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Friday, March 30, 2012

"You've Really Got a Hold on Me"

The Miracles - "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" (1962)

There's a monster at the end of this post!

This is some really low key production for a Motown track. There's a piano playing every quarter note after a lead in; a drum set accenting the two and four, a guitar doing a little lead and then disappearing into the background and then the horn section playing the breakdown. This sparse arraignment really lets the vocals come through. The main line is being sung simultaneously by Bobby Rogers and 'Smokey' Robinson. When the chorus comes around, all of The Miracles get a chance to shine, including Robinson's wife Claudette. It was an unusual arraignment for a band to be mixed men and women, but not unheard of. Interesting ending, it's the same backing and the same vocals, but it's off. The vocals, led off by Smokey, start a beat and a half earlier in the final chorus than they do anywhere else in the song.

The song has been covered so many times it's hard to pick the best ones to share. Less than a year after The Miracles, The Beatles covered the song for their Album With The Beatles. Two Motown acts covered the song in the first half of the decade, The Supremes and then The Temptations. It was covered as a country song in the 80s by Mickey Gilley. Recently She & Him covered the song in 2008. These are all very straightforward covers, some good voices, some I don't like as much, but almost all use remarkably similar musical arraignments. Most of the covers sound exactly the same, no variation, Rod Stewart, The Zombies, et al. Eddie Money does it different, I'll grant him that. So if they're mostly the same, and even the different ones aren't really worth checking out, what are you sticking around until the end of this paragraph for? Because this video from 1988 is AWESOME!

Thursday, March 29, 2012


Duffy - "Mercy" (2008)

I love soul revival.

Twenty three years old when this song was released, Welsh artist Duffy has drawn favorable comparisons to The Supremes, Dusty Springfield, as well as modern contemporaries Amy Winehouse and Adele. Her first EP was in Welsh and attracted interest from A&M Records who had her work with big name producers including Bernard Butler, formerly of Suede; and Grammy winner Jimmy Hogarth. they both produced big hits from the album, but it was relative newcomer to the business Steve Booker who co-wrote and produced this track. Booker had been co-writing country music songs in the US for seven years then did some pop song writing before coming back to England to start a small label and start producing.

The song starts with a bass line that immediately makes you think of Ben E. King's hit "Stand by Me". The bass keeps walking through the song, and gets some help on the bottom from a big organ. Adding to the 60s soul sound the song has a lush string section and higher pitched organ that almost takes it into Stevie Wonder style funk territory. Duffy's voice is a talented one. A song with this much production could easily chew up and spit out a less powerful singer. The song is a lusty love song with more than a hint of innuendo. Duffy has claimed Bettye Swann, particularly her 1968 song "Cover Me" as an influence on her own style saying  "It's very tender, but it's also, hilariously, quite crude." I'm not sure what to think of the quietly whispered rap about 2:15 into the song. It's too loud to be hidden, but too quite to be clearly heard over her continued singing. I get that it's a nod to the song being a modern one and not a true 60s soul song, and I don't think that's a bad idea. How many modern R&B tracks are 'featuring' a rap by either a big name friend of the artist, or a up-and-comer on the label, or even the singer themselves doing double duty like this is?  Plenty of course, but you can always hear them. That odd production choice is the only thing I have to complain about this really fun track.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"Mama Weer All Crazee Now"

Slade - "Mama Weer All Crazee Now" (1972)

One of the biggest bands of the 70s according to Great Britain.

In America you'd be hard pressed to find a fan. They wrote and originally performed "Cum on Feel the Noise" which was a hit for Quiet Riot in 1983, ten years after the original. Their highest charting hit in the US was a #20 in 1984 called "Run Runaway". It sounds like Scottish folk song performed with guitars and I've never heard it in my life.There was a video that got airplay on MTV that consists of the band performing in front of a small crowd at a castle. They had seventeen consecutive top 20 hits in the UK from 1971 to 1976 and the highest charting one in America was a #68. Only four of the seventeen charted over here at all. This track only reached #76 in America. None of this is to say they are not a good band. Kiss, Twisted Sister, Poison, Mötley Crüe, Def Leppard and others have named them as influences, so they are at least partially responsible for glam metal and hair metal. This song has been covered by Reel Big Fish, Quiet Riot and The Runaways.

It's a perfect capsule of Glam Rock. Heavy shredding guitars mixed with tight harmonies on vocals. The band is dressed like they're ready to join Elton John on stage, all flashy hats and platform shoes; but sing about drinking and parting with abandon. The misspelling of the title was kind of a thing they were doing, at least half a dozen of their hits had purposeful misspellings. This track really builds up, by the end when it sounds like a stadium full of people are singing along, and vocalist Noddy Holder is just shouting Mama rhythmically into the microphone you can begin to imagine how huge this band was in England and in fact, Europe and Australia as well. The primary songwriters for Slade were the vocalist/rhythm guitarist and the bassist. You can almost tell this song was written by a bassist. It stops and thumps and rocks, and keeps you moving forward. It was also produced by a bassist, former Animal Chas Chandler, who also managed Slade and between the Animals and Slade, he introduced the world to Jimi Hendrix.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"Race for the Prize"

The Flaming Lips - "Race for the Prize" (1999)

The ninth studio album by The Flaming Lips The Soft Bulletin is often considered the beginning of their current sound.

The song has two distinct sections and goes back and forth between them. During the mostly instrumental portion you can hear some backing vocal chants, but most of the sound is analogue and digital instruments. You can hear harp, piano, and xylophone, as well as a electric string section and other synthesizer sounds. The drums are so much louder during this section, and the bass drum is not muffled, giving us a not often heard ringing bass drum sound that shakes at your core. When the more traditional alt-rock section is heard, both voices are Wayne Coyne, but one is more processed than the other. He is effectively singing as both of the scientists the song is about. The second voice is 'further away' and yet heard at the same volume. During this section you can hear a timpani being played along with the traditional drum set.

Lyrically the song is really odd. Not really odd for the Flaming Lips, but really odd in general. Their is a chorus, verses, and the mostly instrumental section that acts as a bridge; but the lyrics are not like other bands. It's not a love song, or a song about a preexisting character, or a friend of the band, or even a folk hero. Coyne and the band are telling a story of something that never happened. Like "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots part 1" from their similarly named next album we are asked to listen and care about heroes who are willing to risk their lives for us, yet never existed. It's an odd genre The Flaming Lips have cooked up, but it works for them.

Monday, March 26, 2012

"Fast Car"

Tracy Chapman - "Fast Car" (1988)

This song is about ten times more depressing than I remember.

I remember this song, because it was a song that was nominated (and possibly won) the 'class song' for my high school graduating class. I had never heard it, so listened to it and sort of thought of it as a Springsteen style come get in my car and lets go; like "Born to Run" or "Thunder Road", but told from the point of view of the women, who meets a man with a car that is fast enough to get her away from the small town life. But it's more than that. It's a tale of cyclical poverty, a women whose mother leaves, so she must take care of her alcoholic father. As the song continues, the undescribed partner with the fast car eventually turns to alcohol themself  and Chapman asks them to leave.

Tracy Chapman graduated from Tufts in 1987 and worked on recording her debut album immediately. The album and single were released in April of 1988. In June of that year the 70th birthday concert for Nelson Mandela happened in London and was broadcast around the world. Chapman had performed to great reception early in the day, but later when Stevie Wonder was having technical problems she was asked to fill in for a few songs. She performed this song on stage by herself with just an acoustic guitar. The album Tracy Chapman hit number one in the U.K. three weeks later and a month after that topped the US charts.

It's a simple song, with a ringing acoustic guitar loop playing through the verses. The bass is very understated and the percussion is also very light, consisting of just a simple drum set and maybe a maraca. The chorus, where Chapman expresses the elation and exhilaration of sitting in the fast car gets a little louder, adds steel guitar, much louder percussion and maybe even some organ or other keyboard instrument filling in the bottom with the bass. It's a powerful song lyrically, and like I said, much harsher than I remember half a lifetime ago.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

"Good Vibrations"

The Beach Boys - "Good Vibrations" (1966)

According to Paul McCartney, this song inspired "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "A Day in The Life". It did not inspire Marky Mark or his Funky Bunch.

I can't really pick this piece apart for you it's too big. At the time, its detractors and fans both claimed you had to listen to it multiple times to really get it. I can tell you that it has at least four distinct keyboard instruments including a tack piano and Hammond organ. It uses old instruments like the cello and cutting edge instruments like the Electro-Theremin at the same time. You can hear both of those instruments at the same time with no other distraction for a few seconds at ten seconds from the end of the song. The Electro-Theremin was a prototype instrument built to mimic the sound of the theremin, but with more precise control. It's the hum whistle you can hear throughout the song. It was used on two other tracks by The Beach Boys and the opening theme to My Favorite Martian. All together, six members of the band sang vocals, combing to form a layered nuanced pop masterpiece.

There's a lot of well known history associated with this track. in 1965 the Beatles released Rubber Soul, one of the most ambitious Pop albums of its time. Then in December of that year they released the double A side single "We Can Work it Out"/"Day Tripper" Brian Wilson, the driving force behind the Beach Boys song writing felt he was up to the challenge and wrote and performed on and produced the album Pet Sounds, released in May of 1966; universally recognized as the peak of the Beach Boys. Immediately people compared it to Rubber Soul, and for a while, The Beach Boys were considered the more creative band. It included the songs "God Only Knows" and "Wouldn't It be Nice". They were released summer of 1966 as singles off of the album. The Beatles had released "Paperback Writer" as a single not attached to any album just earlier. Wilson was spending months on the production and recording of a new track, he has missed the deadline for Pet Sounds but continued to work on it. He was known to be sinking into depression and alcohol and drug use during the time, but the work on this track is said to have helped and hurt that depression. Pet Sounds was The Beach Boys answer to Rubber Soul, Wilson wanted to pull ahead with this amazing song. Instead, in August of 1966, just four weeks after The Beach Boys most recent single, The Beatles released the "Elanor Rigby" single, and the Revolver album at the same time. It had been eight months since Rubber Soul. During that entire time Wilson had been crafting "Good Vibrations" and The Beatles had created fourteen tracks, and recorded an album that rose to the top of the charts and knocked Pet Sounds out of the 'Most Ambitious' slot it held onto for such a short time.

Wilson stopped working on "Good Vibrations" soon thereafter. When it was released in October, all the hard work was vindicated, the months of work recording almost 20 different performers on at least a dozen different instruments and six part harmony turned the song into a huge hit. The band's record label decided that the cost was justified and sent Wilson back into the studio to record a new album. Stressed out, strung out, and musically challenged led Wilson to begin recording Smile. During the first part of 1967 everything was going well, with the layered production looking like it was going to be a huge success. The 'summer of love' was burgeoning, and the new sound of this album, following in the footsteps of "Good Vibrations" was going to keep The Beach Boys relevant. Then in April, Paul McCartney played Wilson an early cut of "A Day in The Life" from The Beatles upcoming Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It broke him. The rest of the band wasn't interested in the experimental direction was going, tension with the record label was growing, and Wilson was burning out. In May he stopped production on the album. In June, Sgt. Pepper's was released to world wide acclaim. In September the heavily stripped down and re-recorded Beach Boys album Smiley Smile was released to confusion and disinterest. Wilson slowly lost control of the band, and the band slowly slipped from being considered at the forefront of music, to being a throwback/nostalgia band.

Saturday, March 24, 2012


Weezer - "Slob" (2002)

"/I don't like how you're living my life/" (Cuomo)

After yesterday's upbeat message song, this one seems particularly down. Musically and lyrically the song is heavy. The singer is despondent over the direction his life is going, and the disappointment of someone else is making it worse. The line over the video is the real pull quote from the lyrics. When that person is heard it tears the singer down even further. Personally I like the interpretation that the other person is actually the singer's depressed voice in his head, but that might be reading too much into it.

The guitars are heavy and both ring out more and are fuzzier than early Weezer. Some people hear heavy metal influences in the song. The guitar solo in the middle is short, but pretty evocative. You can hear pain and anguish in the over-processed almost discordant echo during the eight measure solo. The song was a live-only fan favorite during their summer 2000 tour, so when the fans were asked their opinion of the new album the band was working on in 2002, there was a huge outpouring of interest in hearing the song recorded in the studio.

Friday, March 23, 2012

"Born for a Purpose"

Dr. Alimantado & The Rebels - "Born for a Purpose"

"/Like the doctor who was born for a purpose/Rudie can't fail/" (Strummer/Jones)

Written, performed and produced by Jamaican Rastafarian Alimantado after he survived a hit and run accident with a bus. The stories go that he heard the song in his head while recuperating at home and had to crawl across the floor to get to a pen and pad to write it down. The band were a mishmash of several local bands who all donated their time so that the single could be released as a fundraiser. Released in the U.K., and a underground hit, it found a hold in the punk scene primarily due to one single radio program. Tommy Vance was a DJ on the first non BC radio station in England. Before he went back to the BBC in 1978 to host Friday Rock Show and champion heavy metal and hard rock for years, he would occasionally host celebrities on his program on Capitol Radio in London. On July 16th 1977 his guest was Johnny Rotten, weeks after the release of the Sex Pistols "God Save the Queen". In that radio appearance, Rotten revealed a deep appreciation for many styles of music, including glam (David Bowie - "Rebel Rebel") art rock (Lou Reed - "Men of Good Fortune") experimental (Captain Beefheart - "The Blimp") and funky soul (Bobby Byrd - Back From the Dead). But a lot of what he talked about and played was Reggae. When Vance cued up Born for a Purpose, Rotten jumps in and tells a story that when he had gotten beaten up really bad earlier, he played this song and it got him through it. The album was released by fledgling Reggae label Greensleeves Records which now has the largest catalogue of Reggae music in the world. One of the founders has stated that Rotten mentioning the song on the program was responsible for most of the 50,000 units sold, and ultimately for keeping the label afloat. It was this big success in the U.K Punk music scene that led to The Clash mentioning Alimantado on their 1979 album London Calling on the track "Rudie Can't Fail"

The song itself is infectious. The groove will get into your bones and you will move. That echo effect on the horns that almost make them sound out of tune with each other is great. It sort of reminds me of Mariachi music. Echo effects in general on this track, on the organ, the horns, the bass, the vocals and anything else are what puts this into the genre of Dub, a sub genre of Reggae that typically strips the vocals out of popular songs and then has the bass and drums get reprocessed and turned into a dance hit in a different way than the original. In this case, Alimantado, who worked quite a bit with Reggae and Dub super-producer Lee "Scratch" Perry didn't strip out his own vocals, but he did put a number of dub tricks into the track.

Happy Birthday to me!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

"Brooklyn's Finest"

Jay-Z featuring The Notorious B.I.G.  - Brooklyn's Finest (1996)

No, not the movie staring Gere, Cheadle, Hawke and Snipes.

In the mid 1990s Jay-Z had been developing a following in his native New York as well as further afield, but had not yet attained a record deal. The summer of 1995 he had a single released by a small local record label, but conflict with the owners led Jay to believe he and his friend Damon Dash could do better starting their own label. Roc-A-Fella records, now with several subsidiaries, and worth a fortune started as Jay-Z, Damon Dash and a dream. For his first album, Jay-Z worked with several producers, had several singles that are still club bangers, and worked with several big names, including Mary J. Blige and Foxy Brown. But his biggest collaborator was also his riskiest. In 1994 the Notorious B.I.G. had released Ready to Die to huge critical and commercial success, by 1997 he was even bigger, releasing Life After Death so in 1996 he was easily considered to be the biggest name in East Cost rap, and even more specifically, he was Brooklyn as far as Hip-Hop was concerned. So when Jay-Z decided he wanted to do a competitive/collaborative track with Biggie on his debut album Reasonable Doubt I need you to understand that I am not overstating the analogy when I tell you it would be like for your debut collection of critical essays you decided to co-write a piece with Christopher Hitchens. It was like trying to get into comedy and deciding to open your set with a two man sketch featuring you and John Belushi, or attempt to direct one half of a film and hire Orson Wells to direct the other. It took guts. It worked though, he gained Biggie's respect, and the respect of the Hip-Hop media and community well beyond New York City.

The track is put together by producers Damon Dash and Clark Kent. Kent also sings-speaks the chorus. The primary sample is from "Ecstasy" a song by The Ohio Players, a Soul/Funk band from the 70s. the loop runs for most of the song. The other sample is much shorter and harder to catch. Sometimes when you hear someone yelling Brooklyn in the background it's actually Ol' Dirty Bastard, another Brooklyn native who was riding high in the mid nineties; from his track "Brooklyn's Zoo". Lyrically the song is back and forth four to five lines from each MC mostly talking about their previous and current criminal enterprises. They also discuss how good they are at rapping and somewhat playfully disrespect the other performer as to their skills. The chorus makes clear that because they have teamed up, all other rappers should beware. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"Can't Be Sure"

The Sundays - "Can't Be Sure" (1989)

You know this band for their second single "Here's Where The Story Ends"

Ethereally voiced Harriet Wheeler can claim the lion's share for this song's , and her band's success. Twenty six years old when this debut single came out, her voice sounds like a teenager, while her lyrics have a bit more bite than that. "/and did you know desire's a terrible thing/ the worst that I could find/" (Wheeler) is a great example. This is someone who is so cynical they have gone out looking for things worse than desire, but can't find anything, so she wrote a pop song about it.

The song starts off with a great little drum beat and then overlaying guitars. But that's about as interesting the instrumentation gets. That's the point of Dream Pop really, it predates Shoe Gaze and is quieter, but has a similar direction: lay down a musical mood, not a driving song. If there is a bass guitar on the track I can't hear it until two thirds of the way through the song. and when it comes in it's like an afterthought. "Oh Paul, sorry we forgot you were hear mate, go ahead and play for a minute or so." Actually, I guess you can tell when the bass player comes in, it's right after the drummer wakes up and starts playing something different. I think her voice is amazing, and the overlapping guitar parts are technically great, and to be honest, the idea of a teen princess who turns out to be in her mid twenties singing a song about twisted desire is pretty great fun. But the sonic landscape that the band is laying down just kind of slowly puts me to sleep.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"The Snake"

Al Wilson - "The Snake" (1968)

Aesops Fable, set to the sounds of Soul. Plus Hipsters.

Originally a jazzy bossa nova written and performed by Oscar Brown Jr., the song would get a number of covers during the 60s. In 1967 it was recorded by two different acts, and both of these previous performances would flavor the Al Wilson version the next year. Johnny Rivers released the song on a live album. Rivers smooth vocals were backed up by horns as well as guitars and bass, the bossa nova drum beat stayed the same. Rivers dropped the "evil" voice for the snake that Brown had used, but kept the higher pitched voice for the woman's part and added a sibilant hissing ssssss sound when the snake "sighs". Also in 1967 British beat group the Liverpool Five released the song. They used an organ instead of horns, and the bossa nova beat is more obvious in the organ part than the drums. Their sighing snake stuttered as it hissed.

Al Wilson's version takes everything from the previous versions and turns it up a notch. It starts with an almost duplicate guitar partto Rivers', then before we even get to the first word you can hear an organ, a full brass and sax horn section and a walking bass. Wilson doesn't use an evil snake voice, but he does pitch his voice up to play the woman much like the two 1967 versions. He does hiss like Rivers on the sighs, but he uses backing vocals like the Liverpool Five. As the song progresses we get a key change after the snake bite, and horns and bass and organ all building bigger and louder. Some of the credit needs to go to Wilson's big voice, but Marty Paich did the horn arraignment and it is that sound that really takes the song over the top. The producers of the song were sometime Motown producer Marc Gordon, and one of the previous performers of the song, Johnny Rivers. In fact, Soul City Records, which released the album, was Rivers' own label.

Just a little note on one of the tags I've given to the song: Northern Soul. It's called Northern because it comes from Northern England. So how does a musician from Meridian Mississippi get called Northern Soul? Northern Soul doesn't really classify as a genre, because no one performed Northern Soul. In the late 1960, peaking in the 70s, and continuing into the 80s there was a large group of people in Northern England who were interested in old fashioned soul music. As African American performers and audiences continued to progress and change into Funk, Disco and other genres, they wanted more soul. There were still people out there recording it, but not as many, and on much smaller labels. Northern Soul aficionados loved finding old records that other people didn't like and dancing to them. Motown was was too well known a label for them to enjoy, but Soul City was perfect. They were essentially early Hipsters. Nick Hornby actually talks about Northern Soul in his most recent book, 2009s Juliet, Naked; which I thought was great. So because this song is a great Soul tune on a small soul label by a minor artist and it didn't really burn up the charts, Northern Soul it is. It actually charted in the U.K. in 1975 (#41) showing just how long it can take to discover a hidden gem.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

"Shout (Parts 1 & 2)"

The Isley Brothers - "Shout (Parts 1 & 2)" (1959)

Otis my man!

Parts 1 & 2? When originally released it was spread out over both sides of the single. Where was the break you ask? "/Now wait a minute/" (Isley). Right there, before the organ chords. That organ was the first sound you heard when you flipped the 45 over and played side 2. The organ playing in the background, while the the lead singer sings a sweet solo and you can hear the clapping and shouting of the "audience" is a deliberate call back to the gospel style of singing that the Isley Brothers started out singing.

Later on in their career they would record "Twist and Shout" which would be covered by The Beatles,  later they would be early Funk pioneers with their track "It's Your Thing", many hits and misses later they collaborated with R. Kelly for 2001s  "Contagious", making them a six decade success.  This song remains their most requested, most played and most well known, due to its use in commercials, by sports teams, and in movies, from the recent Wedding Crashers to the classic Animal House.

The record doesn't list any of the performers besides the three brothers on vocals. Obviously we've got church organ that really makes the second half of the song. Percussion wise, the tambourine is so loud and distinctive, that until the /a little bit softer now/ section, you can barely hear the full drum set playing. There is a guitar playing two quick chords on the and a of the beat, but the bass hitting on every beat is far more prominent in the mix.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

"Public Image"

Public Image Ltd. "Public Image" (1978)

When Johnny Rotten left the Sex Pistols and the band broke up, he was the first to join a new group.

Public Image Ltd. began when John Lyndon (formerly known as Rotten) called a friend of his and asked him to listen to some reggae together, and when he agreed that it was great, Lyndon asked him to learn how to play the bass. Lyndon put an add in the paper to get a drummer, and called  The Clash guitarist Keith Levene to play guitar. This first single was released in England the day after Nancy Spungen died, and the album was released less than a year from the last day the Sex Pistols performed on stage.

Driving bass line for sure. Simple, but the man had only learned bass guitar a few months earlier, lets give him a break. The guitar and vocals are both heavily echo affected. The guitar does this thing that makes it sound like an ambulance and Lyndon's vocals come in late singing the chorus; that's my favorite part. The band sounds a little like Echo & the Bunnymen, Joy Division, and other post punk bands, but I think they sound a lot like early B-52s. Without a keyboard they are definitely not New Wave, and the truly experimental rock and post-rock sound wouldn't come until later in the bands career, so for the immediate moment of their first single, they were hard to classify.

Aspects reminded everyone of punk, but the guitar was more melodic, the song was longer, and the whole band wasn't trying to deafen you. Lyndon's vocals are high and still very whiny, but the rest of the band is making music with some clarity. There may be a lot of echo effects, but the musicians playing the instruments are more talented than the Sex Pistols.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"Mein Teil"

Rammstein - "Mein Teil" (2004)

Translates as My Part. It is left up as an exercise to the reader as to what part the band is talking about.

Threatening. That's the best way to describe the song. The opening electronic strings are marred by the sound of a knife being hones, setting the tone for the entire song. The lead vocal is sometimes overtly intimidating, and other times more of a hideously downtrodden voice, warning you of the impending doom. Sometimes another singer, or at least another tone from the same singer comes across, it sounds to me like he's coming through an old-timey radio.

Musically we've got kind of a blend of Rock and some sort of chamber techno. There's great crunchy guitars playing over a hard drum beat with heavy bass during some sections. Other sections feature precision drums reminiscent of techno with strings and a church choir singing, as well as shrieking. It's a multi-section piece, but the overwhelming theme is threatening. The video is also disturbing to watch. I guess that knowing the song is about a famous case of murder and cannibalism makes it all make sense.

Monday, March 12, 2012

"Crash into Me"

Dave Matthews Band - "Crash into Me" (1996)

What do a white South African rock star, and a French composer from the early 20th century have in common?

So this song definitely has layers. Lots of repetitiveness, but so many layers get added onto it that it sounds fresh.  The drums do a lot of work on just the snare, not 100% of  the song as was pointed out to me on "Ay te dejo en San Antonio"; but the main drum line is all snare. As the song keeps going you get bass drum, toms and crash cymbals, but the driving drum line is a snare that sounds like a marching band drum. Not the opening percussion, that's cymbal and some wind chimes, the part I'm talking about comes in around twenty seconds in. Guitarist, singer and writer Dave Matthews plays acoustic guitar on this track, and that is a sound that also builds. Starting with a simple pattern, then adding more and more until the conclusion seems to have at least four guitar parts but they are all played by him. The other usual rock instrument on this track is the bass. Two unusual instruments make up the remainder of the Dave Matthews Band: violin,and saxophone. The saxophone hides throughout the track, sometimes down low adding bottom, other times much higher and adding to the wind chimes. The violin easy to pick out. Producer Steve Lillywhite produced all three of the band's first albums, and they are reportedly back in the studio with him now.

This building up of sound while leaving instruments playing what they were before is an interesting technique. I can't exactly find a name for it. If each time a new instrument came in it was a change to the melody, but obviously based on it, that would be variations on a theme. If each time a instrument came in it was playing the same riff as the instrument before it, but a beat, or measure behind, that would be a canon. When an instrument repeats a phrase insistently that is made up of the same equal sounds, each note having the same weight, it is called an ostinato.  The most obvious example of what I am thinking about is "Boléro" by Maurice Ravel.  It starts with an ostinato snare drum, then each instrument as it comes in adds a layer and continues to play it over and over again ass more layers are added. Obviously a completely different type of work, but take a listen, it's a classic.

Friday, March 9, 2012

"Everybody (Backstreet's Beack)"

Backstreet Boys - Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" (1997)

Where are they back from if I've never heard of them in the first place?

Unbeknownst to most Americans, Teen pop was a very big draw in Europe all during the mid 90s. Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync both released singles and albums in Europe that garnered them success. This song was written for the Backstreet Boys' second album, which is also only supposed to get released abroad. The song title and lyrics make since for a group dropping a loud danceable hit single on an audience that knew them as Euro pop lite dance makers and ballad singers. After being released in Europe during the summer of 1997, the track got some Canadian air play. This lead to eventually debuting on American stations in February of 1998 and finally getting released as a CD single in March of that year. In a very real way, this track lead the way for 'N Sync, and then Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and the entire Teen Pop explosion of the early 2000s.

Written by Super star writer Max Martin and DJ Denniz PoP, they produced the song as well. Martin was responsible for a long string of hits for Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, 'N Sync and others. He faded into obscurity for a few years then resurfaced as the writer of Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" and has continued to write for her, as well as Pink, Katy Perry, and Usher. Denniz Pop worked with Martin during the early days combining their talents to make big teen pop hits, but died of cancer in 1998.

What can I say nice about this song? The did a lot with very little. Conservation of energy was in full effect. The lyrics are simple and repetitive; The chorus is 15 words long but only uses 10 words. One of the phrases is used without change in the bridge. The music under the lyrics is catchy, but even more repetitive. If it wasn't for the breaks, where no one is "playing an instrument" I'm convinced you could have just left a four second loop of the bass going and no one would have noticed a difference. There are differences of course, there's a soft church organ sound that comes in,and sometimes the bass has an edgy fuzz effect added. Then there's the whole section where the bass drops out and the drums play along with tinkling bells. No one is singing either. It's a thirty second breakdown that features nothing. It's like they forget to buy a guitar solo, or a decent drum fill. The video doesn't even contain an amazing dance break during the thirty seconds, just the same cuts as before, the big group dance scene occurs after the break has ended. I just don't get it.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

"State of Independence"

Donna Summer - "State of Independence" (1982)

Donna Summer was the first artist signed to Geffen records when it was founded in 1980.

Between Donna Summer's Disco Queen era, with hits like "Love to Love You Baby" and "Last Dance"; and her 80s New Wave/Dance hit "She Works Hard for the Money", there were a few albums that could almost be called experimental. 1982s Donna Summer was produced by Quincey Jones, and had elements of soul, traditional R&B, and world music."State of Independence" was a cover of a song by progressive electronica act Jon and Vangelis. Quincy Jones picked the song to be on the album, and recruited a choir of friends in the industry to sing back up. Michael Jackson, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Loggins, Lionel Richie and Stevie Wonder were among the vocal talent on the track.

The song has got a funky bass track, odd keyboard sounds, vocoder-style electronically processed vocals, chanting, a flute sound, Summer doing a weird Caribbean/African accent, and the star choir already mentioned. How does this all come together? Well, I will tell you that listening it, you will feel like you are watching the end credits of an 80s movie. Something uplifting like Iron Eagle but not as action oriented. Maybe the story of a African man who came to America, started working in the copy room, learned English, taught everyone around him how to lead a better life and take it a little easier. He would also help two young White people realize that they are in love and that they should get married despite her parents dislike of the young man. Along the way, a wacky hi-jinks situation would occur, possibly involving the young white man, his girlfriend's father, and the hero at a dance club and women that want to sleep with them all, but none of them do. At the end of the movie, our African hero would decide to go home and take the money he earned to go make his country a better place. That sounds just like an 80s movie to me. And this is the song that would play at the end of the credits.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

"(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"

The Rolling Stones - "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction)" (1965)

What can I say about the most well known guitar riff ever written?

It has become part of the folklore of the band, and the song, that guitarist Keith Richards wrote the disarmingly simple guitar lick half asleep. He woke up, pushed record on a tape deck nearby, played the riff a few times, and fell back asleep. He is quoted as describing it later as "two minutes of 'Satisfaction' and forty minutes of me snoring". What fewer people know is that he never intended it to be a guitar part. Richards wanted the part to be played by horns. In the recording studio he used a Fuzzbox to try to sound bigger and give the band a feel for what he wanted. As far as the band knew, they were just laying down a preliminary recording. Producer (and band manager) Andrew Oldham finished the song while the band was on tour, remixing and sending the song out the way he and most of the band liked it.

Mick Jagger's lyrics are well known and often quoted. It about commercialism and sexual attraction at the same time. I've always liked the /And that man comes on to tell me/How white my shirts can be/But he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke/The same cigarettes as me/ (Jagger) line. It implies awareness that we are being controlled by advertising, and yet the singer being unaware how much he is being controlled at the same time.  I can't not mention Bill Wyman. Wyman was the bass player for the Rolling Stones for most of their successful years. Older than the rest of the guys, married, and a bit of an outsider, Bill never dominated the headlines, but he straight owns this song. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, two of the biggest loudest egos and players in all of Rock and Roll history are dueling on this track and what comes through? What heart blasting soul thumping sound comes across as big as The Glimmer Twins combined? Bill Wyman on bass, that's what.

Brittany Spears and Devo have both covered the tune, but if you want a hint of how the horns that Richards wanted might have sounded, check out Otis Redding's cover from Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"It's Too Late"

Carole King - "It's Too Late" (1971)

The debut single from Tapestry the album that kicked off the Singer-Songwriter boom of the 70's.

Wikipedia points out (with no citation) the the piano part is reminiscent of "Magic to Do" from  Pippin. Go ahead and listen to the first thirty seconds or so, I think you'll agree. My mind always turns to the Dusty Springfield cover of Spooky. The bongos and keyboard opening, plus the same chords changes, means that anytime one song comes on the radio; I always think it's the other one until the vocals turn up. Speaking of the vocals, Carole King really gives us a feeling of realness here. Her voice is professional without sounding over polished. The use of background vocals on this track do hearken back to the 60s girl groups with the "do-do-dos" and use of harmony; but King's voice is not overproduced. Producer Lou Adler was a big name in the 60s, so those holdovers make sense in context, also 1971 is not really that far removed from the height of the popularity of the genre. King actually wrote at least three big hits for girl groups in the 60s with her husband and writing partner Gerry Goffin. Adler won two Grammy awards for this; one for the song, the other for the album.

The jazz nature of the tune comes in right around the minute thirty mark, which is right at the "do-do-do" part. The guitar solo is jazzy, not rock, and segues into a sax solo, all of which has electric piano flourishes under it. the whole middle section is sort of a proto-smooth jazz style, no improvisations, and played in a down tempo with layers of sound all of which are generally pleasant without being too challenging to the listener. The Latin percussion instrumentation (bongos) are also very smooth jazz.

Often forgotten when people talk about this track is King's collaborator Toni Stern. Stern wrote the lyrics for this and about half a dozen of King's songs in the first half of the 70s. She's a painter from Los Angeles who also wrote the lyrics for "Where You Lead" the song used as the theme song for Gillmore Girls. The lyrics are about a relationship that is over, but hasn't ended yet. King is singing to her partner letting them know that nothing can save the relationship but she isn't mad about it, just letting him know. Rumors persist that the song was about an affair between Jams Taylor and Carole King before Taylor married Carly Simon, but as we know Toni Stern wrote the lyrics, maybe the relationship with Taylor was hers?

Monday, March 5, 2012


Snow Patrol - "Run" (2003)

Before Snow Patrol really got huge in the US, they had their break through hit in the UK with this track.

Gary Lightbody is the lyricist and lead singer of this Northern Irish/Scottish band. His voice in this song is very breathy. No matter how loud the track gets, he never seems to get too excited, he just keeps singing in low tones and exhaling at the end of many phrases. His voice has character, and I like it; it's not a professionally trained sound. You can hear the hard "P" sound at the end of the word up at the end of some lines. His voice dies at the end of many phrases as well, which is odd to hear in a signed band. Lyrically the song is sung to the singers partner. They are obviously having a tough time, but the singer believes in them. As I side note, this would make a hell of a song for a zombie movie.

As far as the rest of the band goes, this song doesn't really show anybody off. The guitar solo is one of the dullest things recorded. It goes with the song I guess, and anything faster or more divergent would have sounded harsh, but come on. I guess he should be happy, at least he gets a solo, the rest of the band really just acts as time keepers here. Producer "Jacknife" Lee puts together a really good track, building a four piece string section up until they sound like a 10 or 12 piece chamber group. It's a pleasant song, but not my favorite of theirs.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

"River Song"

Dennis Wilson - "River Song" (1977)

Well, he nails it sounding like a river, I'll give him that.

What sounds like an enormous Gospel choir backs up this Beach Boys sometime lead singer on his opening track from his only solo album. I don't know if Wilson or Carli Muñoz played piano on this track, both are credited on the album. Whoever it is really sells the river sound, even as the rest of the track gets bigger and louder, as long as I can hear that piano, it sounds like a river to me. There are also several drummers listed on the liner notes, including Wilson so I'm not sure who to praise for playing such tight simple beats. When a song gets this big there is a tendency among some to keep playing your part bigger and louder to compete. The drummer here just keeps things together while a string section, several horns, a gospel choir, other backing vocalists and a ringing electric bass all build up.

Lyrically it's kind of unexpected. The only member of the Beach Boys that actually surfed, and a man who loved the hard drinking and drugging lifestyle that being in such a popular band can bring, wrote a song about wanting to get away from the city and reconnect with nature. But not the nature of the ocean, the nature found on a mountainside. It's a nice enough sentiment, just not one you expect from Dennis Wilson. The coolest effect on the whole track is the use of the low bass singers in the choir doubling the low brass and electric bass guitar. It's easiest to hear at the end around 3:10 and onward to the end.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

"You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)"

Dead or Alive - "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)" (1984)

At the time that it reached number 1 in the U.K. it held the record for taking the longest time to get there.

This song has been covered, sampled, and dragged through the trailers and movies that need to "sound 80s" for so long it's hard to imagine but this actually sounded original when it came out. Lead singer Pete Burns got inevitable comparisons to Culture Club singer Boy George, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood and New Order were already dominating the charts with synthesizer driven danceable pop. But this had something different. I think it's Burns vocals, which are strong; both soaring and rough when they need to be, and he playfully flirts with the listener the entire song.

The rest of the track is standard 80s fair, but I should point out that a live drummer and bass player were on the track, as well as a keyboard player and various engineers adding those doodling electronic effects. The fact that the drums and bass are live, and don't stop is what gives the song its heart. All the little effects on the keyboard and otherwise make the song fun, but you need a real rhythm section to give a song a solid foundation. Not that I really think much of the song in general, other than the vocals, but at least there were instrumentalists involved and not just a guy sitting in front of a computer creating loops. Wow, I sound old and cranky. I thought the French and Tejano music would be enough to let me review an 80s tune, but I guess it's time to take a break from dance music again.

Friday, March 2, 2012

"Le poinçonneur des Lilas"

Serge Gainsbourg - "Le poinçonneur des Lilas" (1958)

Born to Russian Jewish parents who fled to France after the Russian revolution, as a child they all fled France when Nazis marched into Paris.

Serge Gainsbourg was one of the most prolific and beloved pop singer in France. His carrier spanned over thirty years, and over twenty five albums, as well as several films. This song was the opening track off of his debut album. He courted controversy his whole life, probably a good deal of why he was so popular in France. Even his earliest songs had sexual or morbid themes. If you didn't speak French ( I sure don't) you would be forgiven for thinking that this fast, driving, repetitive song was sexual in some way, but it is not. It is the tale of a ticket taker in a Paris Métro station (Porte des Lilas) whose life is so boring, all day long he thinks about punching little holes. Eventually his thoughts wander and he considers getting a gun, so he can put a little hole in himself, and then rest in a larger hole.

The driving forward aspect of the song is forming a picture of a train. The flute and saxophone give us the sound of the train whistle and the train going past. The guitar and brushes on a snare drum are of course the train itself, a trick that American country music performers popularized. We get a little piano to help give things a little color. Mostly just light hits at the very end of the first verse but then driving at the end of the the first chorus. Gainsbourg's vocals are an interesting cross between singing and spoken word. Some of it almost sounds like a tongue twister.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

"Ay te dejo en San Antonio"

Flaco Jimenez - "Ay te dejo en San Antonio" (1986)

Jimenez has five Grammy awards for playing accordion. I think that's a record that's likely to stand.

Flaco Jimenez is a strong proponent of a style of music called Conjunto the name means group, which was the primary difference between it and the previously dominant music of Mexico; Ranchera. Ranchera music was mostly one man and his guitar. Not to say that was all the music in the diverse country, mariachi was created in South West Mexico stemming from Ranchera but adding a lot of back up musicians. Banda came from North West Mexico and is rooted in military marching music. Conjunto is from southern Texas and northern Mexico, where Polish and German immigrants brought the accordion and a love for polka music. Flaco's first Grammy was awarded for the album Ay te dejo en San Antonio y mas! which contained this track, as well as a version of the well known "Beer Barrel Polka".

A typical Conjunto group consists of an accordion, a bass, a 12 string guitar called a  bajo sexto that plays on the low side, and a drum set. Flaco's father was a musician, and taught his sons to play accordion. Both Jimenez brothers record and perform, but Flaco has attained world wide fame. This album was recorded in San Antonio with German American Chris Strachwitz as producer.

The song is sung to an unfaithful woman. She has another lover in Laredo, so the singer is going to leave her in San Antonio. The bass and accordion give the song a polka-like sound. This is clearly a song you dance to. The accordion takes the roll of lead instrument here, like a guitar would in a typical pop song. What is it about pop songs where the singer is having a terrible experience but covers it up with upbeat music?