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

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

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

Car Wheels On A Gravel Road

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

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

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

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

Drunken Angel

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

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

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

Lake Charles

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

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

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

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

Hank Williams’s “40 Greatest Hits”

Cover for Hank Williams's 40 Greatest Hits album

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

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

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

Move It On Over

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

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

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

Ramblin’ Man

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

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

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

Hey, Good Lookin’

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

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

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

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

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

40 Greatest Hits

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

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

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

The Rolling Stones’ “Aftermath”

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

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

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

I Am Waiting

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

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

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

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

Think

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

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

Doncha Bother Me

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

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

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

Jeff Buckley’s “Grace”

Cover for Jeff Buckley's album

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

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

Mojo Pin

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

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

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

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

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

Lover, You Should Have Come Over

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

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

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

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

Last Goodbye

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

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

Sly and the Family Stone’s “There’s a Riot Goin’ On”

Album cover of There's a Riot Goin' On

This week, I’ve been listening to Sly and the Family Stone’s fifth album “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” from 1971. With this album, Sly Stone took the group in a different direction from their more pop and more optimistic music, like “Everyday People.” Drug use had become heavier, especially cocaine and PSP, which slowed down music production and certainly affected their moods. It also affected the mood of the increasingly impatient record company. He had also joined the Black Panthers and they pressured him to fire the white musicians in the band, when he had intentionally created the band with a mix of black-white and male-female. The Black Panthers put further pressure on him to make the songs as a black-power call to arms. It was in this space of being pulled in multiple directions amongst drugs, hopelessness, paranoia, conflicting ideologies, and the ongoing Vietnam War, that he wrote and recorded “There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

Sly Stone worked on the album mostly by himself, alone in the recording studio or at home in his bedroom. He used the Maestro Rhythm King drum machine for much of the percussion. He then overdubbed individual instruments that he played. Band members contributed additional instrumentation and vocals,one at a time alone in the studio with Stone. Apparently this process involved considerable bouncing down and overdubbing; Areas of the songs and groups of instruments are mixed poorly, there’s quite a bit of mud and tape hiss. There are times his vocals, presumably recorded while laying in bed, delivered half-hearted get buried in the mix. The vocals,usually the focal point of a recording, get lost. There’s a lot to enjoy and appreciate in this album, but it can be frustrating to listen to.

Luv N’ Haight

“Luv N’ Haight” opens the album with electric bass thumped like a drum, then delivering an urgent driving bassline. Joined by acoustic drums, somewhat lost in the groove and mix. A funky wah-wah guitar talks rhythmically on the upbeat. Backing vocals and the wah guitar bring up anticipation, then the fall back for the first verse.

Stone repeats the the line, “Feel so good inside myself, don’t want to move.” perhaps describing how he felt while high. He may also be playing with opposites the same way the title does, and referring simultaneously to the way one feels buried by depression. The title is a pun references the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco. The name “Haight-Ashbury” had become synonymous with the hippie ideals of peace, love, freedom, drugs, music, optimism, etc. By 1967, it became the center of the Summer of Love. That was the height of Haight, which could not sustain the crowd it ultimately attracted. The drugs got harder and the attitude got paranoid. The mood had changed from glad to sadness. People often identify the the Manson family Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969 as the nightmare that truly signaled the end of the Summer of Love. Stone recorded this song the following year. Despite a few other lines and backing vocals, he doesn’t stray beyond this single message.

The music picks up in rhythm intensity towards the end for the coda. Backing vocals ping-pong from left to right channel in call and response: “Feels so good,” “Feels so good.” “Wanna move,” “Wanna move.” They drop the “don’t” probably for rhythmic reasons, but it definitely changes the meaning of the line. Despite the apparent chaos, there’s instrumentation is fairly sparse. The drums are almost completely kick, snare, tom, and hi-hat. There is the clean electric bass that plays almost completely plays the root of each chord, acting more as an additional percussion instrument. The wah-guitar sounds more improvised than planned. There are some horns buried so deep in the mix that you more feel them than hear them. Layers of backing vocals fly about the stereo field. A piano plays off-kilter rhythmic chords, coming and going in the mix, appearing only in the second half of the song.

Family Affair

This track comes across much more mellow and intentional. It opens with electric piano played by famous session musician Billy Preston. Billy Preston played on many records in the 1960s; his contribution to Beatles recordings receives particular recognition. The electric piano in one channel is heavily modified by rhythmic sweeping of a volume pedal, which removes the attack swells on the upbeat. The electric piano in the other channel is left dry. At first, Preston plays a single strike of the chords on the first beat of each measure. After the first verse, he improves melodic arpeggios and chords during the third and fourth beat of the first each two bars. This addition to the groove continues into later verses.

The drum machine has been filtered, rolling off the high end giving it a more muted feel. This creates a pulsing throbbing feel to the percussion, allowing all of the other instruments to sit on top. The loose bass guitar is kept low in the mix, providing just enough underlying tonal groove to support the accompaniment. Except for a few wah-muted solos, the electric guitar is kept hidden. Stone’s vocals are up-close and tight, dry and in front. Again, he’s delivering them somewhere between a smooth singing and low-key talking. Here it totally works, it sounds cool. The tight recording and having them mixed to sit just above the accompaniment makes a big difference.

Runnin’ Away

Towards the end of the album “Runnin’ Away” provides a strange change in feeling. It’s more light-hearted in feel. Male and female double up in perfect unison. The female vocals are up-front with the male vocals adding additional texture lower-end texture. The male vocals are mixed so low, they’re near subliminal. Acoustic drums provide a simple beat, galloping bass guitar provides a throbbing low end, and filtered acoustic guitar strums rhythms between verses. The accompaniment pulls back during the verses, allowing them to take focus. The lyrics takes a sly dig at the disintegration of the hippie movement. Mid-60s Bacharach style trumpet lines enhance the optimistic feel of the song; The lyrics about failure contrast with this feel. This is a joke mocking the failure of the hippie dream.While there is not a consistent scheme for where rhymes happen, rhyming is seen throughout. And the first line of each line ends with a mocking laugh.

Running away to get away, ha-ha, ha-ha
You’re wearing out your shoes
Look at you fooling you
Making blues of night and day, hee-hee, hee-hee
You’re stretching out your dues
Look at you fooling you
Shorter cut is quicker but, Ha-ha, ha-ha
Time is here to stay
Look at you fooling you

Sonic Youth’s “Daydream Nation”

Album cover for Daydream Nation

This week, I’ve been listening to Sonic Youth’s double-LP “Daydream Nation” from 1988. The band formed in 1981, creating no-wave noise rock. No-wave describes a movement that started in the late-70s. These musicians were inspired by elements of punk-rock but rejected its musically-conservative nature. Punk promised rebellion by creating something new rejecting what they saw as commercial music out of touch with reality. Most punk did so by making a return to the song-writing of early rock of the 1950s. This meant following long established song-structures and chord-progressions. No-wave intentionally avoided these norms like Ornette Coleman did with free-jazz. Sonic Youth developed their sound and style from these no-wave roots. By “Daydream Nation,” they combined the experimental sound with somewhat more traditional song-structures.

I first heard Sonic Youth when a friend lent my their 1990 album “Goo” in 1994. It took me a few listens to get into it and then I loved it.

Teenage Riot

The album opens strong with “Teenage Riot.” This 7 minute track consists of an 79 second long intro of a single clean electric guitar playing a series of two simple chords slowly. Female vocalist Kim Gordon speaks in a blasé manner, recording twice and panned hard left-hard-right. The words give new meaning to teenage poetry: “You’re it; no, you’re it;hey, you’re really it; you’re it;no I mean it, you’re it;say it,don’t spray it.” As with much of Sonic Youth’s vocals, they give us passionate rebellion with a disconnected cool like Andy Warhol in sunglasses. They’re cultivate an impression of being uncultivated. By elevating the mundane emptiness of self-conscious youth culture, they creating art out of the superficial and question the sublime. Its quite clear throughout this album that they appreciate the Velvet Underground and carry on many of those traditions.

Like the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth songs frequently evolve into a driving mechanical rhythm. With guitarists strumming continuous hard beats, with the movement happening more on the fretboard. They build up rock rhythms on during the first couple bars, then rise up to higher notes. This repeats, dropping back down. It gives the impression of a rock n roll machine.

Sonic Youth are not afraid of alternate tunings; Or rather, they depend upon them. The main guitar on this song is tuned to what has become known as the “Teenage Riot” tuning (GABDEG). The other guitar uses a bizarre tuning with four of the strings all tuned to a G note and the other two tuned to a D (GGDDGG). Tunings like these can lead to creating new patterns and combinations of notes, as they break a musician from established habits of playing. Guitar strings tuned far from standard tuning vibrate differently and resonate with each other different. This creates new sonic territory for the instrument.

Thurston Moore delivers the vocals throughout the rest of the song. The verses follow an ABAB rhyme scheme. The first and third lines use particularly loose slant rhymes like “location/rockin'” and “weather/temper.” The second and fourth lines, stick to strict rhymes like “true/two”, “you/clue”, “you/do” that all rhyme with each. An interesting technique with the “you/do” is that the “do” is not the end of the line; the line is sung with extending the word “you” to allow it to rhyme while following up with “me for now.” Lyrically, this is a song about adolescent turmoil, meaninglessness and the savior rock n roll.

Looking for a ride to your secret location
Where the kids are setting up a free-speed nation for you
Got a foghorn and a drum and a hammer that’s rockin’
And a cord and a pedal and a lock, that’ll do me for now

The Sprawl

The third track, “The Sprawl” takes the driving rhythm of “teenage riot” and melts it into a rock n roll drone. Bass and guitars harmonically blend into a numbing hum. Gordon speaks, “To the extent that I wear skirts and cheap nylon slips, I’ve gone native. I wanted to know the exact dimensions of hell. Does this sound simple? Fuck you!” She’s dawned the costume of society’s female to learn and expose it as a facade. The lyrics continue into a condemnation of consumerism and societal expectations. The rhyming chorus succinctly provides the message as a catchy slogan, like a marketing jingle. The repetition here makes it memorable, but also suits the message.

Come on down to the store
You can buy some more and more and more and more
Come on down to the store
You can buy some more and more and more and more

Rain King

What I really like about this album is that it provides an atmosphere of rock n roll attitude. Through their evoluation from late 70s no-wave, combined with Warholian laissez-faire, they’ve precipitated 90s slacker subculture. Often mischaracterized as not-caring, the more philosophical side of slacker was concerned with dismantling meaningless constructs of society. They were frequently educated: some college, or college-preparatory high school, or self-taught through literature. They felt pressures from society regarding how they should make decisions about school, career, fashion, friends, music, etc, and they asked “why?” They explored these expectations and found it was a mess of self-perpetuating materialistic consumerist boondoggle.

The heart of Slacker culture was not laziness. It seemed to be a bunch of kids who didn’t care because they had chosen to disregard what the old men cared about. It was a mass existential crisis, a new Beatnik revolution attempting to create something good out of a discovery of inanity.

Ornette Coleman’s “The Shape of Jazz to Come”

Album cover for The Shape of Jazz to Come

I’ve been listening to Ornette Coleman’s third album “The Shape of Jazz to Come” from 1959. This release receives credit for creating the genre of free-jazz. The producer suggested the title “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” because of the innovative nature of the compositions and performances. Free Jazz intentionally resists established conventions of jazz music, while further embracing the jazz’s improvisational aspects. Coleman’s quartet take a major shift from convention by lacking any instruments capable of voicing chords. Billy Higgins plays drums, Charlie Haden plays bass, Don Cherry plays a pocket trumpet, and Coleman plays a plastic saxophone. There is a noteworthy absence of piano or guitar.

Each week, I devote time to a different album widely considered to be one of the greatest albums of all time. My main purpose is to broaden my horizons and improve my own songwriting, performance, recording and production. Writing about them forces me to think further about what I’ve heard from a more technical standpoint. I often give most attention to the lyrics and chord progressions. From there, I may look at the instrumentation and rhythmic structure, the mixing and production, the atmosphere and attitude, and maybe some of the cultural significance.

Each time I get a jazz album, it presents a great challenge. My experience as both a listener and musician is primarily in descendants of folk, country, and blues music, especially rock music genres. Songs in these genres generally have a foundation of lyrics sung melodically over chord-progression based accompaniment. So far, I’ve for this weekly-album project I’ve listened to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and now Ornette Coleman. These jazz albums are considered great for having innovated and challenged convention. I enjoy listening to these albums, but I feel woefully ill-equipped to talk about them. Still, I proceed…

Lonely Woman

Ornette Coleman had worked in a department store; during a break, he “came across a gallery where someone had painted a very rich woman who had absolutely everything that you could desire in life, and she had the most solitary expression in the world.” The memory of this painting inspired him to compose “Lonely Woman.”

The song opens with a slow bassline, like a mellow march, joined by fast drums in the background. Both are panned center, with the drums fairly low in the mix. The high-hats dance frantically, as if they have some place to be, pulling the song along. At 18 seconds, the pocket trumpet and saxophone separated into the left and right channels. They play in unison the same melody in slightly different ways, usually about trumpet a few notes higher. It gives the feeling we are hearing two recordings of the song in different keys being played at the same time. Heard in mono, there’s some strange dissonance that happens, but in stereo, they come together in a beautifully odd way.

Coleman developed a concept he called “harmolodic” which allows for improvisation, with emphasis given to melody over harmony. Harmlodics encouraged breaking from the convention of the tonal center. Tonal center is the idea that the tonic note of a chord is the home to and from which melody and chord progressions dance. In the key of F, a song will typically start with the F chord through a series of progressions return to the F chord, usually returning to F in patterns to keep the song grounded. Melodies in the key of F, likewise consists of melodic phrases that often begin with F and end on F. Recognizing their inherently limiting nature, Coleman sought to knowingly work around conventions like these.

Congeniality

“Congeniality” jumps right into an optimistic melody played on the sax and trumpet at an upbeat tempo. This lasts for 3 seconds, a short snare drum roll, and then the tempo drops as the two horns play a mournful melody briefly. The first minute of the tracks mostly consists of this back and forth between cheerful up-tempo and slow mournful melodies.

Then the drums drive in bopping along with bass that almost feels like it’s constantly rising in mood. The horns take turns improvising and dancing with occasional references to the melody introduces at the beginning. The songs on this album follow a structure much like this. Themes are introduced, then the song changes feel often with the drums picking up, and the lead instruments improvising. They make call-backs to the themes, they turn themes upside-down and inside-out. They throws the themes back and forth, exploring the possibilities. There may or may not be another section that introduces different themes. And at the end, all those mutations and experimentation are brought together to return to the original themes. In a way, it’s like replacing the “tonal center” idea with melodic themes instead. With these compositions, Coleman questions the definition of music: what can we change, what rules can rewrite, and still create something musical?

Van Morrison’s “Moondance”

Cover of Van Morrison's album "Moondance"

This week,I’ve been listening to Van Morrison’s third solo album “Moondance” from 1970. Though I’ve heard his songs on occasion my whole life, my real introduction to him came about two years ago. I spent a week with his second solo album “Astral Weeks” as part of this great albums project. That album did not appeal toe me at first. By the end of that week, I stil did not care for it much, but within a year it became one of my absolute favorite albums. My son got me a vinyl copy of the album for Christmas, and I purchased the Record Store Day release of outtakes. My guitar practice time often involves playing a “Madame George.

I’ve been looking forward to listening to another album of Morrison’s work. This absolutely did not disappoint. This album is more immediately accessible than “Astral Weeks.” That tracks on that previous album can feel like they go on too long, as the performance venture off into a mildly evolving folk jazz. The performances on “Moondance,” while incorporating some jazz-influence, lean more towards folk rock and have more tight composition of pop songs.

Caravan

The third track “Caravan” immediately caught my attention. I really like the “turn it up.. turn it up” section that ends each chorus. The key there is the rhythm. The band hits twice and rests while Morrison sings emphasizing the next two beats. It’s a back and forth call-and-response, with the accompaniment leading. This rhythmically engaging exchange utilizes repetition which encourages the listener to participate. This hook brought me into the song immediately and it is the first thing I talk about here. That’s the sign of a good hook!

The verses start with two runs through the 50s Progression (I-vi-IV-V). This is followed by two runs through a descending chord progression of IV-iii-ii-I. This is played with jaunty boom-boom-bop-rest rhythm that anticipates the post-chorus. Drums, bass, piano, and acoustic guitar provide the majority of accompaniment through the song. Then the band rises into a mildy celebratory la-la-la section following I-V-I-V-iii-ii-I. This again is a common chord progression, a basic two chord I-V.. followed by a descending run through minor chords.

The lyrics present three main themes intermingling in reverie. First, a gypsy caravan spent the night near the speaker’s home when they were young. Second is the speaker’s current relationship with “sweet lady.” Third, these are tied together by songs playing on the radio. The childhood evening of listening to the songs and stories of the caravan revealed something to the young man that he feels benefit in making the current setting resemble that one. As a child, he saw the girl on the caravan playing with the radio and today, he asks his lady to turn on and up the radio. Likewise, as they sat around the campfire then, he asks the lady today to turn on the electric light.

turn up your radio
and let me hear the song
switch on your electric light
then we can get down to what is really wrong
I long to hold you tight
so I can feel you
sweet lady of the night,
I shall reveal you
(If you will) turn it up, turn it up, little bit higher; radio
turn it up, turn it up, so you know; radio

Brand New Day

The slower soulful track “Brand New Day” sits in the middle of side two on “Moondance.” Morrison told he heard a song by The Band on the radio. He was feeling frustrated and down and was inspired to write a song of hope. The imagery and lyrics are poetic, well-written, yet straight forward. He sees the sun come up in the morning, and realizes that this brand new day offers a change. The night is in the past.

Drums, bass, and piano start the song off and vocals start at just after 1 second. A clean electric guitar in the right channel balances the acoustic piano in the left channel. These two instruments play dancing arpeggios and gentle melodic lines, suggesting the chord progression. Morrison’s acoustic rhythm guitar is barely audible in the center. The bass guitar, also center channel, gives us the most straight forward hint of the chords: I-vii-vi-vi-IV-V-I-V for the chorus.

That’s a descending set minor chords for the first bar followed by a promising IV-V major chords, offering a strong cadence. The chorus is a solid cadence-rich chord progression of I-V-i-IV. It has a solid foundation on the tonic, making it a perfect match for the hopeful strengthening feeling in the lyrics: “It seems like… It feels like.. a brand new day.”

The lyrics of the verses consist of two quatrains, each following a ABCB rhyme scheme. However, with the delivery and internal rhyming, we could also see the verses as a pair of six lines each, following a AABCCB rhyme scheme. These lyrics give something of an “Amazing Grace” tale, with the sun and the promise of a new day being the grace. The three verses progress through speaker’s change in feeling. At first, they see the sun come in and see the promise; next, we get a description of how they were feeling before and after without any real detail; and finally, it’s all pleasant warmth.

And the sun shines down
All on the ground
Yeah and the grass is oh so green
And my heart is still
And I’ve got the will
And I don’t really feel so mean
Here it comes, here it comes
Here it comes right now
Till it comes right in on time
Well it eases me
And it pleases me
And it satisfies my mind

Into the Mystic

One of the best songs I’ve heard by Van Morrison, “Into the Mystic” closes the first side of the record. It starts with just the acoustic rhythm guitar that remind me of the previous album, “Astral Weeks.” He adds to it a rhythm slap of the palm muting the strings just as they are quickly strummed. Bass and nylon guitar quietly join in. The bass plays a moving groove, with nylon guitar gently plays lead lines between Morrison’s vocal lines. With the second part of the chorus, a piano joins and the acoustic guitar picks up in energy. After the chorus, some majestic, but simple, horns bring up the mood. They fall back, letting the vocals return to repeat the chorus. Then the horns again. The song builds up in energy and mood this way.

Lyrically, the song presents its own statement of purpose: “I want to rock your gypsy soul, just like way back in the days of old, and together we will float into the mystic.” The verses tie this mission statement to age-old romantic tales of voyages across the sea. And these are the visuals upon which Morrison hopes his song can take us. At the same time, the declaration is that of erotic love. The speaker in the song will be returning from a sea voyage, and when he does, they will make love and “float into the mystic.”

The words are made up of only a single verse, followed by a two-part chorus that he sings twice; and then as the song comes to close “to late to stop now…” The lines of the verse have a AABCCB rhyme scheme. However, in the middle of the third and sixth line, the ending rhyme of the previous two lines appears. He also makes use of alliteration with two words starting with the same consonant: “bonnie boat” and “soul and spirit.”

We were born before the wind
Also younger than the sun
Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic
Hark, now hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic