N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton”

Cover of Straight Outta Compton

This week, I’ve been listening to N.W.A.’s debut album “Straight Outta Compton” from 1988. In middle-school, I was aware of N.W.A. I vaguely remember Kurt Loder on Mtv News discussing drama within the group. They brought gangsta rap into wider public awareness. Their album “Straight Outta Compton” found itself in collections that kids hid from their parents for being too dangerous and controversial. These “Niggaz Wit Attitude” spoke out against the racist establishment, especially the police, while glorifying violence, misogyny and drugs. That’s quite the cocktail for scaring parents, especially now that the Satanic Panic wearing out. At the time, my interest in hip hop was purely mainstream: M.C. Hammer, Young MC, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. I didn’t even give N.W.A a chance until this week, over 3 decades later.

Straight Outta Compton

The spoken intro “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.” appropriately introduces the album. Drums kick in, Ice Cube forcefully raps “Straight outta Compton.” Then the horn and funk guitar loops begin. In short, the album jumps immediately into bad ass. For the drums, they have expertly mixed samples from the Winston Brother’s “Amen Brother,” James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” layered with original programming on Roland TR-808 drum machine. Hearing these things together makes it abundantly clear why these three are so often used in hip hop and other genres of beat-driven music. This strong rhythm combined with the horn drone creates a sense of determination and confidence, perfect for the braggadocio of the lyrics.

Straight outta
Compton: Crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube
From the gang called Niggaz With Attitudes
When I’m called off, I got a sawed off
Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off

The lyrics consists of a series of couplets that emphasize the downbeat of the rhythm. Here and there, there will be a line consisting of an internal rhyme like the above: “called off”/”sawed off” then rhyme with “hauled off” of the next line. With these lines, there’s usually a sense of bullet-points. They are listing of a series of items and ending with their consequence. This happens later in the same verse: “Niggaz start to mumble, they wanna rumble: Mix em and cook em in a pot like gumbo.” Probably the thing that most impresses me about quality hip hop is the cleverness of the lyrics and rhymes that frequently remind me of Bob Dylan’s skills.

Gangsta Gangsta

The incredibly album mixing of samples to create beats amazes throughout this album. “Gangsta Gangsta” stands as a great example. TR-808 drum machine strengthens the rhythm, with accompaniment built up mostly from 1970s funk and soul. The greatest emphasis is placed on the first beat of each measure through the two-bar beats. Turn-table scratching provides fills to introduces each new section.

The lyrics are a series of couplets and some problematic lyrics. An example of the controversial misogyny shows up in this song. Of course, they lyrics also explain “Do I look like a mutha fuckin role model?” Still, one can easily see how this would upset:

When me and my posse stepped in the house
All the punk-ass niggas start breakin’ out
‘Cause you know, they know whassup
So we started lookin’ for the bitches with the big butts
Like her, but she keep cryin’
“I got a boyfriend” Bitch stop lyin’
Dumb-ass hooker ain’t nuttin’ but a dyke
Suddenly I see, some niggas that I don’t like…

Fuck The Police

I was introduced to this song through Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. That’s how lame I am. Anyway, there’s no attempt to conceal the message of the song: the police are racist and the court system is corrupt. In this tale, the speaker is mistreated by police because of the color of his skin and the neighborhood. They are presumed guilty and beaten because they are minorities. Halfway through the song, it’s pointed out that on the street the minorities are the majority race. The police are brought to court and found guilty of being racist. This song raised more than a few eyebrows, and even prompted a letter from the FBI worried about the way it painted the police department.

Most of the lyrics are couplets. Though, as we see in the third line does not rhyme with the fourth line. An internal rhyme within the fourth solves this by rhyming “authority” with “minority.” The purpose of the couplet is served, even if it happens somewhere else.

Fuck the police comin’ straight from the underground
A young nigga got it bad ’cause I’m brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority
Fuck that shit, ’cause I ain’t the one
For a punk motherfucker with a badge and a gun
To be beatin’ on, and thrown in jail
We can go toe to toe in the middle of a cell
Fuckin’ with me ’cause I’m a teenager
With a little bit of gold and a pager
Searchin’ my car, lookin’ for the product
Thinkin’ every nigga is sellin’ narcotics

John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers’ “Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton”

Blues Breakers Album Cover

This week, I’ve been listening to the debut album by John Mayall and the BluesbreakersBlues Breakers with Eric Clapton” from 1966. John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers released a live album “John Mayall Plays John Mayall” the year and were making a name for themselves. Eric Clapton left the Yardbirds, because he didn’t like the direction the band was going in with songs like “For Your Love.” Bluesbreakers bandleader keyboardist-singer John Mayall heard the news and asked Clapton to join his band. Clapton agreed, but left after one album to form Cream with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. The Bluesbreakers also featured bassist John McView and drummer Hughie Flint on drums. Alan Skidmore, Johnny Almond, and Derek Healey supply horns on a few of the tracks. Gus Dudgeon, who later worked with Elton John, was engineer. Mike Vernon, who worked with many British Blues bands, produced the album.

When I was a teenager, I had a tape of Eric Clapton’s soundtrack for the movie “Rush.” I don’t know where I got it from, I never saw the move. My favorite thing about the album was the strand of Jennifer Jason Lee’s hair on the cover. I traced that for part of the artwork on one of my own tape recordings. I hated the song “Tears in Heaven.” It was too “old man music” for me and I couldn’t see to escape it playing on the radio and the rest of the album was too “Austin City Limits” for me. In other words, my teenage tastes ran contrary to the sounds of Eric Clapton. It made me write him off completely, somehow forgetting that I loved his 70s classic “Cocaine.

The open kicks off with a good cover of Otis Rush’s “All Your Love.” As with some of the covers on this album, though, the originals are better and the tremendous sound of Clapton’s guitar makes it. Their cover of Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say” lacks the energy and groove of the original, mainly because Mayall’s voice isn’t suited for a song so dependent on the power of Charles’s delivery. The band shines when playing Bluesbreakers originals.

Hideaway

The second track, “Hideaway,” provides an opportunity to trace the history of a song. Here, the Bluesbreaker’s are covering Freddie King’s blues instrumental “Hideaway” as recorded in 1960. Freddie King likely took inspiration from a song by Samuel “Magic Sam” Maghett, recorded as “Do the Camel Walk” in 1960. Freddie King and Magic Sam both picked up the song from Hound Dog Taylor who would play it as “Taylor’s Boogie” to open shows in the late 1950s. He eventually recorded a variation of it as “Taylor’s Rock” for his debut album in 1971. I truly enjoy the Freddie King recording, but the Bluesbreaker’s play it louder and harder.

With “Hideaway,” the band plays a standard 12-Bar Blues chord progression with sevenths: I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I. The bass-guitar plays a walking bassline providing the foundation for this progression. An organ, panned far-right, plays the chord rhythmically with stylistic flourishes like slides. The drums sit in the background emphasizing the rhythm. The drummer is playing hard, but has been pushed low in the mix. Clapton’s guitar sits front and center, providing the majority of the melody. For fun,they even throw in a little reference to Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk” that had just come out earlier that year.

Double Crossin’ Time

The Blues Breakers original “Double Crossin’ Time” tells of being double-crossed. The lyrics are ambiguous, beyond being about a male friend who works behind the singer’s back to make them lose. As this is early British blues, the song follows a standard 12-bar blues chord progression: I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I, with all 7th chords the majority of the time.

The track opens with a honky-tonk sounding piano trilling into a melodic blues solo, with left hand providing chords. The bass walks through the progression, joining the piano in the center channel. One gently overdriven guitar plays in the left channel, a simple monophonic melody that emphasized the chord progression. Another more overdriven guitar in the right channel plays lead solos.

Again, Clapton’s guitar playing is what makes the song. Not only is his ability to provide soulful leads incredible, he also has a tremendous tone. There are countless articles written about how to get this sound. To summarize: A ’59 Les Paul Standard through a 1960s 45 watt Marshall 2×12 combo amp that was turned up too loud to get that overdriven sound. Clapton would’ve also utilized a Rangemaster treble booster to further drive the leads. The draw of Clapton’s sound is so strong, that Marshall continues to make reissues of these 60s combo amps called “Bluesbreakers.”

Mayall wrote the lyrics in the 12 bar blues format. In a verse, two lines will set the scene by introducing the problem. Then repeat those two lines, sung a little higher to follow the rise in the chord progression. Then two more lines that provide either a twist, answer, conclusion, or response to the first two lines. The second line of each pair rhyme throughout the verses, further tying the final line to the first two.

It’s a mean old scene
When it comes to double crossing time
It’s a mean old scene
When it comes to double crossing time
When you think you got good buddies
They will spin around and cheat you blind

John Lennon’s “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band”

Cover of John Lennon Plastic Ono Band

I’ve been listening to John Lennon’s debut album “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” from 1970. Lennon left the Beatles in September 1969, after they finished recording “Abbey Road.Paul McCartney publicly announced the group’s break up seven months later. John Lennon and Yoko Ono began primal therapy, a type of psychotherapy that focuses on reliving and engaging with repressed childhood trauma. Often referred to as “primal scream therapy,” the sessions encourage the patient to allow themselves to scream, cry, or otherwise feel the emotions they suppressed as children. The deeply personal lyrics of this album express thoughts and feelings encountered during those sessions.

Of the tracks on this album, I only really knew “Mother” and “Working Class Hero.” I’ve probably heard many of the other songs before, but I don’t recall. While “Imagine” had a few better songs on it, “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” proved to be a stronger album overall. There’s not a weak song on it, as opposed to “Imagine,” which I remember dragging through the middle. Anyway, definitely glad to spend th time with this album and definitely will continue with it.

Mother

The album opens with the ringing of a funeral bell; the record of which plays at a slow speed giving it a lower pitch and a great sense of distance. Lennon’s mother Julia passed away in 1958, when her son John was sixteen years old. This was twelve years before “Mother” was recorded. The vocals, “Mother, you had me, but I never had you…” start at the same time as the drums, bass guitar, and piano.

The instrumentation is sparse, open, and direct. Fellow-former-Beatle Ringo Starr plays a simple 8-beat rhythm pattern: hi-hat on every 8th note, kick on the first and third beat and snare on the second and fourth. The piano strikes the chord once at the beginning of each chord change in the progression, with an occasional lead-in note. The bass guitar plays the tonic underneath, with a lead-in note on the 8th note before the chord. As the song progresses, the instrumentation build slightly and gradually in intensity, but never get showy.

The verses follow a I-V-I-I-IV-IV-V-V-I-I7-IV-IV-I-V-I-I chord progression. At about 68 BPM and moving at no more than one chord per 4 beat bar, this progression moves slowly. Lennon sings a full three verses before moving into the chorus-like coda, repeating: “Momma don’t go, Daddy come home…” This plea happens over a IV-I-V-V-IV-I-I7-I7 progression.

This is absolutely one of Lennon’s greatest songs as a solo artist. It starts with sadness, but at the end of each verse turns that lingering resentment into a triumph: “I just gotta tell you, goodbye, goodbye.” However, the coda suggests otherwise as Lennon begins singing and eventually grows to screaming, asking for his parents to return. Rather than giving closure to that childhood pain, he faces it and brings it out.

Hold On

The second track “Hold On” had my ear immediately with the opening chords strummed on electric guitar through a tremolo effect. The tremolo effect is a type of amplitude modulation, often built into guitar amps, that automatically turns the volume up and down rapidly creating a trembling effect. I happen to love it, so I liked this song before it even really got started.

The instrumentation on this song, like “Mother,” is also simple and open. It feels like the album cover photo, open, free, relaxed, and maybe a little introspective. Only three musicians were involved: John Lennon on vocals and guitar, Klaus Voormann on bass, and Ringo Starr on drums.

The verses have a I-I-ii7-ii7-iii7-iii7-(IV-V) chord progression. The IV-V are more hinted at by the bass than specifically played by the guitar. The chorus repeats a v7-vi7 pattern, which is a little unusually to have a minor fifth in a song that is otherwise in a major key. This progression creates some tension, making it clear that he teases us with a cadence. Which does get delivered at the end of the chorus, “hold on.” returns us to the tonic.

Isolation

A simple piano line opens “Isolation” with a series of played chords: I-Iadd#V-vi7-I7-IV-IV. Again, Lennon pulls this introspective feeling from a song in a major key. Many musicians would instinctively turn to a minor key, but Lennon finds more power in that contrast. And that particularly may e appropriate here, as this song expresses something that I’ve long felt people misunderstand. I recall often hearing people back home in Ohio disgusted with the affluent complaining about their problems. As if, having money and fame solved all problems. In this song, Lennon recognizes that lost-touch that comes from higher-levels of success as well sharing that it creates a unique set of problems. And even with those, the same basic human suffering remain.

The verses continue the same chord progression used in the intro. The instrumentation remains simple in this song as well: drums, bass, piano, and vocals. Lennon provides a bed of extended chords on the Hammond organ through the verses, resting at the end of each verse. Vocals are delivered gently, the drum patterns basic, resting between sung verses. The bass, again, is not showy, but does its job.

I love the bridge, which is one of my favorite parts of the whole album. The drums is mostly reduced to a 4 beat kick drum, the piano becomes more strongly rhythmic emphasizes the chord progression. Double-tracked vocals, panned hard left and right, chant in unison: “I don’t expect you to understand, after you’ve caused so much pain, but then again, you’re not to blame, you’re just a human, a victim of the insane…” The word “insane” is drawn out as Lennon pulls away from the microphone into the distance. A piano and drums relax as well, as the timid but strong Hammond provides the bed giving rest.

People say we got it made
Don’t they know we’re so afraid?
Isolation

Serge Gainsbourg’s “Histoire de Melody Nelson”

Album cover for Histoire de Melody Nelson

This week, I’ve been listening to Serge Gainsbourg’s concept album “Histoire de Melody Nelson” from 1971. Gainsbourg released his first album “Du chant à la une !…” in 1958, which was more of a French jazz album. His musical training began as a childhood from his classically-trained pianist father Joseph Ginsburg. I first encountered Gainsbourg’s work by way of Jarvis Cocker of Pulp. I’m a big fan of Pulp and Jarvis Cocker and much of his style draws on inspiration from Gainsbourg and Scott Walker. Gainsbourg’s seductive blend of French pop with rock and jazz along with his narrative vocal style influenced many musicians that came after him. Discovery of Gainsbourg about 7 years ago led to me developing a love of 60s French pop in general.

Melody

The album opens with the groovy, dark, smoky bass that becomes a theme of the album. Within the first few seconds, the mood and atmospheric settings are established, and the listener is hooked. The catalyst of the albums story emerges through Serge’s spoke lyrics. I do not know French, so I rely on English translations. This also means that I miss out on much of the wordplay, for which Gainsbourg has a reputation.

The speaker drives his Roll Royce on a dark sinister night; his driving is dangerous. Not so much reckless as careless, his focus is on the female hood ornament rather than the road. About 5 minutes into the 7½ minute track, he loses control of the car and crashes, into the bicycling 15 year old girl Melody Nelson. Over the course of the album, the middle-aged man and the teenage girl will live together and fall in love; then she dies in a plane accident on her way back to visit Sunderland, England.

Though chord progression is not as evident in this track as much rock and pop, the majority of the song follows a I-I-VII-IV chord progression, which coincidentally is the same progression as the Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil“. This is mostly provided by monophonic basslines, punctuated by seemingly ad-lib rock lines on overdriven electric guitar. To add tension and drama, strings join in between vocal lines, pulling back to not overpower the narrative. Drums likewise intensify and relax, lending urgency and mood to the track.

Ballade de Melody Nelson

The second track, “Ballade de Melody Nelson,” turns the first track into a long prelude. The titular character Melody and the unnamed speaker (Serge) truly meet each other. Apparently, as he tells the tale, she had never received love from any other. His hug is the first she’s received. Jane Birkin provides the voice of Melody, who says nothing more than her name “Melody Nelson” like a refrain. This story is not her’s but rather his. She’s the innocent wounded object of his affection. The cover photograph gives clear idea how creepy this concept is. Musically, this album is amazingly brilliant, the production is fantastic, the lyrics are very good, and the concept is abhorrent. It’s also loosely auto-biographical, with Birkin being the inspiration for Nelson.

The song flows through a variety of time signatures, starting in 3/4 and then travelling through 5/4 to play in 4/4 and back to 3/4 again. The percussion is minimal, we mostly hear the hi-hat and snare drum, pushed back in the mix, playing a steady rock beat. The forward instruments are the important bass-guitar, a close-miced arpeggio acoustic guitar, and the vocals.This time Gainsbourg’s vocals are mostly sung. Their exchange is soft at times approaching whisper, to indicate the intimacy of the moment.

This minor key song follows a i-VI-i-VI-i-VI-v7-vii-IV-i. This is presented mainly by the bass and acoustic guitar arpeggios. Strings pad the sound, providing atmosphere that emphasizes the movement of the progression. The bass and guitar play a motif in unison at the end of each verse that serves as the melodic theme of the track.

L’hôtel particulier

As we near the end of the album, “L’Hotel particulier” opens with rock electric guitar strumming chords up front with a pulsating bass underneath emphasizing the rhythm. The guitar patterns continue similar style we’ve heard starting since the first track; This is not redundant so much as repetition for the sake of continuity and theme. The guitar strums panned hard-right, drums panned hard-left. The bass sits in the center. The rock trio provide the main accompaniment, again strings pad the sound occasionally. A dramatic upright piano adds to the sinister and mysterious atmosphere.

Later in the track, a slowly rhythmic tremolo-affected organ adds suspense to the driving unknown. The narrative involves the two going to an erotic hotel, with mysterious hallways intent on sexual persuasion and exploration. He sees himself hug her in the mirror on the ceiling. And he says her name twice, first calling her to him, and the second time he seems almost frightened for her.

Lucinda Williams’s “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”

Cover for Lucinda William's "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road"

This week, I’ve been listening to Lucinda William’s fifth album “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” from 1998. I do not recall hearing any of her recordings before, though I definitely heard Mary Chapin Carpenter’s cover of her song “Passionate Kisses.” In 1998, I had only started listening to Dwight Yoakam, and my awareness of country music was slim. This album wouldn’t have appealed to me when it came out, but I liked it immediately listening to it for the first time now. It’s a good blend of country and folk rock that I believe today may get it classified as alt-country. These solid songs achieve being naturally catchy while maintaining a since of sincerity and substance. I find it a challenge to choose three songs to focus, because it excludes the others.

Car Wheels On A Gravel Road

The title track of “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” plays after the opening track “Right on Time.” The backing band consists of drums, electric bass, acoustic and electric guitar, and a mando-guitar. That’s a new one for me. The mando-guitar combines, as you’d expect, elements of mandolin and guitar. Basically, they build it much like a mandolin with same type of strings, but has six strings tuned to a guitar’s standard tuning. In other words, it allows a guitar player to play a mandolin learning a new instrument. The electric guitar is pushed just past the point of the amp breaking up, giving it a gritty distortion. Williams’s started her career in acoustic country-blues, and a preference for this gritty raw guitar sound makes sense. To me it sounds warm and rocking.

The verses drive through a V-ii-V-ii-V-ii-IV-I chord progression for the first two listen, followed by another V-ii-IV-I for the next line, then V-ii-IV-I again for a refrain. The kick drum and bass give emphasis for each IV-I cadence, letting the IV ring out. This gives that cadence a bit of a stomp after the rolling chug of the V-ii pattern during the vocals. Those are played with a rhythm picking eighth note rhythm with an open strum on the up-beat. This supported by the kick-kick-snare beat on the drums. The chorus brings a stronger IV-I-IV-I chord progression, while the vocals repeat the lyrics of the refrain higher.

The lyrics tell an vague story from a young child’s perspective. Something is happening with at least one of the parents that is beyond the child’s understanding, but requires a long drive in the car. The overall feeling is something stressful and sad. I suspect the parents are separating. The speaker of the song mixes the perspective of the mother and the child that suggests they are both the same person viewing the event from different times. Most of the parent’s view is revealed through quotation, until we get to the line “Could tell a lie but my heart would know.” The passing series of images open to interpretation add to the power of the lyrics. These verses follow a ABAB rhyme scheme followed by a refrain.

Can’t find a damn thing in this place
Nothing’s where I left it before
Set of keys and a dusty suitcase
Car wheels on a gravel road

Drunken Angel

Lucinda Williams’s song “Drunken Angel” tells tale of Austin country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley. He was friends with Townes Van Zandt and they had great influence on each other. Unlike Van Zandt, however, Foley seemed to have bad luck when it came to getting an album released. Apparently he managed to record three of them, but the master tapes were confiscated by the DEA, stolen, and lost. The third one was found after his passing in 1989. The lyrics of “Drunken Angel” use his death as a lens to both praise and criticize Foley. His friend Concho January was a veteran on welfare. Foley confronted Concho’s son with suspicions that he was stealing his father’s pension and welfare; Foley was subsequently shot by Concho’s son. Williams’s song expresses disappointed and anger over how Foley’s life choices got in the way of his own songwriting genius.

Again, Williams uses a lyrics structure of verses that end with a refrain and choruses that repeat that refrain like an anthem, though this time the choruses do include an additional line. These verses also follow a ABABC rhyme scheme. The verses here follow a I-ii-IV-I-ii-IV-ii-IV-I-I chord progression. The choruses then launch into a (I)-ii-IV-IV-I-ii-IV-IV-I chord progression. The title of “drunken angel” applied to both the song and the subject combine both her praise for him as a songwriter and her condemnation of his lifestyle. The use of the word “angel” also conveys that he has passed on, “you’re on the other side.” She further lays this condemnation upon his enabling followers.

Followers would cling to you
Hang around just to meet you
Some threw roses at your feet
And watch you pass out on the street
Drunken angel

Lake Charles

Williams’s friend and former boyfriend Clyde J. Woodward Jr died of cirrhosis. He died while she was on a plane to see him one last time to say goodbye. She wrote the song “Lake Charles” about him. They both came from Louisiana. Early in her career he had been both her boyfriend and her agent. But, as the song tells, wherever they went he felt that homeward pull from Louisiana. Especially, the city of Lake Charles. His friend Margaret Moser was with holding his hand at the end, and she wrote an article for the Austin Chronicle that goes into detail about the song and Clyde’s end. This bittersweet track warmly remembers a friend that has passed. She expertly mixes the sadness with love and care, focusing on the heart while letting the sadness come through between the lines.

This ballad consists of two verses, each with two sets of three lines followed be a three line refrain. After the second verses, there is a bridge with a slide guitar solo, followed by a repetition first three lines of the first verse, then refrain twice. The verses follow a I-V-I-IV-I-V for the first three lines, which is repeated for the next three lines. Then for the refrain, they play IV-I-IV-I-V-I. The second verse brings in some wonderful accordion for atmosphere to recall Louisiana. I often forget how much I love the sound of accordion as part of accompaniment.

The lyrics focus on geography. During the second verse, you can feel Williams riding on that airplane as she recalls their road trips years ago. As seen in that verse, she frequently mentions Lake Charles, which is where he most associated.

He had a reason to get back to Lake Charles
He used to talk about it, he’d just go on and on
He always said Louisiana was where he felt at home
He was born in Nacogdoches
That’s in East Texas, not far from the border
But he liked to tell everybody that he was from Lake Charles
Did an angel whisper in your ear?
And hold you close, and take away your fear?
In those long, last moments

Hank Williams’s “40 Greatest Hits”

Cover for Hank Williams's 40 Greatest Hits album

This week, I’ve been listening to the posthumous double-LP greatest hits album of Hank Williams’s “40 Greatest Hits.” Mercury Records released this compilation on the 25th anniversary of Hank Williams’s passing on new year’s day 1953 in the small city of Oak Hill, WV. Williams recorded all of these songs for MGM between 1947 and 1952. This compilation presents more direct recordings of the songs, without much of the overdubs heard on earlier releases.

I grew up in a family that listened to pop and rock music;The only place I heard 90s country music was on the school bus radio. It shocked me, in my 30s, to learn that my dad had primarily listened to country music in his early teens. I only heard Hank Williams songs in commercials, tv shows as a joke, or in cover versions. That changed in my adult years. Dwight Yoakam became the first country artist that i seriously liked, and he provided my introduction to artists that came before him.

What we have here is a collection of early country music recordings. Remember, Columbia introduced the 12 inch LP format in 1948. Before that, an album was a collection of physical singles. Music was mostly purchased on thick acetate records, an early example being Eck Robertson’s Sallie Gooden from 1922. The “Howdy Doody” show first aired in 1947. Many consider 1949 the birth year of rock music, but it rock music didn’t really take off until 1954 with “Rock Around the Clock.” Hank Williams recorded these songs between 1947 and 1952. Recording music was still fairly new, and the idea of an album was a decade off yet.

Move It On Over

If we consider 1949 the birth of rock music, then Williams’s “Move It On Over” sounds like a strong precursor. Bill Haley even covered it, as well as particularly rocking cover by George Thorogood. The song combines twelve-bar blues with a country shuffle. The upbeat Williams recording features basic percussion, an upright bass playing a walking groove, acoustic guitar strumming chords, electric guitar playing bluesy melodic lines, fiddle padding between vocals lines, backing vocals from the group, and Hank Williams singing lead. The percussion is so far back it’s more felt than heard. The upright bass provides more of a percussive sound to the track than the drums.

Each verse follow a blues progression of I-I-IV-I-V-I. The first two lines of each verse provide the narrative part. The speaker spending too many nights out late and his wife won’t let him back in the house. The rest of each verse are spoken to the dog in the doghouse. The titular phrase “Move it on over” is to the dog, because the doghouse is getting rather cramped now that the “big dog’s moving in.” The second two lines of each verse features a call and response with the backing vocals answering “move it on over.” And then each verse is capped with the punchline (of sorts) “Move over short dog cause the tall dog’s moving in.”

She warned me once, she warned me twice
But I don’t take no one’s advice
So scratch it on over (move it on over)
Shake it on over (move it on over)
Move over short dog cause a tall dog’s moving in

Ramblin’ Man

Williams wrote the mournful slow song “Ramblin’ Man” with a simple two chord progression in a minor key: i-V7. Bass guitar beats on the first and third beat of each measure. Acoustic guitar strums, emphasizing each slow quarter like a slowly churning train in the distance. A fiddle cries gently, again that far-off train’s whistle. Clean electric guitar with tremolo provides a haunting lead accompanying Williams’s singing. The speaker provides this apologetic dirge on how he can’t settle down because the urge to travel and move on is stronger than his love for the listener.

Each verse consists of four lines followed by a two line refrain. Each pair of lines rhyme as a couplet. He consistently uses the sound of the train as providing the call to ramble. This is combined with the declaration that God made him this way, he must ramble. His nature and that call compels him to leave, and no matter how he might want to, he cannot deny his nature.

I can settle down and be doing just fine
Til’ I hear an old train rollin’ down the line
Then I hurry straight home and pack
And if I didn’t go, I believe I’d blow my stack
I love you baby, but you gotta understand
When the Lord made me, he made a Ramblin’ Man

Hey, Good Lookin’

Hank Williams wrote his “Hey Good Lookin'” drawing direct inspiration from the Cole Porter song “Hey Good Lookin’.” Legend has it that Williams wrote the song in less than half-an-hour when requested to write a hit song for a friend. Either he wrote it knowingly making a reference to the Cole Porter song, or it was a subconscious transference. The Porter song has the lines of “Hey good lookin’,
Say what’s cookin’? Do you feel like bookin’ some fun tonight?” With first two lines sung not terribly unlike the Hank Williams tune, which starts with “Hey good lookin’, what you got cookin’? How’s about cookin’ something up with me?” Both songs use the cooking as a starting point for a proposition of love in much the same way.

I first heard this song in commercials from the mid-80s from the National Cheese Board, “How’s about cookin’ something up with cheese?

The catchy chorus of the Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin'” follow a I-I-II-V7 chord progression. The verses drop into a IV-I-IV-I-IV-I-II-V7 progression. A IV-I progression is the same as a I-V progression in the subdominant. I do not suggest that this is a key change, but it is interesting to think about, because if the song opened with a verse, we might suspect the song was in a different key than it is. The chorus establishes the key at the beginning. This contributes to the feeling of stable resolution that the chorus provides after the IV-I progression of the verses.

The lyrics of first verse maintain the AABB rhyme scheme that is also used in the other verse. “dollar bill” rhymes with “over the hill.” is better than just “bill” with “hill” But listen also to the use of consonance within the lines. “got a hot rod ford” with “spot” and “soda pop.” He sings “dollar” and “dancing” likewise in the same position of the first and third lines. These lines beat musically without even hearing the melody.

I got a hot rod Ford and a two dollar bill
And I know a spot right over the hill
There’s soda pop and the dancing’s free
So if you wanna have fun come along with me

40 Greatest Hits

Many of these songs bare similarities to each other, more so than often found on albums. I think that is due to the nature of their original intentions as releases. The public received these as singles with two songs at a time. The need to try something different in approach was not as strong when the songs were not going to be heard all together. There’s also similarities that are normal within a genre, especially with a single artist.

The bass almost always emphasizes the first and third beat of each measure, with a walking bass that bounces back and forth travelling across the progression. The acoustic guitar shuffles, with emphasis on the second and third beat of each measure. A brushed snare drum often strengthens the rhythm of the acoustic. A clean electric guitar, sometimes with subtle tremolo, opens the tracks with a country-blues lead that pulls the listener into the rhythm of the song. These intros are frequently only one or two bars. The songs are about the emotional narrative, usually mournful and sad. Metaphors represent the other feeling or urges, and Williams wisely uses one metaphor per song, making word choices that support both that metaphor and the emotion.

Overall, this is a collection of extremely well-crafted songs.

The Rolling Stones’ “Aftermath”

Cover of Rolling Stone's Album "After-Math"

I’ve been listening to The Rolling Stones’ album “After-Math” from 1966 this week. This was their fourth album in the UK, but their sixth released in the States. Quite impressive, either way considering their first album had only come out in 1964. The UK and USA releases had different cover art and different track listing. The UK release instead starts with “Mother’s Little Helper,” one of my favorite Stones songs. That and three other tracks are missing from the American version that I listened to. In their place, it opens with “Paint It Black.” A song that I also love, only not as much as “Mother’s Little Helper.” This album was excellent from start to finish, either version.

“Aftermath” represents a significant point in the band’s evolution. Previous albums consisted mostly, if not entirely, of cover songs originally performed by blues and soul. This album shows the band venturing further beyond their initial blues inspiration into more other territory. Guitarist Keith Richards and vocalist Mick Jagger wrote all of the songs, according to printed credits. Brian Jones most definitely contributed to the songwriting, especially on “Paint It Black.” Also, “Aftermath” presents a set of songs written together, as opposed to a collection of individual songs.

I Am Waiting

On the second side of both the UK and US release, “I Am Waiting” provides a gentle folk-inspired rock ballad after the more rocking “It’s Not Easy.” The intro and verse feature instruments played gently, resulting in their identifying characteristics becoming hidden. There’s a harpsichord, dulcimer, and acoustic guitar weaving together a tapestry of chords textured by arpeggios. A haunting bassline quietly emphasizes the chord progression, while encouraging the cautious suspense of a hide-and-seek game. Restrained drums beat pull the song from one bar into the next, without emphasizing the beat. Jaggers sings the verses gently, with even softer backing vocals singing in unison on key phrases.

The band play the choruses much different from verses. Dulcimer and guitars join in a jangly strumming rhythm. The drums approach a rock beat, with the hats giving a jazz dance over the beat, the kick drum emphasizing the first beat and the snare providing hops across the remaining three beats. The bass guitar gets played more strong. The vocals are sung more strongly.

The lyrics consist of verses, choruses, and a refrain. Normally in songs, every chorus has the same lyrics, giving the listener a hook to return to. Here, a separate refrain provides that function, with “Waiting for someone to come out of somewhere.” The chorus each consist of four lines, the second and fourth being some variation of “You will find out.” Each of the first and third contain an internal rhyme, dividing the line into two parts.

Stand up coming years and escalation fears
Oh yes we will find out
Well like a withered stone, fears will pierce your bones
You’ll find out

Think

The Rolling Stones close out the first side of the US release with “Think.” Jagger and Richards wrote “Think,” but the song already received release as a single by Chris Farlowe. The more filled out soul-rock Chris Farlowe version is fair enough, but I definitely prefer the more raw rock sound of the Rolling Stones track. It opens with a blues acoustic guitar intro riff, joined then by a second acoustic guitar strumming chords, drums, bass guitar, clean electric guitar, and a fuzz electric guitar. The fuzz guitar mostly plays extended notes, letting them fade out. Richards originally meant the fuzz guitar in “Satisfaction” to be played by horns; the fuzz guitar here performs a similar function. A significantly clean electric guitar plays a solo, backed by that fuzz padding the background.

The song has two different types of verses, with one feeling like a bridge. The overall song structure, with the two verse types labelled as VerseA and VerseB is: Intro-VerseA-Refrain-Chorus-VerseB-Refrain-Chorus-VerseB-Refrain-Bridge-VerseA-Refrain-Chorus-Outro. The first and last verse follow a chord progression of IV-V7-IV-V7, which is a progression leading the listener to a cadence, providing a floating sort of suspense. The refrain gives that cadence, by staying on the tonic chord. Now we have resolution, but extending it gives desire for movement. The chorus rises up to IV, holding that chord, and then closing with a I-VII– IV. The flattened major seventh is a particularly blues-rock borrowed-chord. The other verses start with this borrowed chord, following a series of descending chords: VII-V7-IV-II7. The use of sevenths on each second chord pulls the listener towards the next bar by creating a mild-dissonance asking for resolution.

Doncha Bother Me

Perhaps the song that most got stuck in my head is the stomping blues track “Doncha Bother Me.” Brian Jones provides essential electric slide guitar between each sung line. His slide guitar drew me into the song, and the vocal hook of “Doncha bother me no more” increased the catchiness. Piano, acoustic guitar, and drums provide rhythm, panned hard left. The electric guitar is panned hard right. Vocals and bass sit right in the middle. Cross-talk between mics (and perhaps on the tape machine) pulls this hard-panning together putting the listener in the room. I’ve seen some documentary footage of the Stones doing overdubs on songs, and they would sometimes just have the previously recorded tracks playing through a speaker in the studio rather then into headphones. While this robs the engineer of the separation of tracks (a preferences especially in the 90s), it increases the live-sound of the room. It’s more pleasing and gives the recording a more warm human feel.

The choruses use a blues-inspired chord progression of I-IV-I-IV-I-V7-IV-I. And the verses go into a more energetic rock feel with V7-V7-IV-I. The piano drives along with a boogie-woogie rhythm throughout, drumming up in intensity during the verses. The drums move between stick and snare sounds. The vocals deliver a line, then the slide guitar rises up in response.

I said, Oh no, don’t you follow me no more
I said, Oh no, don’t you follow me no more
Well, pick your own mind and don’t you touch mine no more

Jeff Buckley’s “Grace”

Cover for Jeff Buckley's album

This week, I’ve been listening to Jeff Buckley’s debut and final LP “Grace” from 1994. My initial introduction to this album came through hearing Buckley’s tender cover of John Cale’s 1991 version of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah.” Around 2005, I finally heard the rest of the album with some disappointment. I felt jaded about the whole charming 90s singer-songwriter alternative guitarist thing and that’s all I heard in it. I probably also just skipped through the tracks without giving them a fair listen. This album is still not really my thing and I’m not sure why yet. Maybe I just feel like there’s a little too much seductive charm.

This collection presents great performances of songs with great songwriting. Jeff Buckley shares songwriting credits with former Captain Beefheat Magical bandmember Gary Lucas . Buckley is an amazing guitarist who really knows how to capture attention and evoke emotion with is vocals. He likes to rock, while appreciating and uses the power of intimate detail and nuance. Whatever his end-goal, what Buckley built and developed songs to work as a whole expressing emotion. Not simple emotions, but layered emotions that frequently mix longing, remorse, anger, and love. He also plays much of the accompaniment on the album with bass being played by Mick Grøndahl, some organ by Loris Holland, Matt Johnson plays additional percussion. Among others, Clif Norrell and Andy Wallace produced and engineered the recording.

Mojo Pin

Mojo Pin opens the album with a slow fade-in atmospheric effects on guitars and keyboards. Clean electric guitar then plays a lithe arpeggio repeating I7sus4 – I9. This is not your average guitar-work, but rather the creation of somebody with a jazz background who knows his stuff. He grew up in a musical household, took a year of music school after high school and played in bands of various genres. This song travels though some of those genres. It starts with some gentle jazz-inspired soul, into alternative ballad, and drives into some hard-rock alternative towards the end. Still, an emotive atmosphere of blue night runs throughout.

Lyrically, the song discusses the use of drugs to deal with the pain of separation from a lover. He combines the lover and drugs through vague language, so we can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. The lover was emotionally abusive when she is around, and now she is gone. The speaker turns to shooting up heroin (the mojo pin) to avoiding crying for her. In the chorus he calls her a “black beauty,” this presumably is a reference to her race. “Black beauty” is also a slang term for methamphetamine, but I think he might be making a reference to heroin’s slang name “horse.” The lyrics combine lover and drug into one: the cause and cure of heartache are joined and become indistinguishable.

The lines of the verses rhyme, but there is not a consistent rhyme scheme, at all. Through the five verses we see: AABB, ABCB, ABCC, AABC, AABA. The chorus uses AABB. Musically, he takes long pauses after each verse, giving a guitar strum.. and accompaniment rests as he draws out a mournful high note. Through poetic, near mystical, imagery, the speaker weaves emotional manipulation blaming the hurtful lover for his heroin use.

I’m lying in my bed, the blanket is warm
This body will never be safe from harm
Still feel your hair, black ribbons of coal
Touch my skin to keep me whole

Oh, if only you’d come back to me
If you laid at my side
Wouldn’t need no Mojo Pin
To keep me satisfied

Lover, You Should Have Come Over

One of the most complete songs on the album, “Lover, You Should Have Come Over” delivers a soulful mixture of longing, apology, and regret. He acknowledges that he’s been immature, which has caused him to be unable to maintain a relationship. He also describes that he lacks the desire to settle down. What’s being described here perhaps is a passing moment of remorse, because he ruined a relationship with somebody truly special.

The music conveys the emotion of the lyrics beautifully. This song is a perfect example of vocals and accompaniment working in harmony with lyrics. Guitar, bass and drum provide a soulful blues. Again, he does not limit himself to simple major and minor chords, but spreads 7ths,9ths, and 11ths throughout. The verses open open with I-ii (with a flattened 7th providing a step between the I and ii) played twice. The ii gets modified through ii9-ii-ii7-ii. Then the next two lines repeat ii-III-vi-I-IV-III. Again, Buckley plays these as augmented chords, suspended chords, and 6th. Organ pads the sound with extended chords, giving the song a gospel feel. In this song, the speaker is coming to a realization and pleads for forgiveness that will never come.

Again, there is rhyming in this song, but there’s not consistent rhyme scheme. But what he does repeat is the use of “too young/too old” to suggest that he’s recognizing he’s at an awkward turning point in his life. Despite this recognition, he feels he’s stuck at that space forever, as if this small maturation is the only maturation. Perhaps the best one and most direct is in the second verse, which state that he is “too young to hold on and too old to just break free and run.” He can’t commit, but he’s lost the will to fight the obligation. That’s telling.

Broken down and hungry for your love
With no way to feed it
Where are you tonight, child
You know how much I need it
Too young to hold on
And too old to just break free and run

Last Goodbye

Jeff Buckley’s song “Last Goodbye” gives us a great example of a departure song. With the breezy driving acoustic guitar, the pushing drums, and rolling bass, it all feels like a car ride across the country in late autumn. We’re driving away. Lyrically, the song tells of ending a relationship and accepting that it is finally over forever. The more standard chord progression supports this feeling of finality; the verses follow a I-vi-V-ii-IV-I-V-IV-I. The second half of each verse having that I-V-IV-I feels very straight-forward rock anthem. The chorus rises up to: V7-IV-V-IV-V-IV-IV7-IV. This repetition of V-IV without returning to the tonic until AFTER the chorus gives a sense of key change while also building up tension for that key resolution. And that return to the tonic is on the word “goodbye”

Kiss me, please kiss me
Kiss me out of desire, baby, not consolation
Oh, you know it makes me so angry cause I know that in time
I’ll only make you cry, this is our last goodbye