think that's probably the only way this works. If this song were about dancing or driving with the top down, I don't think I would expend the energy it requires to take it all in. I'm going to go take a nap now.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Song #509 of 9999 - Payphone by Maroon 5

Song #509 of 9999

Title: Payphone
Artist: Maroon 5
Year: 2012
Album: Overexposed

I already admitted my fondness for Maroon 5 in a 2012 post so I'm going to ask that we just get that out of the way. I like Maroon 5. Get over it.

And while I prefer the bubbling, pulsating synths of "Love Somebody" to "Payphone"'s four-on-the-floor parade beat and unnecessarily coarse language, I'm featuring the latter to demonstrate how creative these guys can be within the confines of four chords and a drum machine.

Before I get into my main point, let's talk about the key and chord choice. I think most people would assume the song is in E since it's the first chord we hear in the verse, bridge (pre-chorus if you prefer) and chorus. But really, the song begins on the subdominant IV before proceeding to the actual tonal center of B. Maybe it's obvious (wasn't to me!) but I think it's a really interesting lesson for all of us who write songs—you don't always have to start and end with the tonic (I). By tucking the tonic in the middle of the progression (IV-I-vi-V), the key is obscured and the progression plays like an endless loop. The very end of the song is telling. Notice how there is no chord to support Adam Levine's final notes (D#-E-D#-C#-B)? Try singing that last line and landing on E (IV)—doesn't work; try landing on B (I)—it works but it's corny as hell. Someone made a very smart choice to simply omit the harmony.

Now let's take a look at what these guys do melodically over those four chords.

We probably don't need eight bars to get the jist, but check out the different melodies that are utilized over these same four chords. The verse is busy and syncopated, almost always coming to rest on a note that clashes with the chord, and the melody is separated into one-measure chunks by a dotted eighth rest. The bridge emphasizes beats one and two with marcato quarter notes and concludes with a shuffle rhythm that gradually begins to connect one measure to the next. In each of these parts, the melodies are fairly stagnant and the rhythm set to a regular pattern. But then the hook arrives and watch how the melody soars and dives with adjacent measures connected by ties across the barline. Take a moment to savor the dissonance of the E set against the tonic B Major in mm. 2 and 6, a note that refuses to accept that this song is really in B Major. As if that first part of the chorus weren't catchy enough, Levine adds a fourth unique melody supported by some nice drony harmony.

Forget about the stupid Wiz Khalifa rap in the middle and the fact that Levine may as well be singing about a telegraph machine given the virtual extinction of payphones. The joy of this song is found in the way variations on melody and rhythm can thrive in the absence of a substantial harmonic structure. This is real creativity on display whether you like it or not.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Song #508 of 9999 - Sweet Life by Frank Ocean

Song #508 of 9999

Title: Sweet Life
Artist: Frank Ocean
Year: 2012
Album: Channel Orange

On December 30, 2012, I was sitting in my regular breakfast joint enjoying a tasty omelet when I struck up a conversation with some dude who was clearly not from around here. To be more precise, he struck up a conversation with me. I mean, I'm not above starting a conversation with a stranger but I had just returned from a week in Colorado and California and I was kind of tired. Anyway, somehow I revealed to the guy that I was a songwriter and he said he was also a songwriter and producer living in LA. I politely said "cool" or whatever and he said "you should send me some of your stuff" and I got his email address and that was the end of it.

That guy was Pharrell Williams. Okay, not really. It was Paul Shelton, aka Paul E. Phamous. But it may as well have been Williams because they had both recently worked with Frank Ocean and I didn't know who any of them were. So now here I am in 2015 writing about songs that came out in 2012 and dammit, I could have been the next Frank Ocean!

I don't have much to say about "Sweet Life" except I just really dig this groove and Ocean's deliciously casual delivery. The song is the only track on Ocean's commercial and critical success penned in part by the now ubiquitous Williams (and his hat). It's worth the spin just for that terrific bass line which lives in the spaces between the beats. But Ocean and Williams deserve additional kudos for keeping the arrangement uncluttered but engaging. I hear tremolo strings, a brass choir, an actual choir, a very faint long delay on the lead vocal—there's a lot going on here besides the bass, drums and electric piano noodling but none of it obtrudes. The syncopated guitar that shows up just to walk you through the outro is also a nice touch.

Mr. Phamous, if you had anything to do with this track, nice work. I'll save a seat for you at On Orange.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Songs #506 & 507 - It's TWOsday!

Song #506 of 9999                                     Song #507 of 9999

Title: Some Nights - Intro                          Title: Somebody to Love
Artist: fun.                                                  Artist: Queen
Year: 2012                                                  Year: 1976
Album: Some Nights                                  Album: 
A Day at the Races


I'm certainly not the first person to compare fun. to Queen. Anyone who's heard Nate Ruess's soaring tenor and has even the faintest clue who Freddie Mercury was would acknowledge the similarities between the two singers. The introductory track to the band's 2012 smash Some Nights connects the dots in permanent ink by turning the drama up to ten and adding a dollop of (unintended?) campiness to an arrangement that would have felt right at home among the Baroque masterpieces that populate Queen's pair of classic mid-70s offerings A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races.

What I really like about "Some Nights - Intro" is that Ruess and Co. allow for extra beats where the lyric requires it (for example, on "have you listened to me lately?") and vary the dynamic of the presentation in ways that are really impressive (and soon to be abandoned for the remainder of the album). These are the kinds of details that we hear in "Bohemian Rhapsody" and an assortment of lesser known Queen tracks that pay homage to the complexity of Romantic music, particularly opera.

That's one of the strange and delightful things about fun.'s seeming reverence toward a band whose heyday occurred before the birth of any of their members. Fun (I'm dropping the stylization now for sake of readability) is in many ways replicating the music of Queen, who were in many ways replicating music from an entirely different genre. And where Queen developed a propensity toward anthems ("We Are the Champions," "We Will Rock You," and the featured track of this post, "Somebody to Love"), Fun too seems to be interested in carrying that torch for the millennials ("We Are Young," "Carry On," and the title track).

My only question is "why so glum, chum?" Compared to Mercury's optimism, Ruess seems downright downhearted. Instead of "pray[ing] for a sign" or "wait[ing] for someone to save us," why don't you just put on a unitard and go find somebody to love?