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

Elvis Presley’s “The Sun Sessions”

Album cover for The Sun Sessions

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

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

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

That’s All Right

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

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

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

Blue Moon of Kentucky

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

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

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

Mystery Train

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

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

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

Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew”

Album cover for Bitches Brew

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

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

Bitches Brew

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

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

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

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

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

Spanish Key

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

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

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

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