My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless”

This past seven days, I’ve been listening to My Bloody Valentine’s album “Loveless” from 1991. I devote each week to a different album considered great in order to improve my own craft as a songwriting musician. It also introduces me to a lot of great music. This week was an unusual challenge. At first, I thought the album was awful. By the end of the week, I thought it was mostly awful. The blame does not fall on the songwriting. In fact, I find it difficult to speak about the songwriting at all. The recording and production choices stand as a major hurdle for me. The way they play their instruments did not help either.

This album drowns the listener in a lush warm fuzzy wall of sound. The use of reverb, including the weird reverse-reverb, gives instruments like the guitar an expansive atmosphere of depth. Or at least they would, except the sound is often flattened by emphasizing the production layer. This album often reminded me of an old cassette tape deck I had. The worn out belt would cause the playback speed to rise and fall. Parts also reminded me of another tape recorder on which the head wasn’t aligned quite right. When used to record music on a tape that already had something on it, you would get a mix of the new audio, the previous audio, as well as a little bit of the opposite side in reverse. All of these oddities brought focus to the medium of tape, which is flat. Much of “Loveless” sounds two dimensional to me in the same way.

Guitarist and principal artist of My Bloody Valentine, Kevin Shields, has a fascination with the whammy bar. He strums the guitar while applying pressure to the bar. This creates an effect where the guitar frequently undulates in and out of tune. Pushing this through layers of reverb provides the listener with a feeling of seasickness. It sounds cool, except that he’s doing it too much.  As a child, I dug the syncopated way my Speak-N-Spell said “apostrophe.”  I pushed the apostrophe button over and over again; It brought me joy while annoying everyone around me.

The guitar, the effects on the guitar, dominate the album. For most songs, the guitars shove the other instruments to the back. Drum loops rotate behind the wash of fuzzy reverb. Hints of bass guitar come and go. Sometimes something that sounds like keyboard overloading a toy speaker pushes between the blanket of guitar.

The songs also have vocals. I’ve heard them washed out by reverb and pushed well-beneath everything else. This is not true with all songs, but it seems to be the preference. The vocals sing in a quietly disinterested way, as if they are provided more out of obligation than desire. This expresses a cautious layer of self-conscious cool.  It almost works, but I would push the vocals more forward, give them some presence. They do have melodies and probably even lyrics, if you can manage to hear them.

The start of Only Shallow misleadingly implies a guitar-driven alt-rock album. As mentioned earlier, the focus on the album is more production and creating atmospheres of noise. While it can be argued that these are integral to the songs, I feel that the songs became reasons to create noise. This leads to soundscapes enjoyable in small doses. They wear tiresome long as whole songs.

Frequently, I would get whiffs of Stereolab, one of my favorite bands. The second track Loomer reminded me of Stereolab’s album Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements like the song “Jenny Ondioline” which I love. My Bloody Valentine released “Loveless” two years before that Stereolab album. I may’ve liked My Bloody Valentine more if I’d heard them when I was in high school, instead of 25 years later.

Here Knows When” provides a strong example of the elements I don’t like about this album. I suspect fans of the band love this song for the same reasons. Imagine alternately recording Cocteau Twins, Jesus and Mary Chain, Stereolab on a worn out cassette tape with a cheap recorded and then recorded the sound of a motorcycle race over it. I really feel like this started as a good song.

For me, When You Sleep stands out as the best track. the song brought “Degrassi High into my mind for reasons I can’t understand. The use of a melodic instrument between verses and choruses helps tremendously. Vocal samples of ‘ooo’ played like a warped mellotron interact musically with the apparent synth. They’ve layered male and female vocals in a way that successfully brings the vocals forward, almost. I still don’t know what most of the lyrics, but I like what I’ve caught. I suspect an expression of awkward teen crush and bubblegum. Then it goes on too long, over-compressed and lacking variation.

Radiohead’s “OK Computer”

Radiohead "OK Computer" album coverThis week, I’ve been listening to Radiohead‘s 1997 album “OK Computer” to learn from as a songwriting musician. I remember when this album came out and I loved it immediately. This week served not as an introduction, but as an opportunity to re-examine the familiar for something new. As soon as I heard the open guitar line of “Airbag” I knew it was going to be a great week. I love this album. Unfortunately, that makes it difficult to listen to objectively and write about.

Guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood enjoys experimenting with the possibilities of his instruments. Effects pedals alter the sound of the guitar in unusual ways. He also incorporates a variety of unusual playing techniques. I remember being blown away the first time I saw the “Creep” music video. Jonny’s guitar stabs introduced the chorus. His manic strumming launched into a guitar solo that feels much more like he’s trying to save his life.

The song was innovative for Radiohead’s sonic character of their instruments, including vocals. The song itself borrows a lot from The Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe” but the sound and performance are wholly unique. Today’s listeners often hear “Creep” as typical 90s alt-rock. Radiohead so quickly evolved far beyond their first album, it’s difficult to realize how strange it sounded when it first came out.

The second track “Paranoid Android” remains one of my favorite Radiohead songs. It opens with a latin-influenced rhythm including a clave and a gentle acoustic guitar playing broken chords. This suggests an atmosphere of elevator and dreams of a 1950s family vacation. Appropriate for the “Please could you stop the noise

I’m trying to get some rest” line. The second verse has the unfriendly, yet catchy, line “When I am king, you will be first against the wall.” After about two minutes, the music takes on a slightly sinister feel thanks to some rhythmic single low notes on the guitar. At 2:40, distorted electric guitar strike as Thom spits, “You don’t remember…” Jonny then plays a great, flourish-free, fuzz guitar solo panned full left. A mixture of time signatures add to the exotic other-worldly feel of the song. And then it moves into a mourning-choir section. Distorted guitars rip back into the song. The Rhythm guitar and drums play the ending rhythm, but the fuzzed out lead guitar soars into high notes drawing the song back into life before letting it end.

The great song “Karma Police” does interesting things with chords in their key. The first part of the song is in G major, then the outro is in B minor. The chord progression for the verses could be i-III-v-VII if in A minor, which would be great. However, being in G major, the chords actually follow an unusual ii-IV-v-I progression.

The chorus could be a I-II-V-IV#7 in the key of C major, which again would be great though weird. But, still in G major, the chorus is actually a IV-V-I-VII7. These unusual progressions are played simply on the piano with a strummed acoustic guitar adding texture to the background. Overall, the song has an ambivalent feeling of stability and fragility, marching and floating.

Thom lifts his voice up during the outro;  He sings, “Phew for a minute there, I lost myself.” This matches the peculiar contradiction of a minor key with a triumphant feeling. I love that combination. The opposite happens in the chorus where the chord progressions seem to go from A minor to C major, but the mood drops with an mildly threatening statement of purpose: “This is what you get when you mess with us.”

The blissfully perfect “No Surprises” remains one of my favorite songs. Sonically, it bears some resemblance to The Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” from their debut album. With the slower tempo, use of glockenspiel and guitar over a bassline with little percussion and softly sung vocals. The two verses vollow a I-vi-ii-V-I-iv chord progression. The minor iv adds a sense of longing to the pull for resolution. I love this song. The sound is delightfully pleasant tinged with melancholy.

Throughout the album, obtuse lyrics build emotional images of anxiety and distress. I don’t want to make too much of the comparison, but it bears some relation to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Both albums deal with the difficulty and burden of living in modern society.  With Radiohead, the lyrics are much more post-modern. At times, they’ve constructed lyrics from lists and yet others are collections of sentiments.  These are pulled together to create an overall sense of meaning, sort of like reading between the lines.

Overall, “OK Computer” continues to be one of my favorite albums. Radiohead make great use of inventive chord progressions. I also appreciate their attention to sonic detail, from use of effects to the choice of instruments. This is true, of course, with all bands. Yet, Radiohead seek out new ways to create strange auditory experiences. They thoughtfully combine these in meaningful ways that suit the songs.

Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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