Aretha Franklin’s “Lady Soul”

Cover for Aretha Franklin's album Lady Soul

This week, I’ve been listening to Aretha Franklin’s album “Lady Soul” from 1968. This marked her twelfth album released in seven years since her first in 1961. Just over a week ago, I spent a week with her tenth album, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” from 1967. Both are fantastic. The songs of Aretha Franklin often played in our house when I was growing up. My mom had a copy of the “30 Greatest Hits” compilation on CD. She and my sister listened to it a lot. “Natural Woman” and “Respect” especially got a lot of play. Though her music filled my childhood, it took several years before I actually developed my own appreciation. Franklin’s singing amazes every time I hear her. She knows how to fill the songs with such emotion and power. A lot of singers attempt the same and often just sound like they are yelling. Aretha Franklin sings!

Chain of Fools

The album opens with “Chain of Fools,” written by Don Covay. The speaker of the song is in a relationship with a philanderer. She discovers that he has other lovers and that she is just one of many “fools.” And yet, she is determined to stick it out as long as she can handle. They use the metaphor of a chain consisting of links to represent the collection of lovers. This metaphor is used throughout the song, maintaining consistency.

There are three verses, the first two are eight lines, the third consists of four. Each set of four lines follows a ABCB rhyme scheme. With the exception of “fool/cruel” and “break/take” the rhymes are not strict. We have “man/chain”, “link/strength”, and “home/strong.”

For five long years
I thought you were my man
But I found out, love
I’m just a link in your chain
You got me where you want me
I ain’t nothing but your fool
You treated me mean
You treated me cruel

There is no real chord progression to the song, though there is plenty of groove and movement. The song provides soulful rock riffs over the same chord all the way through. The guitar mostly plays arpeggios, with a little melodic riffing, of the same minor chord. Joe South’s lead guitar plays some gritty low notes through a clean amplifier, again it’s simple but effective. The bass guitar rolls along, mostly repeating the same two bar pattern, one bar answering the other.

A Natural Woman

The soulful “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman” closed side A of the record. Carole King wrote this song with her then husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin. I heard this song so much as a child that it feels like the first verse and chorus are just woven into me. It reminds me of the front door and windows being open throughout the house in the early spring. The lead and backing vocals joining and dancing around each other.

Spooner Oldham’s perfectly understated piano starts the song with a simple set of chords, like the piano in a small church. The verses follow a chord progression of I-V-VII♭-IV. Then Aretha begins “Looking out on the morning rain,” joined by the bass guitar. Gradually, the strings and drums also begin to play. A gentle, cautious, pre-chorus follows ii7-iii7, a progression that feels like it’s waiting for strength. Then the strings and backing vocals rise up in the chorus with religious joy, “You make me feel.. you make me feel.. You make me feel like a natural woman!”

Looking out on the morning rain
I used to feel so uninspired
And when I knew I had to face another day
Lord, it made me feel so tired
Before the day I met you
Life was so unkind
But you’re the key to
My peace of mind
‘Cause you make me feel
You make me feel
You make me feel like
A natural woman

Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic”

cover for Dr. Dr's album The Chronic

This week, I have been listening to Dr. Dre’s debut album “The Chronic” from 1992. Dr. Dre released this album during my sophomore year of high school. I didn’t pay much attention to hip hop, but I did hear “Nuthin’ But a G Thang.” The album’s icon cover stood more familiar to me than that hit song. Dr. Dre was born as Andre Young in Compton, CA, birthplace of the Bloods, rival gang of the Crips. The Los Angeles riots in response to the Rodney King beating extended to Compton a couple of months before the recording of “The Chronic.” He worked as a club DJ using the nickname of basketball hero Julius Erving, “Dr. J”. In the 1986, he joined N.W.A. as rapper Dr. Dre. The group fell apart in 1991 over business disputes and some famous drama with Eazy-E.

Lil Ghetto Boy

The middle of the album features smooth G-funk track “Lil Ghetto Boy.” Dr. Dre and crew built the song primary on samples from “Little Ghetto Boy” by Donny Hathaway. They layered these with samples from Gil-Scott Heron and George McCrae. A drum machine adds percussive punch. Snoop Dogg and Dre trade verses, with Snoop providing the first and third, and Dre on the second. Snoop’s cousin “Dat Nigga” Daz Dillinger provides the backing vocals.

The song presents stories of young street gangsters, told through a series of couplets. The verses are not all the same length, but with fw exception each pair of lines rhyme. Most of the rhymes are straight, but there are some slant rhymes like “life” and “fight” or “quicker” with “nigga.”

The chorus comes straight from the original song by Donny Hathaway. This happens on a few tracks on the album. I immediately recognized this on “Let Me Ride” and “The Roach” as these songs are directly based on Parliament tracks, “Mothership Connection” and “P. Funk.” I believe they unashamedly based their rap songs on these originals for an audience who knew the source material.

High Powered

Track “High Powered” opens with a spoken request for “Give me some of that ol’ gangta shit, you know what I’m sayin’, something I can just kick back, smoke a fat ass joint to.” Then the music comes in, slow and grooving, with a characteristic high-frequency synth line. I think they synth may be an original line played by Colin Wolfe. They track also has beats sampled from “Buffalo Gals” by former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. The detailed request continues for the first full minute. Then Dre begins rapping slow, tough, and methodic. My favorite line is “Haven’t you ever heard of a killa? I drop bombs like Hiroshima.” At the word “killa”, the music is interrupted by a strong booming explosion sound effect. It’s very effect.

Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang

The hit from the album, “Nuthin’ But a G Thing,” borrows its main groove and iconic synth line from “I Wanna Do Something Freaky To You” by Leon Haywood. The song serves as a form of mission statement for Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg as rap artists. The mix references to their working relationship, about their marijuana use, street and gangster business, but most importantly their musical project. There is a sense of urgency, even with the laid-back beat, that they need to do what they are doing. Not only do they need to make the music, but we need to hear it.

Snoop stands out as an superior rap vocalist on this album. He mixes rap with occasional slips into restrained melodic singing. His style is decidedly smooth and cool. This doesn’t mean he’s slow. Snoops jumps into bits of triplet-hopping beats at times that feel like tape machine flying forward. Dr. Dre is also a very skilled rapper, deserving of the praise, but he lacks the Snoop’s strength of style.

As with most tracks on this album, the lyrics are series of couplets combining straight rhymes with slant rhymes. Each of these lines contain internal rhymes and a skilled use of consonance and assonance.

Well, I’m peepin’ and I’m creepin’ and I’m creepin’
But I damn near got caught ‘cause my beeper kept beepin’
Now it’s time for me to make my impression felt
So sit back, relax, and strap on your seat belt
You never been on a ride like this befo’
With a producer who can rap and control the maestro
At the same time with the dope rhyme that I kick
You know and I know, I flow some old funky shit
To add to my collection, the selection symbolizes dope
Take a toke, but don’t choke
If you do, you’ll have no clue
On what me and my homie Snoop Dogg came to do

Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures”

album cover for "Unknown Pleasures"

This week, I’ve been listening to Joy Division’s debut album “Unknown Pleasures” from 1979. My introduction to this album came in 1996 in the rivertown of Marietta, OH. I fled a broken heart in Athens, OH looking for a new group of friends. The first night, I discovered a local coffeeshop called Penny University. The next night, I found my new group of friends. We were old enough to stay out all night drinking coffee, but not old enough yet to go to the bar.

Where the kids of Athens were primarily into punk music like The Sex Pistols, the Dead Kennedys and The Clash, my new friends in Athens were more into post-punk and goth like Sisters of Mercy, The Cure, and Joy Division. Certainly, they all like a variety of music, but there was a noticable difference in preferences between the two towns. Even though I had been into goth for a few years already, I had somehow never heard Joy Division. That quickly changed.

“Unknown Pleasures” managed to not be the most listened to, so I was not that familiar with this album ahead of this week. Joy Division only released two albums, and my friends seem to have liked the second “Closer” more than the debut. But even more so, they liked the singles collection “Substance.”

Joy Division obsessed over Kraftwerk’s 1976 album “Trans-Europe Express“. Kraftwerk made that album drawing on inspiration from Iggy Pop of The Stooges. In “Unknown Pleasures,” I hear the raw human attitude and emotion of The Stooges combined with the mechanical robotic patterns of Kraftwerk. However, unlike Kraftwerk, Joy Division’s playing is not precise, but rather loose and just a little sloppy.

Disorder

Joy Division open “Unknown Pleasures” with Stephen Morris’s snare and kick drum pattern of “Disorder.” Peter Hook’s rough punk-sounding bass joins in with a pattern similar to Kraftwerk’s bass-lines, starting on the higher octave, but dropping down to gritty lower notes. Swooshing and wooshing electronic sound effects join in the background. Repetitive distorted lead-guitar lines join in, nearly sitting behind its own stereo echo. This is not chord strumming; Bernard Sumner plays the guitar as melodic monophonic accompaniment.

Lyrically, the song consists of three verses. The band provides a wordless chorus that in most songs would’ve been a single-use bridge. They end the song with a coda that other bands might’ve considered using as a chorus: “Until the spirit new sensation takes hold then you know.” Ian has written verses built of four long lines each following an AABB rhyme scheme. It doesn’t seem they were written for music, but rather as beat poetry. Lost in depression, he questions his ability to feel like a normal person. With the first song, Curtis introduces us to the recurring themes of the album: depression, feeling lost, detachment, and isolation.

I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand
Could these sensations make me feel the pleasures of a normal man?
Lose sensation, spare the insults, leave them for another day
I’ve got the spirit, lose the feeling, take the shock away

New Dawn Fades

“New Dawn Fades” closes out side 1 of the original LP release. The track starts with distant echoed sound effects, then a slow simple drum pattern with methodic heavy bass. Distorted reverby guitar plays moody, almost sinister, lines. The guitar is melodic and atmospheric. The sound and feel reminds me of the Stooges’ “Dirt” from 1970; though Joy Division’s track is even further removed from the blues. The song moves at a very slow pace, the drums beating incessantly onward. After four minutes the song sort of winds down losing energy returning to just the drums fading out.

Throughout the album, there’s a sense of separation between the narrator and everybody else. He’s covered or lost in a difficult mixture of heavy emotion and a confusing inability to feel. Stranded in depression, he observes life as an outsider stepping through a movie setduring a nightly rain.

We’ll share a drink and step outside
An angry voice and one who cried
We’ll give you everything and more
The strain’s too much, can’t take much more
Oh, I’ve walked on water, run through fire
Can’t seem to feel it anymore

Prince and the Revolution’s “Purple Rain”

Prince Purple Rain album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to Prince and the Revolution’s album “Purple Rain” from 1984. As a listener, I know few albums more than this one. I was seven years old when it came out; My teenage aunt was a big fan and I really got into Prince through her. About this time, I told her that I wanted to grow up to be a rock star like Prince or Michael Jackson. that I wanted My mom bought the record and I recall I was NOT allowed to listen to “Darling Nikki.” That’s the song that pushed Tipper Gore to start the PMRC, which lead to the Parental Advisory stickers on albums.

About five months ago, I spent time with “Sign O’ The Times” and I was not particularly impressed. Many authoritative voices praise “Sign O’ The Times” higher than “Purple Rain” and I absolutely disagree. “Purple Rain” is a wholly conceived and beautifully performed and recorded funk pop-rock album. Even though this album has been endless played and has influenced so much that came after, it still maintains a fresh sense of risky inventiveness and stellar musicianship across the board. 

I like to choose three songs from each album to look at specifically; this was not an easy task for “Purple Rain,” but ‘et’s get to it.

The seventh track “I would Die 4 U” opens with a high note, presumably on bass guitar. This leads to a pulsating synth line that plays the rhythmic role often assumed by the hi-hat, giving the song a 16th note disco feel. I believe this is also doubled by a hi-hat sound (likely from Prince’s favorite drum machine, the LM-1). This keeps a gentle sense of urgency throughout the song, only broken for a few seconds before the coda. The lines of “I would Die 4 U” become a chant towards the end, especially during live performances.

As good as the music is, the lyrics are daring and unusual. On one hand, the song comes across as a love song, with a chorus repeating, “I would die for you, Darling, if you want me to.” However, this idea of being so devoted to a lover that you would sacrifice your own life is paralleled with images of Jesus Christ. He opens the song with the memorable, “I’m not a woman; I’m not a man; I am something that you’ll never understand.” An fitting line from a man whose androgynous personality was amplified for the stage, making many 80s parents uncomfortable. 

Then later, he explains that’s not “your lover” or “your friend,” but rather “your messiah and you’re the reason why.” It’s difficult to say if Prince is proclaiming himself to be a messiah, saying that his sense of devotion in love is like that of a messiah, or speaking from the perspective of a love-god concept. This ambiguity leaves the song open to multiple interesting interpretations, but the subject matter begs interpretation. I don’t think he means this in a martyr sort of why, but rather the speaker is the listener’s messiah, because the listener is worthy of a messiah. Or as he says later on, “All I really need is to know that you believe.”

The hit song “When Doves Cry” remained in the number 1 spot for 5 weeks becoming the top-selling single of the year. This song, too, is full of unusual lyrics for a pop song; again with a thread of ambiguity. The verses dream of idyllic love between the speaker and the listener; in contrast, the chorus speak of how they fight. But look at how they conflicts are addressed: the speaker assumes responsibility and looks for answers in their upbringing:

How can you just leave me standing?
Alone in a world that’s so cold.
Maybe I’m just too demanding.
Maybe I’m just like my father: too bold.
Maybe you’re just like my mother:
She’s never satisfied.
Why do we scream at each other?
This is what it sounds like
When doves cry.

The album closes with its title track “Purple Rain.”  The song combines stylistic elements of rock, gospel, soul, and blues. It carries the audience along at a slow tempo: just under one beat per second. To simplify it, the chord progression is a I-vi-V-IV (coincidentally the first four chords of a circle-of-fifths progression). From what I’ve found online, it’s a little more like a I9-vi7-V-IV (or more precisely Iadd9-vi7add11-V-IV)

As we also know, the song bears a resemblance to Journey’s “Faithfully” which had an earlier release date. I do not know if it is certain if Prince drew inspiration from “Faithfully” or it was a coincidence; apparently Prince was a fan of Journey guitarist Neil Schon and called Journey to get their OK due to the similarity.  The songs share the I-vi-V-IV chord and similar endings.

In my twenties, I also did a lot of home recordings using a Tascam portastudio. I frequently found my way of thinking about starting and ending albums resembled the construction of this album. The song “Purple Rain” launches into a heartbreakingly affirming solo full of atmosphere and then drifts off into lingering strings. And this closes the album. I’ve always felt that was so perfectly beautiful and effective.