This week, I’ve been listening to the Pixies‘ 1989 album “Doolittle.” My introduction to this alt-rock guitar band probably came through Nirvana and the Breeders. You can definitely hear that Nirvana influence coming from songs like “Tame.” “Doolittle” was nearly a decade old by the time I heard it. Though I know a few of the songs, this week was really my first time getting to know the whole album.
This Pixies album album sounds very 90s, even though it came out before music that typifies the 90s. At the time, it must’ve seemed so strange and new. It’s still unusual today, but definitely sounds dated. Just strange that it sounds dated to a time after it came out. That’s how influential it was.
I fell in love with “Monkey Gone to Heaven” the first time I heard it, whenever that was. The unusual start of the song caught my attention. A series of ascending chords drive out of nowhere, drums begin, then a hit from the bass as if this song is going to rock. Then.. a pause and the vocals calming state “There was a guy.” Instead of rocking, the collected and slightly menacing voice, tells us a story like recalling a legendary news item: “An underwater guy who controlled the sea got killed by ten million pounds of slugs from New York and New Jersey.” That’s the first verse: Nonsense that seems to make sense. The chorus consists of the line “This monkey’s gone to heaven” repeated four times.
“Here Comes Your Man” provides a great example of something I noticed throughout the album. The guitars often play monophonic surf-rock inspired lines. There’s not so much strumming of full chords as usually found in rock music. The album also features a lot more clean, or at least less distorted, guitar than I would’ve expected. When guitars are distorted or fuzzed, they are mixed further back than the clean guitars, providing more of a pad than a heavy drive.
The nearly instrumental “La La Love You” songs also features a lot of surf-rock style lead guitar. Again, this track opens with some rockin’ drums and then takes a mellow turn. It borders on instrumental cheese and surf rock. I love the bright clean electric with dripping reverb sound. The bass rolls along uninterestingly, which is actually in contrast to most of the album where the bass carries much of the instrumentation. The lyrics aren’t much, but that’s really the point. “All I’m sayin’ pretty baby, La la love you, don’t mean maybe.” is repeated several times as the song ends. In a way this song seems to represent much of what the undercurrent of the album: It’s an angular love-affair with rock n roll; it attacks what it loves.
I’ve been listening to Aretha Franklin’s 1967 album “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” for lessons I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. Unfortunately, the world lost Aretha Franklin the day before I started my week with her album. This was an amazing album and I fell in love with several of the songs almost immediately. Unfortunately, I’ve been struck by a double ear infection that is sapping much of my energy; it’s difficult to concentrate to write as much as I usually do for these albums, but I’ll still talk a little about my favorite tracks. Her singing is tremendous and that remains true on every song.
“Soul Serenade” quickly became my favorite. I especially like the use of horns between the vocals in the chorus. They hit on the 3rd, 4th and 1st of the next measure. It makes that 1st beat feel like a 5th beat.
I also really liked the song “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man” particularly for the smooth extending of syllables during the chorus with backing vocals providing rhythmic repetition. The sparse accompaniment provides a good backing for Aretha’s voice on this slower track. The organ plays extended chords with the piano mostly tinkling occasionally on individual notes, and a basic drum pattern keeps the beat.
As I said this was an amazing album from start to finish. Definitely one that I will return to again and again in the future. I wish I felt better, so that I could do it more justice in writing. So instead, I’ll close with this great video of Aretha Franklin performing the opening track of this album, “Respect.”
This week, I’ve been listening to Radiohead’s album “Kid A” from 2000. When this album was released, I had just moved to Asheville a few months prior. “Pablo Honey” was one of my favorite albums and I really enjoyed “OK Computer.” I also liked the singles from “The Bends”. With each album, they were obviously evolving as an experimental band expanding the possibilities of the alt-rock genre. My first reaction to “Kid A” was one of disapproval. From my perspective, they’d gone off into the stratosphere, losing touch with rock music and the audience. It also got dangerously close to ambient music at times. In short, I did not like it.
About fifteen years later, I’m running into people who love this album. Some even consider it Radiohead’s best. So, I give it another chance. I now heard a band casting aside the confines of rock to focus on what had made them unique before. It seems they were rebelling against what people said and expected from them. Perhaps, they finally completely rebelled against the brit-pop Nirvana labelled they’d inexplicably acquired in the early 90s. I never understood that description, but there’s definitely no way anybody could say that about “Kid A.” I still didn’t like it.
Three more years pass and here I’m spending a full week listening to “Kid A” because it’s considered by many to be one of the greatest albums of all time. After devoting all this time to it, I still don’t really like it much. However, some parts of it grew on my a little. Some parts wore on me a lot. Overall, I think the album suffers from too much repetition without enough variation. Each song has some cool stuff going on. However, even the cool stuff becomes boring when it goes on for too long.
The “Everything In It’s Right Place” is one of the best tracks on the album. The few lyrics are oblique and opaque, which is true for most of the album. The lines capture a feeling of being overwhelmed and in a generally foul mood. Thom repeats lines several times, which makes them memorable and catchy. I almost don’t notice how little description the words give.
The chords follow an unusual pattern of I-II♭7-III♭6 for the intro, and then IV-I-II♭7-III♭6 for the verses. These strange series comes from playing a constant tonic note (C in this case) while playing triadic chords below it. I assume that the use of a constant C puts the song in the key of C, however, it feels like it may actually be in the key of F. The moments of the song that return to that IV chord FEEL like they are returning home to the tonic. This is not a conventionally way to work with chords in rock music and really sounds much more like jazz.
“The National Anthem” grabs my interest with its cool driving bassline. Unfortunately, that bass continues without deviation until it is mind-numbingly monotonous. I think of Mancini’s bassline in “Peter Gunn” which holds up to repetition because so much musically interesting happens over top of it that the bassline becomes a groovy background texture. In “The National Anthem” the unchanging bass line stays to prominent; furthermore, the other instrumentation fails to pull the focus away. I don’t like the chaotic brass free-for-all section. With its lack of musical substance, it’s just chaos. It sounds too much like an imitation of the sound of more avant-garde jazz without any direction or purpose. Rather than building on the bassline, they make stylistic noise in spite of it. And again, that pulls my ear to the bass.
The vocals provide the most interesting element of the song. Or, more specifically, the processing of the vocals. There seems to be a combination of doubling-up with a resonant synth, perhaps some ring-modulation, and altered reverb/delay. I’m not sure, but it does wonderful things to my ears. Too bad the lyrics fail to provide much to the song. All they gives us is “Everyone around here, everyone is so near. It’s holding on. Everyone is so near, Everyone has got the fear. It’s holding on.” That’s it. With this bassline and those horns, I feel that more story-telling is in order.
Probably my favorite track on “Kid A” was “Optimistic.” Again, the vocals repeat the same lyrics multiple times. The chorus has six lines, which are three lines repeated, the first two of which are the same: “You can try the best you can. You can try the best you can. The best you can is good enough.” It certainly helps the lyrics to be memorable.
I probably prefer this song because it’s a little more rocking than the others. The song features guitar. The clean guitar strums rhythmic chords like the Velvet Underground or Stereolab. Drums trip loosely across the toms, creating a somewhat exotic texture. Unfortunately, the song shares the quality of flatness with the rest of the tracks. From start to finish, there’s a feeling of samess due to the dreamy drift between sections and the lack of solid dynamics.
Overall, I didn’t think this was that great of an album. I appreciate it as serious shift transition from the old Radiohead to the new Radiohead, but I don’t know if I consider that a good thing. My tastes are more for the earlier Radiohead than what came after.
This week, I’ve been listening to John Coltrane’s 1965 album “A Love Supreme.” I first discovered this album about eight years ago. At the time, I was studying painting at college. Some of my favorite artists, like Willem de Kooning, were fans of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. While I painted, I’d listen to jazz CDs I’d borrowed from the school library. I found that I enjoyed much of it. I can’t say I always understood it. Regardless, jazz became part of my art-making routine.
John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” immediately became one of my favorites. It caught me off-guard as it went into musical territory I’d not yet imagined. The music confused me, yet somehow FELT like it made perfect sense. I even bought a brand new vinyl record of the album when I only had plans to buy a record player. Three years passed before I even had anything to play it on. That’s how much I liked this one.
Here’s the thing though, even after these years of hearing it off and on. Even after spending a full week with the album.. I feel ill-equipped to really write about it. I can tell you that I like it; I can talk about how it’s neat that he plays the 4-note “a love supreme” motif in several keys on the saxophone before chanting the words vocally. And I think that’s neat.
I appreciate that they repeat a melody line several times to establish for the listener what the basis for the next section is. And then they use that as a starting point to go off into other realms; cutting up the melody, flipping it around, filling it with seemingly random flourish and excitement. But then, they fold instruments in and around each other playing variation on themes (especially the love supreme motif) until they come back around. They weren’t just going crazy, but rather intelligently and methodically dissected the song, examined it, displayed it’s variations, and put it back together.
This is what I hear in this album. I’m not confident in saying that’s what it really is, but that’s what it is to me. What I can note with confidence is that the album, with its four tracks, feels like a whole. There are (at least) three similarities that tie them together: the use of motifs, the methods by which motifs are used, and the instruments. I appreciate that it sounds like a single performance. The same instruments are used from start to finish, recorded and mixed in the same way with the same sound to the room. I like that.
So, in breaking with my usual way of writing about these albums, I’m mostly saying that I can’t write about this one as a musician. I’m in awe by what happens. I cannot explain what I’ve heard, nor understand how it was done. All I can say is that it is amazing.
This week, I’ve been listening to Stevie Wonder’s 1973 album “Innervisions” for lessons I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriter. For years, my only real awareness of Stevie Wonder was his work in the 1980s. At eight years old, I saw his appearance on the Cosby Show. I watched it many times on VHS and used to sing the song “I Just Call To Say I Love You” throughout my childhood. By the time I hit my teens, I grew to find songs like this and “Ebony and Ivory” were just cheesy. I didn’t become aware of his fantastic 1970s work until fairly recently. Some of the stuff I had heard before without realizing who it was. I absolutely loved spending a week getting to know this album.
Wonder is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and plays many of the instruments on the album. Every instruments on “Living for the City” is played by Stevie Wonder. Fender Rhodes electric piano opens the song spinning left-right through the stereo tremolo. As with much of the album, Wonder makes use of the legendary TONTO for fantastic synthesizer sounds. Once the drums start, the kick hits on every quarter note through the verse and chorus, though changes for the bridge.
The chord progression is very simple for the verse: I – ii – I7 – ii, with the synth bass mostly bouncing on on the tonic every quarter note. The chorus rises through a IV-IV-V6-V7 progression. The da-da-da-da bridge contrast with the rest of the song by being in 3/4 time as borrowing a series of chords from outside of the key. The first chord of the bridge could be vi7♭5, then to vi♭ to v♭ coming done to ii♭ back to I.
Though the music is funky with a definitely bouncing groove, it would feel rather laid back without the vocals. Wonder’s singing gives the track its energy. He sings the verses with a rhythm and a simple melody; it’s almost rapping. He also punctuates the rhythm with non-verbal grunts, pops and ‘hee’s;’ Michael Jackson undoubtedly drew influence from Stevie Wonder. The synth bass and electric piano may be the heart of the accompaniment, but the vocals are the drive.
One of my favorite tracks, “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” closes the album. Wonder provides all vocals and plays all instruments except the electric bass guitar. Acoustic piano plays chords throughout. The chord progressions runs I-I7-I6-iv6-I-V-IV for the verses and a bridge/chorus of ii-I-IV-V-vi7-V-I-ii7. This use of extended chords provides interesting movement while essentially staying in the same chord.
A different idea for me, that seems so natural in the song, is the use of multiple time signatures within the verses. The whole song is in 4/4 time with an exception at the end of each verse. Every verse has the refrain “He’s miistra Know-It-All” in 2/4 time.
I like the use of synthesizers to add little magical flourishes to the top end of the piano lines. Sometimes they are like soft sparkles drifting into the air. At the half-way point, Stevie’s vocals pick up in energy and hand-claps increase the sense of energy. It also helps the song feel like it’s coming to a close.
This week, I’ve been listening to Paul Simon’s album “Graceland” from 1986. I remember enjoying the video for “Call Me Al” because it was silly. Other than that, I’ve not been much of a fan of Simon. His music came across too pleasantly adult contemporary to me, especially during my teens. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to enjoy some of his work, but I don’t get excited about it. This week allowed me to get to know these songs much better. I came to appreciate his songwriting, even the recordings themselves are still too pleasant sounding.
This album has a rather controversial background story. A guitarist friend had lent Paul Simon a bootleg tape of music from South Africa. Simon loved it. He wanted to incorporate the sounds and rhythms in his own music. He traveled to South Africa to find out who the musicians were on this unlabeled tape. This search led him to the Boyoyo Boys. He hired members of the band, as well as other South African musicians, to work him on this album. Bakithi Kumalo’s basslines stand out as particularly notable. I don’t really like the mwah sound of fretless bass, but his work is incredible. Really adds a lot of the character to the music.
At the time, many musicians had an active boycott of South Africa in protest of the apartheid. The boycott specifically prevented performing in South Africa. A performance there meant playing before segregated audiences. Simon was recording with primarily black South African artists. However, the fact that he was working there during the boycott looked to many as a statement of apathy. These were contemporary controversies. A modern perspective also opens questions of cultural appropriation; That’s a complex subject, and I’m actually here to listen to the songwriting. Let’s also ignore all the accusations against Simon the he failed to give credit to his collaborators.
The title track “Graceland” provides a great example of good songwriting. Before this week, I’d not really paid attention to the lyrics. I wrongly assumed it to be some fatuous song about tourist destination for Elvis Presley fans. Simon uses the narrative of a man and his son on a pilgrimage as a window to the actual topic. This song deals with the complex mixture of emotions, especially unresolved turmoil, in the midst of a breakup. The second verse leaves me awe-inspired by how the tremendous writing. Keep in mind that this verse introduces the topic of the breakup, like an unexpected slap in the face. This is a great example of use of visual imagery to express thought and emotion. Also notice the use of repetition and rhyme:
She comes back to tell me she’s gone
As if I didn’t know that
As if I didn’t know my own bed
As if I’d never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow
The track “Gumboots” is more than inspired by the Boyoyo Boys; Apparently the music started as a direct copy of one of their instrumental tracks. From what I understand, Simon wrote the vocals and added the horns. I like the non-stop jittery groove of the music, though without the vocals I feel it would be annoying repetitive. A sort of rhythm background music. What grabs my attention about this song are the lyrics. The song fades out with Simon singing a repeat of the first line “I was having this discussion in a taxi heading downtown.” It’s a great generic line, not necessarily interesting on its own but rife with possibilities. The speaker could take the story anywhere. But like the breezy music, the storyteller seems have a lot more to say than they actually do.
Another song I enjoyed was “I Know What I Know” which also incredibly derivative of a song on that bootleg tape. This time a song by M.D. Shirinda & Gaza Sisters. Lyrically, the song has a humorous opening and continues from there with a vignette of pseudo-intellectual high-society. It’s difficult for me to separate Paul Simon from this crowd enough to completely see this as an outsider criticizing. To me, it feel more like a silly look at the world Simon roams around in.
She looked me over and I guess she thought I was all right
All right in a sort of a limited way for an off-night
She said don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party
I said who am I to blow against the wind
This week, I’ve been listening to The Smiths’ 1986 album “The Queen is Dead” for what I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. I remember my introduction to this album well. It happened twenty-five years ago, when I was sixteen. I went to a rural school in Ohio. A new kid from Colorado lent me a mixtape to introduce me to music he was into. Between the tracks by groups like Fugazi and the Rollins Band, was a song got my attention. When I asked my friend about the song, he groaned. “My friend made that tape for me and put that song on their as a joke to annoy me.” I immediately fell in love with The Smiths. This week was neither an introduction, nor a revisit, as I’ve been listening to it ever since I first heard it.
The music mixed the old and the new; innovative but through a lens of nostalgia. Just the sound of it felt like warm sadness with lyrics unapologetically near maudlin. The lyrics were boldly melancholic, self-aware, sardonic, and sad. There was a touch of humor without comedy. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, but the atmosphere made it feel like a lost memory.
Johnny Marr also borrowed a guitar riff from the Rolling Stones’ cover of “Hitch Hike” which was also copied by The Velvet Underground. Light reverb touches the light jangly multi-tracked strummed acoustic guitars creating the first layer of nostalgic atmosphere. The strumming is a standard rhythm guitar pattern. Mike Joyce, likewise, plays a standard and appropriate drum pattern without flourish. Andy Rourke’s bassline provides the only real melodic interest to the musical accompaniment. During the chorus, Marr plays the synth-string on an Emu Emulator with long high-notes with a few trills, again with a light reverb. Later, also is a flute line hauntingly, but playfully, played under a verse. All of these simple elements come together beautifully through layering and production.
While the instrumentation is simple, the chord progression itself is fairly unusual. The tonic chord barely gets used as one until the chorus, which is part of what let’s the chorus sounds as if it is an answer to some question not quite posed by the verses.
The title track “The Queen is Dead is a beautiful mess of organized chaos. A sample from the movie “The L-Shaped Room” starts the track. Then a tom drum loop pounds introducing the drive of the song. This is joined by the rest of the drums, which were recorded separately. A driving bassline supports the track.
Layers of rhythm guitar play V-V-V-V-V-V-VI# for most of the song, closing with a coda of V-VI#-I. At least, that’s how I hear the chord progression. I always feel a little uncertain when there’s a borrowed chord (the VI#), if I’m notating it correctly. A wild guitar with incredible feedback through a wah pedal enhances the sense of chaos and urgency. It also buries the less crazy rhythm guitars.
The opening verse makes clear the speaker’s opinion of English royalty. I’m not sure what exactly is meant by the “boar between arches” line. A search online lead me to plenty of discussions, but not real consensus. I particularly liked the idea that potential play on words with ‘boar’ and ‘bore’ and ‘arches’ with ‘archers’. I also saw mention that the arches were historically a symbol for royalty and that Richard III’s emblem was that of a boar. The Richard III bit seems more coincidence than meaningful to me. It’s also not certain if the speaker feels hemmed in, if the marshes are hemmed in, or if the Queen is hemmed in. Regardless, what we have here are biting comment on the Queen written much more poetically than usual pop and rock lyrics.
Farewell to this land’s cheerless marshes
Hemmed in like a boar between arches
Her very Lowness with a head in a sling
I’m truly sorry but it sounds like a wonderful thing
Near the middle of the album, “I Know It’s Over” possibly received the most plays throughout my twenties. This so slow jazzy blues number tells of loneliness and lost love. Even more so, what the speaker has lost is love, but the possibility of a love to another. “I know it’s over and it never really began, but in my heart it was so real.” Her pending marriage drives home the truth that he will never be loved. He bitterly warns the groom, “Loud, loutish lover, treat her kindly, though she needs you more than she loves you.” Though, it’s clear that he’s not speaking to the groom directly. All of these conversations are imagined from an empty room “as I climb into an empty bed.”
Musically the song rolls through the 50s chord progression (I-vi-IV-V) at a slow tempo starting at about 70 BPM and rising to about 76 BPM for the climactic coda. The drums are minimal through most of the track, focusing mostly on a jazz-inspired use of cymbals and tapping the rim. The electric guitars gently strum chords giving plenty of room for the vocals.
Of course, I could go on and on about one of my long-time favorite records.
I listened to Johnny Cash’s 1968 live album “At Folsom Prison” this week for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. June Carter, Marshall Grant, W.S. Holland, Carl Perkins, Luther Perkins, and the Statler Brothers joined Cash in two performances at the prison. From these live recordings, they selected 16 excellent tracks for the album. While I had some appreciation, I never really cared much for Johnny Cash. A week with this album changed my mind.
Cash’s signature “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” opens the album. The audience of prisoners dutifully keep silent until he finishes introduces himself, then they cheer. He fittingly starts with the “Folsom Prison Blues” which he had originally recorded in 1955. This narrative country song follows a standard country-blues chord progression of I-I-I-I7-IV-I-V7-I. Cash sings while strums acoustic guitar with a steady rhythm. The bass guitar bounces between the first and fifth note of the chord on each quarter note. A clean electric guitar punctuates with staccato syncopation. This electric guitar combined with the drums creates the railroad train rhythm of the song.
The lyrics tell the first person narrative of a man “stuck in Folsom Prison.” Often a song with this setting would have us feel sympathy for the prisoner. However, since this one “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” it’s difficult to feel to bad for him. Cash later said that he tried to think of the most evil reason to kill somebody. So, this isn’t a case of somebody being stuck in prison that didn’t deserve it.
“I hear the train a comin’ It’s rollin’ ’round the bend” introduces the train. This becomes a major symbol in the song. Cash uses the train to provide contrast with the prison. The prisoner hears the train go by routinely and envisions the passengers having a good time. He could accept his imprisonment were it not for this reminder of what he’s missing out on.
Well, I know I had it comin’,
I know I can’t be free,
But those people keep a-movin’,
And that’s what tortures me.
The lines utilize an ABAB rhyme scheme. Throughout the song, the second and fourth lines are always end with a true rhyme and the first and third lines usually end with slant rhymes.
I also particularly liked “Cocaine Blues,” which is a cover of an old Red Arnall. Cash keeps the hyper tempo of the song, but gives the vocals a more human treatment. The chords travel along a simple I-V progression throughout until the final couplet. The song ends with a I-IV-II-V-I. This song also tells of a murderer imprisoned through a series of couplets.
Early one mornin’ while makin’ the rounds,
I took a shot of cocaine and shot my woman down.
I went right home and I went to bed,
I stuck that lovin’ .44 beneath my head.
This man blames it on a mixture of jealousy, whiskey, and cocaine. He “shot her down because she made me sore. I thought I was her daddy but she had five more.” He closes the tale by advising the listeners to “lay off that whiskey and let that cocaine be.” In the original version, Red Arnall said it was okay to “drink all you want to, but let that cocaine be.”
During the second half of the album, Cash’s soon-to-be wife June Carter joins him to sing “Jackson.” This was a cover of a song by Billy Edd Wheeler. I enjoy Cash’s bit of flirting with Carter before they start the song, as well as her witty response. Much like “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Jackson” drives through a country-blues chord progression. The first two lines of each verse are I—I7, with the second two following I-IV-I-I-I-IV-V7-I. Again, the bass bounces through the first and fifth note of each chord emphasizing the rhythm. The drums also roll along in the background.
June also joins along in “Give My Love to Rose” which was written by Johnny Cash. They give an excellent performance at Folsom Prison, but I prefer the sound of the original 1957 single. We see here another chord progression built entirely on I, IV, and V chords. The first two lines of each verse are I-IV-I-I, and the second two are IV-IV-I-I-V-V-I-I. That makes this song a type of country-blues. This first-person narrative is actually a third-person tale. The speaker meets up with a dying man by the railroad track. The dying man had just finished serving his time in prison. He was “trying to get back to Louisiana to see (his) Rose and get to know (his) son.” The simple chorus gently delivers the strong emotion of the story.
Give my love to Rose, please won’t you mister.
Take her all my money, tell her to buy some pretty clothes.
Tell my boy his daddy’s so proud of him
And don’t forget to give my love to Rose.
This was a tremendous album that gave me an appreciation for the work and performance of Johnny Cash. I’m ready now to revisit his other material that I’ve written off before. The songs provide examples of great songwriting. They tell stories about unlikely characters that can be appreciated at a surface level; They also present additional layers using symbols and implied meaning. All elements of the performance are there to support the lead vocal, which is there to tell the story. That songs of Johnny Cash “At Folsom Prison” demonstrate how much you can achieve with the most basic elements when the songwriting is strong.