Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express”

Album cover for Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express

This week, I’ve been listening to Kraftwerk’s LP release “Trans-Europe Express” from 1977. I grew up with the electronic sounds of this group. My father had three Kraftwerk’s among his record collection. Their third album “Ralf und Florian” bored me and I only really liked the title track of their fifth album “Autobahn.” However, I enjoyed their fourth album “Radio-Activity,” listening to it frequently throughout my childhood and teen years. In rural Ohio, nobody I knew had heard of Kraftwerk. I was surprised to learn how important and influencial that had been. Most of this album is too mechanical and repetitive for me, but I did come to appreciate a few songs: mostly “The Hall of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies.

The title presents the main theme of the album: a European railway service crossing the continent. Through that journey, Kraftwerk visit on other topics including reality vs illusion and celebrity. Much of the music suits the railway journey concept, having the mechanical rhythm of a train and long simple melodies and synth pads that imply long-distance travel and continuously scrolling landscapes. Unfortunately the title of the opening track “Europe Endless” feels all too appropriate, because I often felt that the songs were way too long.

Trans-Europe Express

The title track, “Trans-Europe Express,” travels for a full six and a half minutes and then continues seamlessly into the next track “Metal on Metal.” Thus started the second side of the original vinyl release. A synth percussion resembling something between a snare and a closed hi-hat open the song. A sine-effected short delay effect modulates this sound, which sounds like a phaser. This phase-effect suggests motion. Adding a kick sound and a bass-synth, we have the repetitive accompaniment that runs throughout the song. Orchestron strings play ascending chords. The recurrance suggests passing landmarks. It’s a triumphant motif that gets repeated ad nauseum.

Using a vocoder, Kraftwerk have the synthesizers chant: “Trans-Europe Express.” Again, this with ascending chords. We keep rising and rising and going nowhere. The strings play a melody, with very sparse accompaniment. Afrika Bambaataa sampled this melody and other elements of this album for their 1982 hip-hop classic “Planet Rock.” As with most of Kraftwerk’s melody lines, it’s simple and charming and becomes a motif of the song. Most of their works consist of a small set of two or four bar patterns that get layered in alternating combinations.

The Hall of Mirrors

I most enjoyed the track “The Hall of Mirrors” from side one. Without the on-going robotic rhythms heard throughout most of the album, this song feels warm and hauntingly human. I especially like the quietly echoed pulse-synth bass line combined with the reverb-rich percussion sound. The bass has a beautiful rich rounded sound. Each note of the bassline is played twice, and then echoed so that when the bass rests, it drifts off into the reflections. I believe that percussive sound is an organic sound, something like somebody slapping a show on the hallway floor with the mic far away to capture all of the reverb.

As we hear through much of the album, there is little to no chord progression. There is a hint of I-I-I-I-I-I-I-IV. Most of Kraftwerk’s accompaniment consists of a repeated pattern that stays within the same chord, or repeats a small set of chords in a way that defies the idea of a progression. They create the rhythmic version of a drone overwhich they alternate syth melodies and pads, with oft deadpan chanted vocals with occasional melodies. The lyrics here and chanted, like a sinister warning from beyond, of celebrity and illusion. About self-discover and human transformation.

Even the greatest stars
Live their lives in the looking glass
Even the greatest stars
Live their lives in the looking glass

Lou Reed’s “Transformer”

Album cover for Transformer

This week, I’ve been listening to Lou Reed’s album “Transformer” from 1972. My dad gave me a copy of “Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed” as a gift when I was a teenager. I was already a fan of the Velvet Underground, who I’d learned about through an interest in Andy Warhol. So, I’d already heard some of this album from that compilation, plus some other sources. Still, there were a few tracks here that I’d never heard before, and the whole album is great. Reed studied creative writing in college and had an obsession with Rock N Roll. I believe he dreamed at various points of being a poet, novelist, or journalist. He found an outlet for those drives in the lyrics of the Velvet Underground and later his solo work.

Walk on the Wild Side

The first time I heard the music from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” was in the Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch song from 1991 that sampled it. Thankfully, I heard Reed’s song a couple years later. A couple decades later, I still love it and I’ve forgotten all about the Marky Mark song. ” The music is cool, smooth, and cinematic; Reed’s nearly spoken vocals deliver poetic voyeuristic journalism over grooving, cool, cinematic music.

The song opens with Herbie Flowers playing the iconic bass riff. Flowers produced this groove by layering an acoustic upright bass with an electric bass, both fretless. The upright gives the groove its percussive quality, while the electric smooths the glissando between notes. Rhythmically strummed chords on a significantly high-passed acoustic guitar shuffle above the bass like a hi-hat. Brushed snare completes the rhythm, gently emphasizing the 2nd and 4th beat.

The instrumentation remains fairly sparse throughout. Distant strings pad the atmosphere, playing long extended notes in the upper range. Wordless backing vocals bridge between verses, sung by vocal group Thunder Thighs. Reed speaks like poetry that the “the colored girls sing doo doodoo doo doodoo,” and their vocals pick up the riff, singing. A fantastic baritone saxophone solo by Ronnie Ross, with a bit of echo, leading us through the closing fade-out. I dislike a lot of saxophone solos, but this I love.

Reed wrote short vignettes of people he knew around the Warhol Factory scene for each verse of the song. The second first, below, paints a picture of actress Candy Darling. I don’t know how pleased she may’ve been with this description; Still, Darling managed to be fairly successful, especially for a transexual in the early 1970s.

Each verse is a set of two couplets. The first two lines introduce the character and the following two lines describe what they do. Each verse is followed by repeated refrain of “Take a walk on the wild side.” The colored girls singing “doo doodoo” follows the 2nd verse and then the fifth verse, acting first as a bridge then as an outro.

Candy came from out on the island,
In the backroom she was everybody’s darling,
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, hey baby, take a walk on the wild side
Said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side
And the colored girls go

Hanging’ ‘Round

On “Hangin’ ‘Round,” Lou Reed plays more of a straight-forward rock no roll song. Again, like “Walk on the Wild Side,” he introduces the listener to three different characters. In this case, they are people from the past that keep trying to reconnect with the speaker, even though he’s moved past that lifestyle. He looks at them now with a bit of disgust.

Immediately, the groove starts with bass, guitar, and two dirty overdriven guitar. One guitar chugs along a rock n roll rhythm while the other, with mid-range kicked up, plays repeated rhythm-lead riffs. The verses follow first a I-IV-I played twice, and then II-IV-I-II-IV-I repeated twice, folled by the V to allow the next verse to provide cadence.

The first two lines of the verses introduce the character, their appearance then something about their behavior. The difference in chord progressions emphasizes the twist. Then the next two verses provide a contrast in their behavior, a little twist of consequence. The first two lines rhyme at the end, the second two do not. However, he does play with internal rhymes within the second two lines. They way the second two lines rhyme, though, is not done consistently across verses.

Cathy was a bit surreal, she painted all her toes
And on her face she wore dentures clamped tightly to her nose
And when she finally spoke her twang her glasses broke
And no one else could smoke while she was in the room

Satellite of Love

One of my most favorite songs by Lou Reed, “Satellite of Love” was the opening track on the RCA best of compilation, “Walk on the Wild Side.” Here, the placed in the inauspicious position as the second song on side 2. The song tells the story of a man watching the a satellite launch on tv, while plagued by jealousy over his girlfriend’s cheating. Reed recorded a demo with the Velvet Underground, but they did not record an official album version. The narrative slightly reminds me of Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” where “the girl with the mousy hair” disappointedly watches a movie while wishing to escape her dull life. Coincidentally, Bowie sings backing vocals on “Satellite of Love.”

The bass, kick drum, and piano come in at the same time to open the song. The vocals begin at just one second in. The feeling of late night longing and thoughtfulness is presented in a casual, somewhat languid manner, yet the song wastes no time getting started. Mick Ronson plays the distinct piano riff that combines ascending and descending arpeggios with chords.

The verses repeat a I-II7-IV-V chord progression. That second chord is a major 7th supertonic, which is usually played in minor. Raising it to a minor and playing it in a the seventh adds a little tension. It also hints that the opening chords are the IV-V7 of the dominant key. Because of this, the feeling is that we’re coming to a resolution that doesn’t happen until the I-V-vii-IV-I-V-vi-I-IV-I-V chorus leads back into the verse.

I love the way the chorus ends on the dominant chords (a common thing to do) and rests with the unfinished line: “Satellite of..” This unfinished chorus comes to it’s conclusion with the beginning of the outro. In the Velvet Underground and his solo career, Reed demonstrated in a few songs that he likes a Latin flavored coda, and this song is a great example. A variety of instruments, including backing vocals, recorder, trumpet, tuba, hand-claps and fingersnaps join in. It’s a triumphant end to a wistful tune.

Satellite’s gone up to the skies
Things like that drive me out of my mind
I watched it for a little while
I like to watch things on TV

Elvis Presley’s “The Sun Sessions”

Album cover for The Sun Sessions

I’ve been listening to Elvis Presley’s “The Sun Sessions” this week. This 1976 album presents a collection of recordings of Presley from 1954 and 1955. Sun released ten of these songs as singles in the mid 50s; His debut album from 1956 on RCA Victor collected some of the others. This is a great collection, even with the less than stellar environment and recording equipment at Sun at the time. Of course, I’ve heard all of these songs in some form or another; If not these Sun recordings, I’ve heard later recordings of the same songs by Elvis and/or cover versions by other artists.

What we hear on this album is some early rock n roll in its youth. The genre did not start with an one single recording, but rather evolved naturally as combination of blues, jazz, swing, gospel, and folk music. Throughout this album, Presley gives us rock n roll versions of songs from the previous decades, further pushing that evolution. Among those is Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” from 1947, which combined blues and swing in a way that definitely sounds like rock n roll with jazz instrumentation.

Presley was a great singer, guitar, and performer, he was not a songwriter. Depending on who you ask, he only wrote one song: “Love Me Tender.” However, Elvis did not write the music, and the song sounds a lot like the Civil War song “Aura Lee.” He is listed as co-writer on a few other songs, but his actual contribution was probably very little. Still, what he’s done is brought these songs together and played them in this new style, or emphasized that style, in an exciting way. While Presley was an important part of this evolution, he unfortunately gets a lot of credit at the expense of those he drew influence and also worked with. I believe that Presley deserves great recognition, but so do others who were denied the same attention because of their race.

That’s All Right

The album opens with Elvis’s first single, a cover of Arthur Crudup’s rhythm and blues song “That’s All Right Mama” from 1946. Crudup potentially got his chorus from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s country blues song “Black Snake Moan.” Presley’s cover introduced him to much of the world, as it was his first single. I love it, but now that I hear Crudup’s, I think I prefer the original.

Presley’s version opens with strummed acoustic guitar, joined by an acoustic bass. Elvis then sings with energy, “Well, that’s all right, mama, that’s all right for you.” The chord progression repeats I-I-I-I7 for the verses, and then the refrain has IV-IV-V7-I. The bass guitar mostly bounces between the first and up to the fifth note of each chord.

A clean electric guitar plays single note leads during the verses in a country style. However, the electric guitar plays two-notes to open the guitar-solo bridge. There’s not really any intentional bending of strings here, just straight-played notes.

Blue Moon of Kentucky

Probably one of my favorite recordings by Elvis Presley, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was the b-side of “That’s All Right.” This recording reworks Bill Monroe’s bluegrass waltz of the same name from 1946 as a rockabilly track. I love the sound of the slap-back echo on the vocals, especially the energetic way that he sings them. Again, there’s minimal percussion, just a shuffling of sticks on a surface, with the slap of the upright bass providing additional percussion. The acoustic guitar strums chords emphasizing the a swinging syncopated rhythm.

Presley and the other musicians performed this in the same key, with nearly the same chords, as “That’s All Right.” Here was have I-I7-IV-iv-I-I7-V-I-I7-IV-iv-I-V-V7-I. That’s a few more sevenths, plus a shift to minor for the fourth at the end of the 1st and 3rd line of each verse.

The guitarist plays a solo on a clean electric guitar during the bridge. The solo combines single notes and two notes played on adjacent strings. Again, these are played without bends. There are two bars of playing quick staccato notes on the beat, followed by two bars of syncopated notes.

Mystery Train

I really enjoyed Presley’s cover of Junior Parker’s 1953 song “Mystery Train,” which had also been recorded at Sun. While Elvis’s rockabilly version certain rocks more, it loses the emotion of Parker’s electric Memphis blues style. The lyrics of Parker’s song build on a verse of the Carter Family’s folk country “Worried Man Blues.”

The band play a variation of the 12-bar blues progression with a driving railroad rhythm: I-IV-I-I-I-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I. The bass hits every note, acoustic guitar plays constant rhythm in the background, rising at the end of the bars between vocals. Electric guitar shuffles and swings between the bass adding an urgent syncopated triplet groove.

Train, train, coming ’round the bend
Train, train, coming ’round the bend
Well, it took my baby, but it never will again
No, not again

Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew”

Album cover for Bitches Brew

This week, I’ve been listening to Miles Davis’s double-album “Bitches Brew” from 1970. I spent time with Davis’s album “Kind of Blue” last year, which I enjoyed even if I wasn’t sure how to understand it. He once again challenges me in a different way, with this album. Here the band creates more of an other world through sound and rhythm. When I was in college studying fine art, I would often play this album in the painting studio. “Bitches Brew” providing an interesting, but unobtrusive, atmosphere that encouraged my own focus and creativity.

These are musical pieces without vocals that eschews techniques commonly used in music to make songs immediately digestible. There’s no hooks, clear melodies, or obviously repeated motifs for the listener to grab unto. That’s not to say that there’s no melody or motifs, or even hooks. They don’t come forward at once, but require time and repeated listening to reveal themselves. Just as these long (the title track is just over 26 minutes) pieces evolve within themselves, a feeling for them also evolves within the listener through repeated exposure.

Bitches Brew

This double LP opens with two very long tracks that took up a full side of a vinyl record. The 20 minutes track “Pharoah’s Dance” opens the album, while “Bitches Brew” fills the second side with a lengthy 26 minutes. Engineers like to keep the side of a record to 22 minutes or less, due to physical limitations of a 12 inch record. Above 22 minutes, the grooves have to get tighter, resulting in a gradual loss of sound quality. It’s also a long time to listen to a single piece of music.

Most of my listening to these albums happens in the car while driving, which means that I often did not hear these all in one sitting, but rather broken up into pieces. I do listen to these some at work in headphones, but that is less focused listening. That’s a shame, because this album really opens up in headphones.

On this album, we often hear two drummers and two bassists simultaneously playing. These pairs are panned hard left and hard right; With headphones, we can clearly hear the rhythms interweaving back and forth, supporting each other in creating complex textures. Two keyboardists at electric pianos also interact in the same way across the stereo field. I was overwhelmed at first by how much was going on where there’s typically a much more straight-forward simple foundation being laid out. Here that foundation is constantly evolving, undulating, and folding in on itself.

It allows for the players to come in and out of the basic down-beat and up-beat to perform complex rhythms knowing that their counterpart can support the beat until they come back. At times, the drums feel chaotic and then meld into a complex fabric bed, or an alien landscape, over which travels the electric guitar, trumpet and saxophone.

At the start of this the track “Bitches Brew,” the trumpet plays into a tempo-synced delay echo effect bouncing from right to left.Staccato blasts of trumpet echoed, creating an opening rhythm and atmosphere. Drums, electric piano and bass tumble out of these blasts, rolling and collapsing. This builds into the song that then takes us on a journey into the brew.

Spanish Key

The second LP opens with “Spanish Key,” which is a little more rocking than atmospheric, at least at first. The basses throb at a persistent galloping rhythm from the start. A brushed snare, shakers, and tambourine build up the rhythm, followed by loosed rolls across the toms. Sparse, mellow, short melodic motifs on the trumpet begin to evolve, growing into extended melodies. The electric piano quietly adds harmony. Saxophone grows, like a drone fading in and out. Three minutes into the track, rock-influenced lightly-overdriven electric guitar shuffles, scratches rhythms and scuttles. Occasionally that guitar hints at melody, bending notes and short blasts of solo riffs.

Just as these excursions flirt with flying into outer-space chaos, the instruments join into a simultaneous rhythmic cadence, then pause. A trumpet or bass may then continue on while the other instruments rest. The piece returns to Earth, momentarily. This cadence becomes motif of the song, repeated at the end of these phrases as a reminder where we are.

The tracks on this album make use of this technique often. There’s a motif: rhythmic, melodic, or both, that the band joins in to ground the piece before it loses the listener in chaos. This is followed by the band calming down for a moment, the drums and bass relax, but then the melodies and harmonies get folded, interpreted, transformed used as a basis for apparent improvisation. Then things evolve, rising in intensity, which often involves, pitch, tempo, texture, and rhythm. With multiple instruments doing this, they journey beyond and away from each other, while retaining some sense of interplay.

I don’t know if, or how, any influence from this album might show up in my own music, but I’ve definitely enjoyed getting an introductory experience with it. Miles Davis expands my feelings on what music can do, even when I don’t understand what he’s doing from a critical or technical standpoint.

Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors”

Album cover for Coat Of Many Colors

I’ve been listening to Dolly Parton’s album “Coat of Many Colors” from 1971, this week. This was her eighth solo album, just four years after her debut album. During that time, she also recorded six albums with Porter Wagoner. That’s amazing, especially considering her work also on The Porter Wagoner Show tv series. The audience of that show apparently didn’t like Parton at first, since she replaced a former star on the show. Parton is an amazing singer, songwriter and guitarist. Her personality is undeniable and impossible to not love. She went on to become one of the most famous, prolific, and influential country artists of all time.

I don’t recall ever hearing any of the songs this album before. Of course, I know some of her later hits like “Jolene” and “9 to 5.” That last recorded for the great movie starring Jane Fonda, Lilly Tomlin, and Dolly Parton. I’ve been looking forward to this week and it was worth it. With the single exception of the Wagoner penned “The Mystery of the Mystery,” this album holds a tremendous collection of songs. The second track song humorous “Travellin’ Man” is a joy to listen to and I almost chose it as one of my featured three. However, instead I’ll talk about “Coat of Many Colors,” “Early Morning Breeze,” and “Here I Am.”

Coat of Many Colors

In the title track “Coat of Many Colors,” Parton tells a true story from her childhood. Born in a one-room cabin on a farm in Appalachian mountains of eastern Tennessee, Parton grew up with little money and many siblings. In Parton’s words, they were “dirt poor.” This song shares how her mother made her a coat from “a box of rags someone gave us.” In 2015, the story was shown as a tv movie with the same name.

The song opens with a great acoustic guitar-picked rising arpeggio. Parton’s voice, electric bass guitar, and a hi-hat join in for a short intro verse and then the first verse. An organ join for the second verse, padding with extended chords. Backing vocals then contribute to the chorus.

The chord progression is a folk-country I-I-I-V-I-IV-I-V-I. Though the verses do not end with a repeated refrain, musically the verses have a ballad-like quality. The last line of the lyrics provides the only rhyme of the verses, which is worth two lines previous (love/of, happiness/kiss). The chorus rises up with a IV-I-IV-I-V-I-IV-I-V-I. After the first chorus, the chord drops down to the major VI, which serves as a pivot for key change, that’s major VI becomes the major V of the new key.

The rising key change goes with the hope Parton felt as a child of proudly wearing her new colorful patchwork coat to school. However, when she gets there, the other kids laugh at her. Even when she tells them about how her momma lovingly made the coat, they just roll their eyes and make fun of her.

But they didn’t understand it
And I tried to make them see
That one is only poor
Only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me
Made just for me

Early Morning Breeze

The second song on the second side, “Early Morning Breeze” caught my attention immediately. This idyllic description of morning in a beautiful country meadow takes the listener to where the speaker goes walking and to pray. Musically, it leans more towards psychedelic folk than country. There’s a taste of Irish folk music mixed with hippie blues. At the end of the chorus, I almost expected a Led Zeppelin style break-down to happen.

An electric bass opens the track with sparse drums, to be joined by vocals. Then a picking and strumming on an acoustic guitar. For but a bar, the drums and bass pick up for the chorus, but that’s it. There’s a lot of space between instruments, making the song sound light and airy, much like that early morning scene.

Rainbow colored flowers kissed with early morning sun
The aster and the dahlia and wild geraniums
Drops of morning dew still lingers on the iris leaves
In the meadow where I’m walking
In the early morning breeze

Here I Am

With “Here I Am,” the album provided another surprise to me as Parton took a very soulful turn. Considering this was a country album from 1971, that started off with a very traditional country feel, I did not expect the variety on side two. This song would not be out of place on a record by Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, or Dusty Springfield. “Here I Am” is some gospel soul offering love and hope. The spirit-filled backing vocals emphasize the message. Dry punchy tight drums keep the song rocking, doubling up on the kick drum at times with a march feel. A clean electric guitar and clean electric bass playfully interact with each other, building musical phrases between verses that are truly amazing.

I love that guitar riff that happens during the post-chorus leading into the verses. It’s a simple blues-rock melodic clean dry guitar, instantly enjoyable and totally memorable. The bass guitar completes the phrase, in a modest but wholly necessary way. It’s a counterpoint that enriches that guitar, by bouncing up and down between the lead-melodic parts.

Here I am, reaching out to give you love that you’re without
I can help you find what you’ve been searching for
Oh here I am, come to me, take my hand because I believe
I can give you all the love you need and more
Oh here I am, oh here I am, here I am

U2’s “Achtung Baby”

Album Cover for U2's "Achtung Baby"

This week, I’ve been listening to U2’s album “Achtung Baby” from 1991. I grew up loving their album “The Joshua Tree” that came out when I was 10 years old. When “Achtung Baby” appeared during my freshman year of high school, it didn’t catch my attention. I did like the second single “Mysterious Ways” with its strong guitar riff and trippy music video, though. My tastes were heading towards more moody and less mainstream interests than U2. It’s a shame, because this is a very good album. Maybe I just wasn’t ready yet.

On this album, I hear a band with established techniques and skills fighting against repeating themselves. There’s a good bit of experimentation with sound and techniques, as if they are determined to not make another “Joshua Tree.” The Edge’s use of delay, while prominent all over that previous album, is more subtle and much less frequent. The drums have taken on a more dance feel; Upcoming artists like Jesus Jones, The Escape Club, and EMF already leading this trend. Many predicted this combination of break-beat rhythms with guitar rock would become the 90s alt-rock sound, until Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” flooded the airwaves.

Zoo Station

The opener “Zoo Station” start with 3 seconds of quiet background noise and then odd bursts of distorted guitar. This is the announcement that the listener is in for a different U2 album. The bass and drums groove along with a determined driving beat. A tinny snare drum cracks every 2nd the 4th beat, sounding a little trashy. A minimal chord progression contributes to the pending sense of urgency, mostly staying in the tonic with use of the flattened VII and IV to push it forward. “Zoo Station” feels as much like a journey into the album as a destination of its own. The lyrics, which read more a statement of intent, support this:

I’m ready
I’m ready for the gridlock
I’m ready
To take it to the street
I’m ready for the shuffle
Ready for the deal
Ready to let go of the steering wheel
I’m ready
Ready for the crush.

The Fly

The seventh track, and first single, “The Fly” escaped my notice until this week. While not experimental music, this seems to be one of the more experimental tracks on the album. It has the benefit of feeling more uncharted territory for the band, and therefore has a looser, even sloppy, feel. That’s even with the steady dance beat. My son aptly pointed out the resemblance to one of my favorite bands, INXS. It especially reminds me of “Communication,” which INXS started recording just after “Achtung Baby” was released.

The drums continue a dance-beat throughout almost like clockwork, along with the pulsing driving bassline. They keep the song song grounded while the rest seems to scatter here. The guitar starts with a repetitive riff until Bono begins his chorused and heavily-compressed softly spoken vocals. The echoey, slightly flanged, distorted guitar pulls back and then punches back with seemingly random stabs, scrapes, scratches and slides. The lyrics are a bit of a paranoid cautionary ramble. More like a nightmarish stream-of-consciousness with an apparent illusion of meaning, tangents off the chorus’s couplet: “A fly on the wall, it’s not secret at all.”

It’s no secret that the stars are falling from the sky
It’s no secret that our world is in darkness tonight
They say the sun is sometimes eclipsed by the moon
You know I don’t see you when she walks in the room
It’s no secret that a friend is someone who lets you help
It’s no secret that a liar won’t believe anyone else
They say a secret is something you tell one other person
So I’m telling you, child

One

Just after high school, I was in an emotional relationship; a strong mix of love and hurt between two people who had both to give, certainly some type of codependency. In U2’s song “One” I found a sort-of comfort in hearing words from another that described so well what we had. When in the car with my next girlfriend, this song came on the radio and I mentioned that. She said it was also the song for one of her previous relationship.

What Bono has done with these lyrics is described a commonly set of emotions in a way that many can relate and apply to their own situation. The narrative details of the couple and the events in their lives are completely missing, the actual story is a vast ambiguous cloud waiting for the listener to fill it in. Even their genders are absent. Instead, he reserves his use of detail for the visual imagery for the emotions.

He also combines this with religious allusions, in the third verse, to describe how the other brings their own hurt and needs to the relationship. This verse is tied to the bridge, where the other talks of love as a temple. Despite their praise of the sanctity of love, their own hurt means that loving them is more of a sacrifice than a blessing.

Have you come here for forgiveness?
Have you come to raise the dead?
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head?
[…]
You say love is a temple, love a higher law
Love is a temple, love the higher law
You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl
And I can’t be holding on to what you got
When all you got is hurt

Bob Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home”

Album cover for Bringing It All Back Home

For this week, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan’s fifth album “Bringing It All Back Home” from 1965. He had been listening to rock music and visiting with The Beatles. The first side of this record, an electric band backs Dylan; while the second side remains acoustic and without drums. “Bringing It All Back Home” came out in March with “Highway 61 Revisited” following just five months later.

Between these two album, Dylan infamously performed at the Newport Folk Music Festival with electric instruments. The folk music crowd expressed disgust immediately; they wanted the old Dylan back, not this traitor to folk music. Considering “Highway 61 Revisited” introduced me to Dylan in the early 1990s, the shift from acoustic folk to folk with electric seems rather quaint to me. Granted, he did perform this (what we could call) stunt at a festival for folk music. I also feel that while electric guitars are being used, there’s still plenty of acoustic guitar, and the songwriting is still deeply rooted in folk.

Subterranean Homesick Blues

The album opens with acoustic guitar strumming, then an electric guitar plays an upward glissando to get the motor started. These guitars are joined by two basses, a second electric guitar and drums. The songs rolls at a determined pace. The bass pounds on down-beat, the guitars jangling and improvising driving of the accompaniment along like a full-steam jugband. The chord progression follows a vaguely blues pattern: I7-I7-I7-I7-IV7-I7-I7-V7-I7-I7-I7, which is an unusual 11 bars.

Almost immediately, Dylan’s vocals launch into a continuous stream of lyrics with a paranoid cutup of the sociopolitical climate. Lyrics like these undoubtedly had influence on many later musicians like Beck, whose “Loser” immediately earned him Dylan comparisons in the 1990s. The promotional film with lyrics on cards has been imitated countless times.

He takes brief breaks between verses to play the harmonica. One wonders his lung capacity, especially since he was a considerable smoker at the time. Each verse has 17 short lines run together in an almost monotonous rhythm. The famous opening line tells us where the song is headed immediately:

Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government

And of course the song ends with one of the most memorable lines, by anybody: “The pump don’t work, ‘cuz the vandals took the handles.” This rhymes with the earlier lines “Don’t wear sandals, Try to avoid the scandals.” This nonsense set of admonitions about keeping in line remind me also of Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier.” Seems like the vandals might be having more fun, even if they’ve ruined our chances of using the pump, which I assume to be a water pump, but maybe it’s gasoline?

Love Minus Zero/No Limit

This week introduced me to the song “Love Minus Zero,” which I don’t believe I’ve heard before. I hear roots of some of the songs on the Velvet Underground’s debut album here. The song features acoustic guitars, a clean electric guitar, bass guitar, and drums. The performance and chord progression give the song a ballad feel. Like a repeating cycle telling a tale, or in this case, perhaps, more a vignette. He sings about his love, but in praising her qualities he also implies criticism of society in general.

In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Some speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all

Mr. Tambourine Man

At this point, I’m more familiar with the Dylan version, but I knew the Byrd’s recording of “Mr. Tambourine” first. It definitely has more of the rectangle eye-glasses psychedelic feel than the original. I’ve also enjoyed William Shatner’s unique kitschy take, which sounds like it was recorded in front of Laugh-In’s joke wall. “

Many have covered “Mr. Tambourine Man.”: The song even became subject of literary interpretation in the movie “Dangerous Minds” from 1995. I admit I’ve never seen the full movie, but I have seen that clip. In the scene, the teacher suggests that the titular Mr. Tambourine Man is a drug dealer. This is a common, and commonly disputed, interpretation. It’s not difficult to see the possibility, and it’s certainly difficult to unsee it. We cannot trust Dylan to talk about his songs either.

Dylan plays the song in the key of D, which I think tends to sound ballady or jangly. I like that the song break into a chorus which start with the dominant (V) chord of G, rather than the typical tonic(D). Dylan’s voice jump directly into the opening “Hey!”; He sounds caught in the middle of a melody and he’s grabbing the listener into it.

The chord progression for the chorus is V-IV-I-V-I-V-IV-IV for the first two lines, which is unresolved. That resolution to the tonic comes at the end of the last two lines of the chorus. Those last two lines follow the same progression, except finish with the tonic D chord instead of extending the subdominant A.

The verses repeat a similar pattern, though Dylan sings the verses a little lower and more restrained than the chorus. Here the verses repeat the V-IV-I-V-I-V which open the chorus, then deviate with I-V-IV. He plays this twice before returning to the chorus.

Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you

Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”

album cover of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

This week, I’ve been listening to Lauryn’s Hill’s debut solo album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” from 1998. Though I was aware of its existence, I missed out on this album when it came out. I was well aware of the group Lauryn had just left, the Fugees, through their cover of “Killing Me Softly” from radio play. Lori Lieberman recorded the original, but it’s more likely that the Fugees cover more resembles the Robert Flack recording. Lauryn Hill’s singing was great, but I found the percussion and reggae vocal injections (“one time.. two times..”) annoying.

The Fugees had recently split up in 1997 and Hill began work on her this solo album. Bandmates Hill and Wyclef Jean had been romantically involved during their time in the Fugees. Jean continued the relationship even his marriage to another woman. During this affair, Hill started dating Bob Marley’s son Rohan, who was already married with two children. Rohan and his wife soon divorced and he and Hill stayed together and she soon had a son with Rohan. These are the circumstances under which Lauryn wrote this album, which touches on many of these topics.

Apparently, Lauryn drew some inspiration (and samples) from the movie “The Education of Sonny Carson.” I don’t know if there was much inspiration beyond the title, but the whole movie IS currently on YouTube. Several moments that reminded me of Stevie Wonder, especially “Every Ghetto, Every City.

From what I can gather in just one week, there’s an over-arching theme to the album running through between-song skits and emphasized by the album title. During the opening track, we hear an elementary school class start with the roll-call and Lauryn Hill is absent. She is absent on the day that the class learns about love, as revealed throughout the rest of the skit segments throughout the album. The point being that Lauryn missed out on the lessons of love and had to learn the hard way, by making mistakes. That’s probably how we all do it, actually.

Lost Ones

The first proper song of the album “Lost Ones” slam right into a rhyme-filled response to an ex after separation. Hill explains how she is the emancipated winner after the breakup. The chorus repeats “You might win some, but you just lost one.” referring to both Lauryn Hill and the battle.

The drum machine punches right in the middle, record scratches syncopation leading up to bar changes. Backing vocals echo and repeat the rhymes at the end of each line. The accompaniment is hard-hitting, but sparse. There’s not a lot going on underneath the vocals. Drum machine and record scratches run through the song, dropping out occasionally for emphasis. Dub-style echo-delay effected keys and guitars stab on the fourth beat of the verses, but even those are below the forward drums. A very low bass mostly rests, but plays notes to mark the movement from between every two or four measures.

There’s nearly non-stop rhyming, which has the effect of making some of the lyrics feel like punchlines. The verses do not have the same number of lines (18, 20, and 16), which is kind of strange. The first verse has the following rhyme scheme: A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-B-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A. The last line is the refrain “You might win some but you just lost one.” Hill delivers that line that doesn’t rhyme different, playing with the fact the third to last syllable DOES fit the rhyme scheme. The second verse: A-B-B-A-A-B-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-D-D-D-D, and those B’s are arguably slant rhymes of A. These lines are full of religious and cultural references, allegedly tying these comments directly to personal subject matter. Much lays on idea of temptation, repentance, and judgement.

Every man want to act like he’s exempt
Need to get down on his knees and repent
Can’t slick talk on the day of judgment
Your movement’s similar to a serpent
Tried to play straight, how your whole style bent?
Consequence is no coincidence
Hypocrites always want to play innocent
Always want to take it to the full out extent
Always want to make it seem like good intent
Never want to face it when it time for punishment

Ex-Factor

The feeling changes with the soulful next track, “Ex-Factor.” Here, the kick drum is still the strongest part of the accompaniment, but there’s much more instrumentation. A simple two note piano motif repeats at the end of several bars, creating movement. There are two organs: a gospel organ playing extended chords through a rotary speaker in the right channel, and a jazz organ playing ascending bright notes in the left channel. Where Hill rapped in the previous, here she sings beautifully. Both of which she does extremely well.

Lyrically, this song shows another emotional layer to the same breakup of the “Lost Ones.” Hill sings more about loss, confusion and helplessness in the face of betrayal. She’s been lied to and hurt; still accusing, but instead of preaching, she’s asking why. With this pair of tracks, we’re given two sides of why Hill should move on.

It could all be so simple
But you’d rather make it hard
Loving you is like a battle
And we both end up with scars
Tell me, who I have to be
To get some reciprocity
No one loves you more than me
And no one ever will

Doo-Wop (That Thing)

“Doo-Wop (That Thing)” mixes some instrumentation of doo-wop with hip hop. The song, however, lacks the doo-wop chord progression, but rather has an strange iii-ii chord progression. The horn riff plays a IV-iii-ii, with a pause after the ii chord. You can feel the resolution to the tonic, but it never actually happens. I like that.

The cautionary lyrics talk about one-night stands and reckless dating. Hill advises both men and women to grow up, be true, and sincere. She also warns about the temptations of sex that can lead to betrayal and dishonesty. Wordplay happens throughout, sometimes with lines rhyming with each other and featuring plenty of clever internal rhymes.

Talking out your neck, saying you’re a Christian
A Muslim, sleeping with the jinn(gin)
Now that was the sin that did Jezebel in
Who you going to tell when the repercussions spin?
Showing off your ass cause you’re thinking it’s a trend
Girlfriend, let me break it down for you again
You know I only say it cause I’m truly genuine
Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem