Lucinda Williams’s “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”

Cover for Lucinda William's "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road"

This week, I’ve been listening to Lucinda William’s fifth album “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” from 1998. I do not recall hearing any of her recordings before, though I definitely heard Mary Chapin Carpenter’s cover of her song “Passionate Kisses.” In 1998, I had only started listening to Dwight Yoakam, and my awareness of country music was slim. This album wouldn’t have appealed to me when it came out, but I liked it immediately listening to it for the first time now. It’s a good blend of country and folk rock that I believe today may get it classified as alt-country. These solid songs achieve being naturally catchy while maintaining a since of sincerity and substance. I find it a challenge to choose three songs to focus, because it excludes the others.

Car Wheels On A Gravel Road

The title track of “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” plays after the opening track “Right on Time.” The backing band consists of drums, electric bass, acoustic and electric guitar, and a mando-guitar. That’s a new one for me. The mando-guitar combines, as you’d expect, elements of mandolin and guitar. Basically, they build it much like a mandolin with same type of strings, but has six strings tuned to a guitar’s standard tuning. In other words, it allows a guitar player to play a mandolin learning a new instrument. The electric guitar is pushed just past the point of the amp breaking up, giving it a gritty distortion. Williams’s started her career in acoustic country-blues, and a preference for this gritty raw guitar sound makes sense. To me it sounds warm and rocking.

The verses drive through a V-ii-V-ii-V-ii-IV-I chord progression for the first two listen, followed by another V-ii-IV-I for the next line, then V-ii-IV-I again for a refrain. The kick drum and bass give emphasis for each IV-I cadence, letting the IV ring out. This gives that cadence a bit of a stomp after the rolling chug of the V-ii pattern during the vocals. Those are played with a rhythm picking eighth note rhythm with an open strum on the up-beat. This supported by the kick-kick-snare beat on the drums. The chorus brings a stronger IV-I-IV-I chord progression, while the vocals repeat the lyrics of the refrain higher.

The lyrics tell an vague story from a young child’s perspective. Something is happening with at least one of the parents that is beyond the child’s understanding, but requires a long drive in the car. The overall feeling is something stressful and sad. I suspect the parents are separating. The speaker of the song mixes the perspective of the mother and the child that suggests they are both the same person viewing the event from different times. Most of the parent’s view is revealed through quotation, until we get to the line “Could tell a lie but my heart would know.” The passing series of images open to interpretation add to the power of the lyrics. These verses follow a ABAB rhyme scheme followed by a refrain.

Can’t find a damn thing in this place
Nothing’s where I left it before
Set of keys and a dusty suitcase
Car wheels on a gravel road

Drunken Angel

Lucinda Williams’s song “Drunken Angel” tells tale of Austin country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley. He was friends with Townes Van Zandt and they had great influence on each other. Unlike Van Zandt, however, Foley seemed to have bad luck when it came to getting an album released. Apparently he managed to record three of them, but the master tapes were confiscated by the DEA, stolen, and lost. The third one was found after his passing in 1989. The lyrics of “Drunken Angel” use his death as a lens to both praise and criticize Foley. His friend Concho January was a veteran on welfare. Foley confronted Concho’s son with suspicions that he was stealing his father’s pension and welfare; Foley was subsequently shot by Concho’s son. Williams’s song expresses disappointed and anger over how Foley’s life choices got in the way of his own songwriting genius.

Again, Williams uses a lyrics structure of verses that end with a refrain and choruses that repeat that refrain like an anthem, though this time the choruses do include an additional line. These verses also follow a ABABC rhyme scheme. The verses here follow a I-ii-IV-I-ii-IV-ii-IV-I-I chord progression. The choruses then launch into a (I)-ii-IV-IV-I-ii-IV-IV-I chord progression. The title of “drunken angel” applied to both the song and the subject combine both her praise for him as a songwriter and her condemnation of his lifestyle. The use of the word “angel” also conveys that he has passed on, “you’re on the other side.” She further lays this condemnation upon his enabling followers.

Followers would cling to you
Hang around just to meet you
Some threw roses at your feet
And watch you pass out on the street
Drunken angel

Lake Charles

Williams’s friend and former boyfriend Clyde J. Woodward Jr died of cirrhosis. He died while she was on a plane to see him one last time to say goodbye. She wrote the song “Lake Charles” about him. They both came from Louisiana. Early in her career he had been both her boyfriend and her agent. But, as the song tells, wherever they went he felt that homeward pull from Louisiana. Especially, the city of Lake Charles. His friend Margaret Moser was with holding his hand at the end, and she wrote an article for the Austin Chronicle that goes into detail about the song and Clyde’s end. This bittersweet track warmly remembers a friend that has passed. She expertly mixes the sadness with love and care, focusing on the heart while letting the sadness come through between the lines.

This ballad consists of two verses, each with two sets of three lines followed be a three line refrain. After the second verses, there is a bridge with a slide guitar solo, followed by a repetition first three lines of the first verse, then refrain twice. The verses follow a I-V-I-IV-I-V for the first three lines, which is repeated for the next three lines. Then for the refrain, they play IV-I-IV-I-V-I. The second verse brings in some wonderful accordion for atmosphere to recall Louisiana. I often forget how much I love the sound of accordion as part of accompaniment.

The lyrics focus on geography. During the second verse, you can feel Williams riding on that airplane as she recalls their road trips years ago. As seen in that verse, she frequently mentions Lake Charles, which is where he most associated.

He had a reason to get back to Lake Charles
He used to talk about it, he’d just go on and on
He always said Louisiana was where he felt at home
He was born in Nacogdoches
That’s in East Texas, not far from the border
But he liked to tell everybody that he was from Lake Charles
Did an angel whisper in your ear?
And hold you close, and take away your fear?
In those long, last moments

Jeff Buckley’s “Grace”

Cover for Jeff Buckley's album

This week, I’ve been listening to Jeff Buckley’s debut and final LP “Grace” from 1994. My initial introduction to this album came through hearing Buckley’s tender cover of John Cale’s 1991 version of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah.” Around 2005, I finally heard the rest of the album with some disappointment. I felt jaded about the whole charming 90s singer-songwriter alternative guitarist thing and that’s all I heard in it. I probably also just skipped through the tracks without giving them a fair listen. This album is still not really my thing and I’m not sure why yet. Maybe I just feel like there’s a little too much seductive charm.

This collection presents great performances of songs with great songwriting. Jeff Buckley shares songwriting credits with former Captain Beefheat Magical bandmember Gary Lucas . Buckley is an amazing guitarist who really knows how to capture attention and evoke emotion with is vocals. He likes to rock, while appreciating and uses the power of intimate detail and nuance. Whatever his end-goal, what Buckley built and developed songs to work as a whole expressing emotion. Not simple emotions, but layered emotions that frequently mix longing, remorse, anger, and love. He also plays much of the accompaniment on the album with bass being played by Mick Grøndahl, some organ by Loris Holland, Matt Johnson plays additional percussion. Among others, Clif Norrell and Andy Wallace produced and engineered the recording.

Mojo Pin

Mojo Pin opens the album with a slow fade-in atmospheric effects on guitars and keyboards. Clean electric guitar then plays a lithe arpeggio repeating I7sus4 – I9. This is not your average guitar-work, but rather the creation of somebody with a jazz background who knows his stuff. He grew up in a musical household, took a year of music school after high school and played in bands of various genres. This song travels though some of those genres. It starts with some gentle jazz-inspired soul, into alternative ballad, and drives into some hard-rock alternative towards the end. Still, an emotive atmosphere of blue night runs throughout.

Lyrically, the song discusses the use of drugs to deal with the pain of separation from a lover. He combines the lover and drugs through vague language, so we can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. The lover was emotionally abusive when she is around, and now she is gone. The speaker turns to shooting up heroin (the mojo pin) to avoiding crying for her. In the chorus he calls her a “black beauty,” this presumably is a reference to her race. “Black beauty” is also a slang term for methamphetamine, but I think he might be making a reference to heroin’s slang name “horse.” The lyrics combine lover and drug into one: the cause and cure of heartache are joined and become indistinguishable.

The lines of the verses rhyme, but there is not a consistent rhyme scheme, at all. Through the five verses we see: AABB, ABCB, ABCC, AABC, AABA. The chorus uses AABB. Musically, he takes long pauses after each verse, giving a guitar strum.. and accompaniment rests as he draws out a mournful high note. Through poetic, near mystical, imagery, the speaker weaves emotional manipulation blaming the hurtful lover for his heroin use.

I’m lying in my bed, the blanket is warm
This body will never be safe from harm
Still feel your hair, black ribbons of coal
Touch my skin to keep me whole

Oh, if only you’d come back to me
If you laid at my side
Wouldn’t need no Mojo Pin
To keep me satisfied

Lover, You Should Have Come Over

One of the most complete songs on the album, “Lover, You Should Have Come Over” delivers a soulful mixture of longing, apology, and regret. He acknowledges that he’s been immature, which has caused him to be unable to maintain a relationship. He also describes that he lacks the desire to settle down. What’s being described here perhaps is a passing moment of remorse, because he ruined a relationship with somebody truly special.

The music conveys the emotion of the lyrics beautifully. This song is a perfect example of vocals and accompaniment working in harmony with lyrics. Guitar, bass and drum provide a soulful blues. Again, he does not limit himself to simple major and minor chords, but spreads 7ths,9ths, and 11ths throughout. The verses open open with I-ii (with a flattened 7th providing a step between the I and ii) played twice. The ii gets modified through ii9-ii-ii7-ii. Then the next two lines repeat ii-III-vi-I-IV-III. Again, Buckley plays these as augmented chords, suspended chords, and 6th. Organ pads the sound with extended chords, giving the song a gospel feel. In this song, the speaker is coming to a realization and pleads for forgiveness that will never come.

Again, there is rhyming in this song, but there’s not consistent rhyme scheme. But what he does repeat is the use of “too young/too old” to suggest that he’s recognizing he’s at an awkward turning point in his life. Despite this recognition, he feels he’s stuck at that space forever, as if this small maturation is the only maturation. Perhaps the best one and most direct is in the second verse, which state that he is “too young to hold on and too old to just break free and run.” He can’t commit, but he’s lost the will to fight the obligation. That’s telling.

Broken down and hungry for your love
With no way to feed it
Where are you tonight, child
You know how much I need it
Too young to hold on
And too old to just break free and run

Last Goodbye

Jeff Buckley’s song “Last Goodbye” gives us a great example of a departure song. With the breezy driving acoustic guitar, the pushing drums, and rolling bass, it all feels like a car ride across the country in late autumn. We’re driving away. Lyrically, the song tells of ending a relationship and accepting that it is finally over forever. The more standard chord progression supports this feeling of finality; the verses follow a I-vi-V-ii-IV-I-V-IV-I. The second half of each verse having that I-V-IV-I feels very straight-forward rock anthem. The chorus rises up to: V7-IV-V-IV-V-IV-IV7-IV. This repetition of V-IV without returning to the tonic until AFTER the chorus gives a sense of key change while also building up tension for that key resolution. And that return to the tonic is on the word “goodbye”

Kiss me, please kiss me
Kiss me out of desire, baby, not consolation
Oh, you know it makes me so angry cause I know that in time
I’ll only make you cry, this is our last goodbye

Sonic Youth’s “Daydream Nation”

Album cover for Daydream Nation

This week, I’ve been listening to Sonic Youth’s double-LP “Daydream Nation” from 1988. The band formed in 1981, creating no-wave noise rock. No-wave describes a movement that started in the late-70s. These musicians were inspired by elements of punk-rock but rejected its musically-conservative nature. Punk promised rebellion by creating something new rejecting what they saw as commercial music out of touch with reality. Most punk did so by making a return to the song-writing of early rock of the 1950s. This meant following long established song-structures and chord-progressions. No-wave intentionally avoided these norms like Ornette Coleman did with free-jazz. Sonic Youth developed their sound and style from these no-wave roots. By “Daydream Nation,” they combined the experimental sound with somewhat more traditional song-structures.

I first heard Sonic Youth when a friend lent my their 1990 album “Goo” in 1994. It took me a few listens to get into it and then I loved it.

Teenage Riot

The album opens strong with “Teenage Riot.” This 7 minute track consists of an 79 second long intro of a single clean electric guitar playing a series of two simple chords slowly. Female vocalist Kim Gordon speaks in a blasé manner, recording twice and panned hard left-hard-right. The words give new meaning to teenage poetry: “You’re it; no, you’re it;hey, you’re really it; you’re it;no I mean it, you’re it;say it,don’t spray it.” As with much of Sonic Youth’s vocals, they give us passionate rebellion with a disconnected cool like Andy Warhol in sunglasses. They’re cultivate an impression of being uncultivated. By elevating the mundane emptiness of self-conscious youth culture, they creating art out of the superficial and question the sublime. Its quite clear throughout this album that they appreciate the Velvet Underground and carry on many of those traditions.

Like the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth songs frequently evolve into a driving mechanical rhythm. With guitarists strumming continuous hard beats, with the movement happening more on the fretboard. They build up rock rhythms on during the first couple bars, then rise up to higher notes. This repeats, dropping back down. It gives the impression of a rock n roll machine.

Sonic Youth are not afraid of alternate tunings; Or rather, they depend upon them. The main guitar on this song is tuned to what has become known as the “Teenage Riot” tuning (GABDEG). The other guitar uses a bizarre tuning with four of the strings all tuned to a G note and the other two tuned to a D (GGDDGG). Tunings like these can lead to creating new patterns and combinations of notes, as they break a musician from established habits of playing. Guitar strings tuned far from standard tuning vibrate differently and resonate with each other different. This creates new sonic territory for the instrument.

Thurston Moore delivers the vocals throughout the rest of the song. The verses follow an ABAB rhyme scheme. The first and third lines use particularly loose slant rhymes like “location/rockin'” and “weather/temper.” The second and fourth lines, stick to strict rhymes like “true/two”, “you/clue”, “you/do” that all rhyme with each. An interesting technique with the “you/do” is that the “do” is not the end of the line; the line is sung with extending the word “you” to allow it to rhyme while following up with “me for now.” Lyrically, this is a song about adolescent turmoil, meaninglessness and the savior rock n roll.

Looking for a ride to your secret location
Where the kids are setting up a free-speed nation for you
Got a foghorn and a drum and a hammer that’s rockin’
And a cord and a pedal and a lock, that’ll do me for now

The Sprawl

The third track, “The Sprawl” takes the driving rhythm of “teenage riot” and melts it into a rock n roll drone. Bass and guitars harmonically blend into a numbing hum. Gordon speaks, “To the extent that I wear skirts and cheap nylon slips, I’ve gone native. I wanted to know the exact dimensions of hell. Does this sound simple? Fuck you!” She’s dawned the costume of society’s female to learn and expose it as a facade. The lyrics continue into a condemnation of consumerism and societal expectations. The rhyming chorus succinctly provides the message as a catchy slogan, like a marketing jingle. The repetition here makes it memorable, but also suits the message.

Come on down to the store
You can buy some more and more and more and more
Come on down to the store
You can buy some more and more and more and more

Rain King

What I really like about this album is that it provides an atmosphere of rock n roll attitude. Through their evoluation from late 70s no-wave, combined with Warholian laissez-faire, they’ve precipitated 90s slacker subculture. Often mischaracterized as not-caring, the more philosophical side of slacker was concerned with dismantling meaningless constructs of society. They were frequently educated: some college, or college-preparatory high school, or self-taught through literature. They felt pressures from society regarding how they should make decisions about school, career, fashion, friends, music, etc, and they asked “why?” They explored these expectations and found it was a mess of self-perpetuating materialistic consumerist boondoggle.

The heart of Slacker culture was not laziness. It seemed to be a bunch of kids who didn’t care because they had chosen to disregard what the old men cared about. It was a mass existential crisis, a new Beatnik revolution attempting to create something good out of a discovery of inanity.

Oasis’s “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?”

Cover of Morning Glory by Oasis

This week, I’ve been listening to Oasis’s second album “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?” from 1995. I graduated from high school in Ohio while Oasis were in the studio recording these tracks. The CD hit records stores only four months later, in October. In the United States, we were almost completely unaware of Oasis, having missed their first album. Some of us may’ve caught the video for “Morning Glory” on late night MTV that winter. And then the single “Wonderwall” was released. By the spring of 1996, “Wonderwall” seemed to be everywhere. Soon after, we also fell in love with “Champagne Supernova.” I bought the CD by the end of April, and these songs were a major part of my 1996 soundtrack.

All of this tremendous music was hitting our ears, along with stories of the sibling band members, Noel and Liam Gallagher. There were stories of rock n’ roll drug use, fighting between brothers, and public cocky braggadocio. The press made a big deal out of their claims they were going to be bigger than The Beatles, which seems a bit of a turn on Lennon’s claim about the Beatles vs. Jesus. Noel was full of great lines for the press like, “We’re not arrogant, we just believe we’re the best band in the world.” He also pointed out that if you say something enough times, a lot of people are going to start believing it.

Wonderwall

The third track “Wonderwall,” proved to be Oasis’s biggest hit and most lasting song. They obviously knew they had something with it, as the first track “Hello” starts with a tease of the “Wonderwall” riff. Originally the song was named “Wishing Well,” but was changed to a reference to George Harrison’s first song album “Wonderwall Music“. This song received a lot of play in 1996. In most cases, this would burn me out on a song, but “Wonderwall” is just tremendously good. The feeling comes across as hopeful in contrast to the slower tempo and minor key.

The verses follow a i-III-VIIsus4-IVsus4 chord progression. The highest two notes on the acoustic rhythm guitar remain the same throughout. The rest of the guitar strings are playing a more simple i-III-VII-iv progression, but those suspended fourths (and the raising of the minor iv to a major IV) happen by virtue of those high strings. This plus the strumming pattern (not too unlike “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Radiohead’s “Just“) make the rhythm guitar immediately distinctive. And I’ve always loved how the drums come in half a measure after the second verse starts. That’s brilliant, and derived from the style of Ringo Starr.

The obtuse lyrics relay the feeling of things going badly, but having a relationship with somebody who could turn things around. The verses consist of four lines followed by a two line refrain. The first four follow a ABCB rhyme scheme, and sometimes the second line rhymes with the final line of the refrain. Every verse ends with “I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now.” This refrain expresses directly and beautifully something that many of us have felt at one time or another. Surely, accomplishing that is one of the keys of great songwriting. If you write a great line like that and it holds up to repetition, why not make it a refrain?

Today is gonna be the day
That they’re gonna throw it back to you
By now you should’ve somehow
Realized what you gotta do
I don’t believe that anybody
Feels the way I do about you now

Some Might Say

“Some Might Say” kicks off the second half of the album with some T-Rex inspired overdriven guitar. Oasis slam this electric Bolan riff into a wall of bright 90s guitar rock. Tony McCarroll’s drums stomp and smash, with cymbals crashing on the second and fourth beat throughout the chorus and much of the song. Bass guitar rolls along supporting the bottom end without competing with the guitars. Layers of distorted guitar creating a harmonic rich rock haze while the echo drenched vocals deliver the anthemic melody. There’s no denying the Beatles influence, in fact Noel Gallagher constantly did the opposite, perhaps overstating it, but with all the 90s noise here, the melody is rather Paul McCartney.

Champagne Supernova

“Champagne Supernova” stands as one of the greatest album closers of all time. It starts with water sound effects, joined by long notes played on a melodica by guitarist Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs. Single notes played on guitar ring out like bells. An acoustic guitar gently strums an Asus chords with a descending bass note: A-G-F#-E. Another epic anthem, “Champagne Supernova” has an overall wistful feel fought by hopeful rises for the chorus. It’s a disconnected sort of sad longing, a desire for something more without really caring so much.

Each verse consists of two sets of three lines: a couplet followed by a single line refrain. So we end up with a rhyme scheme of AAB CCB. With the one exception, the refrain is always the question, “Where were you while we were getting high?” Its not clear who is better off. Is the speaker missing the absent other, or are they wondering what better thing they could be doing? Because, this hanging out getting high with the promise of being caught beneath landslides doesn’t seem like a good time.

How many special people change?
How many lives are living strange?
Where were you while we were getting high?
Slowly walking down the hall
Faster than a cannonball
Where were you while we were getting high?

I would personally consider this the best song on the album, with “Wonderwall” being a close second. It takes the listener on a journey, with rising chorus, soaring psychedelic rock solos, swirling reverb, dancing drums. The ambivalent emotion comes across perfectly, some could hear desperation, sadness, longing, triumph, listlessness, hope, aspiration. A wide range. Noel Gallagher is a master of writing well-formed ambiguous obtuse lyrics that present first with style and later develop meaning through absorption. He creates that which is relatable through allusion and illusion.

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