Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew”

Album cover for Bitches Brew

This week, I’ve been listening to Miles Davis’s double-album “Bitches Brew” from 1970. I spent time with Davis’s album “Kind of Blue” last year, which I enjoyed even if I wasn’t sure how to understand it. He once again challenges me in a different way, with this album. Here the band creates more of an other world through sound and rhythm. When I was in college studying fine art, I would often play this album in the painting studio. “Bitches Brew” providing an interesting, but unobtrusive, atmosphere that encouraged my own focus and creativity.

These are musical pieces without vocals that eschews techniques commonly used in music to make songs immediately digestible. There’s no hooks, clear melodies, or obviously repeated motifs for the listener to grab unto. That’s not to say that there’s no melody or motifs, or even hooks. They don’t come forward at once, but require time and repeated listening to reveal themselves. Just as these long (the title track is just over 26 minutes) pieces evolve within themselves, a feeling for them also evolves within the listener through repeated exposure.

Bitches Brew

This double LP opens with two very long tracks that took up a full side of a vinyl record. The 20 minutes track “Pharoah’s Dance” opens the album, while “Bitches Brew” fills the second side with a lengthy 26 minutes. Engineers like to keep the side of a record to 22 minutes or less, due to physical limitations of a 12 inch record. Above 22 minutes, the grooves have to get tighter, resulting in a gradual loss of sound quality. It’s also a long time to listen to a single piece of music.

Most of my listening to these albums happens in the car while driving, which means that I often did not hear these all in one sitting, but rather broken up into pieces. I do listen to these some at work in headphones, but that is less focused listening. That’s a shame, because this album really opens up in headphones.

On this album, we often hear two drummers and two bassists simultaneously playing. These pairs are panned hard left and hard right; With headphones, we can clearly hear the rhythms interweaving back and forth, supporting each other in creating complex textures. Two keyboardists at electric pianos also interact in the same way across the stereo field. I was overwhelmed at first by how much was going on where there’s typically a much more straight-forward simple foundation being laid out. Here that foundation is constantly evolving, undulating, and folding in on itself.

It allows for the players to come in and out of the basic down-beat and up-beat to perform complex rhythms knowing that their counterpart can support the beat until they come back. At times, the drums feel chaotic and then meld into a complex fabric bed, or an alien landscape, over which travels the electric guitar, trumpet and saxophone.

At the start of this the track “Bitches Brew,” the trumpet plays into a tempo-synced delay echo effect bouncing from right to left.Staccato blasts of trumpet echoed, creating an opening rhythm and atmosphere. Drums, electric piano and bass tumble out of these blasts, rolling and collapsing. This builds into the song that then takes us on a journey into the brew.

Spanish Key

The second LP opens with “Spanish Key,” which is a little more rocking than atmospheric, at least at first. The basses throb at a persistent galloping rhythm from the start. A brushed snare, shakers, and tambourine build up the rhythm, followed by loosed rolls across the toms. Sparse, mellow, short melodic motifs on the trumpet begin to evolve, growing into extended melodies. The electric piano quietly adds harmony. Saxophone grows, like a drone fading in and out. Three minutes into the track, rock-influenced lightly-overdriven electric guitar shuffles, scratches rhythms and scuttles. Occasionally that guitar hints at melody, bending notes and short blasts of solo riffs.

Just as these excursions flirt with flying into outer-space chaos, the instruments join into a simultaneous rhythmic cadence, then pause. A trumpet or bass may then continue on while the other instruments rest. The piece returns to Earth, momentarily. This cadence becomes motif of the song, repeated at the end of these phrases as a reminder where we are.

The tracks on this album make use of this technique often. There’s a motif: rhythmic, melodic, or both, that the band joins in to ground the piece before it loses the listener in chaos. This is followed by the band calming down for a moment, the drums and bass relax, but then the melodies and harmonies get folded, interpreted, transformed used as a basis for apparent improvisation. Then things evolve, rising in intensity, which often involves, pitch, tempo, texture, and rhythm. With multiple instruments doing this, they journey beyond and away from each other, while retaining some sense of interplay.

I don’t know if, or how, any influence from this album might show up in my own music, but I’ve definitely enjoyed getting an introductory experience with it. Miles Davis expands my feelings on what music can do, even when I don’t understand what he’s doing from a critical or technical standpoint.

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.