The Doors’ “The Doors”

Album cover for The Doors' self-titled debut album

I’ve been listening to the Doors‘ 1967 self-titled debut album this week. My real introduction to the Doors came around 1992 from the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s biopic.  Around the same time, I saw a documentary about Andy Warhol that introduced me to Velvet Underground. Their song “Heroin” was also featured on the soundtrack.  As a high school freshman, I found great inspirations for creativity. Among those were Warhol and Morrison.

I soon read Jerry Hopkin‘s biography of Jim Morrison, “No One Here Gets Out Alive.” It was years before I actually saw The Doors movie. Of course, I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t as good as Hopkin’s book. The teenage poetry scrawled in my notebooks became slightly less self-centered as I tried for more mystical universal themes. My dreams of going to film school were inspired by Jim Morrison, Stanley Kubrick, and William S. Burroughs. I didn’t really hear much of the Doors beyond what was featured on the soundtrack, but listened to it over and over again. It was years before I actually saw the movie and I didn’t like it as much as Hopkin’s book.  From the soundtrack, I was enamored with “Ghost Song“, “Riders on the Storm“, “Love Street“, “When the Music’s Over“, and especially “The End.” This was rock music tinged with otherworldly exoticism fronted by an intelligent poet who exuded a heady sense of danger.

I finally acquired a copy the Best of the Doors compilation album in my early 20s. At some point, I lost appreciation for Jim Morrison and the Doors and so managed to miss out on some tracks on this debut album.  I laugh to realize now how into them I was without having ever owned proper album.

“Soul Kitchen” is one of the most Doors sounding Doors songs. It features many stylistic elements found in their songs, as well as some of the better lyrics on this album. Morrison, considering himself a poet,often follows strict rhyme schemes. I can’t say the results are always good. I think their hit song “Light My Fire” has terrible lyrics, though Morrison’s not to blame here, as guitarist Robby Krieger wrote them.

The song opens with organ playing a riff that emphasizes the 1st, 2nd beats, and then dances with syncopation across the 3rd. It’s very similar to the organ in their later song “When the Music’s Over” which is also one of my favorites. The bassline bounces down and up from the 1st and 3rd beats of each measure. Drums join in, playing a standard 8 beat rock rhythm with guitar adding some bluesy rhythm riffs.

The Doors did not have a bass-player, but rather organist
Ray Manzarek played a bass synthesizer with his left-hand. This is often how pianists play, with the left-hand providing bass-lines and the right-hand play chords and/or melodies. What’s unique about Manzarek’s playing, though, is that the bass is a separate instruments and he often maintains a separate personality for each. He provides more soul-funk basslines, claiming Ray Charles as a big influence. However, the right-hand plays a variety of styles, often combining influences from blues, classical, jazz, and even middle-eastern music.

I could write a whole thing on just this song and the lyrics of most of the tracks. So, I will not do that, but I do want to point out one of my favorite verses, which is from “Soul Kitchen.”  The second verse. The four lines are two couplets of perfect rhymes, which in turn are slant rhymes with each other. The first line speaks of the fingers of the owner of the soul kitchen, describing their movements as if weaving minarets. Not a word frequently found in rock lyrics, minarets are skinny towers from which the call to prayers are made. Beautifully ornate Arabic lettering frequently covers these towers and their accompanying mosques. It’s possible that Morrison’s “secret alphabets” is both a reference Arabic calligraphy as well as suggestion that there is a covert shared conversation with the owner.

Well, your fingers weave quick minarets
Speak in secret alphabets
I light another cigarette
Learn to forget, learn to forget

This album closes with one of the Door’s more infamous track,s “The End.” The band also frequently ended concerts with the song. It begins as a goodbye to a lover with “This is the end, beautiful friend […] Of our elaborate plans, the end. Of everything that stands, the end. No safety or surprise, the end. I’ll never look into your eyes again.”

Then, from there, Morrison and the Doors take us on a mystical journey along the California highways. But the journey becomes increasingly sinister, like the boat ride in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.  Until in a fairly similar way, the singer speaks for the listener, “Driver, where you taking us?” This takes us to the Oedipus section of the song. Morrison is known to have been involved in a school production of Oedipus Rex, and the Fruedian idea of Oedipus Rex was still widely discussed at the time. Apparently Morrison tied some additional ideas to the “Kill the father, fuck the mother.” He saw this as a metaphor for doing away what from the past was holding us back, and returning to embracing nature and the Earth. 

The killer awoke before dawn
He put his boots on
He took a face from the ancient gallery
And he walked on down the hall
He went into the room where his sister lived, and then he…
Paid a visit to his brother, and then he…
He walked on down the hall, and
And he came to a door
And he looked inside
“Father?”
“Yes, son?”
“I want to kill you. Mother? I want to…”

While he does censor himself during this section, he chants “fuck” several times throughout the song otherwise like a rhythmic punctuation. It manages, however, to make this section so much more dark and sinister that he leaves out the verbs for bad things the killer does. Much the way good horror films like 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby” lets the more disturbing imagery happen in the imagination rather than on the screen.

I’ll jump back now from the last song on the album to the third, “The Crystal Ship.” This beautiful song  of lost love allows Morrison’s voice to lean a little more towards his crooning. I know that he idolized Elvis Presley, but I learned this week that he also felt the same for Frank Sinatra. This track does combine some elements of both of those singer’s slowerly songs.

As with many albums of the time, the Doors’ self-titled album has hard-panned instruments either all left or all right. Thankfully, unlike the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul“, this keeps vocals in the center, and often another instruments like piano to join. This means there are three positions in the stereo field utilized. Unfortunately, the Doors seemed to have been recorded with greater isolation than the Beatles, so those instruments that are hard left or hard right feel extremely unnatural in headphones.

I’m glad to have spent a full week with this album, I’ve come to love the Doors again. Also, it was good to really hear all of these songs enough times to get to know them. Great stuff, the Doors.

The Rolling Stones’ “Beggars Banquet”

Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to The Rolling Stones album “Beggars Banquet” from 1968. This is the third of their albums I’ve had for my weekly albums. “Exile on Main Street” and “Let It Bleed” each had their turn earlier this year. As I mentioned before, I chose the Beatles over the Stones when I was young. However, I feel for “Exile on Main Street” pretty hard when I was about 30 years old. There’s some tremendous cuts on “Beggars Banquet” as well. I’ve heard several of them over the  years, especially “Sympathy for the Devil.” But now some of the whole album has grown on me and some of these songs are now great favorites.

The famously controversial cover image of a bathroom wall, includes some graffiti that says, among other things “Bob Dylans Dream” with an arrow pointing to the toilet handle. I wonder if this is a joke on Dylan’s line “the pump don’t work, because the vandals took the handle” that closes his song “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Either way, the mention of Dylan is importantly telling; These Rolling Stones songs frequently offer snapshots of contemporary society and culture in a rather Dylan way. Also, musically the way they strum the acoustic guitar in some of these songs shows that they’ve been listening to some of this recordings.

“Jigsaw Puzzle” provides a more obvious example of Dylan’s influence on the Stones. Acoustic guitar strums repeats a V-IV-II-I chord progression four times for the verse, and then plays I-II-IV-V-V-IV-IV-V for each chorus. A bright slide-guitar manically slides up the neck mimicking the slide guitar in Dylan’s song “Highway 61 Revisited.

I enjoy how they play these verses. All instruments except drums and bass rest during the first line, and then each guitar comes back in as the verse progresses to the chorus. This gives the feeling of rising intensity. In this way, also, they treat the chorus more as a refrain in the balladry tradition than as a rock n roll chorus. Though the lines incorporate some rhyme, they don’t follow a strict rhyme scheme as Dylan would; They frequently abandon rhyme altogether.

The lyrics paint short vignettes of characters walking about in the world of the song, as often seen in Dylan songs, especially “Desolation Row.”  There’s the story of so many things going on in the world: issues, conflicts, corruptions, etc.  These are vague passing references to the sociopolitical climate, like skimming newspaper headlines when you just want to read the comics. The speaker is cut-off from these other characters and their interactions with each other. He’s just “trying to do [his] jigsaw puzzle.” However, though they incorporate some rhyme, 

There’s a tramp sitting on my doorstep
Trying to waste his time
With his methylated sandwich
He’s a walking clothesline
And here comes the bishop’s daughter
On the other side
She looks a trifle jealous
She’s been an outcast all her life
Me, I’m waiting so patiently
Lying on the floor
I’m just trying to do my jigsaw puzzle
Before it rains anymore

The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” remains one of the most undeniable recordings of the 1960s. In addition to the amazing music and performance, the song features great lyrics about the evil running through history and culture. This week, I also watch the not-so-good documentary by Godard, “Sympathy for the Devil” which follows the band through the development of the song. I can’t recommend the movie, but it was neat to see them recording early versions of the song before they knew how they were going to play it.

The verses follow I-II-IV-I chord progression. The choruses rises up to V-I-V-I.  For the first verse, the piano plays chords on the first beat of each measure, along with the bass playing the root note. With the second verse, the bass picks up more of a driving shuffling rhythm, still mostly on the root note of each chord. With each verse, the piano gets more active with great rhythm-and-blues rhythms. This is all accompanied by layers of Latin rhythms played with a variety of hand percussion. 

After the second chorus, vocals repeating a “hoo-hoo” chant continue through the rest of the song. These backing vocals sing the tonic chord I throughout the verses. They change only for the chorus, rising up to the V chord along with the rest of the accompaniment. I’m not really sure why, but this chant contributes to the driving feel of the song.

A menacingly sharp electric guitar solo plays during after the third chorus. This overdubbed guitar sits right in front, fuzzed and bright. While it’s definitely a blues-inspired solo, it mixes held notes with staccato stops. With the lack of reverb or delay, the rests are hard and just as cutting as when the guitar plays notes. 

“Street Fighting Man” may be the song I played the most this week. It makes uses of the typical three rock chords, though the order is sort of flipped for the verses. Normally we’d see a I-IV progression, but instead these verses have IV-IV-IV-I, even though the intro gives us I-IV. The chorus changes key to the V of the original key for a I-I-I-V chord progression in the new key. These leads to a post-chorus that rather-floats on the II chord (V of the new key) of the original key to drop back to the original key.

The song opens with Keith banging out the chords on an acoustic guitar in one channel. He famously acquired the sound by recording the guitar on a portable tape cassette recorder.  The guitar was too loud for the little machine, overloading the mic input, the tape, or probably both. This serendipitously created a warmly distorted acoustic guitar. This is joined by a more cleanly recorded acoustic guitar in the left channel. There’s later some great subtle play back and forth between these two guitars.

The drums play a strong simple beat, emphasizing the 2nd and 4th beat like a march to accompany lines like the opening “Everywhere I hear the sound of marching charging feet, boy.” The verse and choruses are rocking, hard, and driving. They create this force with double-tracked acoustic guitars, hard-driving drums, rolling piano, and a simple-yet-effective bass guitar line. The post-chorus adds contrast with sitar and syncopated melodic piano creating a floating feeling, as the song finds its way back to the tonic.

Well now, what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock n’ roll band?
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s just no place for a street fighting man, no.

EDIT: Updated the embedded videos, as ABKCO records just posted some great lyric videos on youtube.

The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul”

The Beatles' "Rubber Soul" album cover

I dedicated this week to listening to The Beatles‘ sixth album “Rubber Soul” from 1965. Of course, I’m well aware of the Beatles. My tastes, especially since a teenager, was for their later work from 1967’s “Sgt. Pepper” on. I thought I wasn’t quite so familiar with “Rubber Soul,” but some of my favorites are on this album as well. With so many great songs, it’s difficult to choose only a few songs to focus on.

One of the most noticeable things about “Rubber Soul” on a whole is the hard-panning. During this period, albums often saw both a mono and a stereo release. The mono mix was given more care and attention, often bands like the Beatles were present and involved in the mono mix. The stereo mix was considered by some to be unnecessary, a slight variation of the mono, or worse, a gimmicky trend. 

I’ve seen two main reasons given for the Beatles stereo mixes using hard panning (each track (instrument) is completely in the left, right, or center.) Limitations of the studio equipment provided the first reason. Up until the late-60s, mixing consoles had a three-position switch for panning: Left-Center-Right, or LCR.

Another reason came from concern of playback equipment and what might happen if the stereo record was played on mono equipment. This second reason lead to the Center position being avoided. One “Rubber Soul” everything is either Left or Right. So, if the two channels were summed together as mono, the mix levels would be preserved.  That separation ccan sound nice in a room with wells-spaced speakers; However, it’s a very strange feeling in headphones to have the center be a void and everything is right in one ear or the other.

The album’s second track “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” is a slower folk-rock song in ¾ time with Indian influence. Not only incorporate influence from music of India, it was also the first rock song to feature an actual sitar rather than just imitating the sound with guitars. George Harrison had a genuine interest in Indian music and culture, which had an influence on much of his work.

Lennon’s lyrics about a less-than-satisfying love affair perhaps don’t reflect any sort of connection to the Indian flavor. Though there is a sense of exotic strangeness to the girl’s house, which can be like being a stranger in a foreign land. Apparently the last verse is about burning her house down, but it’s so vague it’s difficult to say. Though, knowing that Lennon has used the phrase “Norwegian wood” to refer to cheap wood paneling helps a little.

And when I awoke I was alone

This bird had flown

So I lit a fire

Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?

The intro and verse probably have no real chord progression, but rather stay in the I chord continuously. At the very least a chord progression of I-v7-IV is implied by the melodic riffs. In this way, the accompaniment further imitates drones heard in Indian music. The sitar plays a riff in the left channel, which doubles the melodic portion of finger-picked acoustic guitar in the right channel. The same melody is almost completely followed by the vocal melody.

I have loved the Beatles “Nowhere Man” as long as I can remember, so definitely since I was a young child. It’s one of those songs that can be appreciated at any age. Gershon Kingsley recorded a great instrumental version of the song using Moog synthesizers that I have adored since first hearing it about 15 years ago. I love the sounds Kingsley has designed for the song, but I also really like the melody of this song. Again, the focus of most Beatles songs is the melody and the accompaniment supports that melody. 

The Beatles keep the instrumentation pretty simple on this track. In the left channel, we have drums, bass, acoustic and electric guitar. The acoustic guitar strums through a I-V-IV-I-ii-iv-I-I chord progression for the verses and iii-IV-iii-IV-iii-ii7-ii7-V7 for the chorus. I especially like that sound of the iii-IV-iii-IV part of the chorus. Still, though this is not a common chord progression, the acoustic guitar strumming pattern definitely is. The bass guitar, as I’ve noticed in several Beatles songs, plays the most interesting part of the accompaniment. McCartney gives the music a groovy counterpoint to the vocals. 

The electric guitar in the left channel mostly plays small melodic riffs during the short pause between verses. Another electric guitar in the right channel plays a solo after the first chorus. Backing vocals are also in the right channel, going ‘ahhhh, ahhhh, la la la’ during the choruses and doubling the lead vocal during verses.

I recognized during the week that one of my favorite tracks “I’m Looking Through You” sounds the most like a Monkees song, and I do love the Monkees. The bit after the chorus gets my attention. Right after they sing “I’m looking through, you’re not the same!” The organ and electric guitar pick up in energy getting a little louder and driving. The organ hits two chords along with the guitar and then guitar continues with a pattern of rapid notes. This interaction adds great energy to the song.

The percussion for the song consists mostly of Ringo tapping his fingers on a box of matches. There’s a few instances of tambourine, which seem to have perhaps been played in the background and picked up by another microphone. During the post-chorus sections, Ringo also plays a minimal but effective pattern on the drum kit. 

“Rubber Soul” deserves more praise among Beatles albums. I liked this album far more than “Revolver.” But, I also like “Abbey Road” more than “Sgt. Pepper“. Anyway, this was definitely another great album and one I’m glad I’ve gotten to know better. I’ll continue listening to this one for years, I’m sure.


Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”

Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" album cover This week, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan’s 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks” to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. Each Bob Dylan album so far has been monstrously impressive from a songwriting perspective. His skill to employ metaphor within narrative songs that utilize rhyme is astounding. For me, this album is right up there with “Blonde on Blonde” and I can’t get enough of it now that I’ve spent a week with it.

Finger-picked blues guitar drives the track “Meet Me in the Morning.” At first, I didn’t care for this song due to its repetitive nature. A twelve bar blues progression (I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-V-I-I) provides foundation upon which Dylan sings lyrics that follow the twelve-bar blues blues format of one line repeated twice, then a line in response. Like much of the album, the lyrics deal with a struggling relationship.

The first verse opens with the title “Meet me in the morning, 56 and Wabasha. Honey, we could be in Kansas by the time the snow begins to thaw.” I’m not sure why they are meeting to travel, except perhaps as a change of scenery or escape. The next verse tells how some say it’s darkest before the dawn, but the singer is always dark. But, when the morning rooster crows in the third verse, the singer feels mistreated by his lover. He feels persecuted and trapped, and wonders if the love was a curse. “Look at the sun sinking like a ship. Ain’t that just like my heart, babe, When you kissed my lips?”

I loved this catchy song by the end of the week. I like the layers of multiple guitars.  In the right channel , a bright acoustic guitar plays rhythm-lead lines. A fuzzy slide guitar soaked in reverb provides some atmosphere in the background. Another acoustic guitar quietly strums the chords. And yet clean electric guitar joins later to pick some lead lines and also gets in conversation with the fuzz guitar during the outro.

Also, I find it impossible to not sing along to the mellow grooving bassline.

On “Shelter From the Storm,” Dylan sings tenderly of a love lost. The jangly acoustic guitar dances nervously between the bass and vocals. We hear the sound of the pick and/or guitar strap ticking and rattling against the guitar. These additional sounds of guitar-playing unintentionally provide the only percussion. This type of natural imperfections lends a sense of authenticity to the recording. The chord progression throughout is a basic I-V-IV-I, with the melody providing a sense of variation through the verses.

These are some tremendous lyrics. The song is about confusion, loss, frustrations and heartache, but he’s telling it through the sweetness and tenderness. That’s how the song manages to be so powerful.  Rather than talking so much about pain and loss, he talk about promises and what was lost. However, it’s the middle verse that puts everything in perspective.

Now there’s a wall between us, something there’s been lost
I took too much for granted, I got my signals crossed
Just to think that it all began on an uneventful morn
Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm

Of course, there’s layers of ambiguity here as other themes become part of the picture. Images of Christ come into play, which could embarrassingly make a martyr out of the speaker, but I prefer to avoid that interpretation.  It’s too mighty a structure of self-pity, and also would be too self-righteous in contrast to other statements in the song.

The brilliant “Tangled Up in Blue” opens the album and remained my favorite song the full week. I rather feel it’s too great of a song to be the first. The opening chords of A and Asus4 play in my head all day. The verses are in a I-VIIb-I-VIIb-I-VIIb-I twice, followed by V-vi-I-IV twice and ends with VIIb-IV-I for the refrain of “Tangled up in blue.”

The first half of each verse is sung in a restrained back-and-forth melody, with the pitch rising for the second half. The percussion and other instruments likewise pick up in energy. This is balanced by the lower-pitched chords of E and F#m. The the refrain anchors the verse back to the tonic on “blue.” It’s interesting the use of chords for this key. The chords are more likely those of a song in the key of G, while the melody is actually in key of A.

As with the whole album, the layering and interplay of instruments is fantastic. Multiple strummed and picked acoustic guitars provide a full atmosphere of sound. Still they are mixed in a way that manages to keep things feeling stripped down.

The lyrics are the most amazing part of the song. A week definitely provides too little time to fully appreciate all he has going on here. At the very basic level, I appreciate the narrative quality of the song. Songs that tell stories, especially about characters and their relationships, get my interest. I especially appreciate tales of that touched on and lost and over-arching tales that narrow in on details. This is especially made poignant by going back to a place while accentuating the distance.

So now I’m going back again,
I got to get to her somehow.
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now.
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenter’s wives.
Don’t know how it all got started,
I don’t know what they’re doing with their lives.
But me, I’m still on the road
Heading for another joint
We always did feel the same,
We just saw it from a different point of view,
Tangled up in blue.

Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You”

Album cover for Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You"

I’ve been listening to Aretha Franklin’s 1967 album “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” for lessons I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. Unfortunately, the world lost Aretha Franklin the day before I started my week with her album. This was an amazing album and I fell in love with several of the songs almost immediately. Unfortunately, I’ve been struck by a double ear infection that is sapping much of my energy; it’s difficult to concentrate to write as much as I usually do for these albums, but I’ll still talk a little about my favorite tracks. Her singing is tremendous and that remains true on every song.

“Soul Serenade” quickly became my favorite. I especially like the use of horns between the vocals in the chorus. They hit on the 3rd, 4th and 1st of the next measure. It makes that 1st beat feel like a 5th beat.

I also really liked the song “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man” particularly for the smooth extending of syllables during the chorus with backing vocals providing rhythmic repetition. The sparse accompaniment provides a good backing for Aretha’s voice on this slower track. The organ plays extended chords with the piano mostly tinkling occasionally on individual notes, and a basic drum pattern keeps the beat.

As I said this was an amazing album from start to finish. Definitely one that I will return to again and again in the future. I wish I felt better, so that I could do it more justice in writing. So instead, I’ll close with this great video of Aretha Franklin performing the opening track of this album, “Respect.”

John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”

John Coltrane's A Love Supreme album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to John Coltrane’s 1965 album “A Love Supreme.” I first discovered this album about eight years ago. At the time, I was studying painting at college. Some of my favorite artists, like Willem de Kooning, were fans of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. While I painted, I’d listen to jazz CDs I’d borrowed from the school library. I found that I enjoyed much of it. I can’t say I always understood it. Regardless, jazz became part of my art-making routine.

John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” immediately became one of my favorites. It caught me off-guard as it went into musical territory I’d not yet imagined. The music confused me, yet somehow FELT like it made perfect sense. I even bought a brand new vinyl record of the album when I only had plans to buy a record player. Three years passed before I even had anything to play it on.  That’s how much I liked this one. 

Here’s the thing though, even after these years of hearing it off and on. Even after spending a full week with the album.. I feel ill-equipped to really write about it. I can tell you that I like it; I can talk about how it’s neat that he plays the 4-note “a love supreme” motif in several keys on the saxophone before chanting the words vocally. And I think that’s neat.

I appreciate that they repeat a melody line several times to establish for the listener what the basis for the next section is. And then they use that as a starting point to go off into other realms; cutting up the melody, flipping it around, filling it with seemingly random flourish and excitement. But then, they fold instruments in and around each other playing variation on themes (especially the love supreme motif) until they come back around. They weren’t just going crazy, but rather intelligently and methodically dissected the song, examined it, displayed it’s variations, and put it back together.

This is what I hear in this album. I’m not confident in saying that’s what it really is, but that’s what it is to me.  What I can note with confidence is that the album, with its four tracks, feels like a whole. There are (at least) three similarities that tie them together: the use of motifs, the methods by which motifs are used, and the instruments.  I appreciate that it sounds like a single performance. The same instruments are used from start to finish, recorded and mixed in the same way with the same sound to the room.  I like that.

So, in breaking with my usual way of writing about these albums, I’m mostly saying that I can’t write about this one as a musician. I’m in awe by what happens. I cannot explain what I’ve heard, nor understand how it was done. All I can say is that it is amazing.

Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions”

Stevie Wonder: Innervisions album coverThis week, I’ve been listening to Stevie Wonder’s 1973 album “Innervisions” for lessons I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriter. For years, my only real awareness of Stevie Wonder was his work in the 1980s. At eight years old, I saw his appearance on the Cosby Show. I watched it many times on VHS and used to sing the song “I Just Call To Say I Love You” throughout my childhood. By the time I hit my teens, I grew to find songs like this and “Ebony and Ivory” were just cheesy. I didn’t become aware of his fantastic 1970s work until fairly recently. Some of the stuff I had heard before without realizing who it was. I absolutely loved spending a week getting to know this album.

Wonder is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and plays many of the instruments on the album. Every instruments on “Living for the City” is played by Stevie Wonder. Fender Rhodes electric piano opens the song spinning left-right through the stereo tremolo. As with much of the album, Wonder makes use of the legendary TONTO for fantastic synthesizer  sounds. Once the drums start, the kick hits on every quarter note through the verse and chorus, though changes for the bridge.

The chord progression is very simple for the verse: I – ii – I7 – ii, with the synth bass mostly bouncing on on the tonic every quarter note. The chorus rises through a IV-IV-V6-V7 progression. The da-da-da-da bridge contrast with the rest of the song by being in 3/4 time as borrowing a series of chords from outside of the key. The first chord of the bridge could be vi7♭5,  then to vi♭ to v♭ coming done to ii♭ back to I.

Though the music is funky with a definitely bouncing groove, it would feel rather laid back without the vocals. Wonder’s singing gives the track its energy. He sings the verses with a rhythm and a simple melody; it’s almost rapping. He also punctuates the rhythm with non-verbal grunts, pops and ‘hee’s;’ Michael Jackson undoubtedly drew influence from Stevie Wonder. The synth bass and electric piano may be the heart of the accompaniment, but the vocals are the drive.

One of my favorite tracks, “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” closes the album. Wonder provides all vocals and plays all instruments except the electric bass guitar. Acoustic piano plays chords throughout. The chord progressions runs I-I7-I6-iv6-I-V-IV for the verses and a bridge/chorus of ii-I-IV-V-vi7-V-I-ii7. This use of extended chords provides interesting movement while essentially staying in the same chord.

A different idea for me, that seems so natural in the song, is the use of multiple time signatures within the verses. The whole song is in 4/4 time with an exception at the end of each verse. Every verse has the refrain “He’s miistra Know-It-All” in 2/4 time.

I like the use of synthesizers to add little magical flourishes to the top end of the piano lines. Sometimes they are like soft sparkles drifting into the air.   At the half-way point, Stevie’s vocals pick up in energy and hand-claps increase the sense of energy. It also helps the song feel like it’s coming to a close.

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.