Otis Redding’s “Otis Blue”

Album cover for "Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul"

This week, I’ve been listening to Otis Redding’s album “Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul” from 1965. This is one I’ve been looking forward to. I knew a little Otis before, like “Hard to Handle,” “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” These soulful R&B hits can be heard in movies, and television, as well getting frequent play on classic rock and oldies stations. This album “Otis Blue” also contains the original version of “Respect,” which was famously covered by Aretha Franklin. Her version makes the already great Otis recording sound like a demo. “Respect” is one of only three originals on “Otis Blue,” which is otherwise an album of covers. Among these is a good enough cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” adding the horns that Keith Richards may’ve wanted the song to have.

Down in the Valley

I love Redding’s rocking soul cover of Solomon Burke’s version of the American folk song “Down in the Valley.” When I was in elementary school, we sang “Down in the Valley” a little more like the classic country folk versions recorded by the Cisco Houston or Patti Page. Jimmie Tarlton of Darby and Tarlton may’ve written the original song as “Birmingham Jail.

Whatever the history, Redding’s cover adds some great syncopated punctuation that I love. The rhythm section of drum, bass and piano strongly emphasize the downbeat on all four beats, especially the first. Every fourth bar, the last two beats use extended notes to pull in the next section. Redding’s voice, however, emphasizes the up-beat. This gives a good hop to the beat. Pretty awesome. Especially check out that drum and vocal break at about 55 seconds into the song, leading into the horn solo.

Rock Me Baby

The previous year, B.B. King releases a single of his blues song “Rock Me Baby,” a variation of Muddy Waters’s “Rock Me,” which in turn was a cover of Lil Son Jackson’s “Rock Me.” Jackson’s version feels the most lifeless to me. I like the Chicago Blues rhythm of Muddy Waters’s version, which has an unusual 15 bar blues pattern. Redding’s version, however, is a great improvement over the B.B. King. However, I should point out that I listened to Redding’s version for a week and only once to the others.

This recording also caught my ear due to Jon Spencer having borrowed the lead riff in one of his songs, though I couldn’t remember which. What we have here is the regular 12 bar blues with a pulsing rhythm section, a delicious clean guitar riff, and staccato horns. Far from original, except I do love that guitar. A great tune well performed.

I’ve Been Loving You Too Long

Otis Redding wrote “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” with Jerry Butler of the Impressions. This soulful ballad drifts along at an incredibly slow tempo in 6/8 time. Whereas most recorded songs performed without a click track tend to speed up a little as they progress, this one slows down just slightly. It opens at about 52 BPM and gradually works down to a 49 BPM at the end. This song inspired the Rolling Stones on “I Got the Blues” which also makes use of the slow tempo and much of the instrumentation style.

Otis’s voice opens the song “I’ve been..” with misleading energy, he pauses, and then with the accompaniment brought in completes the title line slowly and slowly. The piano, sometimes doubled by a guitar, softly plays a simple arpeggio. There is minimal use of high-hat during the verses, with the kick and snare being brought in to lend power to post-chorus and outro sections of the song. An electric guitar adds unobtrusive soul-blues riffs between some of the vocals lines to carry the movement of the chord progression.

The lyrics are simple, expressive, and mournful. The first two lines of each verse rhyme (free/me, cold/old) but there’s not a strict rhyme scheme. Rather, many of the lines rhyme because they end with the word “now”. This gives the longing and emotion an immediate sense of urgency. The speaker feels the hurt immediately as a result of what’s happening now.

You were tired and you want to be free
My love is growing stronger, as you become a habit to me
Oh I’ve been loving you a little too long
I don’t want to stop now
With you my life has been so wonderful
I can’t stop now

Guns N Roses’ “Appetite for Destruction”

Album cover for Appetite for Destruction

This week, I’ve been listening to Guns N Roses’ debut album “Appetite for Destruction” from 1987. This hard rock/glam metal album is one that I’m already extremely familiar with.

About a year after the album was released, rumors and excitement about the band and their music ran through my fifth grade class. The personality of Guns N Roses fit in perfectly with the our local bad boys. Those were the kids that even at 12 years old were drinking, smoking, working on cars, and getting in trouble with the local sheriff (who also ran the school bus garage). Their lives fascinated me as representations of freedom and excitement.

This band spoke dangerous, lived dangerously, and didn’t give a fuck. They expressed anger, love, loss, and desperation, while maintaining a rock n roll pose. To top it off, they played great rebellious hard music. This was also the year that “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “Kokomo” were all over the radio. Bon Jovi and Poisonwere gaining in popularity, but they were safer than Guns N Roses. Motley Crüe had been scaring grandparents with their Satanic imagery and drugged-filled lifestyle for years, but they hadn’t quite cracked into our consciousness like GNR did.

Guns N Roses appropriately kick off the album with song “Welcome to the Jungle.” The song starts with an overdriven descending guitar riff through heavy delay. Then the bass, drums, and a second guitar join. Singer Axl Rose quietly warns, “Oh my god” then launches into a scream that recalls “Careful with that Axe, Eugene” by Pink Floyd. With “Welcome to the Jungle,” gave warning that they were coming with incredible style and bravado. Axl delivers an angry raspy vocal style that mixes elements of Brian Johnson, Alice Cooper, Marc Bolan, and Michael Monroe.

The rhythm guitars drive along combining slightly muted and unmuted picking creating a rhythm that combines the Rock of the Rolling Stones with the funk rhythms of Stevie Wonder. During the bridge, those guitars get used to produce a backwards-falling-into-a-tunnel effect with descending muted picking and scraping string noise. That’s a lot happening rhythmically in just the guitars, panned left and right. Part of what makes Guns N Roses so incredible is Slash’s guitar tone and playing style.

With the opening verse, the lyrics make use of an ABAB rhyme scheme, rhyming “games” with “names” and “need” with “disease”. The third and fourth line both make use of the name “honey” to indicate that the speaker is talking to a woman. In the next verse, he tells her that she is a “very sexy girl.” The speaker offers this young woman help getting established in “the jungle” exchange for sexual favors. The jungle, in this case, is the world of show business, where she can “taste the bright lights” but she “won’t get there for free.”

Welcome to the jungle, we’ve got fun and games
We got everything you want, honey we know the names
We are the people that can find, whatever you may need
If you got the money, honey we got your disease

I read a great literary essay online about “Sweet Child O’ Mine” several years ago by a college professor. This poetic ballad gets away from a lot of the rock n roll bad boy posturing served up in most of their songs. They also make good use of a solid rhyme scheme in the first verse, though the second verse does not follow the same pattern. The first verse is made up of two quatrains (four-line stanzas) with an AABC rhyme scheme, and then the last line of both rhymes (“sky” and “cry”) tying the two together and giving a feeling of completeness to the verse.

The second verse (not shown here) deviates completely going with an ABAB for the first quatrain; the second quatrain of the second verse does not have rhyming lines, though the third line rhymes with the second and fourth lines of the previous quatrain, and the final line rhymes with the fourth line of the first verse’s quatrains. That last line ties things together, even if the structure is different.

She’s got a smile that it seems to me
Reminds me of childhood memories
Where everything was as fresh
As the bright blue sky
Now and then when I see her face
She takes me away to that special place
And if I’d stare too long
I’d probably break down and cry

Of course, the opening riff played on overdriven electric guitar by Slash remains one of the most immediately recognizable. The motif is essentially based on the pentatonic blues scale and though some of the notes change, the rhythmic pattern of high and low notes stays basically the same. It’s an eighth note pattern, with a note on every eighth. The first note is the lowest; The remaining notes follow an up down pattern with a high note on the 2nd, 5th, and 6th notes. This puts the first peak on the up-beat and the other two on the down beat.

While they keep the feel of this song as a more emotion ballad by incorporating acoustic guitars, a slower tempo, and slow strums, they don’t hold back on the rock n roll. There’s still plenty of distorted guitars and overdriven leads; those leads generally play slow, letting notes sustain with minimal bending. The drums still hit hard, but don’t play a major part in the song until the “Where do we go now” outro.

Where do we go, where do we go, where do we go now?

James Brown and the Famous Flames’ “Live at the Apollo”

Album cover for Live At The Apollo

I’ve been listening to James Brown’s live album “Live at the Apollo” from 1963, this week. The record captures an amazing performance of James Brown and the Famous Flames at the Apollo in Harlem the previous year. It’s a great collection of R&B, Soul, and the beginnings of Funk The Famous Flames provide the backing vocals. The band consisted of a drummer, a bassist, a guitarist, an organist, and seven horns. Among those horns, we can hear saxophonist St. Clair Pinckney, who played with Brown until 1999 and had a couple of solo albums in the 80s.

The album opens with an aggrandizing track with organist Lucas “Fats” Gonder introducing James Brown, “So now ladies and gentlemen, it is star time… the hardest working man in show business.” Then Brown performs shuffling rhythm and blues track “I’ll Go Crazy” with a guitar line that rolls along like a locomotive. The song starts without any accompaniment as Brown sings with response from the audience: “You know I feel alright! (yeah) You know I feel alright, children (yeah) I feel alright!” He and the crowd just sound like they are having a great time and the interactions are real.

Try Me

Brown starts the soulful third track “Try Me” with just his voice singing the titular first line. We’ll immediate recognize the doo-wop chord progression of I-vi-IV-V, as well as the fairly typical doo-wop rhythm pattern. The Famous Flames sing ‘dooo… ooo’ underneath Brown’s lines and then answer back, repeating his lines “Try me.”

As with many of Brown’s songs the emphasis falls on the first beat, but that is less prominent here out of respect for the genre. The hi hat hits on every eighth note, with just a mild touch of swing; brushes hit the snare every second and fourth beat. The bass walks up and down, bringing the change from one chord to the next. The bass also supports the backing vocals, by matching their rhythm when singing.

Night Train

“All aboard the Night Train!” Brown opens their cover of jazz saxophonist Jimmy Forrest’s 1951 tune “Night Train.” Though Forrest’s tune was really a reworking of an even older song “That’s The Blues, Old Man” by saxophonist Johnny Hodges in 1940. Hodges was a member of Duke Ellington’s band, and the melody may have some roots there as well.

It’s a melody I know well; I grew up hearing the cover by Marvin Berry and the Starlights from the Back to the Future soundtrack. This version by James Brown has tremendous more energy, groove, and funk. The addition of vocals grants it even more excitement. They aren’t even necessary, but they make it personable and tie it together into the loose concept of losing and finding love that seems to run through the album.

The song follows a basic 12 bar blues chord progression, with a distinctive clean guitar riff. The bass drives along, a nonstop groove train. I love the choppy chords played on the organ through a Leslie speaker. It’s energetic and lively. This constant shuffling grooving energy clearly had influences on many, even post-punk rock bands like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. I like that

Lost Someone

Brown keeps “Lost Someone” going for over ten minutes, frequently teasing the audience building suspense. He utilizes this technique throughout the album: leading up to something to create anticipation and then dropping into the next segment or song. In this case, what feels like an extremely extended bridge turns out to be a drawn out coda that ends suddenly with the next song.

In spite of, or because of, I’m not sure.. this was my favorite song on the album. No small feat considering for nearly 8 minutes, the band is playing pretty much the same two bars over and over. Sometimes, the horns will pull back a bit, or work an octave lower. A mid section of under 2 minutes has no horns, but then they return as if to say, “We’re not done with you yet.” Sometimes the bass will hold back, or the drums will pause. Then after Brown builds up intensity, like a preacher, the drums will hit the snare and cymbal. The audience will scream in reaction.

This is a strong example of what the Music Genome project calls Extensive Vamping. The band will play the same short phrase repeatedly while a lead instrument will riff, or solo, over top. In this case, James Brown’s voice plays the role of the lead instrument. He teases and excites the audience. Encourages them to scream along, “Don’t just go “aah”, go “ow!”

I got something I want tell everybody
And I got something I everybody to understand now
You know we all make mistakes sometimes
And all the ways we can correct our mistakes
We got to try one more time
So I got sing this song to you one more time
I want you to know I’m not singing this song for myself now
I’m not singing the song only for myself now
I’m sing it for you too
And if I say stuff that makes you feel good inside
When I say that little thing
I say that little part that might sting you in your heart now
I want to hear your scream
I want to hear say ow!

R.E.M.’s “Automatic for the People”

Album cover for "Automatic for the People"

This week, I’ve been listening to R.E.M.’s 1992 album “Automatic for the People.” This album came out when I was a sophomore in High School; About three years later I often listened to the album in my little VW Golf. I really enjoyed this album, though “Monster” was more to my tastes. I’ll get this out of the way; I don’t care much for the overplayed hit “Everybody Hurts“. So, let’s move on to some of the songs I do like, of which on this album there are plenty. These songs present a variety of country-rock, alt-folk and alt-rock blends. The lyrics give us stories, vignettes, and vitriol combining common language with big words. It’s rock n roll poetry by the smart kids.

Man on the Moon

The song “Man on the Moon” introduced a lot of my generation to Andy Kaufman. We’d seen him in reruns of Taxi, but, at least for me, I didn’t really know anything about him otherwise. The song title, paralleling moon-landing conspiracies with Kaufman faking his death, gave the title to a film about Kaufman starring Jim Carrey. All that aside, it’s a fantastic tune with great lyrics. Originally, I was going to write about “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” but the guitar solo in “Man on the Moon” changed my mind.

I jump straight to the solo now and do this things backwards. Two electric guitars playing simultaneously creating a uniquely engaging sound. One, panned a little to the right, plays the tonic note of the chord repeatedly. This adds a sort of drone to the melodic lead played by another guitar panned to the left. The actual solo flows from a slide guitar driven just below the breaking point of the amp, so there’s just a smooth bit of gritty distortion.

The part is not particularly complicated. The chords progression is a repeated vi-V, having an elevated above the rest of the song feeling. The slide runs up to the 12th fret during the vi chord, and drops down to the 7th fret during the V. There’s a bit of wiggling during the V up to the 8th fret, and let off at the end of the bar to play the open B string. It’s a very rugged American guitar solo and I think it sounds fantastic.

The fairly languid alt-folk song opens with clean electric bass and acoustic guitar. These are joined by a clean slide electric, and then drums and vocals. The drums bounce across the stereo field, playing open simple patterns primarily on the toms. The accompaniment of the song is beautiful, gently and simple. The song is easy to like without feeling overly pleasant.

Each line of the verses follow a IV-V-IV chord progression. The lack of a tonic chord in the verses gives them a drifting unresolved feeling. This helps the chorus to stand out as being strong. The chorus follows a ii-I repeated three times, followed by a IV-V that pulls the listener towards to following tonic. The second and main part of the chorus has a I-ii-IV-V-I-ii-V-I-ii-IV-iii-ii. That hanging ii chord ends the chorus unresolved, where it pulls back around to the IV-V-IV verse progression.

Apparently, Michael Stipe included all of the yeahs in the song as a mocking tribute to Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Kurt tended to use a lot of “yeahs” in his lyrics; a great example is Nirvana’s “Lithium” from 1991 with a chorus of “yeah yeah yeah”. So, here’s a bit of the seemingly random bits of Kaufman-referencing lyrics to “Man on the Moon”

Here’s a little agit for the never-believer, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Here’s a little ghost for the offering, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Here’s a truck stop instead of Saint Peter’s, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Mister Andy Kaufman’s gone wrestling, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Ignoreland

“Ignoreland” reminds me of a handful of songs from the late 80s that, as kids, we considered it a skill to be able to recite. I immediately think of R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World,” Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and Madonna’s “Vogue.” Oh, and of course, the McDonald’s Menu song, which was a brilliant idea considering how many of us in middle school memorized and repeated it.

Though the vocals maintain focus throughout, there’s a lot happening in the background. Layers of guitars weave lines back and forth creating a swirling texture. The poppy clean bass subtly provides the bottom through the verses, then thrums a constant tonic note through the pre-chorus section of the verses. During the post-chorus, the bass draws attention to itself through a poppy bouncing riff, then withdraws to the back again. The drums are modest, with basic fills at the end of each section; a cowbell pops through the choruses. Overdrives emphasize the choruses, with fuzz drifting giving a rocking angry feel.

The verses have three distinct sections, the last of which is arguably a pre-chorus even though each has somewhat lyrics. The first section has a minimal melody with rhythmic statements and unusual pauses. The delivery and filtering make the vocals sound like a radio broadcast. This last for eight lines. The second section bring in a distinctly different melody which lasts for three lines. Stipe sings these in more traditional way.

Then Stipe launches into a rapid rhythmic monotone series of lines flying like ticker-tape. The song is decidedly political taking aim at former president Reagan and then president Bush, as well as media coverage at the time.Brooding duplicitous, wicked and able, media-ready
Heartless and labeled, super U.S. citizen, super achiever
Mega ultra power dosing, relax, defense, defense, defense, defense
Yeah, yeah, yeah

Up the republic my skinny ass
TV tells a million lies
The paper’s terrified to report
Anything that isn’t handed
On a presidential spoon
I’m just profoundly frustrated
By all this, so fuck you, man

Nightswimming

Another great song “Nightswimming” closes the album. OK, not really. There’s another good song, “Find the River,” actually ends the album, but I think that would’ve sat better in the middle. Nightswimming casts a nostalgic spell recalling more carefree younger days. The perspective is from years later.

Some ambiguity runs through the lyrics. It’s unclear if the speaker just went swimming at night and is now driving home realizing how nightswimming today is not like it was years ago. Or, perhaps, all of the swimming was years ago and it’s merely the photograph on the dashboard that reminds him.

Sparse instrumentation accompany the poignant feeling of nostalgia in the lyrics. A piano plays a repeating melodic arpeggio, reminding me a bit of Mozart’s childhood pieces, though without the showing-off. The song mostly repeats a I-IV-V progression throughout. A bass supports the piano; and in a subtle use of strings and oboe provide some color the the background. I love a bit of oboe, so it’s a welcome addition for my ear.

Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
The photograph on the dashboard taken years ago
Turned around backwards so the windshield shows
Every streetlight reveals the picture in reverse
Still, it’s so much clearer
I forgot my shirt at the water’s edge
The moon is low tonight

Arcade Fire’s “Funeral”

Album Cover for "Funeral" by Arcade Fire

This week, I’ve been listening to Arcade Fire’s debut album “Funeral” from 2004. I loved this band from the first time I heard them. I believe Yahoo Music introduced them to me; it was probably the song “Rebellions (Lies).”

“Funeral” consists of individual songs, a suite of songs, that form a unified whole. There’s some repetition of musical ideas, especially the rhythms used to convey driving emotion. With a few brief rests in the twilight, a driving rhythm marches throughout these songs.

The music and lyrics elevate the troubled restless thoughts of our more meek moments; Arcade Fire gave voice to these emotions and filled them with a triumphant sense of purpose, even if that purpose was just to carry on. With universal lines like “Our bodies get bigger, but our hearts get torn up,” it’s no wonder this album resonated with so many. The message is affirming by recognizing the fragility of life and emotions.

Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)

Arcade Fire open the “Funeral” with the “Neighborhood” suite of four songs, with an additional track between Neighborhood #2 and #3. I don’t know if this is an interlude or part of the suite. I suspect the band grouped the songs more out of acknowledgement that they loosely shared the theme of neighborhoods more than an intentional concept. The song “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” begins the suite.

Arcade Fire emphasizes every beat throughout much of the album. We’ll hear a lot of four-on-the-floor rhythms. This starts immediately with the first track with pizzicato strings, which then become staccato bowed on the beat. Piano tinkles and then plays a six note motif that will be repeated after stanzas of the verses. At 35 seconds, the vocals and kick drums join simultaneously, with the kick on every beat 1-2-3-4. This is how that march happens. Instruments one by one join in, adding to that continuous rhythm, combined with the rising intensity of Win Butler’s vocals.

The lyrics present a scenario where there’s so much snow that it buries the neighborhood. The (presumably teenage) speaker makes plans to meet their beloved when their parents begin to cry. The song offers some visuals like a wondrous children’s book that’s magical yet vaguely sad. The grown-up plans they make are remotely childlike, frightening and playful. The lyrics make use of repetition, sometimes just a word or two, like a stutter, or pulling back to explain; Occasionally there’s rhyme of the last two lines of each stanza, but not always.

And if the snow buries my, my neighborhood
And if my parents are crying then I’ll dig a tunnel
From my window to yours
Yeah, a tunnel from my window to yours


You climb out the chimney and meet me in the middle, the middle of the town
And since there’s no one else around, we let our hair grow long
And forget all we used to know
Then our skin gets thicker from living out in the snow

Une année sans lumière

One of my favorite songs has always been “Une Annee Sans Lumiere,” even though I’ve had no idea what the French lyrics means. So today, I finally looked them up. So, the lyrics are about a young couple; the girl’s father either can’t see or understand their love. I like the sound of the vocals; In addition being half in French, they are also sung more softly and carefully than on other songs. While there’s still a driving rhythm, they break from the four on the floor pounding that happens elsewhere. It’s gently pretty and I’m bobbing my head to it.

The verses follow a I-IV-V-iv-I-IV-V-I-VIb-VI-V-I chord progression. The I-IV-V sections have a strong movement (“Hey, the streetlights all burnt out” ; the sections between the I-IV-Vs are played as an aside (”
Une annee sans lumieres”) with the male vocals joined by Regine Chassagne’s female vocals. I especially like the way the rhythm relaxes for the chorus, where we hear a I-VIb-IV-iv-I-V#-V-I chord progression. The use of borrowed chords, combined with the lack of drums gives the chorus a suspenseful yet weak feeling; It’s somewhat haunting.CBbF Hey, your old man should know FmC If you see a shadow G#GC there’s something there

Hey, your old man should know
If you see a shadow
There’s something there

Rebellion (Lies)

I like to consider “Rebellion (Lies)” as the last song, becuase I don’t like the actual last song. Immediately, the kick drum pounds in on the four-to-the-floor beat. A piano drives along hitting at a constant eighth note rhythm. This song ends the album on an uplifting anthemic march, strengthened by the repetition of a I-IV-I-vi chord progression and a few upward key changes. Again, as with other songs, instruments join one at a time at the beginning of bars. And as the song progresses, those instruments intensify their emphasis of the beat.

The lyrics deal with slightly-dark universal themes of the cultural deception and mythology, ending with an affirmation that things will be alright anyway. At a surface level, it’s a rebellion against the parental commandment to get sleep: “People say that you’ll die faster than without water, But we know it’s just a lie to scare your son and scare your daughter.” Further, it’s a proclamation that maybe we don’t need to hide our selves in the darkness of night, under the covers, under the control of society and our parents.

Now here’s the sun, it’s alright!
Now here’s the moon, it’s alright!
But every time you close your eyes, lies!

Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life”

album cover for "Songs in the Key of Life"

I’ve been listening to Stevie Wonder’s 1976 double-LP “Songs in the Key of Life” this week. After spending a time with his 1973 album “Innervisions” back in August, I was looking forward to this one. Overall, this proved to be another great album by Wonder, serving up more of his unique blend of funk, soul, pop, and jazz. That said, I liked “Innervisions” more. My main complaint is that there’s too many songs and many of them are too long. This could’ve been two fantastic albums, but instead it is one overly long album. Many of the tracks have unnecessarily long codas. Still, I had difficulty picking just three tracks to dive into here, because there’s so much good stuff to choose from.

Sir Duke

I’ve known the song “Sir Duke” for a long time now. Several years ago, I got curious about the source material for the song “Let’s Get Busy Baby” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Of course, I also first heard “Pastime Paradise,” because of Coolio’sGangsta’s Paradise.” “Sir Duke” begins with a dry kick drum hitting on every beat, with horns on the the first, second and third beat.. and just before the fourth. Then the next few bars mix horns on beat and syncopation. This mixture of percussive hops on the beat and then grooves on the upbeat is on the main ingredients of funk. Wonder users it expertly throughout the album.

Very dry bass and drums in the center channel emphasis the downbeat, while providing additional rhythm interest at the end of each measure. A clean electric guitar bounces in the right channel. An electric piano plays chords and syncopated arpeggios through a slowly rotating speaker on the left half of the stereo field. The chorus and break feature horns playing rhythmic melodic blasts in unison.

I especially like the rhythm of the pre-chorus, with instruments stacked in staccato eight notes, with a little hop during the 4th beat of each measure. This section, perhaps, pays the most musical tribute to the song’s name sake, jazz legend Duke Ellington. In a broader sense, Wonder sings in praise of swing. He mentions Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald in the second pre-chorus:

For there’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo
And the king of all, Sir Duke
And with a voice like Ella’s ringing out
There’s no way the band can lose

Summer Soft

“Summer Soft” follows the winter and summer out-of-touch with each other. Summer is represented by a female character that leaves in October, while the male October leaves in April. I’m not sure I understand what he’s trying to do with the lyrics with the two characts/seasons always leaving. It reminds me of 14th century poetry with its combination of simplicity and metaphor. The music is relatively upbeat, but the focus seems to be on confusion and loss.

The track combines pop-soul with jazz. The generous use of seventh chords contribute to the jazz-feel. Except for the intro, a swirling mixture of instruments play throughout. They contribute to a general sense of atmosphere, mostly padding out the background during the verses. However, during the chorus and the outro, these instruments all come alive. They pick up in energy, brightening and moving forward in the mix. I particularly enjoy the parts where subtle synths play smooth pulses like Morse-code echoing across the left and right channels.

I Wish

The side two opener “I Wish” quickly became my favorite song on the album. I found the song lends itself well for walking on the sidewalk. It has a forward-driving bounce and a city heartbeat that feels good. On the show “Classic Albums,” Stevie Wonder gave an informative demonstration on how he wrote and recorded the song. He played the majority of the instruments, including drums, keyboards and vocals. The bass in the song is also keyboard, played by Wonder.

Wonder is a very capable drummer, and he demonstrates that in this song with its amazing percussive groove. There’s no flash, he’s not showing off on the drums. The kick drum mostly hits on the down beats, with occasional hops on the upbeat. The 2nd and 4th beat of each measure usually has a snare drum, sometimes accompanied or replaced by handclaps. The hi-hat taps along keeping the tempo, a cymbal crash introduces the start of each section of the song. During the chorus he opens the hat giving some funk the drum groove. Then for the post-chorus, the hat opens giving a forward-pull to the upbeats.

Plucky bass synths dance in the left and right channels. This is fairly unusual, because producers, especially in the 70s, would keep the bass in the center. This is because having bass panned off-center could didn’t always work well with the needle of record players. But here, he has two basses, that will balance each other out. There’s also a bass guitar that usually mimics the bass synths, but draws attention to itself by adding some funky slides up and down the neck. During the chorus, the 2nd and 4th beats are strongly emphasized by the horns shouting out between Wonder’s single-syllable vocals on the downbeat. Man, this song really makes you want to dance. It’s impossible to sit still.

The Strokes’ “Is This It”

Album cover for The Strokes' "Is This It"

This week, I’ve been listening to The Strokes’ debut album “Is This It” from 2001. I kind of remember when this came out and I didn’t think much of it. In retrospect, I don’t know why I had no interest in The Strokes. Somewhere I must’ve picked up the wrong impression of them and wrote them off without actually hearing them. They are totally a type of band that I love and would’ve really been into in 2001 as well.

The very first day of my listening week, I pretty much fell in love immediately. Here’s a group of people the same age as me, their formative years took place during the grunge and britpop eras of the 90s. While certainly influenced by those styles, it’s clear that they particularly appreciate vintage New York City rock n roll. That’s stuff like The Velvet Underground, Television, and Patti Smith. The Strokes manage to be inspired by these greats while still producing their own sincere rock n roll without pastiche. Lead singer and principal songwriter Julian Casablancas told producer Gordon Raphael that he wanted his voice to sound “like your favorite blue jeans.” To me, this indicates that the Strokes romanticized the cool spirit 70s American rock rather than simply seeking to emulate their heroes. That makes all the difference.

The Modern Age

The second track “The Modern Age” opens with floor toms played on the downbeat and slightly-overdriven guitar giving quick syncopated chord strums on the up-beat. These are joined by bass that thrums on the tonic, and another guitar steadily beating out chords. This over-driven constant rhythmic accompaniment sounds somewhat like a dirtier Velvet Underground. The vocalist then sings the opening lines, up against the mic and in our face without reverb and dirtied up by a cheap amplifier and speaker.

While we can hear some natural room, the instruments on this album are notably dry. There’s not much, if any, additional reverb added. They’ve also mixed the drums in a more traditional rock way; that is the way drums were mixed before disco encouraged produces to bring the percussion to the front. Part of the joy of this album is that it frequently feels more like a great recording of a band rehearsing in the basement than a studio album. The band sound loose and authentic, like a band more concerned with playing than with getting a perfect take.

The lyrics are somewhat flippant nonsense with a quality of rock poetry. There’s a clear feeling and emotion that comes across in the words and delivery, but the specifics are vague even with the disjointed apparent details. The use of rhyme comes and goes where convenient, almost more for the attitude than a devotion to structure. The lines pull from the language of rock n roll and teenage New York sidewalks, not from books of poetry and literature. What’s more important is the emotion and attitude.

Oh, in the sun, sun having fun
It’s in my blood
I just can’t help it
Don’t want you here right now
Let me go, oh let me go

Last Nite

I believe that “Last Nite” was the Strokes’ biggest hit in the United States. It’s certainly the song I already knew before this week. I love it. It’s both knowing and adolescent, which so much great rock n roll can be.Like the above song, the lyrics hint at some mixed emotions, romanticized angst and indecisive confusion. But they also come across so vaguely affected that they can be nonsense that suits the sounds more than communicates anything specific.

The song opens with a single fuzzy electric guitar playing an octave chord at a continuous 1/8 note pattern. OK, so technically, we can’t call it a chord if it’s only two notes, and that’s probably especially true when they are the same note an octave apart. Eh well. The drums and two more electric overdriven guitars join in, the drums are dry and centered, the two guitars are panned hard left and right. The drums play a basic rock pattern, with a kick drum fill at the end of every second measure. The two new guitars play the same pattern, but this time adding a sus4, higher up on the neck. A bass then joins playing the same tonic note, then up to the third, and back to the tonic. This all adds up to a mechanically basic rock n roll sound, somewhere between the Velvet Underground and Stereolab.

When the vocals of the first verse, the two guitar panned to the left begins playing a riff that reminds me of something. It’s somewhat like the Bo Diddley, but I think it may actually be something else. I can’t place it. The guitar on the right, starts playing choppy syncopated chords. These two rhythms interact in a rather angular way with each other; This exciting interplay creates a unique stereo effect and strong movement. The bass provides some melodic movement to the accompaniment.

Julian’s energetically disinterested vocals maintain focus throughout the track. The melodies are pretty simple, but the rhythm and delivery more than provide interest. Again, they too are a little fuzzy, just pushing the equipment to the breaking point without getting into unpleasantness. They have a delightfully dirty gritty sound. With the lyrics, the rhymes are again present, but not in a literary poetic way. More as a casual product of the musical style:

Last night she said
Oh baby I feel so down
Oh it turn me off
When I feel left out
So I, I turned around
Oh maybe I don’t care no more
I know this for sure
I’m walking out that door

U2’s “Joshua Tree”

Album cover for U2's "Joshua Tree"

This week, I’ve been listening to U2’s amazing fifth album “The Joshua Tree” from 1987. My parents bought a copy of this CD soon after it came out. That means I undoubtedly heard and listened to it many times when I was ten years old.

My opinion on some albums have come and gone as I’ve progressed through different stages of my life. I always loved “The Joshua Tree” no matter what my tastes were at the time. It’s a great album for listening. For a musician and songwriter, it provides rich and exciting possibilities for sound within the context of a rock song. They’ve managed to naturally find a brilliantly glowing spot between the genre’s of post-punk, pop, and rock here; I still think of this as their most perfect album.

The Edge’s Use of Delay Effects

A musician, especially a guitarist, would find it impossible to talk about this album without mentioning The Edge’s use of delay. Les Paul’s guitar in “How High the Moon” features one of the earliest uses of delay created using tape. Pink Floyd, especially guitar David Gilmour, made frequent use of delays synched to the tempo of the song. This can be heard on the bass in “One Of These Days” from 1971 or the guitar in “Run Like Hell” from 1979. In most cases, Pink Floyd’s delays were either synched to the 1/8th note or a triplets, that’s 1/3 of a 1/4 note, with several repeats.

There is a great study of The Edge’s use of Delay at amnesta.net. To summarize, The Edge frequently syncs the delay to dotted 1/8 (aka 3/16) or 1/8, and isn’t afraid to have several repeats to create depth of space and rhythmic textures. Without the delay, these are still good guitar riffs, but so much simpler than what we’re hearing on the album. I made great use of 3/16 and 5/16 tempo-synced delays in my electronic music over the past 10 years, directly inspired by The Edge. I love the sound of this album, especially the guitar.

Where the Streets Have No Name

The album opens with atmospheric synth pads fading in, morphing into the sound of an organ playing chords. These tones fold into each other. Then, The Edge’s clean electric guitar with tempo-synched delay creates a fractal-like driving texture. Bass guitar rolls in, filling the bottom layer. Drums begin to beat as the guitar grows in scratchy urgency. The song feels like a stadium, even within the studio. It’s an epic, driving, pulsating sound: full of atmosphere and determination. There’s a sense that this song MUST be performed.

The verses hold on to the tonic chord for several lines, to drop down to a IV, to pull up to vi, to V. From this V, the chorus jumps to a flattened VII, which feels like a modest key change, then to IV, which would be the V if the chorus was in a different key. Then we’re back to the vi. We’re still in the original key. That is the key of D, which coincidentally is the key of Irish bagpipes which play a continual drone. I may making too many assumptions, but U2’s Irish roots may’ve had some subtle influence here.

These first person lyrics describe a desire to escape a vague current situation. There’s a hint of a love falling apart, mixed with disappointment with effects of industrialization. The song makes use of anaphora, which is the repetition of a short phrase at the beginning of each line. When this device is used in speeches, it provides a verbal from of bullet points. It adds an immediate sense of structure to lyrics, giving the listener something to grab unto. In addition to the repetition of “I want to”, three of the four verse stanzas in the song have the titular refrain “Where the streets have no name.” This six word phrase also gets repeated twice at the start of the chorus. Furthermore, each stanza follows an AABB rhyme scheme.

I want to run, I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside
I want to reach out and touch the flame
Where the streets have no name

I want to feel sunlight on my face
I see that dust cloud disappear without a trace
I want to take shelter from the poison rain
Where the streets have no name.

Bullet the Blue Sky

“Bullet the Blue Sky” has long been one of my most favorite songs. The drums and bass guitar drive along repeating a menacing pattern. The bass repeats the same two bar pattern throughout. This forms the bed of the song. Overdriven guitar noises and feedback fill the background with large reverb, providing a sinister atmosphere. Much of these noises seem to be created by shaking the guitar, scratching the strings, spinning a tremolo bar, trembling a slide without actually playing notes, etc. I absolutely love these noises.

The song pretty much stays in the major tonic chord throughout. The last 1/8 note of each measure, drops to the major seventh to provide movement. During the spoken bridge in the middle of the song, the chord drops to the minor tonic. Here, U2 uses the major third instead of the major seventh at the end of each measure. The bass lines stays the same.

In God’s Country

“In God’s Country” sits near the middle of the album. It sounds fantastic and the lyrics and melody are particularly catchy. However, this song took some years to grow on me. Though the song is unique, I don’t think it stands out enough from the rest of the album. By the time we’ve heard the six songs that precede it, it can sound like a less creative version of more of the same.

The song opens with chords played on a jangly light acoustic guitar; I believe this may have a very tight stereo delay, or a stereo chorus (which is really just a modulated delay). This spreads the guitar across the stereo field. An clean electric guitar, again with delay, lightly picks single muted notes. This somewhat suggests a xylophone. When the bass and drums come in, the guitar becomes overdriven and plays high chords echoing across the stereo field with delay. For this song, there are two delays on the main electric guitar: one synched to 1/8 note, the other to a dotted 1/8 note. Throughout the song, The Edge builds picking patterns into this delay that fill the space with rhythmic intensity. At times, this becomes an overwhelming mix of swirling repeating plucks and soaring sonic leads.

The lyrics in this song also make use of repetition. Each verse consists of two stanzas. With the first verse, the first two lines of each stanzas are very similar. The “Desert sky” of the first stanza is like the “Desert rose” of the second. Likewise the second lines of each stanza are “Dream beneath a desert sky” and “Dreamed I saw a desert rose” respectively. This type of repetition is not repeated for the second verse. However, both verses use an AAAa/AAAB rhyme scheme. The third lines of both stanzas in the first verse do make use of internal repetition, with the word “run” in the first stanza and “in” for the second stanza. This is another technique not reused in the second verse.

Desert sky
Dream beneath a desert sky
The rivers run but soon run dry
We need new dreams tonight

Desert rose
Dreamed I saw a desert rose
Dress torn in ribbons and in bows
Like a siren she calls to me