David Bowie’s “Hunky Dory”

David Bowie Hunk Dory album coverThis week, I’ve been listening to David Bowie’s 1971 LP “Hunky Dory” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician. This was Bowie’s fourth album and my second for this “To My Ear” project after “Ziggy Stardust” about a month ago. I’m doing it backwards, I suppose. “Hunky Dory” came out about 7 months before “Ziggy Stardust” and a line of artist progress runs between the them. Sometimes, I feel this album shows Bowie as an actor seeking a role, which he later finds in Ziggy Stardust.

The album opens with “Changes” which immediately hits me with the same sense of theatrical found on “Ziggy Stardust.” I love this about both albums: they as much about music as they are performance. The peculiar first verse hints at the idea of Bowie as the actor in search of something.   In the first verse, the performer reflects and almost confesses. “So I turned myself to face me, but I’ve never caught a glimpse how the others must see the faker.”

Musically, I love the dynamic difference between the verses and choruses of “Changes”. Bowie sings the verses gently over a quiet accompaniment of piano, bass guitar, and strings with no percussion. It’s theatrical with the lights down low. Then drums march along during the chorus which has more of a 50s rock n roll feel with a bit of boogie-woogie.

Life On Mars” is the best track on the album. The chord progression originated from a french song, “Comme d’habitude” which was also rewritten with English lyrics as “My Way” by Paul Anka. As much as I like the Sinatra song, especially the Sid Vicious cover, I believe “Life in Mars” is a superior song.

The lyrics tell the story of “the girl with the mousy hair” who is to meet her friend at the movies to escape her unhappy mundane life at home. However, her friend doesn’t show up and “the film is a saddening bore”. What isn’t much different than her own dull life is something she’s already seen in countless other movies. The titular line “Is there life on Mars?” is a cry for something more than Earth has to offer. Bowie performs the song over cinematic accompaniment that opens with beautifully played piano, that dances like a snow-globe ballerina. I love that the song begins with a single note that rings for a full second. Strings play majestically with the first chorus. It’s overall a beautiful song that demonstrates fully the principal of elevating the mundane.

One of my other favorite tracks is “The Bewlay Brothers” because of it’s sense of memory, love, and loss. The fairly basic accompaniment mostly consists of piano, acoustic guitars, and watery electric guitar. The lyrics begin with the word “and” relaying the story in third-person perspective, “And so the story goes they wore the clothes; They said the things to make it seem improbable: Whale of a lie like they hope it was.” Then with later verses, Bowie switches to first-person perspective. It does not seem that the characters change, only the perspective.

The endearing song feels like it tells the overall story of two brothers lives together. Lines of the song share emotionally-charged snapshots of moments in their lives.  The general feeling is that those times are in the past and they cannot return. The repeated final line calls out to leave current circumstances and live like they used to: “Just for the day, Please come away.”

Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours”

Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" album coverI spent the past week listening to Fleetwood Mac‘s 1977 album “Rumours” which is considered by many to be one of the greatest ever. Before I get into that, let’s go back to my childhood again. This album came out two weeks before my birth. Radio played the singles with heavy rotation during my first few years. My family bought a CD player in 1985 and we soon acquired this album on CD. I grew up hearing this album, but I haven’t listened to it much on my own until this week. What did I learn from this album to improve my own craft as a songwriting musician?

One of the best-selling albums of all time, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” stands as a quintessential example of mid-late 1970s soft rock. This album is well-crafted and immaculately produced to a fault. I find the sound so likeable and easy to enjoy that it becomes unbearably pleasant. I hesitate to say there’s not enough risks taken, because much of the music is very inventive. It even feels odd to complain that the album is too good. It feels so awfully like it aims to please, which is often at the cost of sincerity.

However, these are not lyrically happy or pleasant songs. Feelings of heartache, listlessness, lost love, emptiness, and pain run throughout the album. This comes as no surprise considering the atmosphere they wrote and recorded the songs in; Two of the band members were going through a divorce (from each other), two other band members were in the process of breaking up, and another was divorcing his wife. We can hear the band members speaking to each other about these situations through the songs. The strong songwriting, musically and lyrically, shines through the pleasant soft rock feel making the album worthwhile.

My favorite track on the album is “Dreams“, which was written and sung by Stevie Nicks. At 12 years old, I recorded a song with a chorus of “Once you’ve been and once you go”;  Only years later did I realize that they mimicked Stevie’s “what you had and what you lost”. In addition to her songwriting, Stevie’s amazing voice makes this song stand out. I think they would’ve done better if she sang lead on more tracks.

The song is in Am at a moderate tempo of about 115 BPM. Interestingly, most of the song plays through a VI7-VII (F-G) chord progression. They touch the tonic Am chord only briefly during the guitar solo. I like that this keeps the song feeling like it never really resolves, but when it almost does it feel particularly sad because it does so with a minor chord.

Christine McVie track “Songbird” feels like Joni Mitchell lite, but I like it. Part of the attraction may be that it is a break from the soft rock. I don’t think much of the lyrics, though I like the titular line “And the songbirds keep singing, like they know the score.” The accompaniment follows a I-IV chord progression, with some ii and vii during the second half of the verses.

Second Hand News” does a great job of opening the album. Full of the breezy production of “Rumours”, but also with a good driving rhythm.  It feels like rolling down the windows and driving in the country on a nice summer day.  In contrast, the first two lines fittingly introduce the album: “I know there’s nothing to say; Someone has taken my place.” It’s strange to think how the words are directed at Stevie Nicks, but she’s singing backing vocals.  The verses about the breakup end with some uncouth lines “Won’t you lay me down in tall grass and let me do my stuff.” Lindsey delivers the lines enjoyable making the listener want to sing along. Then go into the catchy, but decidedly meaningless, chorus of “bow bow bow buh bow bam bow”.

Slate ran an article a few years ago with the subtitle of “Why is Fleetwood Mac the least influential great band ever?”  I don’t know their answer, but I agree with the question. While these songs are all well written, well performed, and immaculately produced, they fail to inspire me as a songwriting musician.  The whole album is good, but it doesn’t excite me.*

* Update (May 22, 2018). I may have to retract my original statement about not being inspired by this album.  So much of what happens on this album musically and lyrically keeps coming back to me, and I’m finding its influence appearing in some songs I’m writing now.

Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”

Michael Jackson's "Thriller" album cover This week I have been revisiting Michael Jackson‘s 1982 album “Thriller“. I’ve been listening for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician from this great album. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was a huge part of my childhood.

I was six years old when the famous 14 minute”Michael Jackson’s Thriller” video first aired on MTV. This was a major event. MTV even announced the times of each broadcast of the full video. My neighbor friends and I would get together to watch, and dance with, the video as often as possible. I still have the vinyl record of the album that my family had then. I still love this album; while it has definitely had its influence on me, I found it difficult to listen objectively to an album I’ve known so well for so long.

Drum machines and synthesizers feature prominently throughout the album, but real guitars, bass, drums, and even some brass are heard on several songs. The rhythm of most songs emphasizes the fourth beat, especially of every second measure; the rhythms are usually built on 2 or 4 bar patterns with the last quarter not of each accented. This emphasis is created by adding a handclap to the snare, adding an echo to the snare, and/or by stopping the bass or other instrument on that fourth beat. Otherwise, there’s usually the standard kick on the first and third beat and snare on the second and fourth. Syncopation is created by guitars and other instruments. These rhythms work well with Jackson’s dances.

The groove of “Billie Jean” stands as one of the greatest in pop music. The song opens with an extremely basic kick and snare. The use of a subtle reverb with an 8th note delay gives that opening sequence a distinctive feel. Synth maracas on the syncopated 8th notes encourage movement. And then enters the bouncing synth bassline, which plays on nearly every 8th note. A soft synth plays staccato chords on the first and just before the third beat, adding a little hop and a touch of the sinister.

The slow pop “Human Nature” remains one of my favorite tracks. Steve Porcaro of Toto wrote the music; Having just learn this, I do notice some stylistic similarities between “Human Nature” and Toto’s “Africa“. Michael Jackson’s song, though, has much more of a quiet storm feel. The tempo is extremely slow at about 46 BPM. The relaxed vocals and gentle groove of the song provide an fairly flowing feel to the music.

I enjoy the additional of quiet backing vocals that are easily missed without headphones. At the beginning of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’“, Michael can be heard in the left channel singing along “bada bada bump” with the funky electric guitar line. In the same track, some sped-up vocals repeat the line “You’re a vegetable.” These subtle additions add some character and depth to the sound.

Of course the title track, “Thriller“, grabs the listener’s attention and imagination. The tempo travels at a standard 120 BPM. This common tempo makes people want to move and is particularly easy to dance to. The key is an unusual C#m, and actually plays with a lot of 7th chords, without sending particularly jazzy. Except for the choruses, most of the song stretches out I7-IV7 chord progressions. The repetitive and simple bassline and drums keep that a sense of urgent drive throughout the song. There’s synthesized hand percussion and pluck sounds that add interest to the otherwise basic drums.

At about 4:15, when most pop songs would’ve ended, the famous Vincent Price section starts. In fact, the song builds up to what normally would’ve been a conclusion, but the drums keep going and the song is reduced to a very simple but menacing bassline pulsing twice on the first beat. An synth pipe organ hauntingly moans in the back. Michael provides various scat singing underneath Vincent Price’s spoken word. It’s really an excellent effect.

The Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed”

Rolling Stones' "Let It Bleed" album coverI’ve been listening to The Rolling Stones‘ 1969 LP “Let It Bleed” for the past week. Each week, I give attention to an album widely considered great in order improve my own craft as a songwriting musician. I’m also getting to hear a lot of great music as a result. “Exile on Main Street” had its turn a couple of months ago. I’ve been into that album for a few years already, but “Let It Bleed” as an album is new to me. I’ve enjoyed some familiar tracks and been introduced to some I hadn’t heard before. Though overall not as good as “Exile,” there’s a lot to appreciate on “Let It Bleed”.

The opening guitar riff of “Gimme Shelter” has long been one of my favorites. It’s an oddly muted and gently picked arpeggio on a clean electric guitar through either a tremolo or Leslie, with a simple solo of sparse notes played on a slightly overdriven electric guitar. I love this amazing and highly unusual sound. The strange chord progression (I-VII-VI) adds to the urgent yet eerie atmosphere. Normally, a descending progression would continue to the fifth to provide a natural sounding return to the tonic, but that doesn’t happen in this song.

With it’s a chorus of “War, children, it’s just a shot away; It’s just a shot away”, this song has appropriately been used in countless documentaries and movies, especially those dealing with the Vietnam War. The very sound of the intro conjures of those images; since I wasn’t born until after the Vietnam War, I can’t say if the documentaries are the reason or if it is the song itself. Generally speaking, the lyrics of these songs reflect the hopes and anxieties of the late 1960s, including serial killers.

This dark topic is explored in “Midnight Rambler“. As a narrative, the song progresses like the classic spooky tales where the murderer keeps getting closer and closer. The perspective of the lyrics changes throughout and we wonder who is speaking. Mick asks “Did you hear about the midnight rambler?” suggesting that he is an innocent gossip spreading a warning tale. As descriptions grow more detailed and the murderer gets closer, the speaker becomes the assailant. This leads up to the final verse, where all is violent confusion:

Did you hear about the midnight rambler?
He’ll leave his footprints up and down your hall.
And did you hear about the midnight gambler,
And did you see me make my midnight call,
And if you ever catch the midnight rambler,
I’ll steal your mistress from under your nose.
I’ll go easy with your cold fanged anger .
I’ll stick my knife right down your throat, baby, and it hurts.

The song’s V-IV-I chord progression (though it might be I-VII♭-IV) drives along with a slightly menacing bluesy eight-note groove. In keeping with the lyrics, the accompaniment builds slowly in intensity until dropping to a near-crawl at the half-way point. From there the tempo gradually ramps up in speed again rising in crescendo to the stabbing at the end.

There’s a bit of country influence on these songs, but the worst example is “Country Honk“. It’s a country reworking* of their great song “Honky Tonk Women” which had been released as a single earlier. Unfortunately, they really just made a mockery of both country music and their own song. It’s the weakest moment of the album. Better is the old blues song “Love in Vain“, which is a cover of a song by Robert Johnson. Because I’ll be getting to Robert Johnson in a later week, though, I’ll hold on discussing it

The strong title track “Let It Bleed” uses a regular I-IV-V-V7 chord progression. The feel-good sing-along first chorus says “Well, we all need someone we can lean on and if you want it, you can lean on me” with later choruses playfully replacing “lean” with “dream”, “cream”, and “bleed.” I’m not sure how much sarcasm we can read into the chorus, but the verses seem to tell a much different tale. Notice here also the rhyme scheme as well as the repeated use of slightly similar sounding three word phrases.

I was dreaming of a steel guitar engagement
When you drunk my health in scented jasmine tea
But you knifed me in my dirty filthy basement
With that jaded, faded, junky nurse oh what pleasant company

My favorite track “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” opens with a boy’s choir singing the first verse. I believe removing this intro would be an improvement. Then the song repeats a I-IV chord progression almost the whole way through, with the choruses ending with a II-IV-I cadence. The sound of Mick Jagger’s clean vocals up-front with a lone acoustic guitar is a great opening to the song. With the last line of the first chorus, a piano and organ add to the accompaniment. A choir of voices join Mick to sing “You get what you need”.

Like other songs on the album, the verses are narrative with the chorus providing a message or lens through which to see the verses. The chorus of “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.” provides a great way to close the album about the turbulent 1960s. This bumper-sticker type of philosophy usually makes me roll my eyes, but the way they work with the verses makes it OK. The fourth verse is probably my favorite; I love the narrative of a small moment through which we get a glimpse of a character’s life.

I went down to the Chelsea drugstore
To get your prescription filled
I was standing in line with Mr. Jimmy
And man, did he look pretty ill
We decided that we would have a soda
My favorite flavor, cherry red
I sung my song to Mr. Jimmy
Yeah, and he said one word to me, and that was “dead”

* Correction: After writing this, I learned that “Country Honk” was the original version of the song and the Rolling Stones thought it would be interested to redo the Hank Williams style song as a rock song. I still think that “Country Honk” is an embarrassingly bad attempt at country music that borders on parody.

Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde”

Blonde on Blonde album cover.This week, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan‘s 1966 double LP “Blonde on Blonde” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician. I listened to Bob Dylan’s earlier “Highway 61 Revisited” for this project about two months ago. That has long been one of my favorite albums, but “Blonde on Blonde” was mostly new to me. Overall, Dylan got even better in the year between the two. The writing and performance are more focused and less chaotic. In its entirety, this double LP is remarkable with incredible high points. Some songs could stand to be cut to create a fantastic single LP album.

The album opens with perhaps the weakest song, Rainy Day Women #12 & 35. I like the raucous marching circus accompaniment; Still, the lyrics are really too silly to justify four and half minutes. No matter what interpretation you read into the song, yhe “Everybody must get stoned” pun doesn’t deserve this much celebration. I’ll also skip by “Pledging My Time“, a blues track that fails to grab my attention.

My absolute favorite song on “Blonde on Blonde” is Visions of Johanna. The accompaniment is primarily an acoustic guitar strumming a chord progression mostly based on I-IV-V7. The mid-section of each verse builds some suspense by repeating I-IV. A V7-I cadence closes each verse. Wistful lines of sustained notes are played on an organ in the right channel balanced by a twangy guitar’s occasional noodling on the left channel. A bass guitar in the center plays jugband bass-lines travelling the across chords. Dylan’s carries more emotion than typically heard on other songs; This is appropriate considering the subject matter, ambiguous as it may be.

The lyrics of “Visions of Johanna” made it quickly my favorite. It’s not particularly clear who or what Johanna is and if the “visions of Johanna” are memories, fantasies, or something else. Whatever they are, the speaker is uncomfortably haunted by the visions; they add a tinge of sadness to real experiences in the present. In a way, the visions “that kept me up past the dawn” remind me of Poe’s raven that visited “upon a midnight dreary.”

There are two female characters: the Johanna who is “not here” and Louise who is. There are several apparent male characters: the speaker in first person, Louise’s lover, the night watchman, the little boy lost, the peddler, and the fiddler. I wonder if all of these male characters are different aspects of the same person. Even Louise can act as a mirror forcing the speaker to look back within himself. Within that mirror the speaker sees himself replaced by the ever present visions of Johanna.

Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here
The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place

Another song I love, “I Want You” feels more like walking alone passing through various scenes. The chorus is a straight-forward “I want you, I want you, I want you so bad”. I read somewhere that often in songwriting, the chorus provides the lens through which to interpret the verses and that’s definitely the case here. This simple chorus also provides a nice contrast to the verses in which so much happens. In all that the speaker sees and encounters, the desire for subject of the song. I actually first heard this song as covered by Sophie B Hawkins when I was 15. Here version brings out the feelings of longing and hurt more than Dylan’s, but I think both are excellent. I especially like the motif played on a clean electric guitar that plays throughout the verses of the Dylan recording.

I continue to find Dylan an amazing lyricist and I’m really appreciating his use of traditional chord progressions and instrumentation. About 10 years, I was concerned about using too many common chord progressions and basic chords. I thought of this as a weakness and that chord progressions were an area where being unusual and creative were a measurement for quality songwriting. When I started writing songs for Trip Gunn, I threw out this assumption. Many amazing songs have been written on little more than I-IV-V progressions.  Variety is good, but there’s nothing wrong with the familiar.

What I learn as a songwriter from Dylan on “Blonde on Blonde” is much the same as “Highway 61 Revisited” and that includes the lesson that it’s beneficial for instruments to be in conversation with each other. The difference is that on the earlier album the individual instruments were often playing independent of each other and on this album they are working together. While the lyrics on “Highway 61” are often more inventive than they are here, there’s a greater sense of meaning and expression on “Blonde on Blonde.” There rhymes also feel more natural this time around. I like the use of imagery and setting of scenes on this album.

Unfortunately, the album versions of these songs are not available on YouTube, but I’ve provided links to decent versions that are similar. Most are live.

David Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”

David Bowie's "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" album cover This week, I’ve been listening to David Bowie’s 1972 “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”. I’d heard some of the songs before, but I’d not listened to the whole album before this week. I loved the Bauhaus cover of “Ziggy Stardust” and the Nina Hagen cover. This concept album is musical theater that tells stories about a messianic alien outsider. The central character of Ziggy Stardust personifies the legends and mythology of rock music. Bowie wrote his own legend like a child playacting as their self-crafted superhero. There remains this sense of ambiguity, though, so Ziggy could just as well be a combination of Bowie and Ronson.

The album opener “Five Years” set the scene that the Earth is in danger with beautiful variation of the 50s doo-wop chord progression. A dry kick drum and snare slowly fade in to start the song, and then a slowly strummed chord. The well-written opening lines “Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing; News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in” nearly tell the whole story indirectly. I love that emotional imagery hits before the factual news.

Bowie also insist upon rhyme on this album. In the first verse of “Five Years” all four lines rhyme: “sighing”, “cry in”, “dying”, “lying”. After that, the rhymes are in couplets. Towards the end, Bowie sings “And it was cold and it rained so felt like an actor; And I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there.” This particularly clever rhyme made me realize something about the album. While Bowie is definitely singing, his vocals are just as much the performance of an actor.

Moonage Daydream” slams in with glam rock guitars and vocals. Like much of the album, I can hear that Marc Bolan and David Bowie were significant influences on each other. The lyrics bristle with rock n roll nonsense that recalls Bo Diddley, Bill Haley, and Jerry Lee Lewis. As an androgynous space invader, Bowie yanks the danger and fire of 50s rock into 1972.

The next track “Starman” tells of the bewildered and bewitched audience catching the radio pirate emission. The starman arrives a cautious savior warning the inhabits of Earth “not to blow it, cause he knows it’s all worth while.” And then he encourages the children to lose it, use it and boogie, which again makes me think of Marc Bolan. The last verse has two young listeners discussing what they heard on the radio. The final line of “Don’t tell your poppa or he’ll get us locked up in fright” reminds us that rock n roll is risky music for youth in rebellion.

The album closer “Rock N Roll Suicide” is probably my favorite track. It has a driving anthemic rhythm that runs from the intro with bare strummed acoustic guitar to the final crescendo of horns, strings, drums, electric guitars, chorus, and desperately cried vocals of “gimme your hands!” It begs for audience participation. The first verse is cinematic in its narrow focus, iconic and poetic with its step-by-step description of disappointment and emptiness:

Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth
You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette
The wall-to-wall’s calling, it lingers, then you forget
You’re a rock ‘n’ roll suicide

This is another album that musically is built on basic rock ‘n’ roll chord progressions, many looking back to the doo-wop era. The production is early 70s dry, without the massive reverb found in the early 60s or the shimmering reverb later heard in the 80s. The creates punchy drums that sound fantastic on vinyl. While the instruments are generally playing relatively simple parts, they create a great sound. Bowie’s performance makes us want to believe. It’s really quite out of sight.

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”

Album cover for Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run"

I listened to Bruce Springsteen‘s 1975 LP “Born to Run” this week for lessons to improve as a songwriting musician. When I was a teenager, I rejected Springsteen’s music. His songs seemed for a completely different crowd, of a different age and a different culture. I heard “Born in the USA” and saw crowds of parents and grandparents pumping raised patriotic fists. I heard another song repeat “I’m going down, down, down, down.” and thought “What awful lyrics!” Only a few years ago did I learn that my assumptions were absurdly wrong. I especially learned a lot this week with my focused listen. Considering my own songwriting style and evolution, this album proves that Springsteen is somebody I definitely should be paying attention to.

The title track “Born to Run” opens side two of the album as the fifth track of the album. It received radio play nearly 8 months before recording of the rest of the album was completed. A wall of sound hits the listener within the first few seconds. The influence of Phil Spector’s signature sound is all over this album. The song “Born to Run” perfectly captures the heart of the album; This makes it a great centerpiece as well as a good introduction. The sound is desperately nostalgic and longingly anthemic; You can smell the roar of engines driven hard by drivers with hands still stained by grease, but also see the high school dance filled with couples nearing the end of youth.

This sound is perfectly suited to the words. The masterfully crafted lyrics on this album deal with tales of working class American youth and early adulthood. They do so with a raw but poetic nostalgia that avoids, but comes quite close to, sentimentalism. The characters in these stories of desperation are taking chances on love and life with just one last hope. They probably won’t make it, but the thrill and experience of the effort is reason enough to try.And see how the story of “Born to Run” is started:

In the day we sweat it out on the streets
of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory
in suicide machines

Basically, he’s saying they work all day so they can drag race at night. But what a way to say it! Through word-choice and carefully selected metaphors, he relates the two activities to enhance their similarities and differences. The work for the “American dream” seems futile while the mansions of those who’ve commandeered the American dream surround the speaker’s dangerous pastime. Here I only start to interpret the first two lines. If I wasn’t determined to describe my experience listening to the whole album, I would love to examine the lyrics of this single song. Given time, I could surely write volumes.

That presents one of the greatest lessons to take away from this album. Springsteen worked and worked on these lyrics. The first draft of “Born to Run” shows how much he changed the verses before the final version. I usually revise my own songs many times for years, but it’s important to see how much can be changed. In a few cases, I’ve kept only a few words of my first draft, but the feeling has remained the same. You can see in his first draft that Springsteen had imagery and emotion, but didn’t quite have the heart of the song yet.

Good poetry often elevates the mundane, often to the sublime. Springsteen so expertly elevates the mundane that it’s difficult to realize that it was ever mundane. He romanticizes the emotional struggle of everyday and the desire to escape the inevitable trap of the day-to-day. In “Thunder Road“, he opens with a description of the unexceptional.

The screen door slams Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again
I just can’t face myself alone again

Standard rock chord progressions and song structures provide the backbone of these tracks, with plenty of I-IV-V and I-V-IV throughout. This strengthens the the mood and theme of the album. This vision of rock music dances on the front porch, but also climbs into the front seat to escape this old town.

The Phil Spector style production sounds better on this album than on most of the records that Spector himself actually produced. For his wall of sound, Phil Spector would record multiple musicians playing the same thing simultaneously and run it through echo chambers. This created a magical mess of sound. If focus on the background accompaniment of The Ronettes’ Be My Baby, you’ll notice how it’s a somewhat indistinct wash of instruments. Yet, Spector’s technique had the power to sonically elevate the mundane. Similar production provides Springsteen’s album with its sound while maintaining integrity of individual instruments. It’s really a wonderful thing to hear. One of my favorite tracks, She’s the One probably gets the closest to that messy wash, but still sounds great.

This has definitely been one of my favorites for this project of listening one great album each week. I’m looking forward to the next Springsteen.

We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Are You Experienced”

Jimi Hendrix Are You Experienced album cover

I devoted the past week to Jimi Hendrix Experience‘s 1967 debut LP “Are You Experienced” to learn as a songwriting musician. Hendrix did not much appeal to me when I was a teenager. His status as a god among guitarists gave me the wrong expectations, something like Joe Satriani, who I never liked anyway. I found Jimi’s guitar playing sloppy and didn’t initially care for his singing. Years later, I heard second chance without the expectations. What I heard as sloppy before, I now hear as human expressiveness. I hear an innovative guitar-player deeply connected with their instrument. In contrast to Joe Satriani’s technically brilliant guitar playing, Jimi’s confident playing exudes heart and soul.

Album opener “Purple Haze” starts with a short strange percussive march played on guitar and bass before breaking into one of rock’s greatest guitar riffs. Throughout the song, bass, guitar and drums work together to create a monument. The bass provides a full strong foundation upon which the fuzz guitar builds a wall of harmonics-ladens rock. At the 30 second mark, Jimi shouts “Purple haze all in my brain!”. The vocals drip with heavy reverb and are oddly panned full right.

The usage of panning throughout the album is often awkward and disorienting. The use of reverb on the vocals in “Purple Haze” make the panning feel even more unnatural, because the reverb also is completely in the right channel. I understand that these decisions were results of many era-specific factors: limitations of the recording equipment, a sense of youthful experimentation because stereo was still fairly new, limitations of listening equipment as some listeners were probably still on mono equipment. The drums were nicely recorded in full stereo, so they are spread across the stereo field in a way that feels natural. I’m obviously not saying that things need to feel natural, but the use of stereo effects on this album can distract from the music rather than add to it.

One of my favorites, “Love or Confusion“, makes a wonderful combination of guitar-playing and guitar-experimentation. While the bass provides a solid textural groove, Jimi strikes power-chords and individual notes letting them ring out with fuzzy bliss until they just start to grab a little feedback. My love of fuzz and feedback made this song instantly grab my attention. Unfortunately, they couldn’t keep their fingers off the pan knob and the guitar will occasionally dive left then right. This movement flattens the guitar by making it obvious that it takes up a single point in stereo field. But still, that use of drums and bass to create an rhythmic bed while the guitar produces an atmosphere of noise is amazing.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience arranged these songs strategically well. Instruments, including vocals, take turns having focus while the others pull back to support the lead. This often shows up with vocals and guitar taking turns as lead, which undoubtedly comes from the blues. In some songs, it’ll be that the guitars do something to punctuate the beat, then they fall back for a vocal line, then return to the guitar, then vocals.

For the most part, I find the lyrics on the album to be better than average, but not necessarily amazing. Most of the tracks, like “Manic Depression”, feature very direct lyrics that I think are well-written sincere expressions of their subject. This writing and performance without posturing contributes heavily to the album’s greatness.

The Wind Cries Mary” stand out for me as the best on the album, which was apparently written after he and his girlfriend (not named Mary) had had a fight. The last verse makes brilliant use of imagery in a way that everybody can relate to. Jimi uses word-choice here like a palette to paint this scene of loneliness and regret. The room is so empty that the speaker’s absence is felt even though they are in the room.

The traffic lights they turn blue tomorrow
And shine their emptiness down on my bed
The tiny island sags downstream
Cause the life they lived is dead

The song “Hey Joe“, written by “Billy Roberts, has long been one of my favorite songs. Even when I didn’t care of Hendrix so much, I enjoyed “Hey Joe” and it’s definitely for the music. I do like some murder ballads, but I don’t particularly enjoy the words of this one. The single chord progression repeats throughout the song. It feels like a non-stop coda from the opening that could go on forever. Probably because this song in E minor never fully resolves to the chord of E minor. The chord progression goes C – G – D – A – E (VI – V – VII – IV – I). That’s a very unusual chord progression for me, though it doesn’t sound strange at all. This leads me to think about the possibilities of not fully resolving a chord progression; I appreciate the non-stop cyclic feel it produces here.