Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”

Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" album cover

I listened to Bob Dylan’s 1965 album “Highway 61 Revisited” this week for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. This album caught my attention when I was about 16 years old. As a child, I hated Bob Dylan’s voice, but I felt differently as a teenager. Within a couple of months, I knew all of the words and sang along to the whole album. My experience with this album proved a challenge, because my desire to sing along often prevented me from giving a closer listen. When I did, new layers of the songs showed themselves. Some refreshing, some disappointing.

The accompaniment in several of the tracks is a little chaotic, as if everybody knew the tempo and chords and had at it. The vocals and harmonica are the focus of all songs, so the other instruments are not immediately noticeable. While each instrument plays great accompaniment to the vocals, they are all playing the same song independently. This creates peculiar interactions, but more often creates the sensation that everybody is jamming along in the room. The exceptions feel more cohesive as songs. There’s a lesson here to remember the whole when writing and performing each individual instrument. I enjoy atmosphere of a loose group of traveling musicians having a chance meeting and playing songs together, but I do wonder how the songs would sound if they were better orchestrated.

This may be why Desolation Row feels so right; the last song of the album has stripped down accompaniment of two acoustic guitars over an unimposing bass guitar. In contrast, my favorite track Queen Jane Approximately sounds particularly unrehearsed with several instruments simultaneously playing as if they have are lead accompaniment without knowing what to do. The organist seems to be trying out different ideas with the tape rolling. I realized this after making a conscious effort to focus on individual instruments. The electric guitar’s activity fiddles about in a similar manner. The song opens beautifully with piano and guitar, but loses that sense of planning soon after the vocals start.

The lyrics drive this album; therefore, the focus is always the vocals that deliver them. Lyricists can learn a lot from the work of Bob Dylan. Though certainly dependent on the music, the words on this album read like formal poetry more than rock lyrics. Bob Dylan adheres to consistent structures of rhyme and rhythm for the words on all of these songs. Sometimes the determination to rhyme lead to some word choices that are at times amusing, clever, and inspired. Some of my favorite examples are in “Tombstone Blues”. Each verse is a pair of stanzas. For each stanza, the first three lines rhyme and then the last line of each stanza rhymes with the other. The third verse has the great rhyme of “sick in” with “chicken” making both lines even more memorable than they would be already. This verse also provides examples of Dylan’s ability to write meaningful lines with what would normally have been nonsense rhymes.

Well, John the Baptist, after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero, the Commander-in-Chief
Saying, “Tell me, great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”
The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And, dropping a barbell, he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken”

Bob frequently uses an epistolary phrasing on this album. He is speaking TO somebody in particular. In narrative “Ballad of a Thin Man”, Dylan utilizes 2nd person perspective. However, the tone tends towards condescension. It’s like Alice in Wonderland, but whereas Alice was naive, curious and able to hold her own, the titular Mr. Jones is an uptight square that just doesn’t get it.

Most of what I come away from this album learning is the importance of working on and revising the lyrics; And also to not be afraid of the structures of formal poetry. That and to write individual instruments parts to be in conversation (not necessarily agreement) with each other.

The Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street”

Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street" album cover

Each week, I listen to a great album for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. This week’s album has been The Rolling Stones’ 1972 double-LP album “Exile on Main Street”. I already love this album and I have definitely enjoyed a full week of giving it a close listen. I actually only started listening to the Stones about 15 years ago. They were one of the favorite bands of my girlfriend’s father, which prompted me to give them a real listen. Some years passed before I heard “Exile on Main Street”, but it grew on me very quickly.

The blood of Rock ‘n’ roll runs through the heart of this album. Chuck Berry gets cited often by Keith Richards as one of his primary influences. Berry’s songs like “Little Queenie” impressed him by how loose the skillfully played music was. That quality is very present throughout “Exile on Main Street”. Everybody is playing this finely crafted songs together where everything sounds right, rolling with loose execution. The performance swings with a human spirit that sounds so natural and skillful. The lesson here really is to know your instrument, know your parts, and play it with soul.

The rocker “Rocks Off” opens the album with a lone guitar riff, joined by drums, and another guitar, bass and restrained slurred vocals. A few more bars, and piano joins with the vocals picking up in energy. I love the glissando fanfare on the horns in the chorus that act as an extension of the vocals. Like several songs on “Exile”, “Rocks Off” musically starts off as a basic rocker and grows into a party. As mentioned earlier, the song is loose.. but it seems like everybody is playing to catch up with everybody else, as if the energy of the song itself just might outrun the band.

The kick drum often hits on the beat, as well as a eight-note before the beat. This type of kick drum pattern lends bossa-nova rhythms their shuffle, and has the same effect here. Several parts of the song build up intensity and tension; Individual parts seem they are about to lose relationship with each other. This tension is released by the introduction of a section with all parts coming back together, often with backing and lead vocals joining together. This technique is used on several of the songs to great effect.

Something similar happens in my favorite track, “Let It Loose“. The song hints at a chorus through verses and bridge, but it isn’t until 3:53 mark that the backing vocals begin to sing the “Let it loose” chorus. Even then, the lead singer Mick continues to sing for 20 seconds before joining in the chorus himself and the song ends shortly after. This is one of the reasons I love the song. Up until the one and only chorus, the structure of the song feels tenuous. It begins to dissipate a few times, but the lead vocals bring it back on track. Even then, the loosely sung vocals are like a rambling gospel blues seeking structure. There are at times whispered and slurred and other times a soulful raspy holler. I also love the watery picked guitar line, an effect achieved either with tremolo or a rotating speaker. The chord progression is essentially a I-IV-V, one of the most common chord progressions in rock music. According to online sources, it’s I-I7-IV-I7-V-V7.. with some ii in there.

For me, “Shine a Light” shares musical ideas with “Let It Loose”, but with a more common song structure of Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus-Outro. A brilliant breakdown separates the bridge and the final chorus, which provides rest while allowing that final chorus to come back with more energy. Both songs have great lyrics with visual imagery painting a surreal emotional picture.

“I Just Want to See His Face” features the band recorded as if they are playing down the hall and we happen to be in the house. It’s not a particularly engaging song on its own, so I’m assuming this treatment allows the song to act as a transition between tracks. Whatever the reason, it does cause it to stand out oddly in a quiet way. An interesting choice for the middle of a great rock ‘n’ roll album that otherwise puts the listener in the room with the band rocking out.

Nirvana’s “Nevermind”

 

This week, I’ve been listening to Nirvana’s 1991 album “Nevermind” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician. This album hit record stores and the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” started getting played on MTV when I was 14 years old. An adult gave me this album a few months after its release, because they decided they didn’t actually like it. When people call Kurt Cobain the “voice of a generation“, they’re talking about my generation. It’s a label that neither of us cared for. This album is credited with performing various miracles for the world of rock. All of this “blah blah blah” makes it difficult to appreciate the songs. So, I’ve tried this week to forget the myriad of words said about this album over the past 26 years and just listen.

Power barre chords cover this album from start to finish. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” starts the album with a strong example. The opening riff has become one of the most recognizable guitar riffs, which is amusing considering even Kurt Cobain commented on its similarity to the chorus of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” and The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie. That it’s already such a classic rock guitar riff is why it works so well. The song grabs you immediately and you know it’s going to rock.

These are guitar-centric songs written on guitar to be played on guitar. Most tracks are built around a single riff. The bass often bounces under the guitar, even in a head-bobbing early 1960s rock sort of way. While Nirvana was drawing on their alternative rock influences like Sonic Youth and the Pixies, they were also returning to early rock music. People say so much about Nirvana’s use of quieter parts for verses and louder parts for choruses. This is perhaps why the songs can be so repetitive without boring me like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” did. Even though it wasn’t a new concept, the influence was soon seen. Next year’s ep “Broken” by Nine Inch Nails blew me away by pushing this quiet-loud contrast to more obvious extremes.

Rhythmically, the guitar often gives space for the snare drum. This great technique shows up frequently in rock music. Basically, the snare drum will hit on the 2nd and 4th beat of the measure and the guitar riffs will have a brief rest to allow the snare to punch through, like in “In Bloom“. You can often hum the guitar riff and the click your tongue for the snare. For the most part, the use of rhythm is this album is straight-forward. An interesting variation though is in the chorus of my favorite track, “Lithium“, the rhythm accents the 1st beat and then an eight-note after the 3rd and 4th beat.

Kurt was an amazing vocalist. His voice at times cuts through as a raspy howl and at others coarse but mellow singing. It was an influence on me early on, even though I doubt I would’ve admitted it. I was particularly floored by his singing for their 1994 performance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” for MTV’s Unplugged.

The lyrics are raw visceral documents of anger, confusion and disillusionment. They don’t tell stories or even have a meaning in a traditional sense. I can imagine him writing individual phrases and then combining them to form songs. One line will express some raw emotion and then the next line will balance that with a degree of sarcasm. The lyrics express, without romanticism, the difficulties of being an outsider teen in a way that many people experience in an isolated way. It’s no wonder this album took hold and remains important. It’s perfectly adolescent in a way that is summed up in the line “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.”

Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”

What's Going On album cover.

This week, I’ve been listening to Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album “What’s Going On”. What can I learn as a songwriting musician from this great album? I looked forward to this album since starting my weekly albums. This album was mostly new to me, but enjoys critical acclaim. Unfortunately, “What’s Going On” disappointed me. It’s a concept album created as a song-cycle; For me, this is the album’s source of weakness. The songs flow into each other with such continuity that there’s an overwhelming sense of monotony. This monotony makes the otherwise great songs boring. It’s a weird situation, where I can say the whole is less than the sum of its parts. I don’t like the album, but I like some individual songs.

The only song I knew before this week, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)“, remains my favorite on the album. It follows the song “God Is Love” with a noticeable yet smooth key change and drop in tempo. The guitar picks up rhythmically, offsetting the tempo change. A woodblock fills the role traditionally occupied by a snare drum, soaked in what sounds like a spring reverb. It reminds me of some percussion on “Pet Sounds” as well as my grandparent’s Kimball organ. I love the sound. Swelling strings bring overall motion to the song and draw attention to away from the rather repetitive rhythm section. Two of my favorite sounds, tinkling celeste and ringing vibraphone, provide melodic accompaniment. I believe the chord progression is a I7-iv7-ii-IV, like a smoother variation of the 50s doo-wop progression. Part of what works with this song is that it is a break from the monotony of the rest of the album. It has its own groove and sounds slightly different.

The opening title track “What’s Going On” and the closing “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)“. “What’s Going On” has very similar use of rhythm guitar as “Mercy Mercy Me”. The opening track starts the album off with the “welcome home from the war” celebration sound, but that sense of joy is slowly worn away until finally reaching the “Inner City Blues” ending. Conceptually, the journey from start to finish makes great sense, but that doesn’t necessarily make for great listening. I particularly enjoy the rhythm of “Inner City Blues”. The first beat of each measure gets emphasis, with the fourth beat given a rest. The pattern rolls over a two measure sequence, with the first beat of the first measure getting stronger emphasis than the second measure. The bongos add nice depth and movement to the rhythm. It’s one of the few songs on the album where I don’t get bored with the bongos.

Lyrically the album falls short for me as well. There’s the overall concept of the returning war veteran to see the injustice in the society that they’re returning to. A society that they feel deeply apart of, even if they feel disconnected by the distance of time spent over-seas. The concept should provide great opportunity to tell stories that get across a strong message. Unfortunately, these songs often “tell, don’t show“. Some lines sound preachy, while others simply sound like bumper-sticker slogans. Perhaps they require being heard from the perspective of 1971, but that IS 6 years before I was born. What Marvin Gaye is communicating remains relevant today, even if some details of the circumstances have changed; the telling is not engaging. It leaves little more to think or feel beyond “Yes, that’s true. He’s right.”

I learned more about things I want to avoid rather than things I can apply to my own music. I appreciate the grooving basslines, but they are repeated too many times. My biggest problem with this album is the sameness. So, I learned that variety is a good thing. I also learned that I really do prefer some story-telling over platitudes. Oh well, I don’t have to like every great album.

The Beatles’ “The Beatles”

The Beatles: The Beatles

This week, I’ve been listening to The Beatles’ self-titled 1968 “white album” for what I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. Such a variety of fantastic songs fill this double LP that I find it difficult to generalize or say only a few things. A week was not enough. This is probably my second favorite Beatles album. It opens with the rocking “Back in the U.S.S.R.“, closes with the gentle “Goodnight”, and journeys through a spectrum of Beatles styles on the way.

The noisy chaos of “Helter Skelter” makes it one of my favorites. The song nearly gets away from The Beatles, as if they’ve created a monster that they can’t keep up with. I believe they were inspired by The Who’s “I Can See For Miles” and you can certainly hear the influence. The drummer pounds on the snare and cymbals as if he’s afraid nobody will hear him over the other instruments. There’s brilliantly fuzzed guitar constantly provides an atmospheric noise in the background; A raw punk bass angrily struggles to keep up with the drums; A lead guitar plays a descending riff after the vocals in an attempt to keep things grounded. The vocals too are strained. Even though they are playing together, all of the elements are fighting to be up-front and the loudest. It’s the greatest. “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey” enters has a similar feel, but with less chaos. I love them both.

I didn’t care for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” when I was younger, but I actually like it quite a bit now. The rhythm puts unusual emphasis on the first and second beat. There’s a kick on the first and second beat of most measures and a snare on the third. This gives an almost trudging sense to the song, because this is a typical drum pattern played half speed. The muted fuzz electric guitar drives along on the first and second beats also, resting for the second half of each bar. The beautiful lead guitar solos sometimes melt into the organ, while a syncopated piano plays in the background. The way the instruments play against and with each other throughout the song really grew on my throughout the week.

“Dear Prudence” opens with a what sounds like finger-picking on an electric guitar and a quieter acoustic guitar. The arpeggios spin like a carousel; a glissando-filled bass-line in the next verse enhances that spinning sensation. At the end of each section, there is a rest before the the next begins. Each section adds layers of instruments building up to the final section. Another electric guitar joins about halfway, during the “look around, round, round” bridge, letting us know that the big finish is coming: an optimistic coda “the sun is up, the sky is blue, it’s beautiful and so are you.”

I’ll also add that I’ve always loved the Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of Dear Prudence. I don’t know if Robert Smith of The Cure played in the song, but he does show up in the music video.

The Clash’s “London Calling”

London Calling album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to The Clash’s 1979 album “London Calling” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician to improve my craft. It’s been a great week!

I got into The Clash in a rather backwards way. I grew up loving the video for “Rock the Casbah“, but that was mostly because of the armadillo. When I was about twelve, I bought a cassette of Big Audio Dynamite’s 1986 album “No. 10, Upping St.” at a dollar store. Singer Mick Jones had been kicked out of The Clash a few years previous and formed B.A.D. with Don Letts, who had directed several of The Clash’s music videos.  I went from there to The Clash’s 1977 self-titled debut album, which is more of a reggae-aware punk album than the later “London Calling”. It’s difficult to categorize this album. There’s a mix of reggae, ska, punk, rockabilly, post-punk, new wave, pub rock, etc. No matter what you want to call it, it’s definitely the Clash.

The music on “London Calling” has a very percussive quality. In reggae music, the rhythm guitars frequently emphasize the offbeat. For most of these songs, the Clash rhythm guitarist strum hits on the quarter-note along with the kick and snare, emphasizing the beat rather than adding a hop to it. Sometimes the upbeat, the 2nd the 4th beat gets an emphasis, but more often it’s all four. The lead guitars are more likely to play the offbeat than the rhythm, which I find interesting. There are exceptions, of course, with some songs being decidedly more “reggae”, or the hit “Train in Vain” for which the rhythm guitar focuses on the offbeat; and then some sections hits on the downbeat. This change gives these sections a sense of “slowing down” even though the tempo actually remains constant.

The instrumentation and production on this album is very open and light. There’s space between the instruments, with each occupying its own space sonically. There’s also a lot of air. Instruments frequently rest, which makes the sound both open and rhythmic. Strums are muted, or quickly muted, as opposed to ringing out. There’s also not much “padding” to fill the space. It’s refreshing to hear all of this bounce and grit with breathing room.

Every track is fantastic, but “Jimmy Jazz” stands out as my favorite. Our son pointed out that this track may’ve been of particular influence to one of my heroes, Peter Doherty. I like how the song maintains a breezy feel, while still having the percussive quality. A bright acoustic guitar punctuates the beat throughout, with a flanged slightly distorted lead guitar plays on the offbeat. I also like the horns, which is not something I an often say. The lyrics vaguely tell the story of a character named Jimmy Jazz, being sought by the police. An outsider, apparently on the wrong side of the law.

The lyrics on this album combine story-telling with a sense of “sharing the news”. We learn about strange characters, romanticized like the Beats saw old movies and dime paperbacks. These cool scenes of outsiders populate some songs, while others are more like a street-punk standing in the street shouting to fellow rebels, “This is what’s happening, open your eyes, take a stand.” The album combines a multi-national perspective musically, with a boot firmly rooted in the British streets.

Hollywood Hills (2017)

I wrote the song “Hollywood Hills” after after watching a Big Star documentary, in the summer of 2015. “Hollywood Hills” combines the feeling of the life of Chris Bell as told by that documentary with various scenes from my own life in the late 90s. I pretty much had the whole thing down within a few minutes. The main story centers around an ambiguous “they”, which I hope comes across as a couple. Initially it was all first person, but it felt too much like I was telling somebody else’s story.

I knew from the start how this how song would sound. For a short period in 2016, I was in a band to whom I presented this song. It went through some drastic changes that I never felt comfortable with and I brought it back to this original vision after the band ended.

Of all of my songs as Trip Gunn, this is the most guitar-oriented. The song reminds me of stuff I was doing around 2000. The track features six acoustic guitars and four electric guitars. These layers of guitar presented some new challenges to me in the mixing process, but I hope that everything worked out in the end. It was certainly fun to create.

Hollywood Hills

They can’t take the trip to the Hollywood Hills
Those celluloid sights fill broken dreams
Like ice hangs from the tailpipes of cars
In the lost memories of a winter

With hands frozen drying eyes on shirt sleeves
The sky high grey and sighing
Through the outline of leaves forever falling
It never ends but the hope is always there

I’m pulling away my cart
Covered in parts of coffins
Through remains of destruction
Places we’ll find your heart
Under the wheels of construction
Your Hollywood Hills

Mixing headaches with heartaches in the morning
They take walks down forgotten paths
And return home with a box of regrets
It’s a dance to hide it under their floorboards

Write a letter home
But you don’t know what to say
Just talk about the new sidewalk
And your broken telephone
And the grey sky raining down on
Your Hollywood Hills

Did you ever do that dance?
Did you ever do that dance?
Did you ever do that dance?
Did you ever do that dance?

Abandoned Cars

This song’s music originated with the band I was in a couple of years ago. I played the bassline on my keyboard and the drummer Bowman Kelley and guitarist Ryan Connor starting jamming over top of it. It was pretty rocking. I sang ad-lib lines about a runaway; I went home and wrote full lyrics based on a couple of lines from a song I’d written a year previous. This driving little number makes me proud and I hope you like it too.

Lyrics

Sleeping in abandoned cars
Count my change, count the stars
Horizon’s fading out, nobody there at all
In abandoned cars

She said we’re going to fall
Took the keys from the table
Ran out the front door in the afternoon
In abandoned cars

I ran a thousand miles
With the photos of our smiles
Paper corners torn, sun faded memories
In the passenger seat

What I saw, what she saw
All the things nobody saw
Sorry I fell down, sorry I fell apart
In abandoned cars

Through the wire of the telephone
I heard her heart was breaking
A plastic metronome thrown down the stairs
We’re abandoned cars.

IJR2017S005

The Velvet Underground’s “The Velvet Underground & Nico”

The Velvet Underground and Nico album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album “The Velvet Underground & Nico.” I first sought out the Velvet Underground when I was about 15, because they were managed by Andy Warhol who used them for his multimedia The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. I had seen the documentary “Superstar” about Warhol on PBS, which immediately inspired my creativity and perspective on life. The compilation “The Best of The Velvet Underground: Words and Music of Lou Reed” quickly became one of my most listened to cassettes. The far-out sound opened me up to possibilities I hadn’t even thought of at the time.

The beautiful chaos of the song “Heroin” blew my mind; I remember many times I would listen to the song loudly in headphones to become immersed in the driving rhythm and landscape of feedback. I love that the rhythm guitar and vocals keep going, hanging on to the train while the everything else flies off the tracks in a wild cacophony. This song really introduced me to the idea that a song can sonicly create an atmosphere that embodies what the lyrics describe. The sound is increasingly overwhelming and maddening, the chaos overpowers the structure. And yet, the opening of the song gives no impression of where it is headed. This is the 7th track, which originally opened side B. It may not be the most digestible song, but I think it is the most successful combination of elements that make this album unique. It has Lou Reed’s vocal and lyrics, basic rock structure, with electric violin, and crazy noise with experimentalism. And the last line of the song “And I guess, but I just don’t know” really speaks volumes, not just within the context of the song but also of the scene and time.

The album proper actually opens with “Sunday Morning”, which is possibly the most accessible song. It features viola and celesta, all played in a rather restrained manner. There’s also viola providing a lush bed for the other instruments to play in. It’s pretty and cool. The lyrics relay a sense of paranoia, but with the setting of an otherwise laid back Sunday morning.

In contrast, the next song “I’m Waiting For the Man” has probably the most “Velvet Underground” sound. Lou’s vocal delivery is stylistically cool, like a rock n roll beatnik. The rhythm section of drums, bass and piano play a constant repetitive rhythmic pattern. It’s incessant like a machine running in the background., but mixed low behind the forward vocals and lead guitar.

There’s other moments in the album that truly stand out. The feedbacked start of the guitar solo in “Run Run Run” is brilliant; unfortunately, it devolves into Dick Dale style picking seemingly leaving too much up to chance without enough happy accidents. And that’s what I feel is this album’s greatest source of weakness. Too often it feels like they just went at it, hoping it’ll turn out OK and it doesn’t. I love that attitude, which suits both the punk (before punk) rock and Warhol image, and when it works it really works. Still, I wish it didn’t create so many annoying bits. The song “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is wonderful except for much of the guitar parts, which are what I would expect to hear from a guitarist trying out different ideas before they hit ‘record’.

In addition to the daring qualities of the music, Lou Reed’s lyrics are what make the album. He has a beat knack for the poetic, weaving story-telling elements through each song. Often, these are just vignettes or scenes of a larger story;  In some cases a collection of short vignettes to make up a larger story. He frequently tells stories through the voices of its characters, with “she said”‘s peppered throughout.  The singer’s experience of listening frames the story. Lou Reed was guilty of lines obviously written for the rhyme, which particularly stands out because his lyrics are so strong otherwise. Lou is also a prime example of a great vocalist whose not a strong singer; and rock n roll is the perfect medium for that talent.