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Monday, April 30, 2012

"Between the Bars"

Elliot Smith - "Between the Bars" (1997)

I can't believe it just ends like that. I want more.



It's just one man and his guitar. Now to be fair, he does do some multitracking so he can play some delicate acoustic picking lead guitar sitting on top of the chords he's laying down. You can hear it in the verses after the first chorus. Right at the beginning it sounds like he's about to break into The Beatles "Rocky Raccoon". Instead we get a beautiful dark song about alcoholism and love. When the title finally shows up in the third verse it's almost confusing. Is Elliot Smith in jail? Is the person he's singing to? Or does 'between the bars' actually evoke the image of a drunk's pub crawl and he'll kiss them when they leave one bar, but before they enter another?

The chorus seamlessly moves between major and minor keys, leaving us with the up and down feeling that alcohol often brings. The whole song actually does that, but the verses are major and minor sevenths, so when the chorus goes major to minor it sounds like a bigger shift. When the song ends we are left aching, looking for the resolution that will never come. It's a super brief song, not even two and a half minutes, so the ending is all the more bitter because we know that there 'should be more' in length and because it doesn't get back around to the root key that the song is in.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

"Headlights on the Parade"

The Blue Nile - "Headlights on the Parade" (1989)

I think I like the B-side better. It's more piano and less synth.



I don't know why I haven't heard this song before, it sounds like it would fit right in on one of those adult-contemporary radio stations that dominate doctor's office waiting rooms and small corporate offices. In other words, it's not exactly music I like. I do like part of their origin story. After getting together in 1981, the band couldn't garner a recording contract. Local Glasgow based hi-fi audio company Linn Products asked them to record a few tracks that would show off the quality of their equipment. In a big surprise to the members of the band, and the audio company, sales really picked up, and they had a real hit on their hands. Linn and The Blue Nile stayed partnered for their second album Hats which is the album this song is on. When it was released in America, the U.S. distributor took out a full page ad in Billboard magazine offering the album on CD to anyone who called a toll free number.

The liner notes lists three musicians, all of whom play synthesizer. One is vocals and guitar, one is keyboards, and one is bass, but all are synthesizers. Notice how none of them were on drums? So pre-programed drum machines, and three guys on synthesizers. You knew this wasn't going to be my kind of song, but then the fact that it's a depressed love song makes it official. It's not the worst song I've heard, the lead singer's voice is sweet, and the performers are technically proficient, it's just elevator music as far as I'm concerned. The mix heavily favors the instruments over the singer, and while three synthesizers to produce a lush sound it's just not a soundscape I want to dive into. More like walk away from and look for a little pub where they might be playing the song live on piano, bass and guitar.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

"Interstate Love Song"

Stone Temple Pilots - "Interstate Love Song" (1994)

This song spent 15 weeks at #1 on the Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks list. Not record breaking, but pretty impressive.



Great traveling song. The song is credited to Robert DeLeo and Scott Weiland, DeLeo was the band's basist and wrote the music, while Weiland wrote the lyrics. Many on the songs on the album were written by bassistt DeLeo, or his brother, guitarist Dean DeLeo, or by both of them. Weiland wrote all of the lyrics on Purple, an album that gave STP a huge following and three big singles. The bass does take a prominent roll in the song, both in the quiet more introspective sections, and in the louder parts where the brothers double each other in an almost Punk way. Robert DeLeo has said that when he was writing the song he based it on a bossa nova theme, particularly the works of Carlo Jobim. You can hear the beat in the drums right at the beginning. After that it's hard to really call it bossa nova, but it is a fun song for a bass player for sure.

The chorus includes the phrase '/leaving on a Southern train/" (Weiland), so many people on the internet have including the song in the southern rock genre, but I'm not really hearing it. Southern rock is rock influenced by country, bluegrass, or some other roots music. This is based in a Brazilian dance style and aside from that lyric and the electric guitar opening sounding sort of like a slide guitar, I'm just not buying it as Southern rock. Weiland is the vocalist on the track, so the harmony in the chorus is him multitracked with himself. I actually like the opening section, before the guitar gets fuzzy and the lyrics kick in. Nothing against Weiland, I think the whole song works, but after the intro it is really just a grunge song with a slightly different drum and a prominent bass player. The intro however is a perfect little 'what-could-have-been' if the pressures of a record label to make grunge music hadn't been so strong on this sophomore effort.

Friday, April 27, 2012

"21 Seconds"


So Solid Crew - "21 Seconds" (2001)

The Winstanley Estate, a working class and public housing area in Battersea, London was the home of the majority of the So Solid Crew.



In November 1993 the Wu-Tang Clan released their classic debut album Enter the Wu-Tang(36 Chambers) to huge critical and commercial success. It introduced a nine person hip hop collective to the world, and it influenced the genre both lyrically and production wise. In 2001 So Solid Crew boiled all of that down to about five minutes introducing ten members of a enormous UK garage crew and helping to  influence the UK hip hop scene years after the single came out. This track owes the most to track #6 "Da Mystery of Chessboxin" from the Wu-Tang album. The Crew was very underground and this song broke them into the mainstream. The video is a cross between a Soul Train line and a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome/WWE cage match.

The song title, and many of the lyrics deal with the fact that each of the members of the crew that take a verse gets about 21 seconds to shine in the spotlight. Each of the verses are very similar. Most of them introduce themselves, mention how they only have 21 seconds, discuss the Crew and how tough they are and then mention something about the area they live in also being tough. It's fairly formulaic but each of them takes a slightly different approach. Most of them employ a repetition of their own lines, which seems like an odd choice considering how fast their time goes by but it is internally consistent with the song itself being repetitive.

The music sounds like it could have been produced entirely on a 'My First Casio Keyboard', which is part of the early UK garage scene. The drum hits all sound electronic, the electronic piano and electronic bass sounds are clearly made by keyboards on very basic settings, not at all trying to sound like acoustic instruments and reveling in their digitized sound. The selling point of this song is definitely hearing all the different MCs. I particularly like Face's, whose verse begins "/Some a them are slippin a/Some a them a grudge me a/So Solid vampire/". And Harvey's which starts "/Every lyric I do/Every lyric I say/Every lyric I rock/Every lyric I play/. Each one is different and worth listening to. Many members of the Crew went on to successful UK celebrity, most in music, but at least one actor. Unfortunately, like all large groups, not everyone can have success. The violence surrounding the underground scene brought many of the members down, and at least one is serving very hard time for murder. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

"Roxanne"

The Police - "Roxanne" (1978)

"When love is for the highest bidder, there can be no trust. Without trust, there can be no love."



So what do we call this first early hit by The Police? Is it New Wave? There's no keyboard, but it does come from the same time period as the pop friendly post punk genre. Is it Reggae? The guitarist seems to be playing in a reggae band for sure, and he's half convinced the bass player to come along. But what about the drums? They seem to be playing something like a tango with a lot more cymbals making it almost a dance track, but tango is a dance, so is that redundant? There is also so much dead air that it would take a very confidant band with a lot of composure to pull something like that off, but this was only their second single you say?  Oh yeah, and that laugh at the beginning with the piano before it? That's because the singer sat on the piano in the recording studio and they were broke and couldn't really afford to do another take so they left it in.  Put all that together and you take a struggling not-really-a-punk-band-not-really-an-anything-band, and turn them into one of the most defining New Wave bands of the era.

Before Sting became a tantric sex advocate, before he wrote for Walt Disney, before he wrote adult contemporary Celtic influenced soft rock, before he became an actor even; he was the bass player, singer, and primary songwriter for The Police. They were an older group of guys, two over twenty five and one over thirty five who wanted to play punk music. They were a little old and a little too talented to be taken seriously so they tried something else. No one believed in them and they had no record deal, so drummer Stewart Copeland got his brother Mike to loan them money for recording time. They slipped in between other acts, showed up on days they weren't at work and waited until other bands no showed and then recorded for a couple of hours as much as they could. It was when Mike heard "Roxanne"; a song Sting wrote while looking out the window at prostitutes in Paris, that he decided they could make it and he became their manager and took the single around to anyone who would listen to try to get them a break. It was a flop when first released, and took over a year before it became even a minor hit in either the U.S. or the U.K. It's a good lesson in never giving up on your dreams. But I'll still always associate it with Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"I'm a Man"

The Spencer Davis Group - "I'm a Man" (1967)

He was 18 when he sang this! He had been a man for about nine months!



Alright stick with me here, we're about to drop a lot of names. In 1963 24 year old Spencer Davis went to Birmingham England go see a jazz band called Muff Woody that featured 20 year old bass player Muff Winwood. Featured on keyboard and vocals that night was Muff's younger brother Steve. After the set, Davis asked the brothers to start a band with him on guitar and a friend of his, Pete York on drums. Thus did Steve Winwood join his first recorded band at the age of 14. In 1967 when "I'm a Man" came out, Winwood was 19 and had decided to move on. He formed the group Traffic with Jim Capaldi, Chris Wood, and Dave Mason, who had all sung backup on Winwood's last song with The Spencer Davis Group: "I'm a Man". After mild success the band went on hiatus for a little over a year, during which time Winwood joined Ric Grech, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton to form Blind Faith. After Blind Faith recorded their only album and did a little touring they split and Winwood went back to Traffic, releasing several more albums. In 1976 he formed international Jazz Fusion group Go with Japanese Stomu Yamashta, German Klaus Schulze and Americans Al Di Meola, Michael Shriece and Pat Thrall. In 1977 Steve Winwood released his first of many solo albums. All this, and the song's great too!

Steve Winwood wrote the song with producer Jimmy Miller, who was about to become The Rolling Stones go to producer. Winwood sings, plays lead guitar and Hammond Organ on the track. The music is simple and driving. The bass by Muff Winwood is straight forward and insistent, the organ makes everything really funky and the cymbal heavy drums don't let up. It's more than just a drum set, I can hear claves, finger cymbals, congas, guiro, and cabasa. The vocals are very R&B. The verse is sung/spoken in some parts, there are backing vocalists singing like The Temptations, the lyrics are about being proud of his masculinity and wanting to stay away from temptation but admitting that he's going to fall for the woman. Two years later, Chicago recorded a long version of the song on their debut album with a huge drum solo in the middle of it. The blistering guitar, and loud vocals are way more rocking than any fans of their ballad days in the late 70s and 80s would expect. The song got turned into a pretty funny Volkswagen ad in 2008 featuring a Charlie Winston cover.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"True Colors"

Cyndi Lauper - "True Colors" (1986)

The name of Lauper's advocacy group to fight homelessness and promote acceptance and tolerance and promote gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered issues is the True Colors Fund.



Lauper's final huge pop hit has been covered by dozens of artists, used in an iconic series of commercials and has become associated with tolerance around the world, particularly as it applies to the Gay Community. The song is built around the lyrics and Lauper's delivery. Her voice is pleasant and appealing, but has occasional slips into a strained tone which gives her a sense of being a real person singing her real opinion without sounding like an amateur. 

If the song was faster it would probably be New Wave. Most of the instrumentation is keyboard and predominantly synthesizers at that. The percussion is open frame drums and hand drums with bells or perhaps even a tambourine. The whole instrumentation is kind of background music style, almost meant to be forgotten as soon as it is heard. Cyndi Lauper planed it that way. Original song writers Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg brought the song to her with the idea of it being a big production song, with the whole thing rising to a gospel choir style ending. Lauper stripped it all down to bare bones and had herself a big hit with this emotional ballad.
Kelly and Steinberg were recently inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Most of their big hits came in the 80s, and almost all of them were for female performers. The wrote for Madonna, The Bangles, The Pretenders, The Divinyls and Whitney Houston. They met and started working together when each of them contributed a song to a Pat Benatar album

Monday, April 23, 2012

"Some Candy Talking"

The Jesus and Mary Chain - "Some Candy Talking: (1986)

So this is why shoegaze exists. I think I get it a little bit better now.



In Scotland there lived two brothers, William and Jim Reid, who had always wanted to start a band. The like The Stooges, and the Sex Pistols, but they also liked the Beach Boys and The Shagri-Las. When they finally formed a real band it was the early 80s, and music was either punk, or keyboard pop, but they wanted to be different. They wanted to play guitars but they wanted to have tight harmonies and fun melodies. On stage they were known for inciting violence, and yet their records were known for having beautiful songs. More than that though, they added feedback and other noise to the tracks so that they sounded different. They wanted to be different. Their brand of music eventually was dubbed 'Noise Pop' and it was that combined layers of guitars and vocals and sound that eventually gave way to the more avant-garde of shoegaze which was all about the sound layers and kind of forgot about the tight melodies.

This track has strings helping to fill out an already big sound of ringing guitars and drums. All of the sound, but most noticeably the vocals, sound like they were recorded about halfway down a well and have a echo/ringing sound. The whole band never really sounds like they are close to us, no matter how loud they get it seems like the center of the sound is just out of reach and we are just getting the sound a little later.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

"Electricity"

Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band - "Electricity" (1967)

Ry Cooder is one of the guitar players here. We've mentioned him before as performer here and producer here.



It's electric blues played by people who don't care if you like them or not. That's the best explanation someone ever gave me for Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, a group that has a lot of chops, a number of very vocal fans, and no commercial appeal at all. Their third album Trout Mask Replica, released in 1969 is regularly placed on best of all time lists, but it was still not a hit. This track is off of their debut album, before they were ignored by the establishment, before they were dropped by multiple labels, before they toned down their sound to try to sell. The album is called Safe as Milk, as if the band knew that there would be problems.

As for the song itself,  I really like the bass a lot. The guitar and sitar work is a great jam and the drums kick along as well, but that bass beat is great. There is also a theramin on the track, weirding it up a little. Just about the only thing unlikeable about this song is the primary singer's voice. It sounds like a drunk bum they found on the street and let him say whatever he wanted and then based the song on it. Now by the end, the whole song kind of gets away from them , but as far as fade outs go I've heard worse. The song is a great late 60s groove that gets a little experimental but is over all great. The thing is, on other songs, the vocalist sounds fine, this was something that they did for this track alone, and it suffers for it.


Saturday, April 21, 2012

"re: Stacks"

Bon Iver - "re: Stacks" (2007)

"/This is not the sound of a new man of crispy realization / It's the sound of the unlocking and the lift away. /"



Not as famous as Jewel's time spent living in her van before making it big, the three months that Justin Vernon had mono in a cabin in the woods brought about the debut album of Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago. At the time, Vernon was the only member of the band, and he is still the only major creative force. He writes and composes all of the songs, and no one else gets a writing credit on the album. On the first album, Vernon did the sound engineering and production as well. There are three other musicians listed on the album notes, but none of them play on this track. It's deep lyrically, the title and many of the lyrics are meant to reference stacks of chips in Vegas as well as 'how things stack up'. The opening line however is reference to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The song itself is about six and a half minutes long, and yet really just about 45 seconds or so of music repeated over and over. The lyrics can be hard to make out sometimes. For a universally praised album,. The consistent fault found with it is that sometimes the lyrics sound muddy. Vernon's voice is almost entirely in falsetto during the song. He also doubles himself to give a stronger sound. Every once in a while I swear I can hear a faint organ supporting the man and his guitar, but the liner notes don't mention one. It must just be ringing guitar strings.

Friday, April 20, 2012

"Blister in the Sun"

Violent Femmes - "Blister in the Sun" (1983)

The one that started, and ended it all.



Debut single from their debut eponymous album, the Violent Femmes kicked off the "Alternative Rock" label almost a decade before America embraced it. The album went platinum, eight years after its release. The music was written by the bands youngest member, singer and guitarist Gordon Gano, while he was still in high school. The song, as well as the album it came from helped launch a new sub genre in America: folk punk. Kick-started in Ireland by The Pogues, the Violent Femmes played a similar style of blended music. Acoustic guitar based, but short punchy songs, witty lyrics sang by a almost whiny untrained voice, and as few chords as possible. Even their bass player is playing acoustic. The drummer is playing on a single tom drum set, bare bones stuff, which is actually right in line with both Folk and Punk sensibilities. Two verses and a chorus, just repeated for two and a half minutes long, and yet it's one of the songs that stands the test, and sounds as great today as the first time I heard it.

The version from Grosse Pointe Blank ? That was new, they had to record it again because the original master tapes weren't available, at the time they had a new drummer, so it Guy Hoffman who got to share the huge success the band was enjoying while he played with them from 1993 until 2002. Victor DeLorenzo was the original drummer with the band from its start in 1980 until he left the band to do his own solo work. The original lineup did reunite in 2002 and played together until a long ugly public lawsuit eventually caused the band to disband. The lawsuit was about this song.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"Elected"

Alice Cooper - "Elected" (1972)

The single immediately following "School's Out".



The opening contains crunchy electric guitar riffs, feedback that sounds like it belongs to Jimi Hendrix, and a boing sound like a toddler's spring toy would make. The aggressive sounds continue as the drums and bass drive the sound into your eardrums and Cooper's rough and throaty vocals sit on the edge between exciting and annoying. As the song continues though, a full brass and woodwind section comes out, working with the election theme and meant to sound like a high-school marching band was playing along, the song actually elevates above the mass of repetitive guitar riffs and shouted vocals and becomes a really fun track. The band overdub was added by producer Bob Ezrin, who worked with Alice Cooper before, as well as later as a solo artist. He also produced Destroyer, the biggest selling album for KISS, and three of the last four studio albums for Pink Floyd, including The Wall.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"Laid"

James - "Laid" (1993)

Produced by Brian Eno in between working with U2 and Depeche Mode



So this Alternative Rock group from the past; that I remember with some fondness, actually has over a dozen live albums and some are actually from this decade. They also performed at Coachella this year. The band started in the early 80s playing folk influnced acoustic rock, but by the late 80s they were playing more danceable pop and rock tracks. The early 90s found them beginning to crack into the US indie scene and even supporting Neil Young on a summer tour before returning to England to record another album, what would become their fifth: Laid. They released the first single "Sometimes" and then unexpectedly "Laid" became a enormous college radio hit. The lyrics about a couple who has sex as loudly as they fight seemed to hit a chord with the Alternative Rock scene and James was suddenly selling out shows around the world. A little more than five years later, the song found a renewed audience when it was used in the trailer for American Pie. A cover of the song was used in the third and fourth films in the franchise. A different cover was used in the seventh film in the franchise and just this year, the original version was used in the followup film American Reunion.

As for the song itself, let's break it down. There is one basic chord and strum pattern to learn on guitar and you've got this song down, it's pretty simple. There is another guitar that is much quieter adding a kind of mystical/Indian sitar feel to the song that is harder to pin down. The keyboardist gets a work out on this song as well. Not that he's playing anything technically too hard, just that almost from the start we are getting layers of hard to describe sounds bolstering the guitars. The incredibly simple drum roll that gets a lot of attention does add to the antagonistic feel of the song, otherwise the drums are mostly unremarkable. Undoubtedly the song is catchy, but it is the sexy but quirky lyrics that have made this song memorable and remarkable.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"Psychotic Reaction"

The Count Five - "Psychotic Reaction" (1966)

The essay, that became the basis for the book Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by legendary rock critic Lester Bangs was named for this single.



I gotta say, I think the band is properly called Count Five or Count V without the 'The' but that's what the book has. At the time of this recording, lead singer and primary songwriter John Byrne was 19 and attending San Jose City College with at least two other members of the band. The youngest member of the band was still in high school.  They performed in 'Count Dracula' style capes and played up Byrne's international (he was Irish) heritage to take advantage of the British Invasion popularity. The single was a big local hit, so they recorded a few more, toured the California coast for about a year, recorded an album, had a #5 US singles hit and then turned down a nation wide tour to go back to school. They disappeared and never recorded again, a classic one hit wonder.

The song is a perfect embodiment of the mid sixties electric blues sound so associated with Eric Clapton. Whether in his work with The Yardbirds, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, or Cream; the Clapton sound is what Count Five and many others were emulating. The Animals and The Rolling Stones were also big fans of the sound, and America was buying anything that sounded like it. On this track the pounding might as well be on a crate as a drum set, but it serves its purpose well. Layered guitars all playing similar notes with different sound qualities, a harmonica and a vocal about love from a bouncy yet hinting of anger voice were just what the doctor ordered. The middle and end sections, with their sped up driving beat, rising electric guitar solo, frenzied backing guitar effects and train-with-no-breaks harmonica is what all the fuss is about. There were probably thousands of garage bands in 1966. Hundreds of them had more than a handful of tour dates, and dozens of them cut a record and thought they could be something. But that sound was so heartfelt and raw and real that it doesn't surprise me what happened to their legacy.

Remember me mentioning Lester Bangs? He wrote an essay in 1971 about garage rock. In it he described the legacy of the Count Five and talked about their first album Psychotic Reaction and their second album Carburetor Dung as well as other albums and concerts. The thing is, he created everything after the first album. The band had split up, but Bangs created a fictional account of the group. This got them an odd amount of attention, and the song actually was popular with American soldiers in Vietnam years after the band had broken up.

Monday, April 16, 2012

"Welcome to Jamrock"

Damian Marley - "Welcome to Jamrock" (2005)

Youngest son of Bob Marley.



The song is only half the length of the video, but this is the best audio I could find.

Damian Marley was two when his father died. He was raised in Jamaica and began performing by age thirteen. His name helped get him early recording time and top producers, but his continued success and multiple Grammy awards are due to his hard work and talent. This song won a Grammy, and so did the album it opened. These were the second and third Grammy awards that Damian had won. He beat Gorillaz and Mos Def among others that year.

This song was produced by Damian's half brother Stephen Marley. He dug back to the early 80s to find a track to sample so that Damian could rap over it. That bold reuse of an almost complete song with new lyrical content is a hallmark of Dancehall, Reggae's often violent half brother. Artist Ini Kamoze had a huge international hit with "Here Comes the Hotstepper" in 1994. Ten years prior to that hit he released a single called "World-A-Music" with powerhouse rhythm section/producers Sly and Robbie providing the hot hook. If you listen, you can tell that Stephen Marley really did just take the rhythm of the later song in whole, and then grabbed a scene stealing line from the second verse and turned it into the final line of the chorus.

Lyrically the song is unlike most Jamaican music that makes it off island. Damian points out all that is wrong with his poor country; the violence, the corruption and the gangs and police fighting in the streets. It was this look behind the curtain that got the global music scene so interested in the song. One of the things that confused that same group of people was hearing a "Marley" rap rather than sing.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

"Rimmel"

Francesco De Gregori - "Rimmel" (1975)

In Italy, the call him 'The Poet Prince'



Italian singer-songwriter De Gregori was born in Rome in 1951. He was fascinated by American music, particularly folk rockers like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. As the 70s opened and James Taylor and Neil Young topped the charts he grabbed his guitar and began recording. His first few albums were moderately successful but the album Rimmel was a huge success. He began to include other instruments and write more love songs, including the title track "Rimmel". It's a ballad, sung to a former lover. Rimmel means mascara in Italian. It's hard to make out meaning in a poetic foreign language song, but it seems like he is sad that it is over, and perhaps she is sad as well.

The piano is a different instrument for De Gregori, but the song carries it well; makes it sound like a Billy Joel song from the same time period. There's also a quiet organ playing in the background, which along with the quiet background singers makes me think of Dylan. He ties the whole song together with his own simple acoustic guitar, another Dylonesque touch. Francesco calls the ex his Venus of Mascara, when she is standing in the rain, which gives you an idea of how creative his lyrics can be. This moment in the song comes when she asks him if he still has a photograph of her where she is smiling, but not looking. He responds yes, quickly and without thought, which leads to the last lines of the last verse, and the saddest couplet I've heard in a while. "/you said: 'it is all that you have of me,'/ it is all that I have of you." (De Gregori).

Saturday, April 14, 2012

"Scream"

Michael & Janet Jackson - "Scream" (1995)

They spent 7 Million dollars on that?



I haven't listened to this song again in the more than 15 years since its release. The video that accompanied it was reportedly the most expensive in the world at that time and so I watched it. I don't really remember thinking anything about it. Listening to the song now, after one of the artist's deaths, and years removed from the scandal and media pressure that fueled the song in the first place, it is terribly commonplace. The lyrics are strong, and the support from his sister is sincere, but the music does nothing for me.

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were brought in to produce the track, and they had worked with Janet Jackson before. The choices they made were a mix of good ones and odd ones. The fact that the song contains great harmony between the siblings and other backing vocalists is a great tie back to the singers early roots as R&B performers and sounds great. The really processed sounds that are pounding out the dance beat include sounds that could have been made by a skipping hard drive, or a bad timing belt. The guitar solo about three quarters of the way through the song, as well as the break right before that with Janet singing, Michael repeating some of her words and a police siren are arresting soundscapes. But mixing them into the end of a dance/R&B hit just feels forced.


Friday, April 13, 2012

"I Will Dare"

The Replacements - "I Will Dare" (1984)

A jangle guitar and hormone fueled song about the first week of a relationship.



Every alternative band of the 90s claimed to be following in the footsteps of The Replacements.  They were founded a year before R.E.M. and had a similar rise towards stardom, with small hits on the way towards big success, but instead of cracking into the mainstream in the 90s like the Athens, Georgia band, The Replacements faced lineup changes, alcoholism, and eventually broke up in in the summer of 1991. That same year R.E.M. released Out of Time, with huge hits "Loosing My Religion", "Shiny Happy People" and also the single "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" Why so much attention on R.E.M. in this little write up? Well, that band's guitarist Peter Buck was originally slated to produce the album that became Let It Be but The Replacements didn't have enough material together to record. When they finally did settle in to record, Buck was busy recording Reckoning and playing David Letterman with the rest of R.E.M. He did however, take the time to travel to Minneapolis and record the lead guitar solo on this track.

The whole song is jangle guitar and a skipping beat, giving the song a real upbeat and youth oriented feel. Buck's guitar solo has a country rock feel and repeats itself an octave higher immediately after he finishes it. The next distinct instrument you hear is the mandolin, played by singer and songwriter Peter Westerberg. The book describes the Buck guitar solo as 'Byrdsy" which is what I mean when I say country rock. That shaking tambourine finish also has a 60s sound to it. The sound that jumps out in my head is that the chorus sounds like the chorus to The Beatles "I'm Only Sleeping" but faster. Specifically the repetition of the V, IV and III of the root chord in a very similar pattern

Thursday, April 12, 2012

"Is It Because I'm Black"

Syl Johnson - "Is It Because I'm Black" (1969)

 Short answer: Yes.



This is Chicago blues, an electrified, amplified version of the original Delta blues. That added electric bass also puts it squarely in the Chicago sub-category. Not every Black artist recorded a message song in the late 60s, and not every song that Syl Johnson recorded was a message song, but this was definitely his take on what the Black experience was like. Born in Mississippi, he moved at age 14 to Chicago with his family, following the path of the Great Migration like millions of other African American families. Instead of better times, many found just a different kind of hardship in the inner city. It is from this place that Johnson writes. Syl Johnson always claimed that he wrote the song in response to the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

The song keeps grooving, with the soon to be better known Hodges Brothers playing guitar, bass and organ on the track. About a year after this track was cut, a musician named Willie Mitchell was put in charge of Hi records. He brought The Hodges Brothers, as well as Johnson to work for him on his label. The Hodges Brothers became the backbone of the Hi Rhythm Section that was the house band for the company throughout the 70s, performing with Al Green, Ann Peebles, and other acts. The song lives on today, in November of 2000, the Wu Tang Clan released their third studio album. The third track was called "Hollow Bones", a name taken from the second line of this track, and also the primary sample used on the song. It was sped up, but undeniably harrowing.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"Mykonos"

Fleet Foxes - "Mykonos" (2008)

Off of their second EP, which was recorded after their first album but released before it.



Who is the song about? Possibly lead singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold's brother, but no one is saying. Why is the song titled Mykonos, a Greek Island in the South Agean, halfway between Turkey and Greece? The song does mention the island in the chorus for the first half of the song, but the island is not known for 'snow tipped pines'. It does have quite a lot of coast line, being an island, but I don't know if it can be considered a 'gentle coast' being composed almost entirely of granite.As for the 'ancient gate' mentioned, there is a famous church in the town of Chora on the island that is called Our Lady of the Side Gate, so we may have a match.

The song is two distinct portions with a quiet bridge in between them.  The first section is broken up: Verse 1, Chorus, Verse 2, Chorus. The second section is broken up: Chorus 2, Verse 3, Chorus 2, Verse 4, Chorus 2 (repeat until fade). The first section is somewhat straight forward indie pop. A gentle acoustic guitar leads the instruments, and a bass isn't really heard until the first chorus. The drums are predominantly bass drum and tambourine with a few cymbal hits. The rhythm is basic 4/4 time with the accent on the 2 and 4. It begins to fade out around two minutes in and just as you think that this short little song is over it gets great. The bridge is nothing but multi part harmony. The second part of the song is faster, and louder than the first. The bass is more prominent, and you can hear a lot more tom from the drums.

Most of what makes this song great is the transcendent vocals that start at the bridge and continue to the end of the song. Comparisons are often drawn to Simon and Garfunkel or The Beach Boys, but I agree with those that say Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young are the closest antecedent. I saw them play live in 2009 and they were just as tight live as they are recorded. At various points, all five of the members are singing and those strong vocals take an indie/folk/pop group that rivals others based solely on beard quantity; and makes them a really special thing. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

"Jolene"

Dolly Parton - "Jolene" (1973)

Under three minutes and still the gold standard.



The song is from one woman to another. The man in the tale is secondary, sure he's the subject of the battle but Parton discuses Jolene far more than she does her man. The song has been covered by The White Stripes, The Sisters of MercyOlivia Newton John, and Strawberry Switchblade among others. Each brings something different to the table, and the fact that each interpretation is different is testament to the depth of the theme of the song. However, none of the covers comes close to the emotional depth of the original. Mindy Smith does a great bluegrass influenced cover that I think has the best instrumentation after the original.

Parton's voice is, as I said, full of emotion. Her words are deliberate and heartfelt. Her backing vocalists here come in just occasionally, really adding depth. The music going on under the lyrics is pretty complex and layered. There's a steel guitar, and two electric/acoustic guitars all playing interwoven. The bass guitar plays faster and more complex than a 'typical' country song. At least two violins are playing as well. In addition to the standard drum set, you can also hear some kind of frame drum, whether it's a bodhrán or some other tradition's version. I suppose it could be congas as well. All together, it's a haunting piece that deserves a few minutes of your time.

Monday, April 9, 2012

"Confide in Me"

Kylie Minogue - "Confide in Me" (1994)

One of the biggest stars in the world. In the US, she's damn near a one hit wonder, and this isn't it.



The strings kind of have a Middle East/Indian sound, as understood and transcribed by Western ears. The guitars sound like a mix of guitar and sitar, and are in fact from The Doors "The End". The drums are a murky mix of bass drum, snare drum and rarely used cymbals. There is no drummer or percussionist listed in the liner notes, so we have to assume that it's all a drum machine programmed by songwriters and producers Steve Anderson and Dave Seaman. Owain Barton is listed as a songwriter on the track, because he write a song called "It's a Fine Day" for a band called Jane in 1983. The song was covered by Opus III in 1992 and became a top 5 hit in the U.K. and a #1 US Dance Club hit. Barton complained that the string parts on "Confide in Me" sounded like the melody of "It's a Fine Day" and so his name was added.

The piano opening, and Minogue's voice kind of make the song a breathy torch number. Combining all of the elements, I think the song sounds like a perfect Bond theme song. Listen to "Goldeneye" (1995), "Tomorrow Never Dies" (1997), and "Die another Day" (2002) and tell me that if they turned the vocals up just a touch on Kylie Minogue that "Confide in Me" wouldn't have made a better theme song than any of them.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

"Getting Away with It"

Electronic - "Getting Away with It" (1989)

Apparently the lyrics are meant to be a parody of Morrissey and how he had been getting away with portraying the miserable persona for years.



Electronic was Johnny Marr of the Smiths and Bernard Sumner of New Order. For this debut track they collaborated with Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys. This is the definition of an English dance band super group. The song has a fairly straight forward dance beat, provided by David Palmer of English New Wave band ABC. Added onto that is a bright cheery piano and a surprisingly subdued string section. About two and a half minutes into the song there is an acoustic Spanish sounding guitar solo. All in all it's a very Euro dance track and somehow I find that to be less annoying than most of the other dance songs I've reviewed so far.  The prettiest part of the song is definitely the chorus, the blend of Sumner and Tennant's voices multi-tracked as their own choir is a beautiful sound.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

"Wondrous Place"

Billy Fury - "Wondrous Place" (1960)

Does more with less.



Holding a special place in the hearts of Britons but never making it in America is normally a sign I'm going to be disappointed in a song choice by the book. This is an exception, it's got a spooky sexy feel to it that seems amazingly risky and risque for 1960. Performer Billy Fury was the second act to record the tune, but the first to get it to chart. He actually recorded a couple of versions, this later one sounds like his 'Vegas Period' with horns and a bigger richer vocal. Years later, two English front men: Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys) and Miles Kane (The Rascals[no, not the 60s group]) formed The Last Shadow Puppets and covered the song as the B side to their debut single. It's a faithful cover with a spooky organ instead of the bass and guitars of the original, also the vocals are clearer and theirs has a great guitar solo.

Fury is purposefully over exaggerating a lot of his words here; Baby's comes across as having almost three syllables; two of which are at the beginning, and whenever he uses a 'wh' sound it sounds like he's trying to stage whisper sweet nothings into my ear. All of this was part of his very sexualized very Elvis reminiscent stage persona. Renowned early British Rock and Roll TV producer Jack Good produced the track, and together with Fury created and helped promote his British Elvis act. Britain got their own sexy rebel that was almost too hot for TV. Ironically, Fury died at age 42, just like Elvis had. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

"Paper Planes"

M.I.A. - "Paper Planes" (2007)

Yes, that song from the Pineapple Express trailer.



The song is easy to pigeonhole as the one with the shotgun and cash register sound during the chorus. It's also easy to say it's about weed, or it's about violence. What it is, is gangsta rap filtered through M.I.A.'s Sri Lankan dance influenced worldbeat and heavily bolstered by The Clash's "Straight to Hell". That driving guitar and drum beat with high pitched squeal that sounds like it's provided by an electric violin are all The Clash. Whether M.I.A. and her producers re-recorded it or just remixed it isn't important, that's the baseline. Much like a section of that song was looped to produce the base of this song, "Paper Planes" was sampled and looped to create the base for "Swagga Like Us" by T.I. and Jay-Z featuring Kanye West and Lil Wayne. The oddest feature of the song is that each and every verse gets repeated. It's almost like old church style, where you don't have the missal so the cantor has to sing a line and then sings it again with you.

M.I.A. has said that the song is supposed to reference the immigrant experience. Aside from the line about getting caught on the border I don't really hear it. Even that line can be interpreted as being a criminal; having multiple false visas is a sign of drug dealers as well as illegal immigrants. Almost every other line: "/bona fide huslter making my name/" "/Pirate skulls and bones/Sticks and stones and weed and bombs/" "/We pack and deliver like UPS trucks/" "/Yeah, I got more records than the K.G.B./" "Some some some I some I murder/ Some I some I let go/" (Arulpragasam) represents crime and pride in doing it well. I'm not against songs that glorify violence and criminal behavior per se, but at least cop to it. Don't try to tell me your song about how right your crew is, is actually about the worldwide immigrant and how they are perceived.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

"New Rose"

The Damned - "New Rose" (1976)

The first British punk band to release a single.



Released a month after Australia's own The Saints started selling records, The Damned were Britain's earliest recorded punk act, and then morphed into becoming the forerunners of the goth-rock subculture. Lead singer Dave Vanian has, since the inception of the band, worn his hair slicked back, dark makeup around his eyes and white makeup on the rest of his face. That's not the only thing that sets The Damned apart from other punk bands.

While the music is straight ahead punk, the lyrics are upbeat and actually about a boy who has a great girl, so great in fact that he thinks he may not deserve her. The opening line "/Is she really going out with him/" (James) ties the song back to "Leader of the Pack" by The Shangri-Las, but this song is almost sung from the point of view of the rebel who is dating the cheerleader. Musically the song is basic chords and the bass doubling the guitar for the most part making it really simple and really punk. The drum opening is also perfectly punk, it's loud, aggressive, and simplistic. This song is 'important' because it's the first single from a British punk band, the proverbial first shot, but it's worth remembering because it's different. Punk doesn't have to be all disaffected youth and dead end streets; sometimes punk gets a girlfriend, and that's not a bad thing.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"Yakety Yak"

The Coasters - "Yakety Yak" (1958)

"/...and when you're finished doing that./Bring in the dog and put out the cat./"



I sort of  made reference to this song back in January when I talked about "Is That All There Is?". I did link to it, as well as to several other recordings of tunes written by Leiber and Stoller. It was one of many hits they had in the 50s that were termed 'playlets' by the writers. It refered to the fact that it was a short story or play, set to music. In this case the plot is simple: parents want child to do chores, child responds with sass and the parents respond. It is a story so timeless that the song continues to be well known more than 50 years after its release. Children and parents, some of whom used to be those same children, have identified with the song and its simple lyrics. This song may be the bands only #1 pop hit, but they had several top ten hits, and this has lasted longer than most other early Rock and Roll tunes from the 50s. The sax solo is by King Curtis, an all around saxophone virtuoso who performed on countless hits from the 50s to the early 70s. He has already appeared once in this blog, as the saxophone soloist on Aretha Franklin's "Respect" and he is sure to show up again.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

"No Rain"

Blind Melon - "No Rain" (1992)

Where have you gone Bee Girl? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.



Taking just the song, we get an acoustic electric feeling alt folk retro number that grooves. The bass is really ringing and bottom heavy, but not at all dominant in the mix. There's enough of it to bounce the song along, but not to make the song feel heavy. The drums are kind of shuffling with cabasa and brushes on snare drum not cymbals and bass drum. The guitars are layered and sit on top of that bouncing bass line sometimes loud sometimes background, but always friendly and happy and leading you further into the song. Vocalist and primary songwriter Shannon Hoon has an unpolished sound and the echo sound effects that show up a few times in the song really give it that trippy edge of almost retro psychedelia.

The video is one of the most memorable of the nineties, and while I usually don't talk about the videos, I feel this one is due. No matter how out of place you felt, no matter how much you thought that no one understood you, and no one wanted to be with you, this video made you feel OK. The Bee Girl was all of us on the day we gave it our all and they laughed at us anyway. The audition you thought you nailed, the interview that went great, the girl you finally talked to; but it all went wrong somehow? That's the first part of this video. But by the end, she has found family and friends, and for my money that's more important that talent, desire, hope or faith in the face of adversity. Not to mention she's got stick-to-itiveness; that goes a long way.

Monday, April 2, 2012

"It's a Sin"

Pet Shop Boys - "It's a Sin" (1987)

I now know where almost every Anime I've ever watched has gotten the inspiration for their closing credits song.



This is a really epic dance pop number. Church-like in tone, and disrespectful of the Church in its lyrics the song immediatly grabbed notice. Almost 25 years later, the fake storm sounds are a little humorous, but the horrible fake horns are the only thing that really need an update. The dance beat is pervasive but not overwhelming. You can actually hear the lyrics, the organ, the other synthesizer keyboards, and yes, the electronic horn section. The song sounds deep and rich, full of keyboard parts and orchestra hits and bass keyboard. Primary Pet Shop Boys keyboardist Chris Lowe had help on this song from Andy Richards, who did keyboard and programing work on many hit albums, working with acts like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Donna Summer, Air Supply, Tina Turner and Def Leppard.

The coolest part of this song is right in the middle of it. A lot of the swirling music drops out and leaves singer Neil Tennant to sing in a minor key with a thudding bass drum behind him. Two years later Depeche Mode would release "Enjoy the Silence" and I think that song owes a lot to the bridge of this one.