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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"The Bomb (These Sounds Fall into My Mind)"

The Bucketheads - "The Bomb (These Sounds Fall into My Mind)" (1995)

The title itself is a mondegreen.  The actual lyric is: /Street sounds swirling through my mind/ (Wolinski)

Imagine your surprise when I tell you that I can't stand this song. This seems to be some of the least creative sampling, looping, and adding of any dance song I've ever heard. Based almost entirely on Chicago's "Street Player" on their universally panned Chicago 13 I can hear almost nothing that doesn't come straight from that 1979 critical and commercial flop. The drums that sound like a trash can being played too loud over a decent Latin dance beat while a 60's era "red alert" type sound plays are new. So credit to that can go to Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez who was 100% of The Bucketheads. The vocals are Peter Cetera of Chicago, the horns are other members of the Rock/Jazz fusion group. The song was already a disco song for the band, so the dance beat is not even new. I don't really care for the original track by Chicago, but at least it is that, original.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"The Tears of a Clown"

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles - "The Tears of a Clown" (1967)

Ain't no party like a bassoon party 'cuz a bassoon party got soul.

Another tale of a song that wasn't appreciated until a few years after its release, but in this case the single's success was due to a record company secretary looking for a new hit. Front man Smokey Robinson had announced to his band mates and other label friends that he was going to retire to focus on being Vice President of Motown Records. EMI was the label that distributed Motown in the U.K. and when they heard the news they got upset, as SR&TM were just as hugely popular over there as in their home country. They went into the back catalog looking for a hit and found this cut off of 1967's Make It Happen. It was released summer of 1970 and became a number one hit in September, fully three years after it was first released on an album.

The song was written by Stevie Wonder, who couldn't find lyrics to go with it until Smokey Robinson heard it at a Christmas party. Commenting on it's circus feel, Robinson proposed a song about a clown and Wonder told him to take the song. Motown session musician Henry Cosby of The Funk Brothers rounded out the power trio of writing responsible for this song. What makes this song a hit? Just try not to smile when you hear it. I mean yes, it is a tragedy about a man who must appear to be happy while hiding his sadness; Robinson even name drops Pagliacci just to let you know he knows what he's doing. But despite the sadness of the lyrics, the song is upbeat and driven. Bassoon and flute dance together in the songs famous opening, and the bassoon sticks around to drop some serious low tones, out blasting the electric bass. The drums focus on the bass drum and toms, pushing the song, never letting it sit back. You can hear a tambourine as well, particularly when it's down to the bassoon and flute holding the song up. The background singing here is as tight as you would expect from one of Motown's primary groups. There's also organ clearly playing an important background roll, that's gotta be Wonder's influence on the track.

Monday, February 27, 2012

"Hate to Say I Told You So"

The Hives - "Hate to Say I Told You So" (2000)

Shares some similar chord changes with "All Day and All of the Night"  by The Kinks, a song conspicuously missing from the book, even though they did include a total of five other songs by the English rock band.

In the later half of 2001 an old style of rock music swept across the American landscape. Lo-fi was king again as garage rock had a revival. Bands that had been paying their dues for years, touring and recording finally got national acclaim. The White Stripes released White Blood Cells in July, and at the same time The Vines were recording Highly Evolved. The Strokes released Is This It later that year. All three bands had some regional success, but the new stuff that they recorded and released in 2001 was often heralded in the press as 'the saviors of rock' or something like it. But the most convoluted rise to the top of the charts of the so called "The" bands has to be The Hives and their album Veni Vidi Vicious. It was recorded in their native Sweden in 1999 and released in 2000. No one in America noticed. They released a greatest hits album in 2001/2002 which contained this track and rock fans who were eating up anything that sounded like garage rock went back and started buying their 2000 album.

Kicks off with a little Stereo fun, with the opening guitar only coming in the right channel and the whole song taking a few seconds to find both channels. The song intentionally has a lot in common with early Rolling Stones howlers like " I Just Want to Make Love to You" "It's All Over Now". Two guitars, simple drums and a charismatic front man who jumps around the stage and shouts. Plus they all wear suits. On the other hand, the bass is very different, providing a heavier bottom sound and even getting a chance in the spotlight around two minutes in. He doesn't do much with it, but at least it shines on him.  Also different is the spacey swooshing sounds going on through the sound that actually distract from the whole and make it less Lo-fi than hits from the other "The" bands, but damn if a easy to remember and sing along with chorus didn't make up for any little shortcomings.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

"Soul Makossa"

Manu Dibango - "Soul Makossa" (1972)

/ma-mako, ma-ma-sa, mako-mako ssa/  Yeah, you know that lyric? It's from this track.

Disco, and therefore a lot of dance music since then owes much to this track's beat. As the story goes, a DJ named David Mancuso (now credited as the founder of the modern concept of the non-commercial house party) found this single in a small Brooklyn record shop and began spinning it at his parties in 1972. Word spread quickly.

Every beat a hit on the high hat with perfect almost mechanical timing and a heavy funk bass beat behind it was new. James Brown had started it and by the early 70s, George Clinton and Sly and the Family Stone had been bringing the funky bass driven music into the mainstream for a few years, but the high hat driving every beat relentlessly pushed the music into a new genre. The other thing this track did was continue the trend of live musicians playing over dance style beats. This lead to acts like KC and the Sunshine Band and Chic having huge popularity in the disco era.

Manu Dibango is a saxophone player from Cameroon. He played the wildly popular style of music known as Makossa. Rooted in the Soukous dance tradition found in Belgian Congo and French Congo, Makossa added bass and horns to the traditional "shake music" Makossa means twisting dance and Dibango was such a huge fan that he wanted everyone to hear it. He recorded "Soul Makossa" in 1972 hoping people would hear it, but never realizing that he was creating a classic that is it's own "Rock around the Clock" popularizing the style, and the name of the genre in one go.

As for the lyrics in the famous refrain, it's like his saying "rock rock r-r-r-rock rock" but it's Makossa. That line was picked up by Michael Jackson in his 1982 hit "Wanna Be Startin' Something" off of mega platinum album Thriller. Because of his enormous popularity, and the popularity of the original track as well, the line has found its way into man other hits including songs by Kool Mo Dee, A Tribe Called Quest, Bloodhound Gang, Fugees, Jay-Z, Wyclef Jean, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna, and Childish Gambino.

Friday, February 24, 2012

"Under the Milky Way"

The Church - "Under the Milky Way" (1987)

An Australian band with at least 20 albums, a big fan base in their home country, and a reputation as a one hit wonder in the U.K. and America.

Bassist and vocalist Steve Kilbey wrote the song with his girlfriend. His band had had success in Australia, but their label wanted them to record in L.A. with professional producers so they left home and recorded Starfish it was apparently a real challenge in the studio with clashing egos and even a request for Kilbey to take singing lessons. By the end of it all, they had their big success story with a top 25 album, and a song that would endure as long as moody teenagers everywhere felt like everything was going to completely change as soon as the summer after high school was over.

I really like Kilbey's voice. It's low and honest and doesn't sound like he's forcing anything. This is his emotional state, and that's what you're going to get. The guitars ring out for the whole song. There's no "between" parts where you can hear a breath or a pause because the guitars are just left to ring out for seconds after they've been played. That jangly guitar sound is part of why the track is considered neo-psychedelia. As the song progresses they layer in a small string section, a chorus of voices, and some electronic keyboard sounds that are the most obvious sign that this is an song produced in L.A. in the late 80s. At around 2:20 where a normal song would have a guitar solo, they do not. Now I'm not 100 percent sure, because it's not listed in the liner notes, but I'm pretty sure that was a bagpipe solo. Could have been a keyboard set on bagpipe though, whatever it was, it was processed electronically a bit, and certainly brave. Late in the song, around 3:45 or so we finally get that guitar solo, though there is some chorus song over it. The lead guitar part really puts this track in the neo-psychedelia realm with that dreamy-underwater yet fast past lick, playing into the fade out.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"Justified & Ancient"

The KLF featuring Tammy Wynette - "Justified & Ancient" (1991)

OK let's get this straight, this track is actually the Stand by the JAMs remix of "Justified & Ancient".

 The KLF were originally called The JAMs, named after the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu a group that was supposedly infiltrating the Illuminati in order to take it down from the inside. Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty formed the group with the idea that they were going to infiltrate the music industry and take it down. Most of their hits, and many of their songs in general make reference to some part of this mythology.

The original did not have Tammy Wynette, and it was more of a lullaby. Much less in the way of drum beats, and sung in a sweet style. It was the last song on their debut album, 1987s (What the Fuck Is Going On). Later the duo of Cauty and Drummond recorded a track as The Timelords called "Doctorin' the Tardis". It was a number 1 hit in the U.K. and made them a lot of money. They took that money and decided to make a movie and soundtrack. That lost them a lot of money. In a last ditch effort, the took the songs recorded for that album and created a new genre: Stadium House. Dance music with crowd noise, and additional vocalists added to the mix. This proved to be a big hit for them. This was one of five top ten U.K. hits they had off of the remixes of songs from their original idea of a soundtrack album, now called White Room. in 1992 they called the whole thing off, deleted their back catalog and formed an art group with a similar concept of infiltrating and changing from within. It was called the K Foundation. A group mostly known for burning one million pounds.

The song itself is not great. Lots of tribal beats and Tammy Wynette's vocals don't really go together. They make use of a Jimmy Hendrix riff during the chorus, but they cover it pretty heavily. The rap is performed by Ricardo da Force, who rapped on most of their big hits. The choir singing might be my favorite part, but it's had to really pick a part I liked.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"Birdhouse in Your Soul"

They Might Be Giants - "Birdhouse in Your Soul" (1990)

The picture opposite him is a lighthouse!

This is a really fun song. Creative interesting lyrics, a trumpet solo by a klezmer musician, easy to follow counterpoint and a sing along chorus that everyone can learn by the end of the song. What's it about? The song is a point of view song sung by a plastic molded canary night-lite in a child's room. What's hard to understand about that? Kidding. I remember everyone talking about this song back in 1990 and there being quite a discussion. Of course, if you just read the lyrics off a lyric sheet it's pretty obvious. This was the band's breakthrough hit, coming before Istanbul and Particle Man showed up on Tiny Toon Adventures.

What's counterpoint you might ask? It's when in a song there are two voices (any instrument) that are harmonic but have totally different rhythms. The lines are the chorus /Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch/Who watches over you/Make a little birdhouse in your soul/ (Linnell)  and this second voice: /and while you're at it/Keep the nightlight on inside the/Birdhouse in your soul/ (id) They are sung separately and then later together.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"Tous les garçons et les filles"

Françoise Hardy - "Tous les garçons et les filles" (1962)

Best I can tell, this song came to prominence because it was played on French national Television during a break of the coverage on the referendum related to the election of the President of the Republic by universal suffrage rather than by electoral college.

Here's that compound meter we've mentioned before. Sounds like a quick waltz but underneath it all the bass is playing a slower 4/4 time. This is the B side to Hardy's first single. She wrote the lyrics and co wrote the melody. She later recorded it in Italian, German, and English. In all versions it's about a young girl who sees everyone around her hooking up while she can not find a match. Yé-Yé music is a style from Europe, specifically France and Spain, that featured a young ingenue singing a song with sweet simple lyrics and a simple melodic feel. The singers were always featured as sexy but naive.

Drums wise there might as well be one snare drum; a brush hitting all 12 beats and a drum stick hitting the rim on the two and four of the slower beat. The bass plays mostly a slow walking beat with occasional flourishes in the faster triplet pattern. One guitar is playing most of the triplets very simply, while another plays flourishes along with the bass. It's a simple little song mostly worth listening to because Hardy's voice is pleasant.

Monday, February 20, 2012

"Float On"

Modest Mouse - "Float On" (2004)

Just an optimistic pop song from an unlikely source.

Modest Mouse were a small indie band known for "moody" and "edgy" lyrics with shouted vocals. Between their major label debut The Moon & Antarctica and the release of this single, four years of trouble had followed songwriter and frontman Isaac Brock around, including drug abuse, time in jail, a broken jaw, and rape allegations. Contrary to fan and critical expectations, the first single from Good News for People Who Love was this infectious jangly guitar track. No matter what happens to the singer, it's all going to be okay. Sure, the vocals are still shouted (sometimes) but there's also some very sweet harmony sections.

The use of discordant guitar when something bad is mentioned, (this practice occurs in the second verse) which then fades away as the band confirms that everything is going to float on binds the music to the lyrics in a really fun great way. Like a movie soundtrack, things get a little tense in the background music when the lead sees a shadow under their door, but once we see it is their best friend the music comes back to major chords and pushes onward. For those wondering, the opening hollow sounding drum intro is not from "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins. But I thought it was, so I checked. It's close, but not the same rhythm, I would swear it's the same sound though, either put through the same effects filter or the same setting on the same electric drum set.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

"Police and Thieves"

Junior Murvin - "Police and Thieves" (1976)

I can't tell you if he sang every song in falsetto, but every song I found on the Internet he sure does.

Written in response to Jamaican martial law, Singer Junior Murvin went to burgeoning legendary producer Lee "Scratch" Perry's Black Ark Studio with an idea that he wanted to record a kind of protest song.  Recorded that day, and out on the streets in less than a week, the song became a hit. Dub versions and other covers followed quickly, but this original cut actually made it across the Atlantic to England. It became a huge hit when riots broke out during the Notthing Hill Carnival, a Caribbean themed weekend long festival in London. Less than a year later, The Clash covered the song; something that apparently didn't really sit well with Murvin.

Perry's studio was known for being the best in Jamaica, capable of effects that other studio's wouldn't get right for years. The underwater feel of this song is accomplished with reverb and was something that Perry was experimenting with and would use on a number of tracks during 1976. Two other things to point out on this track. One, the bass drops out completely on this track way more than any other reggae song I've ever heard; sometimes for almost three beats. Two, the percussion is cymbal driven, with accents thrown in on the snare drum, as apposed to what we are used to in Rock with cymbals being the accents. That cymbal driven rhythm is heard in disco and other dance styles, but to hear it slowed down here is a very different feeling, I think it goes well with the underwater guitar to make the whole song sound somehow slower than intended.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

"Rock You Like a Hurricane"

Scorpions - "Rock You Like a Hurricane" (1984)

This song is now mainly used in the background of video compilations of hot women tossing their hair. Or at sports arenas.

Oh 80s hair bands, only you could be so cheesy and yet have such amazing guitar solos at the same time. The rhythm guitar drums and bass have some of the easiest parts in rock. There are a couple of licks, each about two or four bars long, and you are playing one of those simple parts over and over again. Lyrically the song has about as much going for it as a poem assignment written on the bus on the way to school because you forgot to do it the night before. Now vocally, that's something else, lead singer Klaus Meine has got some range going on, and his pronunciation of Hurricane to rhyme with /Here I am/ is not to be forgotten. He's got a strained whisper like opening like a man who really needs release, and by the end he's screaming into the stratosphere.

The guitar solo work kinda deserves special mention here. Rudolf Schenker plays creative, fast, loud stuff, but it never seams like it's showy just to be showy. All of his licks are in time with, and in tune with the rest of the band. He doesn't just tap the fretboard as fast as he can, he's actually playing real notes and crafting a piece of music. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

"The Fever"

Garth Brooks - "The Fever" (1995)

This version is almost two minutes shorter than the original.

This was not even one of the top five singles on the Aerosmith album Get a Grip, so I don't know exactly why Garth Brooks decided to get it re-written. Two years after it rose up the charts with Steven Tyler on vocals Brooks gave it a go, with new lyrics to reflect a bull rider's complete devotion to the sport instead of a world weary band's love of women that had replaced their various other vices. So that just about covers the lyrics side of things.

I've got almost nothing nice to say about Brooks voice. I've been listing to a lot more Country music in the last year than I had in the previous decades and one thing I will say is that Country singers tend to have distinct personalities in their voice. This is an almost bland vocal. The bridge has some color, with a little twang and some edge to the vocal, but then we're right back to the bland homogenized sound of any-old-country-singer until the last few lines when he does that high pitched almost squeal thing. All in all, not my favorite song by not my favorite singer.

Musically the song is driven by a rock beat with guitar reminding us that it's an Aerosmith song. The primary sound aside from Brooks vocal is a fiddle. I'm not a fiddle guy, but at least this guy can play. It's not a rehash of any theme we've heard another instrument play, it's something different and as always, I appreciate that.

I had a question featured over on the Novel Publicity site's "Ask the Editor" feature. So from here on out, I'll be using the advice I picked up over there as far as when to italicize, capitalize, bold, and use a slash. It shouldn't be that confusing but I thought I'd warn you that I was breaking with my six month (wow go me!) status quo.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

"In Dreams"

Roy Orbison - In Dreams (1963)

"'Candy-Colored Clown'? Yeah right." -J. Constantine

Really oddly constructed song. Hard to believe it was a success in 1963. Such an avant-garde construction in a time we perceive as being very straight ahead and conservative musically. To put it in perspective, The Beatles had only put out two singles and their first album was a month away when this song hit the charts. Songs went verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus; or some slight variation. For a song to be a long form poem, without a lot of structure, and no discernible chorus and yet to be a top ten hit is astounding for the time. Each section is different, some have very little accompaniment, others have lush string backing. Some sections are only two lines long, and others are eight.

Another thing that makes this song so different is Orbison's vocals. The man had a killer baritone voice. But he often stretched himself on tracks and this one is no exception. He would sing in an almost falsetto which made his vocals sound plaintive and unlike anything else on the dial. When he wakes up all alone after dreaming of her and he hits those last notes, you can feel his pain. /And I'll be happy in my dreams/Only in dreams/In beautiful dreams/

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


The Eagles - Desperado (1973)

A guy in jazz band used to play this on piano before we'd start practice. Good memories.

A lot of piano and string backing for a rock song, but this slow ballad held the album it was named after together. The Eagles were in transition, with Glenn Frey and Don Henley taking the spotlight away from Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon who had enjoyed the fame following the debut album in 1972. By 1977 Mesiner and Leadon had both left the band and Frey and Henley had been writing the majority of the band's hit songs since Desperado.

Don Henley sings the lyrics almost mournfully. Later, Linda Ronstadt would cover the song and it comes across as a women hoping that a bad boy would settle down and choose a good woman. With a man singing it's not about love or hoping for a last minute romantic ending; its about a broken man whose time is almost over, he's just too stubborn to come inside before it's too late. Glen Fry plays the simple chord based piano part. If it was based on guitar the song would be more of a cowboy ballad, on piano it becomes more of a movie score. A song about someone, but not necessarily sung to someone. The strings really bring the movie score feel to the fore. Then a little more than halfway through the song we get a big drum intro and backing harmony. The harmony is all very high sort of evoking an angelic choir. The end of the song is strings fading out backing Fry's piano. A really well put together song, and a very different track from anything the Eagles would record again.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"I Believe in a Thing Called Love"

The Darkness - I Believe in a Thing Called Love (2002)

Happy Valentine's Day.

A throwback song, to the days of Kiss, Def Leppard, and Poison; by way of Freddie Mercury. Lyrically the song could not be any simpler. The "verse" as it were is two lines long and there is only two of them. The pre-chorus is also only two lines long but we hear it three times. The chorus is five lines if you count the oooh. They reference cars and rocking until the sun goes down, again firmly referencing 80s hair metal. It can be hard to understand him, that's a lot of falsetto going on, and up at the very top of the chorus he's harmonizing with himself. The other three band members do sing back up, but lead singer Justin Hawkins is one of few people who could sing that high. I think he and Mika could shatter world records in shattering glass together.

The throwback actually starts with the guitar intro. The sound of the whole track is compressed for the first few seconds, giving it an "old" sound. It's an angry effects laden sound that really sounds like it could be from any of the "hair metal" bands of the past. The guitar is actually a huge part of this song. There are three separate guitar solos on this track, one after each chorus. The first is a fairly short and clean sounding solo, with a little multi-tracking at the end so that the guitar is playing harmony with itself. The second solo is actually introduced by Hawkins screaming "guitar". It's a much longer solo, without as much speed as the first and ultimately the most forgettable. The third solo is like a longer version of the first, with harmonizing and faster fretwork.

Monday, February 13, 2012

"Kung Fu"

Ash - Kung Fu (1995)

The cover of the single is Manchester United player Eric Cantona executing the "kung-fu style" kick of a fan in the stands that got him an eight month suspension from the sport.

It will take me longer to write this review than it took frontman Tim Wheeler to write the song. Boxing day 1994, in an airport in Northern Ireland; Wheeler spent five minutes writing everything from the music to the lyrics. The next day, he and bassist Mark Hamilton and drummer Rick McMurray recorded it.  The predominant sound is the fuzz amplified guitar. The bass doubles the guitar during almost the entire song. The drums are straight ahead rock. There is an unexpected drum solo around 1:17 consisting of toms and hand claps. Two minutes and seventeen seconds is barely long enough for a song, much less to include a drum solo, no mater how short it is.

Lyrically, like the Kanye West song a few days ago, this track references a number of real and fictional people. In this case, primarily people known for their association with martial arts. Fu Manchu, Mr. Miagi and Daniel LaRusso, Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan. Chan must have liked the song, he used it at the end of his film Rumble in the Bronx over his famous blooper reel. It was also used in the 1995 film Angus. The exposure given the band by being included in these two films help break them to American audiences.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

"How Soon Is Now"

The Smiths - How Soon Is Now? (1984)

How shameful is it that even though I knew it was a cover I still associate this song with Charmed?

Oscillating reverb guitar. Not exactly what The Smiths were known for, but this has become one of the definitive tracks when people bring up the band. Guitarist Johnny Marr wrote the song, then had a jam session in the studio with bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce. After adding that brooding slide guitar part, and other overdubbed effects, they were done; and sent a rough cut of the song in the mail to Morissey. All of the massively echoing guitar actually gives the song the perfect feel for a club. It makes you feel drunk and more than a little high just by letting the song hit your eardrums.

Morissey's lyrics have eluded me many times over the years, but none quite so embarrassing as this slip up. I had always heard: /I am the sun, and the air/ Nope. It's /I am the son, and the heir/. Makes the next line make more sense anyway, though it does make it less nature-Wicca-power feeling. I guess that's my punishment for associating the song with a WB network show about witches and sisterhood. That cover version by the way is by Love Spit Love, the "hiatus band" of Psychedelic Furs singer Richard Butler. It was recorded for mid nineties teen witches film The Craft and the producers of the show Charmed thought it would be perfect for their new TV show about witches. The lyrics in the bridge are actually almost painful to listen to. The singer is embarrassing himself to such a great extent. He starts by describing a club, where one invariably ends up going alone, standing alone, and going home alone. Then when he interacts with someone who obviously asks him something like "let's get out of here soon" or "I want to do it now" he reacts with an almost stammering: /When you say it's going to happen"now"/Well when exactly do you mean?/See, I've already waited too long/. Painful.

Friday, February 10, 2012

"Through the Wire"

Kanye West - Through the Wire (2003)

The hook is such a huge part of this song that the writers of that song get credit on this one.

Written in the wake of a near fatal car accident, Kanye actually performed this song with his jaw still wired shut. West was a Grammy nominated producer before being signed as a performer. Soon after he was announced as the newest member of the Roc-A-Fella label the accident put him in the hospital. This is the first single by the now dominant rap star.

The hook though the whole song is Chaka Khan's hit Through the Fire. West produced his own album, and the pitched higher/speed up old soul groove was his signature move for a while.He adds a bass line, and some percussion, including bongos and several people snapping their fingers together. The song is broken up at a few points to include a friend of Kanye's rapping about losing an arm, and Kanye and Jay Z at the concert where West was introduced as a performer for the label. I think that distracts from the song as a whole.

Lyrically the song is about the accident and the aftermath. The list of references to people, both real and fictional, that Kanye drops in this song is extensive. Biggie Smalls died in the hospital that he was brought to after the crash. The crash was so bad that people thought he was burnt up like Michael Jackson. His girlfriend was concerned that he was dead, or his face would be so messed up he would resemble murdered child Emmett Till. He even references Mr. Glass from M.night Shymalan's Unbreakable. My favorite rhyme is right near the beginning. He rhymes dessert, syrup and berserk in three straight lines. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

"Walk On By"

Dionne Warwick - Walk On By (1964)

 Originally a B side until a New York DJ flipped it over and pushed her into stardom.

This record and Warwick's first Top Ten hit Anyone Who Had a Heart were both recorded in the same three hour period. The previous track was the title track for her second album, while this one was saved for her third. Walk On By has survived as an enduring pop standard, with covers recorded by diverse acts like UK punk band The Stranglers, American pop singer Cyndi Lauper, and funk legend Issac Hayes.

Writers Burt Bacharach and Hal David had worked with Dionne Warwick before on both of her previous albums. The two also produced and wrote virtually all of her subsequent albums. She was their artist and they were hers. This was one of more than a few songs where the lyrics are about a love that is not returned.

The arraignment is lush with strings and yet sparse when they drop out. There is a snare drum, but a lot of the percussion sound is a choked guitar giving that sharp sound with a little bit of tone. The bass guitar is subtle, and mostly doubles the piano. According to Bacharach he actually used two grand pianos to record the piano part. You can definitely hear the vibraphone, most clearly under the trumpet. I love that instrument, it's like a xylophone but mellower and ringing out smoother. When the strings do come in it's a whole new song, building it to a huge stage sound, rather than a small jazz club sound. The backup singers, multiple pianos and large sting section all coming together lift you up and make you think for just a moment that her story ends well, but it's not to be. When you hear the trumpet part, six notes, then five, I think that short simple part is her tears. just a few, not pouring down her face; she does still have her pride, foolish as it may be.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"Ghost Rider"

Suicide - Ghost Rider (1977)

The first band to advertise itself as "Punk Music" a term first used by music journalist Lester Bangs.

I first heard this song in 1994. The Rollins Band, fronted by perennially angry man of letters Henry Rollins performed a cover on the soundtrack album for The Crow. They change some lyrics, and add a lot of instruments, but it's raw and powerful and gets at the same point as the original. I actually didn't know it was a cover until I cracked open the book this evening to write this post.

The first time I heard the original version of the song I didn't know it. M.I.A. sampled it for her 2010 single Born Free. It's a powerful anti racist video that attracted tons of controversy. She used the sparse keyboard line as the driving force of the song. Because she didn't sample any lyrics I had no idea it was the same song.

The two and a half minute long song by sculptor Alan Vega and jazz musician Martin Rev kicked off the debut eponymous album by Suicide. Not only is the song about Marvel anti hero Ghost Rider, the band was named after an issue of the skull faced stunt rider. Musically the song is simple. There's a drum machine programed to hit a soft tom sound on the two three and four of every measure. Martin Rev plays two keyboard parts, one matches the drum machine using three notes over and over again. The other part uses one chord and a repetitive syncopated pattern. At one point in the song he plays a different chord along with the first chord but still uses the same pattern. Vocalist Alan Vega sounds like a cross between a out of breath kid trying to tell a story that don't know the ending to, and a lounge singer. His voice is a little scary. When Henry Rollins sings /America is killing its youth/ he sounds angry about it, he wants to warn you to do something about it. When Alan Vega sings the same line he's telling you a secret you already know and are to afraid to do anything about. It's too late.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"Blue Monday"

Fats Domino - Blue Monday (1956)

What, you thought New Order invented having a case of the Blue Mondays?

It's about hating having to work long weeks and only getting short weekends off. How could you go wrong with a song like that? He even walks us through how we're going to feel Sunday morning after partying all night Saturday: it's bad, but it's worth it. This is a man that knew. Before making it big, he was working factory shifts all week to afford to travel and play clubs on the weekends. Fats Domino appealed to all audiences with this early crossover hit. This song was a number 1 hit on the early R&B charts and a top 5 on the pop chart.

That opening riff on the piano is the same kind of one Randy Newman uses, the same one you hear in your ear when young Tom Hanks shows up on your T.V. in an 80s movie, or when a TV show theme needs an opening. It just puts you in a nostalgic good time mood. The rock and roll beat is slow, but ever present in the song. Fats' rolling style of piano sitting on top of it keeps the song zipping along through the work week. When Saturday hits, the drums really pick it up in volume and let you know we're having a good time, they settle down for Sunday, but build up again to introduce the sax solo. The saxophone has been a workhorse all song long, acting as a kind of bass guitar/chord change introducer. He only gets eight bars, and what he does with them is not celebrating Saturday, he's playing the work week. Every time he gets up on the scale a little he ends up falling back down into the lower registers.

Monday, February 6, 2012

"Bok Espok"

Kepa Junkera - Bok Espok (1998)

From the album Bilbao 00:00h

The eighth album of Basque folk musician Kepa Junkera involved over forty folk musicians from around the world. Junkera was born in Bilbao Spain which is where the album got its name. This track he worked with Swedish folk rock band Hedningarma. Junkera plays the Trikiti, a traditional Basque accordion-like-instrument that is almost always pared with tambourine. In this track he lays down a few riffs over and over again to lay down a base line and lets other musicians shine over them. Hendningarma is known for performing with a rock beat (which you can hear on the track from start to finish) and Yoik singing, which is the tight harmony vocals you can hear in the song. Two other traditional instruments show up in a lot of Kepa Junkera songs. The Alboka is a double single reed instrument, which means that it is like two clarinets shoved together in one instrument. It is thought to be Northern African or Arab originally, and made it's way into Spain during the Arab conquest. It remains an important instrument in Basque music. I can't quite hear it distinctly in this track, but I think it may be doubling the vocals. The other instrument is the Txalaparta which is wooden boards played by two musicians with large wooden sticks. It's like a small section of a huge over sized xylophone.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

"Smooth Operator"

Sade - Smooth Operator (1984)

/Coast to Coast L.A. to Chicago/ Ummmmm....

Using the Single edit, not the full 8 plus minute long video. The long play version includes a spoken word section over the intro and a full on Latin jazz ending. I like it, but it's not the version that people know, or the version that the book mentions. 

Alright, trying to listen to this song fresh, and not as the easy listening, WASH-FM pablum it has become. First thing I notice is the beat: congas over a drum set giving us a slow swinging Latin beat. It's the kind of beat you see people dancing to in a movie where the woman is actually looking out into the crowd for the male lead and as soon as he is spotted the male dance partner melts into the crowd so that she can walk across the dance floor towards the male lead seductively.

Helping the beat along is a bass that occasionally breaks out of the simple and beat pattern to follow the vocals and bring some bottom. Then out of nowhere, halfway through the song, the bass takes the first solo. It's up high on the neck, so you can be forgiven for thinking guitar, but I've watched more than a few live versions now, and it is the bass player. Good solo, nothing out of the park other than it is a bass solo, but I appreciate the fact that he doesn't just parrot and of the already existing melody lines. The second solo immediately follows the first and is the sax player. Again, he doesn't play anything we've heard before, which I love. I'm not a real fan of the sax, so take with a grain of salt my opinion that through the first part of the song, the sax is over utilized and repetitive. After the solo though, the sax does what accompaniment instrument should do, which is find interesting places to drop a few sounds then back away. I still think he plays too much, but at least it's different and not the same things over and over again.

During the solo break, we can hear an electric guitar that doesn't seem to make any other appearance until the very end of the song. The little riff makes the solo section seem faster and speed right by. The fact that Sade Adu isn't singing takes away the smoothness and together with the speed feeling, the solo section is like a whole different song in the middle. There's a keyboard hitting chords during the majority of the song, the could be adding to the Latin feel by hitting those chords along with the congas, but they really don't, so it just adds to the smooth soul sound instead.

Vocally it's a song about a gigolo plain and simple. Because one of the lines includes the phrase " for sale." I immediately think of the Cole Porter song Love for Sale from The New Yorkers. It's sung by a street prostitute offering her wares. I know it's a man in Smooth Operator and a woman in Love for Sale, but I'd like to think there's a connection there; if you make it long enough and stay safe, you may be able to graduate to Smooth Operator.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

"Monkey Gone to Heaven"

Pixies - Monkey Gone to Heaven (1989)

Rock me Joe!

Everything about this song is a blueprint for the 90s alternative rock scene. Black Francis, originally Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, and at one time known as Frank Black, wrote the song out of concern for the environment. But it also includes references to Hebrew numerology that he admittedly didn't really research all that much. It also contains quiet parts and shouted heavy parts, crunchy grunge style distorted guitars, a spoken word section, a chorus sung in harmony, short guitar solos, and Kim Deal on bass. It even has a small string section of violins and cellos that would eventually be seen in late alternative tracks. The "plinking" sound during the chorus is Deal using a guitar pick on the open strings of a piano.

Friday, February 3, 2012

"Time to Pretend"

MGMT - Time to Pretend (2008)

When I grow up, I wanna be a Rock Star!

Debut single of one of the up-and-coming bands of the new millennium. The album Oracular Spectacular that this appears on has been consistently selling since 2008 and this and other tracks remain on modern rock play-lists, commercials and movie trailers. Their second album was a success, and their third is due out later this year, but this track remains in the public consciousness. This song was originally written years before they recorded it for this album and is clearly a wishful-hopeful/mocking-pipe dream version of the rock star life that the two college buddies who formed MGMT talked about before they ever started opening for M.I.A., Radiohead, or Paul McCartney.

I'm not one for synthesizers, but I like the crunchy feedback sounding heavy chords that hold the song up. I also like the drums that alternate between a high hat heavy, metronome-tight beat and the tom and crash cymbal driven section that sounds free and open. There is a lot of other synth sounds going on, and picking each one out would take forever, but there are string parts, horn parts, and they all manage to work, but the only one I really like is around 1:23 and sounds like a vibraphone. It's a catchy songs, and the synthesizers lead themselves to the dream like state of forecasting a rock and roll future, I guess I just miss bass and guitars. Fun lyrics though, gotta give them that.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

"Needle of Death"

Bert Jansch - Needle of Death (1965)

Neil Young stole his melodies and Jimmy Page ripped off his accompaniments.

This Scottish folk singer eventually inspired Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, Paul Simon and Donovan; as well as founding the folk-rock-jazz group Pentacle. This, his most known song in his whole career was written about a friend of his that died of drug addiction. Jansch himself was not a drug user, and in fact lived and performed until late last year.

He was known for his quality acoustic guitar finger picking. This song is not a master class in the skill, but it is serviceable. He does manage to follow his voice up the scale while still maintaining the backing playing. The end is also particularly poignant as the vocals die out and the guitar stumbles into minor before finishing.Other songs off the album really show off what he can do on the guitar, but this one is more about the lyrics.

He starts off describing the mind set of the drug addicted: /When things go wrong each day/You fix your mind to 'scape your misery/. He then goes on to discuss how the addicts actions are perceived by loved ones: /How strange, your happy words/Have ceased to bring a smile from everyone/. His description of the parents standing at the addicts funeral is heart breaking: Your mother stands a cryin'/While to the earth your body's slowly cast/Your father stands in silence/Caressing every young dream of the past/. The most poetic line in the whole song is in the heart of it, as he describes the actual taking of the drugs: One grain of pure white snow/Dissolved in blood spread quickly to your brain/. Powerful words, simple melody, pure British folk.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

"I'll Take You There"

The Staple Singers - I'll Take You There (1972) 

Always popular with the advertisers, this song has sold cars, clothes, and vacations.

So Don Cornelius died today. His show Soul Train started syndication across the country in October of 1971. I thought I'd review a song from the first episode. But I can't; nor the second or third. Even though Gladys Knight and the Pips, Honey Cone, and Chairmen of the Board were all on the show, none of those acts are part of the 1,001 songs in the book. (They are in the 10,001 songs you must download portion.) Episode four had The Staples Singers. They were most likely singing their hit Respect Yourself, but this is the song the book has chosen.

Based on the bass line from the reggae song The Liquidator by the Harry J Allstars, songwriter and producer Al Bell built a fairly long song out of almost nothing. Two chords, one slightly used bass line, and a gospel style call and response vocal for a family band. The guitar, piano, and harmonica solos, as well as all the backing music are all played by studio musicians. Mostly it's The Swampers also known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. They played backup on dozens of platinum hits from Mustang Sally to Kodachrome. Lynyrd Skynyrd name checks the group in Sweet Home Alabama. The solos fill out a big section in the middle. The horns are The Memphis Horns, which I mentioned about two months ago.

The Staples Singers were a father and his three daughters, originally founded as a gospel group. They began performing in the late 40s and had a record contract in 1952. They moved to a more pop sound in the 60s, but it wasn't until the early 1970s that they had breakthrough mainstream success. They could play their instruments, and had a real tight harmony sound from working together for twenty five years. They sang only uplifting and religious themed music and had top forty hits into the early 80s.