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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"Chan Chan"

Buena Vista Social Club feat. Compay Segundo - Chan Chan (1997)

This song was written by Segundo in 1987 and had been recorded a number of times, but this is the one that made it an international sensation.



I can't resist some trivia on this before we get into the song itself. First, the stringed instrument that Segundo plays on this piece is called an armónico. It is a cross between a Cuban tres and a classic Spanish guitar. He invented it because he wanted the freedom of both instruments in his hands at once. Second, producer and band organizer Ry Cooder was fined half a million dollars for making the album Buena Vista Social Club that this track leads off. He made it in Cuba with Cuban musicians saying "...you must be with masters." The album happened by accident. Cooder had traveled to Cuba to record African musicians in collaboration with Cubans. The Malian musicians did not get their visas in order, so he was in Cuba with a plan to record, and no collaborators. World got around, drinks were had, ideas were hatched and within days a plan to record old style Cuban son musicians from before the revolution was hatched.

Way back in the first week of this project the song Lagrimas Negras was on the table. It was a bolero-son, perhaps one of the first to blend bolero and son together. This is a pure son song. It does not include the classic "and 4" claves sound so associated with the style, but besides that it is standard. The lyrics are so simple and even a little juvenile. Chan Chan and his woman Juanica are on the beach. When she is brushing or sifting sand off of her self, Chan Chan gets aroused and announces that they must immediately lie down as he can't do anything else.

Vocals and guitar are provided by the 90 year old songwriter. If I sound half that sexy at half that age I will be lucky. The slow sultry repetitive rhythm is meant to bring couples together on the dance floor slowly closer and closer until the inevitable occurs. The trumpet solo at 2:40 continues the minor key seduction. The guitar solo that follows is a master on an instrument of his own devising. How can you go wrong? When the singers come back in, you know your dance is almost over; less than a minute to turn this chance into a magical night.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"Consolation Prizes"

Phoenix - Consolation Prizes (2006)

I want you to change it all/I am gonna make it better



A modern pop song in the best sense. Just over 3 minutes, driving locomotive sounding guitars, non stop drums (except for fun hand clapping stops) and clear bright voices singing out a catchy tune. Once you dig in, the lyrics expose that this is one of those songs that sound cheery but really have a darker feel. The singer has clearly been put in second place as a potential suitor. Either that, or the significant other has accepted him as a lover, but forced him to change so that he better suits their ideal.

The band has a great two guitar sound, with neither guitarist really taking the "lead" role, rather both of them work to weave a great snappy pop feel. The band doesn't actually have a drummer. Rather, they rely pretty heavily on Swedish drummer Thomas Hedlund. He plays with several bands in several styles, including indie rock, doom metal, and post metal. He's the drummer of record for most of the tracks on all of the albums by Phoenix.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Withered and Died

Richard and Linda Thompson - Withered and Died (1974)

The book gives us three paragraphs of at least 4 sentences each. Only one of them is actually about the song. The rest is about the group, the drama surrounding them, and the rest of the album.



This sounds like an old English ballad; this version just the latest in a long line of people covering an old Child Ballad, this time with a hint of American country music. In fact it is an original song, written in 1973 by guitarist Richard Thompson. His wife Linda takes singing duties here, giving this brand new tune an air of timeless desperation. The tone of this song is so down, but her voice makes us long to hear a hope, a "better" ending. Alas, it is not to be. It is a very good, and very sad song.

Richard's guitar playing has some of that "twang" that we've come to associate with cowboy country and even has some slide guitar in the background. The solo in the middle of the song definitely has a country feel. The other distinctive instrument is the concertina. I suppose it could be an accordion, the liner notes list John Kirkpatrick as playing both instruments on the album, but it sounds high pitched to me, so I'm guessing concertina. In fact, Richard and Linda are both English, and this is considered to be an important album in the English folk rock genre. So set aside all your previously held assumptions about where the song came from, or what genre the song fits into. Just listen to it, enjoy it, and go have a good cry in your tea for a while.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

"Suzanne"

Leonard Cohen - Suzanne (1967)

Arlo Guthrie does not get mention in this book. So I chose another story song by a distinctive voice released in 1967. Happy Thanksgiving 2011



Leonard Cohen is a tough man to pigeon hole. This song in the opening track off of his debut album. What style is it? The album is often classified as Folk, because it's from the 60's and it's basically one man who writes his own songs with subtle background music. But it's not folk. It's more like the singer-songwriter trend that came out of country and folk in the late 60s early 70s. But he doesn't have that country influence either. He's from Montreal; and this song was written in the early 60s, he just didn't have a record contract. Producer John Simon worked with Cohen on the entire album. They fought over Suzanne quiet a bit. Cohen remembers "He wanted a heavy piano syncopated and maybe drums and I didn't want drums on any of my songs, so that was a bone of contention". There are drums on other tracks on Songs of Leonard Cohen but it looks like Cohen got his wish on this track.

The song is all about a woman that Cohen was infatuated with. It's basically a love song. but they only really saw each other twice after the song was released. The relationship in as much as it was, was over by the time he had become a recognized artist. My favorite lyrics don't really have a connection to the love story. It's the segment that begins "And Jesus was a sailor When he walked upon the water". It makes you think about G-d without being sacrilegious or too dogmatic.

There is a female backup singer, and a string quartet. The most prominent instrument though is the quietly plucked Spanish guitar. The most interesting cover (there have been many) is a jazz performer named René Marie who, taking a cue from the Spanish guitar combines Bolero and Suzanne.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"Dead End Street"

The Kinks - Dead End Street (1966)

An upbeat sounding song that reminds you of older brass band/music hall tunes.



The Kinks were big fans of inserting nostalgia into their songs, with lyrics or musical style. Verses and chorus are both a little jazzy; verses are down and sad, choruses are a little angry. the topic of the song is the crippling "dead end" of being working class, or completely on the dole. Songwriter and singer Ray Davis tells a tale of houses with cracks in the ceiling, not enough work to go around, not enough money to pay the bills, and no chance of getting out of the situation. But he and the band strive not to make it depressing. The repeated backup vocal parts are shouted defiantly. The piano and trombone sound like a music hall when they are being upbeat. It's almost uplifting. In other places, the trombone sounds like a funeral dirge.

The book says it's a trumpet playing. Wikipedia and my 20 years of experience playing trombone say it's a trombone. What is interesting is that no note has survived saying who played trombone on the recording. Other interesting tidbits: The bass player is John Dalton, who would become a member of The Kinks in a few years, but for this track was just filling in because regular bass player Pete Quaife had just been in a car accident. Piano duties fell to studio musician Nicky Hopkins. Hopkins spent the sixties playing with every British act you can name: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Move, The Jeff Beck Group; as well as American acts Jefferson Airplane and The Steve Miller Band. Producer Shel Talmy was also well known to the 60's British Rock scene. He recorded The Who and The Kinks extensively. The same week this track was released another track produced by Talmy came out. This one rose to number 5, and right behind it was The Easybeats' Friday on My Mind.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"Don't Stop Believin'"

Journey - Don't Stop Believin' (1981)

If you asked me to name my least favorite genre of music in the last 200 or so years, I would tell you Arena Rock. If you asked me to name my least favorite band of all time, Journey would be right up there.



Newly added keyboard player Jonathan Cain brought the idea of this song with him when he joined the band in 1980. The first 15 seconds are nothing but him, and remain one of the better known keyboard openings to any rock song ever. It was the first track off of their hugely selling hit album Escape. Steve Perry's vocals are high, earnest, don't really have a lot of complexity, (he memorably rhymes anywhere with anywhere) and can be sung by almost every single female between the ages of 11 (thank you Glee) and 70 (40 years old when the song came out). The guitar work is fun on Rock Band, I will grant them that. The arpeggiated wail that starts softly at 0:51 and grows to 1:04 is almost as well known as the keyboard opening; and the solo at 3:05 is equally well known. I just wish he had played more than just the same progression we've heard dozens of times in this song already sung by Perry. The song is at least 5 minutes shorter than I remember. I must be confusing it with a Boston song in my head.

Monday, November 21, 2011

"Let's Make Love and Listen to Death from Above"

CSS - Let's Make Love and Listen to Death from Above (2003)

"Electroclash is a style of music that fuses New Wave and electronic dance music."



That's as good a definition as possible for this 6 piece band out of São Paulo Brazil. Funky bass lines, spacey keyboard sounds and a never-ending high hat dance beat make this song go. Lyrically it sounds like a teenager's poems written on Myspace in sparkly glitter font. They are actually name checking Canadian Dance-Punk band Death from Above 1979 in the title. At 2:30 we get two lines sung in a weird 'robot cat' voice. It's an odd song to say the very least.

According to the Internet, founder, primary songwriter, drummer, bassist, producer, and only male member Adriano Cintra left the band just a short while ago (November 11th 2011) saying that the rest of the band had let fame go to their head, and they weren't very good musicians anyway. He said they could not used any songs he wrote for the new album, and basically gave them a huge brush off in the Brazilian press.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

"Unchained Melody"

The Righteous Brothers - Unchained Melody (1965)

Ahhh 8th grade. This was my one and only dance with a girl I liked that year. Thank goodness for Ghost.



This version had a long strange trip to get here. Originally it was written as the title theme to a movie of the same name. It was about a man in a minimum security prison with only a short time left on his sentence. He wants to escape and see his family, eventually another prisoner stops him and holds him in his cell. Later this trustee sings the first vocal version of the song. He's a baritone and it's only backed by a single guitar, so it sounds nothing like any other version of it you've ever heard. This was 1955.

That same year, five different versions were released in the U.S., all making the top 40 one in the top five and one reaching number one. These are all tenors singing except for the one female alto. They all have lush arrangements, some string heavy, some woodwind, and one that sounds like it belongs as a La Résistance style snare drum heavy anthem. In the U.K. the recording was very guitar strumming heavy, which gives it an uplifting feel. Many more recording followed including fast doo-woop versions. It is said to have been recorded over 500 times in dozens of languages.

10 years after it's initial release, The Righteous Brothers recorded it and took it up the charts again. Controversy surrounds who produced the track. It was the B-side of a Phil Spector produced song Hung on You. The listing says it was Spector, but many people claim that it was bass singing "Brother" Bill Medley. He was the producer of (You're My) Soul and Inspiration just the next year, so he certainly had the chops. And Spector was known for having his name put on anything he could. Interestingly, if Medley didn't produce it, then it really wasn't much of a The Righteous Brothers track; only tenor "Brother" Bobby Hatfield can be heard singing on the single.

His voice is really emotive. Ever since the original it has been sung by a high versed tenor like Hatfield. He really sounds like his love is just out of his reach. It's not a thin tenor sound either, this is a full voice. He really cranks it up at 2:50, putting the song out of the reach of slightly inebriated, totally infatuated, karaoke singers everywhere. The arraignment owes a lot to the string heavy version that topped the charts 10 years prior. It's got a really slow build up, from just electric piano and quiet high hat at the start, to adding a few strings, then some back-up singers. By midway, the drummer is playing full out, we've got a full string section, at least two pianos and the beginning of some brass creeping in. At the high point, the trumpets are playing three and four note rising responses to Hatfield's vocals. I dig the song, and in 1990, so did all of the world, when Ghost came out and made the song, and pottery wheels, the sexiest damn things on the planet.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

"Edge of Seventeen"

Stevie Nicks - Edge of Seventeen (1981)

All because someone in the studio's wife had a southern accent. Nicks misheard "age of seventeen" and the song became about that couple.



After she had begun writing the song though, the band member's uncle John, and John Lennon both died in the same week. Or possibly her own uncle Bill was the deceased relative. Both stories have gotten around. Either way, the song transformed to a song about mortality. I really like the line "the clouds never expect it when it rains". That's just a great thought. She's got a serious voice, and her background singers know how to support her without masking her. She does make some odd choices, the long drawn out woo-ooo-ooo-unnngnna from 3:10 to 3:15 is almost disturbing when taking the song in context about death.

The group backing her up in the studio is made up of some great session players. The drummer and bass player each played with a who's who of 70s and 80s greats. Piano player Benmont Tench, who gives the song it's stage presence, is a founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as well as a session player. The backup singers on this track are the same ones that still tour with her today. Producer Jimmy Iovine produced tracks for the Heartbreakers, Lennon, and U2 before founding Interscope Records, which he is chairman of still today.

Special note has to go to the guitar riff chugging on during the whole song. It's played by Waddy Watchel, who has played on more albums that I can list. It's the reason the song rocks in my opinion. 3 chords, all 16th notes, and it doesn't stop. Destiny's Child took it for their song Bootylicious, and Ms. Nicks gets a cameo in the video. Without that riff the song would just be another Stevie Nicks ballad; Waddy makes it rock.

Friday, November 18, 2011

"Ms. Fat Booty"

Mos Def - Ms. Fat Booty (1999)

The first single of the first solo album by Mos Def.



Let's start lyrically. The song starts off with Mos trying to make time with a good looking woman at a club. She blows him off. A few days later at another club where Mos is in VIP she comes in and a mutual friend introduces them. They start to talk, have a good time, laugh about the earlier fumble and start dating. The song moves quickly, explaining that they enjoyed months of good times, late night talks and great sex. Mos becomes head over heals infatuated with the woman and finally at the 1 year mark he announces that he wants to make it official. She tells him commitment isn't her thing and by the next morning she is gone. The story abruptly ends with one of Mos' friends telling him that he saw the woman working a strip club dancing for another woman. He's got some great lines: "man I smashed it like an Idaho potato" "I need more than to knock it down I'm really tryin' to lock it down". He also references two love songs. He mentions The Sweetest Taboo by Sade and earlier sings that Ms. Fat Booty sings part of Gregory Isaacs' If I Don't Have You. These love songs in the air just set the mood to make it hurt more for the listener we she leaves Mos.

The song is held together by another old tune by Aretha Franklin before she made it big. It's called One Step Ahead. She doesn't really sound so much like herself here, more like any other early 60s African American soul singer; nothing too special. Producer Ayotollah Dorell uses the song as the hook, and during the verses as well. Interestingly, the Aretha song starts as a song about a woman telling herself and her man, that she is trying to get away from love, because it will surely only lead to heartbreak. By the end, she accepts that she will fail and will go back to the relationship that she knows and loves, even though she knows it's a mistake.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

"All Apologies"

Nirvana - All Apologies (1994)

I wrote this whole thing before I realized that I was supposed to be reviewing the Unplugged version. So you get a little of both.

It only takes 3:50 to go from the "Peaceful Happy Comfort"(Cobain-Come as You Are p32) opening to the raucous angry ending, with only the depressing/uplifting mantra "All in all is all we are" to take away.



There is a drone during the verses. Kris Novoselic plays that bottom note like his life depends on it. It's like a Didgeridoo or the lowest tone of a bagpipe. He still plays a standard baseline over it, but all through the verse and the "All in all" it never stops ringing. That repetitive guitar line sticks in your head like all the great ones. Listen to the riffs that kick off Day Tripper, (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction or 7 Nation Army for that matter and tell me that the riff for All Apologies is less catchy. During the chorus, the guitar really gets feedback heavy and loud. Dave Grohl keeps up, switching from a tom heavy beat during the verse, only using a cymbal every other measure to accenting every beat with one during the majority of the chorus.
There is a fourth performer on this track. One of two on the album, both the same performer. Kera Schaley is a cello player and was still in school when she got a call from producer Steve Albini. She was brought in to perform on Dumb. She wrote her part, then Kurt Cobain told her what to keep and what to cut. She performed, and he liked it enough to ask her to fool around on All Apologies. In an interview (last paragraph), she says that she was just fooling around and expected the part to get cut. the only part that Kurt insisted on was a few bars when everyone was going to play the same part. You can hear her playing along with Kurt's vocals at 1:42.

So this is the version that you still hear on the radio.



Firstly, I think Kurt sounds a little flat in a few places. Secondly, that's not cellist Kera Schaley on stage with the band, it's Lori Goldston, who apparently toured with the band during '93-'94. Third, they all look young, But Dave Grohl is a fricken' baby on that stage! He's 24 but he looks so much younger. Pat Smear on the other hand is looking good for 34.

The band added Pat Smear just a few months prior to the Unplugged performance. He's the one playing the much subdued riff. The whole song is subdued. 30 minutes ago I would have told you that the unplugged version was superior, but having now listened back to back to them both, while Kurt's vocals do seem to go to a completely new emotional level, the song loses something in not being able to get angry. Dave Grohl's harmony right at the end is pretty special though. Their last original song on their last album before Kurt killed himself, Kris became a political activist and Dave became one of the most in demand session drummers in rock. Oh yea, and founding one of the biggest bands in the world right now, Foo Fighters. But right then, in that moment, he was just the drummer, singing a little harmony. It should be noted that they are all playing acoustic/electrics not just straight acoustics with mics. On the other hand, the whole show was done in one take, like a concert,which must have been awesome for the audience.

Final thoughts: I like them both, but I'm going to give the edge to the cut off of In Utero because of that anger.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"Perfekte Welle"

Juli - Perfekte Welle (2004)

Foreign language song while inebriated and at the last minute!



So let's deal with the elephant in the room. I don't speak German. The translation makes it seem like this song is just about the perfect wave while surfing. No hidden meaning about a relationship or betrayal or waiting too long to pull the trigger. Literally a song about finding yourself on your surfboard at the perfect wave on the perfect day.

It's a perfect length pop song. Nothing drags, nothing seems added just so that they could say they added it, like a weird instrument or time signature change. Very straightforward. Two guitarist, a bass player, a drummer and the lead singer. The song was written by one of the guitarist and the bassist. That being said, the intro under the seagull sound sounds like we are going to have a New wave kind of thing with keyboard, but then that disappears and we don't hear it again until the break at 2:00. For the rest of the song we get a straight rock beat, with simple bass lines, and rock guitars. The coolest part of the song is the lead singer being used as her own backing vocals. I like the effect at 1:41 where she sings a call and response with herself and they give the response an echo. Otherwise it's a very simple song. I'm glad I heard it, but I don't really feel like it deserves to be labeled as one of the 1001 songs I must hear.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"Doo Wop (That Thing)

Lauryn Hill - Doo Wop (That Thing) (1998)

"Now that was the sin that did Jezebel in."



Both in appearance and sound, this video and song live in two worlds. The high piano, backing vocals, most of the drums, left side of the video, and horn riffs are pure girl group gold from the Motor City. On the right, and comprising the bass, @10% of the drums and Ms. Hill's blasting lead is a late 90s post-gangsta screed against materialism, duplicity, thuggish behavior and lack of self respect.

The album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill began in NYC but quickly moved to Kingstown Jamaica. There has been a lot written and a law suit involved over production, writing credits and royalties, so we'll just say that the book says Lauren had assistance with writing the track, but produced this one her self. Personnel notes state that there were four backing vocalists, two drum machine programmers, a DJ, a saxophonist, a string quartet, a keyboardist, a trumpet player, and a trombone player. As far as the video is concerned, the most repeated (and yet surprisingly true) piece of trivia is that Lauren was six months pregnant when they shot it.


Monday, November 14, 2011

"This Corrosion"

The Sisters of Mercy - This Corrosion (1987)

This is easily the longest song I've done so far. It's 10:55 on the Album.



Some background: The Sisters of Mercy had an album. Then they broke up, with the bassist and the guitarist leaving to form a new band. There wasn't a drummer, it was a machine. All that was left was the lead singer. After trying to release music under a similar name, he eventually came back to the full name of the band, picked up a new bassist and went into the studio. Most of the album was produced with numerous producers who were let go, or walked, and lead singer Andrew Eldritch did some of the work himself. The exception to this almost revolving door was two songs produced by Jim Steinman of Bat Out of Hell fame. This epic "Wagnerian Rock" song with almost dozens of choir members is one of those songs, and is considered one of The Sisters of Mercy's most enduring classics.

Opening with a huge choir singing. Production notes say that they used 40 members and multi-tracked the tapes so that they could get an even bigger sound when they needed it. Over 30 seconds of just choral sounds wow. There is a lot going on once the main body of the song starts. The bass sounds like it is a synth, but Patricia Morrison is a bass player and credited on the track, so it must be an effect. There is a high sharp guitar sound sitting in the background, it just peeks it's head out a little. There are sweeping strings, and electric keyboards doing dark harpsichord things. Production notes also tell us that there were 6 backup singers as well as the 40 member choir. This depth of instrumentation and voice is why Steinman referred to his preferred style as Wagnerian. Plus any time you say gimmie the ring that much in the opening of the song you are pretty much calling upon Wagner's Nibelung. Or possibly Gollum. When the song reaches its crescendo during a chorus and the choir is going, and the keyboards, and the backup singers... it is a pretty epic song.

Lyrically, it is apparently about how Eldritch felt about his band mates walking away to start a new band, leaving him stranded, angry and lost. The lines about blood and Dream Wars are what give the song the 'dark' part of Darkwave, but it really is a New Wave style pop hit, just darker and heavily pumped up by production, choirs, strings, electric harpsichords and whatnot. The opening section around :40 is a great pop hook. Reminds me of Peter Gabriel. In the end, I think the song is too long, but really good.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

"Shakin' All Over"

Johnny Kidd & The Pirates - Shakin' All Over (1960)

This was really hard to find. Cover versions are way more popular.



Early British Rock and Roll. It was a hit in Europe when it was released, but unheard in America. It didn't even gain exposure in the U.S. until five years later when covered by a Canadian band soon to be rechristened The Guess Who. Side note, you ought to read how that name change came about, it's hard to believe; story starts in the second paragraph of this section.

So what makes this song special, well firstly, the lead singer was not doing an Elvis impression. Apparently there was a lot of that going around in England at the time. He's got a good tone for that "teenager singing about attraction" thing. This is not a love song, he doesn't know the girl he's singing about, this is no quiet ballad sung by a window in an attempt to get a kiss, this is a kind of English answer to All Shook Up, without trying to sound like anything other than who they are. One of the lines "...quivers down my membranes." is decidedly not American slang and in fact the writer and lead singer Fred Heath (Johnny Kidd himself) says it was a common saying with his mates.

Second, the rhythm guitar is being played in a really odd light finger picking style. It's hard to notice under the lead guitar, but if you can catch it, you'll notice this high pitched staccato sound. Mostly it's doubling the bass so it's hard to hear it at all in some places.

Easily the most ear catching part of the song is the dominant lead guitar. It's got a recognizable riff that I think sounds like it belongs on the Good Morning Vietnam soundtrack. It's sort of a surf rock sound which is astonishing considering how far away Soho is from Santa Monica. The twang sound right before the chorus is the guitarist running his cigarette lighter down the fretboard. After a really brief drum break, the guitar gives us a blazing (for the time) guitar solo that has got to be on of the hottest licks a British guitarist had recorded up to that point. It probably helps that he's Scottish. Session guitarist Joe Moretti wasn't even in the band, and was brought in just to juice up this track. He's also the guitarist on this slightly earlier single. He was clearly a huge early lead guitar monster. I've got no doubt that Page, Harrison, Richards, Marriott, Davies, Townshend, Clapton, and many others heard that guitar solo on this track and said, "Yes, that's it right there. That's what I'm going to do for the rest of my life."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

"Devil's Haircut"

Beck - Devil's Haircut (1996)

"When I'm upset I write a song about it. Like when I wrote 'Devils Haircut', I was feeling really...really...what's that song about?"



This song is all about the samples, but there's a twist. The first samples come from funk drummer "Pretty" Purdie's Soul Drums; the title track off of his debut album. The drums were lifted for the chorus and drum breaks. Just start listening at the top, you'll hear it right away. The next sample comes from a cover of a James Brown track called Out of Sight. Them is the name of the group; it's Van Morrison's group before he went solo. It's harder to catch the drum break used for the verses. Fortunately the up-loader of this version clearly tells us that it is at 0:09. The twist comes in that the riff is also from a Them song: I Can Only Give You Everything but they didn't sample it. Beck plays the riff on his own guitar and then it's distorted in in post production. This track and The New Pollution were recorded in the same two day period, Beck and the Dust Brothers wrote and produced the track. Beck played almost all of the instruments on the album, but there were a few exceptions. It's hard to say if anything on this track was live instruments played by others, short samples that were not notated, or just short licks played by Beck.

As far as the lyrics go, they are notoriously obscure. The quote at the top of the page is Beck making fun of himself on the show Futurama. Whatever landscape is being described is a terrible place: rotten oasis, garbage man trees, etc. Beck has said that the title could refer to the idea of being forced to do corporate friendly work, to take "the devil's haircut" to stardom. Vocally he performs the majority of the song in a pleasant enough basically flat range. It is not until the last 15 seconds that his voice slips into the angry shredded throat noises that a song that mentions ripping eyes out of their sockets probably warrants.

Friday, November 11, 2011

"Superstition"

Stevie Wonder - Superstition (1972)

How awesome is this song? Listen.



The drum part was written by legendary guitarist Jeff Beck, but it was performed by Wonder in the studio. Stevie originally offered the song to Beck, but ended up recording it first. Wonder also plays the clavinet which is the sharp funky riff that sort of sounds like a cross between an electric guitar and a clavichord. He is also responsible for the bass, which is also coming out of a Moog synthesizer. The trumpets and saxes are not him, he let someone else record those, but I would not be surprised if he wrote their parts out.

There's not much I can add here. The song is a perfect picture of funk. My favorite performance of it is the one he did on Sesame Street in 1973. It has been covered by hundreds of artists. You should check out the one by Beck, Bogert & Appice if only because it was going to be the original recording until Berry Gordy told Wonder that he better record it first. It's still funky, but it's more progressive rock. Wonder's version is perfect, and very apropos considering the date.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"Cry Baby"

Garnet Mimms & The Enchanters - Cry Baby (1963)

Janis Joplin covered a lot of songs in her day, this original version of Cry Baby sounds a lot more Gospel than her blues.



In fact, this song was written by two American born sons of Eastern European Jews. Bert Berns also wrote Hang on Sloopy, Twist and Shout and many others. He died five years after this song came out, before Janis took it back up the charts. Jerry Ragovoy wrote Piece of My Heart, Get it While you Can (covered by Janis as well) and Time is on My Side among many others. He died earlier this year.

The song is written in 6/8 time, so it sounds like a fast waltz. The drummer uses almost exclusively snare, pushing the beat along, never getting in the way of everything else going on in the song. Lyrically it's a man singing to a woman who loves another man. The singer presumes that the other man will do her wrong, and she will come running to him. It clearly belongs in lots of movies. I think if Bruno Mars did a cover of it and it was put in a movie starring Jonah Hill, Kristen Bell and Topher Grace it would climb the charts again.

There's a bit of twangy guitar through the song, which makes it sadder. The piano gives us most of the back bone of the song. You need a versatile instrument that can go all the way up and down half a dozen octaves just to try to keep up with the vocals. Garnet Mimms sings down into the lower part of the baritone range and all the way up into the high tenor. The background group, The Enchanters help keep him aloft up there in the stratosphere. Jerry and Bert also produced the track, making sure that the brass section that comes in at 1:50 adds just enough sad, and then fades out. Garnet does a kind of spoken word thing that was very popular in R&B/do-wop style hits of the early 60s around 2:20. The strings start to swell and the song lifts us up into the end, with a sax choir responding to the vocalists appeal as we fade out.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"7 Nation Army"

The White Stripes - 7 Nation Army (2003)

Jack White used to call The Salvation Army the 7 Nation Army when he was a child.



Two instruments and one voice. Takes us back to some of the earliest songs in the book. Allons a Lafayette was one male voice, a guitar and an accordion. St. Louis Blues was two instruments and a female voice, though three people were involved. During Jack White's portion of It Might Get Loud he plays us a recording of his favorite song. It is one man (Son House) singing and clapping his own rhythm. This makes pretty clear what the White Stripes are in a musical sense. Basic blues based with a twist.
The "bass" guitar sound on this track is Jack using an octave pedal. I had never heard of one before hearing this song, but they are now at least more common knowledge. Obviously in the studio version there is some use of multi-tracking, but live he does just push the pedal and switch back into the regular octave for the guitar and keep playing. Meg's drums are not at all background here. They are full volume in the mix, and yet rarely spoken of. She is a very stripped down drummer, nothing fancy, playing only what is necessary. I think the drums are insistent and driving, two things I love in a drummer. Having listened to it a few times now, I am surprised that it is almost 4 minutes long. I would have told you the song was shorter if you asked me.
A few secondary thoughts. The cover for the single is a really crappy image when you think about it. Jack is all in red, sitting on a stool, painting; using Meg as a model. the background is all red, but Meg is wearing all white. Jack is painting a white elephant. Also, Jack told MTV that when he wrote the riff he thought if he ever got asked to write a James Bond theme he would use that riff. Five years later he was asked.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

"One"

Metallica - One (1988)

First Metallica song to hit the Top 40, and to have a music video. I'm not using the music video because it includes a lot of audio from the movie Johnny Got His Gun (which the song is based on).



I have listened to this song so many times I can't count. Trying to hear it new again today. That war movie opening isn't as long as I remember. The dual guitar intro remains as powerful as when I was a teen. Kirk is a great guitarist of many styles. When Lars' drums come in the first thing I noticed was how much he used his bass drum, and how little it rings. The seamless switch back and forth between the almost Spanish style clean guitar verses and heavy riff portions of the song are really impressive. Producer Flemming Rasmussen had worked with Metallica on two previous albums, helping to create their classic 80s sound.
There is almost no bass guitar to speak of on this track. On the entire album either. This is a widely known issue among fans of the band. ...And Justice for All was the first full studio album featuring new bass player Jason Newsted after the death of Cliff Burton. Some claim that James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich intentionally left Jason's bass low in the mix, others claimed his sound was no good and hard to hear no matter what. Regardless, you can't really make out specific bass lines throughout the album.
As the song progresses it not only gets louder, and faster, but more complex as well. The song switches back and forth between 3/4 time and 4/4 time. Just before 4:00 it even switches to 6/4 for about half a minute. The guitar solo over the fast paced final section of the song is blisteringly fast. Kirk's finger tapping style in that solo is often imitated. There are a few duets between the two guitarists, Kirk and James, that are really great. I'm actually more impressed by the rare, at least in Metal, vocal duets that show up early in the song with Jason singing harmony to James' lead vocals.

Also... 100 days 100 posts!

Monday, November 7, 2011

"Dancing Queen"

Abba - Dancing Queen (1976)

"...We all knew it was going to be massive."



Not my favorite song, by not my favorite band, in not my favorite genre. But there's a lot to hear on this track, and a lot to like. The backing drum part, performed by Roger Palm rather than regular Abba drummer Ola Brunkert was influenced by two sources. The first, and most commonly referenced is George McCrae's Rock Your Baby, a track from 1974. The other is the album Dr. John's Gumbo from 1972. The drummer on that album, Fred Staehle was a regular performer with Dr. John.
The underlying bass guitar works with the drums to keep the dance groove going. That's what you're dancing to; that's what you're always dancing to, drums and bass. Abba adds a lot of other sounds to this track. Synth strings and synth woodwinds as well. There's also real strings on the track. We've also got piano and electric piano. The pianos are doing a lot of work, multi-tracked and playing over the whole song.
Vocally 90% of the work is handled by the two women of Abba: Agnetha and Anni-Frid. Interestingly, they have a completely shared vocal part. They sing the song entirely together instead of trading verses or phrases. Most of it isn't harmony either, they are both singing the same note. It's an unusual technique to be sure, but much like a 12 string guitar, it provides a fuller ringing sound. the song was written by the two men of Abba: Björn and Benny as well as their manager and frequent lyrical collaborator Stig Anderson. The song is a fairly straightforward paean to a young female dancer who is only concerned with the dance and finding a guy, any guy, to share that dance with.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

"Please Read the Letter"

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss - Please Read the Letter (2007)

Originally a Page & Plant track.



I don't think I have ever heard Robert Plant's voice so mellow. Not that he's not earnest, but I would never have guessed this was Robert Plant if you just played me this song blind. Alison Krauss provides a lot of the plaintive in the tone of the song. I kind of wish she had gotten a verse herself, instead of all backing.
I really like the drums in this song. Really sparse use of cymbal. Lots of tom-tom. You could do 95% of the drums on this song with a bodhran and your boot kicking a chain during the fiddle solo. It's so stripped down until the final repeat of the chorus and the outro. Yet it is the key part of why the song keeps driving forward. The bass is an upright, and a nice touch, but it and the rhythm guitar are nothing special, they just give a steady stage for the performers to show on.
The lead guitar parts are accents; the fiddle solos in the middle and at the end are nice, but ultimately what makes this song so solid is how great the two voices sound together.
I think a nice version of this song could be done with the drum I mention, and one acoustic guitar playing very simple chords while these two really good voices join together to be better than the sum of their parts.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

"How I Could Just Kill a Man"

Cypress Hill - How I Could Just Kill a Man (1991)

"All I wanted was a Pepsi"



Cypress Hill was, at the time, a DJ/Producer, and two MCs. Sen Dog is the lower pitched voice, who only gets half a verse on this track. It's a real fast half verse. B-Real is the one with the exaggerated nasal sound to his voice. He does two and a half verses and most of the chorus. Lyrically, the song is about weed and killing. Released over a year before The Chronic, this song, and the eponymous first album by Cypress Hill really paved the way for the weed+violence+great samples that were the hallmarks of early 90s West Coast Rap.

The samples include a guitar solo by Jimi Hendrix on Are You Experienced, the intro organ from Come On In by The Music Machine, drums from Midnight Theme by Manzel and a bass line from Lowell Fulsom's Tramp. Around 2:00 the just let the loop run for a while, and you think they are going to fade out. We get an sax solo for a while that really seems to seal the deal that the song is over. But instead, they start another loop entirely and B-Real begins his last verse over it. Then they swap back to the old loop to finish the song out. It does do the fade out we were expecting back around 2:25-2:40.

Friday, November 4, 2011

"See Emily Play"

Pink Floyd - See Emily Play (1967)

This is a Psychedelic song by a Psychedelic band. But actually they didn't really care for the song, played it rarely in concert, kept it short, and in fact left the Psychedelic behind just a few short years later, becoming Progressive giants.



Originally, the song was much longer but when cut down to single length, they lost a lot of recorded material. There is a keyboard part after the first chorus that sounds like no instrument I know. Research says that it was a piano, played much slower, that was sped up to fit into that part of the song. There's a lot of psychedelic organ going on after the second chorus courtesy of Richard Wright, plus some just crazy sounding guitar licks from Syd. Just as that ends, the bass tag, before the third verse starts I would swear that's a tuba playing along with the bass, but there is no tuba listed. It's the same bass tag you hear going into each of the verses. I just think it's easiest to hear on the last one. If it's not a tuba, it's one hell of an organ.
The original 4 track master recording is lost and there was very little paperwork done for the song. The engineer and producer both recall using lots of backward taping, reverb, and echo. The echo effect is clear on the backing vocals on the chorus.
It's a very brief pop song, without it, Pink Floyd never would have soared to such popularity, which in turn might have kept Syd sane longer. But then the band wouldn't have hired Gilmour, and then we wouldn't have the classic albums of the 70s. BTW, Bowie's cover is pretty odd as well. Very easy to imagine it performed by the Goblin King Bowie, backed by Henson goblins.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

"Need You Tonight"

INXS - Need You Tonight (1987)

The music and lyrics were written on the same night on different continents before being brought together.



Great opening guitar riff. Apparently this song has a mix of live recorded drums and drum sequencers. They also used a keyboard with one of those "whammy wheel"pitch changers on it. The whole song is kind of Schizophrenic to me. The drums and keyboard and repetitive electric guitar sound that is plucked out all sound very buttoned up. On the other hand the shouted harmony, breathy lead, thumping bass and loud guitar riffs all sound very hot and loose. Producer Chris Thomas layers these two feels together for a great sexy love song.

Guitarist Andrew Farriss really did write the guitar riff while a cab driver waited to drive him to the airport. After his flight to Hong Kong, he met up with singer Michael Hutchence, who had just written a bunch of lyrics the night before. Multiple sources claim that Hutchense was singing along to the tape the Farriss brought, and both ended at the same time. They new they had something. The abrupt break at the end of the song is because on the album, is segues into Mediate; the song where everything rhymes and they do their best Bob Dylan.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"Strict Machine"

Goldfrapp - Strict Machine (2003)

Distopian future dance hit.



A British electronic dance track about being trained to accept and in fact take pleasure in complying with orders given. It's synthesizer heavy and even the drum part sounds like it was played on a machine. The lower bass synth sounds and the highest synth sounds both really make me think of New Wave. The artists have said they were drawing from late 70s disco and glam, but all I'm catching is pure 80s. It even has backmasking, with backward recorded vocals inserted near the end. This song would not be out of place in a Tron style movie. Except in this version, the MCP wins. In fact, primary color and kaleidoscope inspired video not withstanding, this song really makes me think 1984 in more ways than one.


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

"Rock On"

David Essex - Rock On (1973)

Written by an actor for a movie he was in with Ringo Starr. They didn't use it.



The movie, That'll Be the Day, was set in the lat 50s early 60s. The lyrics therefore make mention of several musical touchstones of the era. David Essex was kind of a Brit pop teen sensation who was trying to break out of that roll and into movies. He wrote a few of his own songs in preparation for a new album, including this one. But once producer Jeff Wayne added his avant-garde instrumentation, the song was no longer wanted for the movie, but instead became a huge hit.

Lots of what makes the song interesting is effects. The bass line has an echo effect on it that has such a serious delay many say it was double tracked rather than pushed through an effect sequencer. The strings (which just sound creepy) are also echo driven. Obviously the vocals have a lot of that reverb sound as well. The drums on the other hand are straight forward. Lots of quiet cymbal work, accented with toms. All together the craziest part is the complete lack of guitar. This song is bass and violin section! Not a lot of tracks from the early 70s that sound like this. Not a lot of tracks anywhere that sound like this. The Bass player responsible for this is Herbie Flowers. He also played bass on Space Oddity and Walk on the Wild Side.