Primal Scream’s “Screamadelica”

Album cover for Screamadelica

This week, I’ve been listening to Primal Scream’s third album “Screamadelica” from 1991. At the end of the 80s, critics speculated that grebo-baggy music were going to be the sound of the 90s. These genres found new energy in combining psychedelic alternative rock with dance rhythms of acid house. British bands like EMF, Jesus Jones, and the Escape Club brought these sounds to American MTV. This was right before Nirvana’sSmell Like Teen Spirit” grabbed everybody’s attention and changed things. While I liked some of it, grunge didn’t really catch me as hard as it did others. Had I heard “Screamadelica” when it came out, I probably would’ve loved it. I had the same difficulty with it now that I have with the band Muse, several of the songs sound like direct combinations of two or three other songs. More derivative than inspired.

Movin’ On Up

So, that brings us to the opening track “Movin’ On Up.” It’s a good song on its own; However, to me it sounds like The Rolling Stone’sSympathy for the Devil” played like The Who’s “Magic Bus” after listening to George Michael’s “Faith.” The first verse opens with “I was blind, now I can see, you made a believer out of me.” This verse makes an allusion to “Amazing Grace,” where the chorus’s “I’m movin’ on up now, getting out of the darkness; My light shines on.” recalls both The Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light” and the gospel anthem “This Little Light of Mine.” Screamadelica decidely wrote a rock n roll gospel anthem. I’m not sure what they’re believing in: perhaps it’s rock n roll and perhaps it was ecstasy.

The verses follow a I-I-I-I-V-IV-I-I chord progression, over which lay a gospel-blues melody. A female choir joins for the chorus, with a V-V-IV-IV-ii-IV-I-I progression. This jump up to the fifth for the chorus provides the feel of a key change without actually entering one. In addition to the Who-Stones inspired acoustic guitar riff, piano and choir support the gospel feel of the recording. Then an electric guitar provides an excellent solo that sounds more than a little like the solo in Sympathy for the Devil without the danger and edge.

Primal Scream’s love of The Rolling Stones stands out through much of the album. I definitely cannot blame them; my past few years of listening to the Rolling Stones have had a tremendous influence on my work as well. But sometimes I kept being reminded of specific songs by other artists strongly. The song “Damaged” kept making me want to listen to the much better “Moonlight Mile.” I think most of us as musicians try to avoid that. We might say, “I want to make a song like this one,” but our intentions are to emulate what we like about that song without copying the song itself.

Don’t Fight It, Feel It

After the opening track that blends gospel with 60s rock n roll, band jumps into acid-house track “Slip Inside This House.” This cover of a 13th Floor Elevators song from 1967 provides their sideways step into a seemingly disparate genre. Then they make full plunge into house with the third track “Don’t Fight It, Feel It.” Apparently, their intention was the produce a modern verse of Northern Soul music. Music about dancing, for dancing, with groove and soul.

It’s definitely modern (as of 1991) and makes you dance. It has the house synthetic piano chords that comes and go. It has layered soulful lyrics about getting high and dancing. It has a great bassline and house drums. It has an annoying chirping synth. It goes on and on for seven minutes that I would only find bearable if I was dancing to it in a club, and even then I wouldn’t be sad when it was over.

Loaded

The band update their earlier song “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Had” on the epic middle track “Loaded.” The earlier song, from their 1989 self-titled second album. I prefer the earlier version, of course, with its more guitar-rock sound and “Sympathy For The Devil” inspired bridge.

“Loaded” opens with a sample from the movie “The Wild Angels” with Peter Fonda declaring they “want to be free.. get loaded and have a good time.” This freedom sample is appropriate, considering the song’s strong resemblance to George Michael’s “Freedom 90” from the previous year. Like much of the synth drum patterns of the early 90s, this one dances with the extra hops during the third beat. The synth piano also plays the jazz-inspired chord rhythm patterns heard in a lot of house music of the period. Guitars come and go riffing in a distinctly rock style.

Primal Scream most succeeded in combining house with rock on this track. It proceeds through a journey, with different phases. This keeps the song interesting. While they use house’s tendency towards drawn-out repetition, they’ve found a compromise between what’s appropriate for listening vs. dancing. A dance-club audience thrives on that lengthy repetition, whereas a listener needs variety.

Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic”

cover for Dr. Dr's album The Chronic

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

Lil Ghetto Boy

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

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

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

High Powered

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

Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang

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

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

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

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

Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)”

Album cover for Enter the Wu-Tang

This week, I’ve been listening to the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” from 1993. I was completely unaware of the Wu-Tang Clan until around 1997; even then, I didn’t actually hear any of their stuff until very recently. This week introduced me to their ground-breaking variety of East Cost hardcore hip hop. In the 90s, a East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry in hip hop made mainstream news. Wu-Tang’s raw beat-driven music contrasted with the more melodic West Coast style of the time. While still prone to braggadocio, their lyrics were darker; less triumphant and more ambitious. The clan was not small. On this album, Wu-Tang Clan consisted of vocalist Inspectah Deck, vocalist GZA, vocalist Masta Killa, vocalist Raekwon, vocalist U-God, vocalist and producer Method Man, vocalist and producer Ol’ Dirty Bastard, vocalist, producer, and arranger RZA, vocalist and producer GhostfaceKillah, and turntablist 4th Disciple.

I ‘m not a rapper and I’m not equipped to discuss hip hop even though I do enjoy listening to it. I don’t expect to draw much from this album for my own music; However, I do believe that exposure to a great variety of art enriches one’s own work. In addition, I just really like listening to music and hearing new things. Each week, I listen to an album considered to be one of the greatest, because there must be something there worth learning from.

Bring Da Ruckus

After some sampling from kung-fu movies with a little bit of booming bass, the percussion and vocals begin. The first lines open the album appropriately, repeating “Bring the motherfucking ruckus.” This serves as the chorus between verses. Across the verses, we hear multiple vocalists rapping

. Throughout this album, the percussion beats right in the front right behind the vocals. It is the most important part of the accompaniment; the other musical elements provide more of an atmosphere than a more traditional purpose. Most of the music comes from samples of “Synthetic Substitution” by Melvin Bliss. The percussion is a mix of the drums of that song plus a drums-only “CB#5” from the “Funky Drummer vol. 1” collection made specifically for DJs and rap artists.

Wu-Tang work primarily with one or two bar looped samples to provide support for their vocals. Generally speaking, we don’t have chord progressions to speak of. That’s not the point. They’ve built a dark musical atmosphere with a heavy beat to support the rap vocals.

Most of the lines are rhyming couplets, though they are not strict about rhyming every line. The Wu-Tang Clan proves to be clever in their use of slant rhyme. We see not just the ends of lines rhyming, but plenty of assonance and internal rhymes. These lyrics combine wordplay and cultural references with rhythm. For example the lines “Redrum, I verbally assault with the tongue; Murder one, my style shot ya knot like a stun-gun.” The lines end with the rhyming “tongue” and “stun-gun”, but these also rhyme with “Redrum” and “Murder one”, shot rhymes with knot as well as the earlier :assault.” “Redrum” is a reference to Stephen King’s “The Shining” where it is “Murder” spelled backwards. These lines are tightly packed, appropriate for a song that largely brags about their ability to do so.

I rip it hardcore like porno-flick bitches
I roll with groups of ghetto bastards with biscuits
Check it, my method on the microphone’s banging
Wu-Tang slang’ll leave your headpiece hanging
Bust this, I’m kicking like Seagal, Out For Justice
The roughness, yes, the rudeness, ruckus
Redrum, I verbally assault with the tongue
Murder one, my style shot ya knot like a stun-gun

Can It Be All So Simple

“Can It Be All So Simple” opens with a the group reminiscing vaguely about the past which leads into samples of “The Way We Were” by Gladys Knight & The Pips. They combine music samples from different parts of the song with mild use of a drum machine. The result reminds me of Portishead, whose debut album “Dummy” came out a year later.

Raekwon starts by reminiscing the past, but also talking about how difficult it was. He describes how they had to turn to violence, because it was required of their situation. Ghostface Killah then describes their dream successful life. The chorus is a list of dedications, which makes use of anaphora, which is a poetic technique of starting a series of lines with the same word or phrase. In this case, “Dedicated to the..” starts each line of the chorus, interspersed with a manipulated sample of Gladys Knight, “Can it be that it was all so simple then?” Anaphora gives lines an automatic sense of rhythm, creating a catchy hook that can draw first-time listeners in.

Dedicated to the winners and the losers
Dedicated to all Jeeps and Land Cruisers
Can it be that it was all so simple then?
Dedicated to the 5’s, 850i’s
Dedicated to niggas who do drive-by’s
Can it be that it was all so simple then?
Dedicated to the Lexus and the Ac’s
Dedicated to MPV’s: phat!

C.R.E.A.M.

Perhaps my favorite track on the album, “C.R.E.A.M.” bemoans the influence of money’s importance in a Capitalist society. In particular, they focus on the people on the streets; Inspectah Deck tells his story as a young man returning to society after spending teen years in jail for selling drugs. He went to jail for a crime committed to make ends me, and comes out to see that money continues to cause problems for those around him. It’s the struggles of the have-nots in a society rules by the haves.

Method Man delivers the great hook of this song, the chorus. It consists of an acronym and a rhythmic repetitive phrase. As is often the case in a well-written song, the verses tell a story and the chorus delivers the message of the story. The repetition of “Dollar dollar bill” followed by “ya’ll” is extremely catchy and I found myself singing it throughout the day after the first couple listens. The cadence of this line works perfectly against the piano line sampled from the Charmel’s “As Long As I Got You.

Cash rules everything around me,
cream, get the money
Dollar dollar bill, y’all.
Cash rules everything around me,
cream, get the money
Dollar dollar bill, y’all.

The Stone Roses’ “The Stone Roses”

Cover for Stone Rose's Self-Titled Album

This week, I’ve been listening to the Stone Roses’ self-titled debut album from 1989. I fell in love with this album the first time I heard it in 1994. My friend Julie in high school played the CD for me, probably the same day she introduced me to The Fall and the Beautiful South. Their sound was nostalgic and dreamy, at times psychedelic, others watery or airy. While it drew on influences of so much music I’d grown up with, I’d never heard anything quite like it. The Stones Roses hold an evolutionary position between the Paisley Underground genre of the 80s and the Britpop genre of the 90s. In a way, what they created was Paisley Underground influenced by the rhythms of Acid-House music. Singer Ian Brown and guitarist John Squire wrote the songs. Bassist Mani providing much of the rolling grove and drummer Reni lending the songs their dancing beats.

She Bangs the Drums

The Stone Roses started to really catch international attention with their single “She Bangs the Drums.” The song describes being enamored with a girl through description of listening to music. The song that he hears perfectly captures the emotions he feels, partly because she causes him to hear the music. The seven line verses follow a AABBCCC rhyme scheme, and the six line chorus has AABCCB.

The third and sixth lines of the chorus are the same, “to describe the way I feel.” This makes the chorus two sets of three lines. The first set explains how there are no words to describe how he feels, and then the second set tell how she is the only one who can describe how he feels. This works captures the theme of the song cleverly. The feelings she causes within the speaker cause him to hear music; music which perfectly expresses how he feels; And as much as she plays the music, she has conceptually become the music.

I can feel the earth begin to move
I hear my needle hit the groove
And spiral through another day
I hear my song begin to say
Kiss me where the sun don’t shine
The past was yours
But the future’s mine
You’re all out of time

The verse of the song repeat a V-V-V-IV, to simplify it. The bright slightly-overdriven guitars mix rocking chord strumming with arpeggios that create psychedelic swirling textures. The chorus repeats a I-IV-I-IV-I-IV-V progression. The fact that the verses do not include the tonic chord helps the I-IV progression of the chorus feel more anthemic. The feeling is that the chorus musically provides the resolution (on the word “feel”) that the verses have been leading up to.

Waterfall

“Waterfall” opens with a low fade-in feedback met by single-note arpeggios played on electric guitar.. This guitar tone is an incredibly important part of the Stone Roses’ sound. Squire frequently combines the overdrive with chorus. In most cases, he pushes the overdrive only just to the breaking point; The use of chorus is similarly subtle, adding just enough to be present. This gives his guitar a richer tone while still coming across pretty clean. When he wants to go more of a lead tone, he adds some fuzz. And of course, the guitar sits in clouds of reverb, as does everything else.

The lyrics tells of a woman asserting independence by running away and finding her own life. Perhaps she is young and the home she leaves is her parents, or maybe she’s later in life and escaping an unfulfilling life. As the song progresses, the hints also get stronger that this woman may also be a symbol for Britain threatened by American influence. Either way, the narrator assures that “She’ll carry on through it all.” The last line suggests that what threatens her is what empowers her:

See the steeple pine
The hills as old as time
Soon to be put to the test
To be whipped by the winds of the west

Stands on shifting sands
The scales held in her hands
The wind it just whips her away
And fills up her brigantine sails

I love the sound of this song; I also love that the next song on the album “Don’t Stop” is based on Waterfall in reverse.. It’s like a mirror placed between the two tracks, and yet their different. They even wrote and sang lyrics that sound like Waterfall’s reverse vocals. Both songs stand on their own, but are even better back-to-back.

I Am the Resurrection

My favorite track “I Am the Resurrection” closes the album. It opens with an unassuming drum pattern. Just kick and snare and hi-hat. Then the bass joins after a full 8 bars. This same pattern plays through most of the song proper, with a few cymbal crashes and banging fills leading intoa and out of the refrains. That’s 15 seconds with nothing a repeated drum pattern without variation. Ian sings “Down, down, you bring me down.”

There are what we might consider two choruses to the song. . I’m talking about the “I am the resurrection and I am the life, I couldn’t ever bring myself to hate you as I’d like.” Though what I’m calling the main chorus, COULD qualify as the coda. Though when the proper song ends after about 3 and half minutes, the band launches into a 4 and half minute extended outro. It’s brilliant and servers as an outro for both the song and the album as a whole. Being purely instrumental for over 4 minute allows the band to jam out with a drummer banging away at a funky-drummer inspired beat.

Don’t waste your words I don’t need anything from you
I don’t care where you’ve been or what you plan to do

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

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

U2’s “Achtung Baby”

Album Cover for U2's "Achtung Baby"

This week, I’ve been listening to U2’s album “Achtung Baby” from 1991. I grew up loving their album “The Joshua Tree” that came out when I was 10 years old. When “Achtung Baby” appeared during my freshman year of high school, it didn’t catch my attention. I did like the second single “Mysterious Ways” with its strong guitar riff and trippy music video, though. My tastes were heading towards more moody and less mainstream interests than U2. It’s a shame, because this is a very good album. Maybe I just wasn’t ready yet.

On this album, I hear a band with established techniques and skills fighting against repeating themselves. There’s a good bit of experimentation with sound and techniques, as if they are determined to not make another “Joshua Tree.” The Edge’s use of delay, while prominent all over that previous album, is more subtle and much less frequent. The drums have taken on a more dance feel; Upcoming artists like Jesus Jones, The Escape Club, and EMF already leading this trend. Many predicted this combination of break-beat rhythms with guitar rock would become the 90s alt-rock sound, until Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” flooded the airwaves.

Zoo Station

The opener “Zoo Station” start with 3 seconds of quiet background noise and then odd bursts of distorted guitar. This is the announcement that the listener is in for a different U2 album. The bass and drums groove along with a determined driving beat. A tinny snare drum cracks every 2nd the 4th beat, sounding a little trashy. A minimal chord progression contributes to the pending sense of urgency, mostly staying in the tonic with use of the flattened VII and IV to push it forward. “Zoo Station” feels as much like a journey into the album as a destination of its own. The lyrics, which read more a statement of intent, support this:

I’m ready
I’m ready for the gridlock
I’m ready
To take it to the street
I’m ready for the shuffle
Ready for the deal
Ready to let go of the steering wheel
I’m ready
Ready for the crush.

The Fly

The seventh track, and first single, “The Fly” escaped my notice until this week. While not experimental music, this seems to be one of the more experimental tracks on the album. It has the benefit of feeling more uncharted territory for the band, and therefore has a looser, even sloppy, feel. That’s even with the steady dance beat. My son aptly pointed out the resemblance to one of my favorite bands, INXS. It especially reminds me of “Communication,” which INXS started recording just after “Achtung Baby” was released.

The drums continue a dance-beat throughout almost like clockwork, along with the pulsing driving bassline. They keep the song song grounded while the rest seems to scatter here. The guitar starts with a repetitive riff until Bono begins his chorused and heavily-compressed softly spoken vocals. The echoey, slightly flanged, distorted guitar pulls back and then punches back with seemingly random stabs, scrapes, scratches and slides. The lyrics are a bit of a paranoid cautionary ramble. More like a nightmarish stream-of-consciousness with an apparent illusion of meaning, tangents off the chorus’s couplet: “A fly on the wall, it’s not secret at all.”

It’s no secret that the stars are falling from the sky
It’s no secret that our world is in darkness tonight
They say the sun is sometimes eclipsed by the moon
You know I don’t see you when she walks in the room
It’s no secret that a friend is someone who lets you help
It’s no secret that a liar won’t believe anyone else
They say a secret is something you tell one other person
So I’m telling you, child

One

Just after high school, I was in an emotional relationship; a strong mix of love and hurt between two people who had both to give, certainly some type of codependency. In U2’s song “One” I found a sort-of comfort in hearing words from another that described so well what we had. When in the car with my next girlfriend, this song came on the radio and I mentioned that. She said it was also the song for one of her previous relationship.

What Bono has done with these lyrics is described a commonly set of emotions in a way that many can relate and apply to their own situation. The narrative details of the couple and the events in their lives are completely missing, the actual story is a vast ambiguous cloud waiting for the listener to fill it in. Even their genders are absent. Instead, he reserves his use of detail for the visual imagery for the emotions.

He also combines this with religious allusions, in the third verse, to describe how the other brings their own hurt and needs to the relationship. This verse is tied to the bridge, where the other talks of love as a temple. Despite their praise of the sanctity of love, their own hurt means that loving them is more of a sacrifice than a blessing.

Have you come here for forgiveness?
Have you come to raise the dead?
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head?
[…]
You say love is a temple, love a higher law
Love is a temple, love the higher law
You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl
And I can’t be holding on to what you got
When all you got is hurt

R.E.M.’s “Automatic for the People”

Album cover for "Automatic for the People"

This week, I’ve been listening to R.E.M.’s 1992 album “Automatic for the People.” This album came out when I was a sophomore in High School; About three years later I often listened to the album in my little VW Golf. I really enjoyed this album, though “Monster” was more to my tastes. I’ll get this out of the way; I don’t care much for the overplayed hit “Everybody Hurts“. So, let’s move on to some of the songs I do like, of which on this album there are plenty. These songs present a variety of country-rock, alt-folk and alt-rock blends. The lyrics give us stories, vignettes, and vitriol combining common language with big words. It’s rock n roll poetry by the smart kids.

Man on the Moon

The song “Man on the Moon” introduced a lot of my generation to Andy Kaufman. We’d seen him in reruns of Taxi, but, at least for me, I didn’t really know anything about him otherwise. The song title, paralleling moon-landing conspiracies with Kaufman faking his death, gave the title to a film about Kaufman starring Jim Carrey. All that aside, it’s a fantastic tune with great lyrics. Originally, I was going to write about “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” but the guitar solo in “Man on the Moon” changed my mind.

I jump straight to the solo now and do this things backwards. Two electric guitars playing simultaneously creating a uniquely engaging sound. One, panned a little to the right, plays the tonic note of the chord repeatedly. This adds a sort of drone to the melodic lead played by another guitar panned to the left. The actual solo flows from a slide guitar driven just below the breaking point of the amp, so there’s just a smooth bit of gritty distortion.

The part is not particularly complicated. The chords progression is a repeated vi-V, having an elevated above the rest of the song feeling. The slide runs up to the 12th fret during the vi chord, and drops down to the 7th fret during the V. There’s a bit of wiggling during the V up to the 8th fret, and let off at the end of the bar to play the open B string. It’s a very rugged American guitar solo and I think it sounds fantastic.

The fairly languid alt-folk song opens with clean electric bass and acoustic guitar. These are joined by a clean slide electric, and then drums and vocals. The drums bounce across the stereo field, playing open simple patterns primarily on the toms. The accompaniment of the song is beautiful, gently and simple. The song is easy to like without feeling overly pleasant.

Each line of the verses follow a IV-V-IV chord progression. The lack of a tonic chord in the verses gives them a drifting unresolved feeling. This helps the chorus to stand out as being strong. The chorus follows a ii-I repeated three times, followed by a IV-V that pulls the listener towards to following tonic. The second and main part of the chorus has a I-ii-IV-V-I-ii-V-I-ii-IV-iii-ii. That hanging ii chord ends the chorus unresolved, where it pulls back around to the IV-V-IV verse progression.

Apparently, Michael Stipe included all of the yeahs in the song as a mocking tribute to Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Kurt tended to use a lot of “yeahs” in his lyrics; a great example is Nirvana’s “Lithium” from 1991 with a chorus of “yeah yeah yeah”. So, here’s a bit of the seemingly random bits of Kaufman-referencing lyrics to “Man on the Moon”

Here’s a little agit for the never-believer, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Here’s a little ghost for the offering, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Here’s a truck stop instead of Saint Peter’s, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Mister Andy Kaufman’s gone wrestling, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Ignoreland

“Ignoreland” reminds me of a handful of songs from the late 80s that, as kids, we considered it a skill to be able to recite. I immediately think of R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World,” Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and Madonna’s “Vogue.” Oh, and of course, the McDonald’s Menu song, which was a brilliant idea considering how many of us in middle school memorized and repeated it.

Though the vocals maintain focus throughout, there’s a lot happening in the background. Layers of guitars weave lines back and forth creating a swirling texture. The poppy clean bass subtly provides the bottom through the verses, then thrums a constant tonic note through the pre-chorus section of the verses. During the post-chorus, the bass draws attention to itself through a poppy bouncing riff, then withdraws to the back again. The drums are modest, with basic fills at the end of each section; a cowbell pops through the choruses. Overdrives emphasize the choruses, with fuzz drifting giving a rocking angry feel.

The verses have three distinct sections, the last of which is arguably a pre-chorus even though each has somewhat lyrics. The first section has a minimal melody with rhythmic statements and unusual pauses. The delivery and filtering make the vocals sound like a radio broadcast. This last for eight lines. The second section bring in a distinctly different melody which lasts for three lines. Stipe sings these in more traditional way.

Then Stipe launches into a rapid rhythmic monotone series of lines flying like ticker-tape. The song is decidedly political taking aim at former president Reagan and then president Bush, as well as media coverage at the time.Brooding duplicitous, wicked and able, media-ready
Heartless and labeled, super U.S. citizen, super achiever
Mega ultra power dosing, relax, defense, defense, defense, defense
Yeah, yeah, yeah

Up the republic my skinny ass
TV tells a million lies
The paper’s terrified to report
Anything that isn’t handed
On a presidential spoon
I’m just profoundly frustrated
By all this, so fuck you, man

Nightswimming

Another great song “Nightswimming” closes the album. OK, not really. There’s another good song, “Find the River,” actually ends the album, but I think that would’ve sat better in the middle. Nightswimming casts a nostalgic spell recalling more carefree younger days. The perspective is from years later.

Some ambiguity runs through the lyrics. It’s unclear if the speaker just went swimming at night and is now driving home realizing how nightswimming today is not like it was years ago. Or, perhaps, all of the swimming was years ago and it’s merely the photograph on the dashboard that reminds him.

Sparse instrumentation accompany the poignant feeling of nostalgia in the lyrics. A piano plays a repeating melodic arpeggio, reminding me a bit of Mozart’s childhood pieces, though without the showing-off. The song mostly repeats a I-IV-V progression throughout. A bass supports the piano; and in a subtle use of strings and oboe provide some color the the background. I love a bit of oboe, so it’s a welcome addition for my ear.

Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
The photograph on the dashboard taken years ago
Turned around backwards so the windshield shows
Every streetlight reveals the picture in reverse
Still, it’s so much clearer
I forgot my shirt at the water’s edge
The moon is low tonight