Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)”

Album cover for Enter the Wu-Tang

This week, I’ve been listening to the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” from 1993. I was completely unaware of the Wu-Tang Clan until around 1997; even then, I didn’t actually hear any of their stuff until very recently. This week introduced me to their ground-breaking variety of East Cost hardcore hip hop. In the 90s, a East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry in hip hop made mainstream news. Wu-Tang’s raw beat-driven music contrasted with the more melodic West Coast style of the time. While still prone to braggadocio, their lyrics were darker; less triumphant and more ambitious. The clan was not small. On this album, Wu-Tang Clan consisted of vocalist Inspectah Deck, vocalist GZA, vocalist Masta Killa, vocalist Raekwon, vocalist U-God, vocalist and producer Method Man, vocalist and producer Ol’ Dirty Bastard, vocalist, producer, and arranger RZA, vocalist and producer GhostfaceKillah, and turntablist 4th Disciple.

I ‘m not a rapper and I’m not equipped to discuss hip hop even though I do enjoy listening to it. I don’t expect to draw much from this album for my own music; However, I do believe that exposure to a great variety of art enriches one’s own work. In addition, I just really like listening to music and hearing new things. Each week, I listen to an album considered to be one of the greatest, because there must be something there worth learning from.

Bring Da Ruckus

After some sampling from kung-fu movies with a little bit of booming bass, the percussion and vocals begin. The first lines open the album appropriately, repeating “Bring the motherfucking ruckus.” This serves as the chorus between verses. Across the verses, we hear multiple vocalists rapping

. Throughout this album, the percussion beats right in the front right behind the vocals. It is the most important part of the accompaniment; the other musical elements provide more of an atmosphere than a more traditional purpose. Most of the music comes from samples of “Synthetic Substitution” by Melvin Bliss. The percussion is a mix of the drums of that song plus a drums-only “CB#5” from the “Funky Drummer vol. 1” collection made specifically for DJs and rap artists.

Wu-Tang work primarily with one or two bar looped samples to provide support for their vocals. Generally speaking, we don’t have chord progressions to speak of. That’s not the point. They’ve built a dark musical atmosphere with a heavy beat to support the rap vocals.

Most of the lines are rhyming couplets, though they are not strict about rhyming every line. The Wu-Tang Clan proves to be clever in their use of slant rhyme. We see not just the ends of lines rhyming, but plenty of assonance and internal rhymes. These lyrics combine wordplay and cultural references with rhythm. For example the lines “Redrum, I verbally assault with the tongue; Murder one, my style shot ya knot like a stun-gun.” The lines end with the rhyming “tongue” and “stun-gun”, but these also rhyme with “Redrum” and “Murder one”, shot rhymes with knot as well as the earlier :assault.” “Redrum” is a reference to Stephen King’s “The Shining” where it is “Murder” spelled backwards. These lines are tightly packed, appropriate for a song that largely brags about their ability to do so.

I rip it hardcore like porno-flick bitches
I roll with groups of ghetto bastards with biscuits
Check it, my method on the microphone’s banging
Wu-Tang slang’ll leave your headpiece hanging
Bust this, I’m kicking like Seagal, Out For Justice
The roughness, yes, the rudeness, ruckus
Redrum, I verbally assault with the tongue
Murder one, my style shot ya knot like a stun-gun

Can It Be All So Simple

“Can It Be All So Simple” opens with a the group reminiscing vaguely about the past which leads into samples of “The Way We Were” by Gladys Knight & The Pips. They combine music samples from different parts of the song with mild use of a drum machine. The result reminds me of Portishead, whose debut album “Dummy” came out a year later.

Raekwon starts by reminiscing the past, but also talking about how difficult it was. He describes how they had to turn to violence, because it was required of their situation. Ghostface Killah then describes their dream successful life. The chorus is a list of dedications, which makes use of anaphora, which is a poetic technique of starting a series of lines with the same word or phrase. In this case, “Dedicated to the..” starts each line of the chorus, interspersed with a manipulated sample of Gladys Knight, “Can it be that it was all so simple then?” Anaphora gives lines an automatic sense of rhythm, creating a catchy hook that can draw first-time listeners in.

Dedicated to the winners and the losers
Dedicated to all Jeeps and Land Cruisers
Can it be that it was all so simple then?
Dedicated to the 5’s, 850i’s
Dedicated to niggas who do drive-by’s
Can it be that it was all so simple then?
Dedicated to the Lexus and the Ac’s
Dedicated to MPV’s: phat!

C.R.E.A.M.

Perhaps my favorite track on the album, “C.R.E.A.M.” bemoans the influence of money’s importance in a Capitalist society. In particular, they focus on the people on the streets; Inspectah Deck tells his story as a young man returning to society after spending teen years in jail for selling drugs. He went to jail for a crime committed to make ends me, and comes out to see that money continues to cause problems for those around him. It’s the struggles of the have-nots in a society rules by the haves.

Method Man delivers the great hook of this song, the chorus. It consists of an acronym and a rhythmic repetitive phrase. As is often the case in a well-written song, the verses tell a story and the chorus delivers the message of the story. The repetition of “Dollar dollar bill” followed by “ya’ll” is extremely catchy and I found myself singing it throughout the day after the first couple listens. The cadence of this line works perfectly against the piano line sampled from the Charmel’s “As Long As I Got You.

Cash rules everything around me,
cream, get the money
Dollar dollar bill, y’all.
Cash rules everything around me,
cream, get the money
Dollar dollar bill, y’all.

The Stone Roses’ “The Stone Roses”

Cover for Stone Rose's Self-Titled Album

This week, I’ve been listening to the Stone Roses’ self-titled debut album from 1989. I fell in love with this album the first time I heard it in 1994. My friend Julie in high school played the CD for me, probably the same day she introduced me to The Fall and the Beautiful South. Their sound was nostalgic and dreamy, at times psychedelic, others watery or airy. While it drew on influences of so much music I’d grown up with, I’d never heard anything quite like it. The Stones Roses hold an evolutionary position between the Paisley Undeground genre of the 80s and the Britpop genre of the 90s. In a way, what they created was Paisley Underground influenced by the rhythms of Acid-House music. Singer Ian Brown and guitarist John Squire wrote the songs. Bassist Mani providing much of the rolling grove and drummer Reni lending the songs their dancing beats.

She Bangs the Drums

The Stone Roses started to really catch international attention with their single “She Bangs the Drums.” The song describes being enamored with a girl through description of listening to music. The song that he hears perfectly captures the emotions he feels, partly because she causes him to hear the music. The seven line verses follow a AABBCCC rhyme scheme, and the six line chorus has AABCCB.

The third and sixth lines of the chorus are the same, “to describe the way I feel.” This makes the chorus two sets of three lines. The first set explains how there are no words to describe how he feels, and then the second set tell how she is the only one who can describe how he feels. This works captures the theme of the song cleverly. The feelings she causes within the speaker cause him to hear music; music which perfectly expresses how he feels; And as much as she plays the music, she has conceptually become the music.

I can feel the earth begin to move
I hear my needle hit the groove
And spiral through another day
I hear my song begin to say
Kiss me where the sun don’t shine
The past was yours
But the future’s mine
You’re all out of time

The verse of the song repeat a V-V-V-IV, to simplify it. The bright slightly-overdriven guitars mix rocking chord strumming with arpeggios that create psychedelic swirling textures. The chorus repeats a I-IV-I-IV-I-IV-V progression. The fact that the verses do not include the tonic chord helps the I-IV progression of the chorus feel more anthemic. The feeling is that the chorus musically provides the resolution (on the word “feel”) that the verses have been leading up to.

Waterfall

“Waterfall” opens with a low fade-in feedback met by single-note arpeggios played on electric guitar.. This guitar tone is an incredibly important part of the Stone Roses’ sound. Squire frequently combines the overdrive with chorus. In most cases, he pushes the overdrive only just to the breaking point; The use of chorus is similarly subtle, adding just enough to be present. This gives his guitar a richer tone while still coming across pretty clean. When he wants to go more of a lead tone, he adds some fuzz. And of course, the guitar sits in clouds of reverb, as does everything else.

The lyrics tells of a woman asserting independence by running away and finding her own life. Perhaps she is young and the home she leaves is her parents, or maybe she’s later in life and escaping an unfulfilling life. As the song progresses, the hints also get stronger that this woman may also be a symbol for Britain threatened by American influence. Either way, the narrator assures that “She’ll carry on through it all.” The last line suggests that what threatens her is what empowers her:

See the steeple pine
The hills as old as time
Soon to be put to the test
To be whipped by the winds of the west

Stands on shifting sands
The scales held in her hands
The wind it just whips her away
And fills up her brigantine sails

I love the sound of this song; I also love that the next song on the album “Don’t Stop” is based on Waterfall in reverse.. It’s like a mirror placed between the two tracks, and yet their different. They even wrote and sang lyrics that sound like Waterfall’s reverse vocals. Both songs stand on their own, but are even better back-to-back.

I Am the Resurrection

My favorite track “I Am the Resurrection” closes the album. It opens with an unassuming drum pattern. Just kick and snare and hi-hat. Then the bass joins after a full 8 bars. This same pattern plays through most of the song proper, with a few cymbal crashes and banging fills leading intoa and out of the refrains. That’s 15 seconds with nothing a repeated drum pattern without variation. Ian sings “Down, down, you bring me down.”

There are what we might consider two choruses to the song. . I’m talking about the “I am the resurrection and I am the life, I couldn’t ever bring myself to hate you as I’d like.” Though what I’m calling the main chorus, COULD qualify as the coda. Though when the proper song ends after about 3 and half minutes, the band launches into a 4 and half minute extended outro. It’s brilliant and servers as an outro for both the song and the album as a whole. Being purely instrumental for over 4 minute allows the band to jam out with a drummer banging away at a funky-drummer inspired beat.

Don’t waste your words I don’t need anything from you
I don’t care where you’ve been or what you plan to do

Neil Young’s “Harvest”

Album cover for Harvest by Neil Young

I’ve been listening to Neil Young‘s fourth album “Harvest” from 1972, this week. Last year. I spent a week with his third album “After the Gold Rush” from 1970. The two albums differ little in sound and composition style making them almost feel like two parts of a double-LP. Those songs where he does venture beyond the folk country-rock prove to be the weakest tracks; The unnecessarily cinematic “A Man Needs a Maid” and the dramatically orchestral “There’s a World” impress with their aspirations, but fail to actually be enjoyable songs. “A Man Needs a Maid” features some of Young’s best singing and a great melody. A stripped down version proves to be much better.

Old Man

I had difficulty choosing between “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold.” Ultimately, I decided to focus on “Old Man.” “Heart of Gold” provides a great example of Young’s country-rock style. “Old Man” intrigues me far more from a songwriting perspective.

The chord progressions is.. well, strange. From what I can gather, Young and band perform the song in the key of D major, with frequent dips into D minor and maybe G major. I do not believe rock musicians discuss theory to this extent; while they understand theory, they probably played what sounded right for the song.

For the verses, the chords are mostly D-F-C-G. In the key of D, that’s I-II#-VI#-IV. In the key of D minor, that’s I-III-VI-IV. In the key of G, that’s V-VI#-IV-I. With all of this potentially borrowing of chords, I try to follow the feel of the melody and other instruments to determine what feels like the tonic. The proves elusive too. Therefore, I assume we have frequent key changes. The verses open in D major, shift to D minor, and return to D major. That makes it I-III-VII-IV, with middle to chords in the relative minor key. The chorus in that case, following III7-I, started in D minor but focuses on D major.

All this modulating combined with Young’s unique singing voices gives the song a pensive and unresolved eerie feeling. That works well for the contemplative lyrics. The speaker talks to an old man, inspired by a conversation Young had with the caretaker of a house he’d recently bought. He shares that while they may have had different lives, they really aren’t that different from each other. At their hearts, what they need is love. There’s not a consistent rhyme scheme from one verse to the next, but the lines do rhyme. Most frequently, there’s internal rhymes with single lines.

Old man, look at my life
Twenty-four, and there’s so much more
Live alone in a paradise
That makes me think of two
Love lost, such a cost
Give me things that don’t get lost
Like a coin that won’t get tossed
Rolling home to you

The Needle and the Damage Done

Young again defies the constraints of key in “The Needle and the Damage Done.” They used a live recording featuring only vocals and guitar for the album track. The audience remains attentively quiet through the performance. This delicately pensive pained song bemoans the heroin addiction and its consequences. He picks dancing arpeggios throughout the song, like trills over the chord’s root note.

The song is mostly in the key of D, but borrows chords frequently. There is no chorus here, but rather a series of short two-line verses followed by a one-line refrain.; though its not a strict refrain, as the lyrics vary considerably. The first and second lines rhyme

Also, where most songs return to the tonic at the end of the refrain, Young ends on a major supertonic. This complete lack of resoluton makes that major chord feel lost and longing. This provides subtle emotional impact, supporting the lyrics. The chord progression for verses is an unusual I-VI#-VIX9-IV-iv-V#-VI#-IIIb-IIsus-II. With all these borrowed chords, I can’t for certain pin down the key; However, listening to the melody, I believe I have identified it correctly.

I hit the city and I lost my band
I watched the needle take another man
Gone, gone, the damage done

Words (Between the Lines of Age)

The song “Words (Between the Lines of Age” closes the album. Former Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young band members Stephen Stills and Graham Nash provide backing vocals. The band repeat the same i-V-VI-i chord progression throughout, at slow churning tempo around 45 BPM. We hear Young’s characteristic overdriven guitar playing rhythm in the left channel and leads in the right. There is a great sense of the room in the recording, which helps the overdubs to sound like they were live.

The verses consist of three sets of couplets, with some internal slant rhymes. The chorus completes the verses, making it more of a traditional refrain. This refrain is basically the same line twice. These lines seems like a prophetic dream, with the speaker being visited first by gift-givers and then imagining another life. What’s he talking about, I don’t know. But it sounds good.

If I was a junkman selling you cars
Washing your windows and shining your stars
Thinking your mind was my own in a dream
What would you wonder? And how would it seem?
Living in castles a bit at a time
The King started laughing and talking in rhyme
Singing words, words between the lines of age
Words, words between the lines of age

De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising”

Album cover for 3 Feet High and Rising

This week, I’ve been listening to De La Soul’s debut album “3 Feet High and Rising” from 1989. When I was 12 years old, My sister and I stayed with my mom in a loft apartment above a natural food store. The owner lived nearby and I had a crush on his 15 year old daughter. One day she was sitting on their porch and kept saying “Hi, I’m Mr. Fish. How do you do? As for me, I’m in tip-top shape today.” from De La Soul’s track “Tread Water.” Well, that was enough to get me started listening to them. And I continued to enjoy this throughout middle school and into high school. I don’t even remember the name of the girl that introduced me to it, but I still love this album.

De La Soul worked with Prince Paul creating one of the most innovative and influential hip hop albums of all time. The set aside much of the macho bravado that dominated rap lyrics in exchange for more philosophical musings on love, peace, spirituality, relationships, and identity. They promoted a more positive peaceful way of living an enacting change, in contrast to their contemporaries who spoke more of violence and anger.

Likewise, they mixed surprising sources into their music, using the Casio RZ-1 8-bit sampling drum machine. Samples appear from such artists as Hall & Oates, Steely Dan, Johnny Cash, Led Zeppelin. Their use of samples also changed hip hop in another, more legal, way. The Turtles sued for the unauthorized sample of their recording of the Byrd’s “You Showed Me” in “Transmitting Live From Mars.” The out-of-court settlement changed the practices of sample-based music to include clearing samples. The following year, hip hop group Salt N Pepa released their own version of “You Showed Me.” I don’t know if they did so out of response to the De La Soul controversy on or not, but I’d assume they cleared their samples.

Potholes In My Lawn

I found it very difficult to only pick three songs to talk about here, because that means excluding so many other great tracks. I definitely was not going to ignore my favorite, “Potholes in My Lawn.” I like the the way they use effects to alter the vocal. Most of the vocals follow the same relaxed rhythmic while the use of echo-delay and changes in accompaniment provide variety and a sense of movement.

The surrealistic lyrics invite interpretation without much indication. I suspect they’re talking about the threat that negative criticism and self-doubt pose to the creative process. Where the lush green lawn would be an artist’s utopia where the writer’s genius work would just flow from them; the potholes pose as those areas of self-doubt, making it difficult to walk around. The lyrics casually rhyme here and there. It’s more a playful use of rhyme than following a strict pattern.

Everybody’s sayin’
What to do when suckin’ lunatics start diggin’ and chewin’
They don’t know that the Soul don’t go for that
Potholes in my lawn
And that goes for my rhyme sheet
Which I concentrated so hard on, see
I don’t ask for maximum security
But my dwellin’ is swellin’
It nipped my bud when I happened to fall
Into a spot
Where no ink or an ink-blot
Was on a scroll
I just wrote me a new ‘mot’
But now it’s gone
There’s no
Suckers knew that I hate
To recognise that every time I’m writin’
It’s gone

They primarily built the accompaniment around sampling the War song “Magic Mountain.” They’ve sped up the original, giving it a brighter more positive sound. The yodel that servers as a chorus came from the Parliament track “Little Ole Country Boy.” A drum machine pattern emphasizes the beat. Mostly these are the kick and snare, with hi-hat sounds used to “hurry up” the beat, using during the third beat. In the late-80s/early-90s, this was a popular place to play in the beat. The rest of measure would often follow basic patterns, but between the third and fourth beat, something interesting would happen which encouraged many of the dance styles of the time.

Me Myself and I

De La Soul’s biggest hit “Me Myself and I” stands as one of their best. In the song, they reference the Jungle Brothers’ track “Black is Black,” from which they drew the vocal rhythm. They took the dominant sample of the song, including the synth hook from “(Not Just) Knee Deep” by Funkadelic. They’ve layered samples from a few other artists, as well as made use of the drum machine to strengthen and give continuity to the beat.

I love the intro with the snare on the first and third beats, with kick on second and fourth beat; this dramatically turns the beat upside. It’s disorientating, exciting, while maintaining the beat. They also use the fader control on their table to produce a stuttering effect to the backing vocals during the chorus. This funky effect gives life to the track while creatively manipulating their source material.

Eye Know

Their single “Eye Know” gets its refrain and synth hook from Steely Dan’s “Peg.” Originally, the line “I know I love you better” was the last line of Peg’s second verse, but here it has become the chorus. This is noteworthy, because usually when a sample is used for the chorus of a hip-hop song, it was the chorus of the original song as well. The strummed guitar and melodic horn stabs were sampled from the beginning of “Make This Young Lady Mine” by The Mad Lads. This time, they’ve sampled acoustic drums from “Get Out My Life, Woman” by Lee Dorsey.

The speakers offer a life-long relationship to an ambiguous female love interest. Each three members of De La Soul each get a verse, where they share a little of their philosophy of love and relationships. Throughout the song, there’s self-introductions and visions of a beautiful life together. These are peppered with references to other songs on the album, as well as songs by other hip hop artists, including another reference to the Jungle Brothers(“Behind the Bush“). De La Soul does not shy away from throwing references in, making little jokes in their songs, and just generally having fun doing what they are doing. On this album, they strike an impressive balance of being playful while being true to their vision.

We could live in my Plug Two home
And on Mars where we could be all alone
And we make a song for two
Picture perfect things and I sing of how
I know I love you better

The Stooges’ “Fun House”

This week, I’ve been listening to 1970 album “Funhouse” by The Stooges. I’ve been aware of Iggy Pop as more of an idea, a character in the history of rock and punk rock, without a real exposure to his work. Honestly, I know him more for his 1977 response to why he vomited on stage than his musical work. Well, it’s a shame it took me so long. I found this album to be truly exciting. I immediately recognized the influence that the Stooges must’ve had on one of my favorite artists, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The birth of punk rock was about 4 years away and yet here was the roots. Without even considering its influence, this is a solidly great album. Aurally, it’s all the dangerous excitement of rock n roll amplified, after all Rock Around the Clock was already starting to sound quaint.

T.V. Eye

Iggy Pop howls, opening “T.V. Eye’ with a scream, “Lord! Stop it!” Then Ron Asheton kicks into a paranoid riving riff on a coarse fuzz-guitar. This pure rock riff repeats throughout most of the song; It’s simplified for the chorus, and goes away during the solo since there’s only one guitarist. For a post-solo bridge and outro, Asheton plays the same note in a palm-muted eighth-note pattern. There’s no discussion of chord progression to be had here. The guitarist’s younger brother Scott Asheton bangs on the drums: a snare on every quarter note and kick providing a pulsing hop between.

I’m not exactly sure what Iggy’s on about, but it apparently has something to do with a cat watching him. The lyrics are few and repeated often. These words shoot past any resemblance of poetry straight to the feeling with a rock n roll attitude.

See that cat
Down on her back?
See that cat
Down on her back?
She got a TV eye on me
She got a TV eye
She got a TV eye on me

Dirt

The next song, “Dirt” provides seven minutes of burning punk blues in a dark atmosphere. Dave Alexander’s bass groove rolls the song along through the night. Sparse drums punctuate the brooding rhythm that hovers around 72 bpm. The bass carries the song along, while the fuzz guitar mostly provides effects. Driving muted single-note rhythms, mournful arpeggios and dramatic octave-long slides. This song provides little in the way of a chord progression. The chorus descends through a i-VII-VI-VI progression, otherwise the song rolls along on the tonic. Iggy howls, spits, growls and moans, having been hurt at the hands of a lover. The words and their delivery carry a strong emotional impact; the hurt is a mixture of sadness, denial, and anger.

Yeah, alright
Oh, I’ve been hurt
But I don’t care
Oh, I’ve been hurt
But I don’t care
‘Cause I’m burning inside
I’m just a-dreaming this life
And do you feel it?
Said, do you feel it when you touch me?
Said, do you feel it when you cut me?
There’s a fire
Well, it’s a fire
Just burning
Inside

1970

This energetic shuffling punk blues-rock kicks off the second side of the LP. The Stooges snarl through this take on “The Train Kept Rollin’” style of rockabilly blues; Knowing Joe Perry of Aerosmith liked the Stooges, I suspect that influence may’ve come back around in Aerosmith’s cover of “The Train Kept a Rollin’” a few years later.

The chord progression snaps and back rapidly between I-iii. The bass and drums pop along a jumping blues groove through the verses, and the roll into a drive for the chorus. Often the drum fills remind me of the loop used in The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows“. It’s that rolling fill at the end that does it, and lends this Stooges track much of its energy. Obviously, Pop’s snarls and yells do that as well. They’ve written lyrics that follow more of a poetic form here, whereas most of the songs are more direct rock n roll sputs and startles. Both styles work well for them.

Out of my mind on Saturday night
Nineteen-seventy rolling in sight
Radio burning up above
Beautiful baby, feed my love all night
Till I blow away
All night
Till I blow away
I feel alright. I feel alright

Portishead’s “Dummy”

Album cover for Portishead's Dummy

This week, I’ve been listening to Portishead’s debut album “Dummy” from 1994. I remember how excitingly unusual and new this album sounded when I was 17 years old. This combination of goth, hip hop and jazz came from another world; that dark alien digital world was filled with the smoke and fog of human emotion. In this world, Nine Inch Nails were the rock n roll and Portishead were the jazz-soul. This was my and much of the world’s introduction to the trip-hop genre, though I don’t think the name existed yet. While I spent more time listening to Nine Inch Nails, I definitely enjoyed Portishead as well. I seem to have lost touch with most of these songs over time, only really remember a few of them; It was good to spend a week revisiting, even though I didn’t love it as much as I used to.

Sour Times

The second track, “Sour Times,” provides a great example of what Portishead is about. They built the accompaniment around samples of a late 1960s crime-noir jazz piece “Danube Incident” by Lalo Schifrin. Over of this, they have layered organic instruments and synths emphasizing elements of the original score. Beth Gibbons sings about longing for a former lover who has since gotten married to another.

Cause nobody loves me, it’s true
Not like you do

There’s an unusual instrument rises and falls from the back to the front. More percussive than melodic. ; it makes me think of Tibetan prayer wheels, even though they sound nothing like this. It’s quite possibly a cimbalom, which they’ve played in a jangly sinister way. There was something similar in the Schifrin song that sounds more like a plucked violin, or piano strings. It gives the track an non-specific ethnic feel, like some far away culture.

Numb

I love the scratching of Ray Charles’s “I’ve Got a Woman” throughout Portishead’s “Numb.” The track showcases some very good performance and songwriting, but it’s the use of a turntable that pushes the song into something fantastic. They use some traditional hip-hop techniques in a more languid broken-hearted way. The original melody gets chopped up slowly, pitches descend, as the heart gives out. This produces a far-off and lonely atmosphere with an instrument normally used for excitement and energy.

Glory Box

The greatest track on the album is definitely “Glory Box.” It rightly closes out the album, sounding like the end-credits of a sci-fi noir film. Portishead built the backing music mostly from “Ike’s Rap 2” by Isaac Hayes. As with other songs, they add their own instrumentation to emphasize or change elements of the original song.

An unfortunate thing that happens throughout this album becomes most apparent to me in this song: the use of samples locks them into a key and especially with a chord progression. Where this has always bother me is the end of “Glory Box.” There’s a bridge where the character of the song changes, a break-down. Then the song returns back to where it was. Had they been using all original instruments, I suspect they would’ve opted for a key-change at the end.

Give me a reason to love you
Give me a reason to be a woman
I just wanna be a woman

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