Neil Young’s “Harvest”

Album cover for Harvest by Neil Young

I’ve been listening to Neil Young‘s fourth album “Harvest” from 1972, this week. Last year. I spent a week with his third album “After the Gold Rush” from 1970. The two albums differ little in sound and composition style making them almost feel like two parts of a double-LP. Those songs where he does venture beyond the folk country-rock prove to be the weakest tracks; The unnecessarily cinematic “A Man Needs a Maid” and the dramatically orchestral “There’s a World” impress with their aspirations, but fail to actually be enjoyable songs. “A Man Needs a Maid” features some of Young’s best singing and a great melody. A stripped down version proves to be much better.

Old Man

I had difficulty choosing between “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold.” Ultimately, I decided to focus on “Old Man.” “Heart of Gold” provides a great example of Young’s country-rock style. “Old Man” intrigues me far more from a songwriting perspective.

The chord progressions is.. well, strange. From what I can gather, Young and band perform the song in the key of D major, with frequent dips into D minor and maybe G major. I do not believe rock musicians discuss theory to this extent; while they understand theory, they probably played what sounded right for the song.

For the verses, the chords are mostly D-F-C-G. In the key of D, that’s I-II#-VI#-IV. In the key of D minor, that’s I-III-VI-IV. In the key of G, that’s V-VI#-IV-I. With all of this potentially borrowing of chords, I try to follow the feel of the melody and other instruments to determine what feels like the tonic. The proves elusive too. Therefore, I assume we have frequent key changes. The verses open in D major, shift to D minor, and return to D major. That makes it I-III-VII-IV, with middle to chords in the relative minor key. The chorus in that case, following III7-I, started in D minor but focuses on D major.

All this modulating combined with Young’s unique singing voices gives the song a pensive and unresolved eerie feeling. That works well for the contemplative lyrics. The speaker talks to an old man, inspired by a conversation Young had with the caretaker of a house he’d recently bought. He shares that while they may have had different lives, they really aren’t that different from each other. At their hearts, what they need is love. There’s not a consistent rhyme scheme from one verse to the next, but the lines do rhyme. Most frequently, there’s internal rhymes with single lines.

Old man, look at my life
Twenty-four, and there’s so much more
Live alone in a paradise
That makes me think of two
Love lost, such a cost
Give me things that don’t get lost
Like a coin that won’t get tossed
Rolling home to you

The Needle and the Damage Done

Young again defies the constraints of key in “The Needle and the Damage Done.” They used a live recording featuring only vocals and guitar for the album track. The audience remains attentively quiet through the performance. This delicately pensive pained song bemoans the heroin addiction and its consequences. He picks dancing arpeggios throughout the song, like trills over the chord’s root note.

The song is mostly in the key of D, but borrows chords frequently. There is no chorus here, but rather a series of short two-line verses followed by a one-line refrain.; though its not a strict refrain, as the lyrics vary considerably. The first and second lines rhyme

Also, where most songs return to the tonic at the end of the refrain, Young ends on a major supertonic. This complete lack of resoluton makes that major chord feel lost and longing. This provides subtle emotional impact, supporting the lyrics. The chord progression for verses is an unusual I-VI#-VIX9-IV-iv-V#-VI#-IIIb-IIsus-II. With all these borrowed chords, I can’t for certain pin down the key; However, listening to the melody, I believe I have identified it correctly.

I hit the city and I lost my band
I watched the needle take another man
Gone, gone, the damage done

Words (Between the Lines of Age)

The song “Words (Between the Lines of Age” closes the album. Former Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young band members Stephen Stills and Graham Nash provide backing vocals. The band repeat the same i-V-VI-i chord progression throughout, at slow churning tempo around 45 BPM. We hear Young’s characteristic overdriven guitar playing rhythm in the left channel and leads in the right. There is a great sense of the room in the recording, which helps the overdubs to sound like they were live.

The verses consist of three sets of couplets, with some internal slant rhymes. The chorus completes the verses, making it more of a traditional refrain. This refrain is basically the same line twice. These lines seems like a prophetic dream, with the speaker being visited first by gift-givers and then imagining another life. What’s he talking about, I don’t know. But it sounds good.

If I was a junkman selling you cars
Washing your windows and shining your stars
Thinking your mind was my own in a dream
What would you wonder? And how would it seem?
Living in castles a bit at a time
The King started laughing and talking in rhyme
Singing words, words between the lines of age
Words, words between the lines of age

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 “Bringing It All Back Home”

Album cover for Bringing It All Back Home

For this week, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan’s fifth album “Bringing It All Back Home” from 1965. He had been listening to rock music and visiting with The Beatles. The first side of this record, an electric band backs Dylan; while the second side remains acoustic and without drums. “Bringing It All Back Home” came out in March with “Highway 61 Revisited” following just five months later.

Between these two album, Dylan infamously performed at the Newport Folk Music Festival with electric instruments. The folk music crowd expressed disgust immediately; they wanted the old Dylan back, not this traitor to folk music. Considering “Highway 61 Revisited” introduced me to Dylan in the early 1990s, the shift from acoustic folk to folk with electric seems rather quaint to me. Granted, he did perform this (what we could call) stunt at a festival for folk music. I also feel that while electric guitars are being used, there’s still plenty of acoustic guitar, and the songwriting is still deeply rooted in folk.

Subterranean Homesick Blues

The album opens with acoustic guitar strumming, then an electric guitar plays an upward glissando to get the motor started. These guitars are joined by two basses, a second electric guitar and drums. The songs rolls at a determined pace. The bass pounds on down-beat, the guitars jangling and improvising driving of the accompaniment along like a full-steam jugband. The chord progression follows a vaguely blues pattern: I7-I7-I7-I7-IV7-I7-I7-V7-I7-I7-I7, which is an unusual 11 bars.

Almost immediately, Dylan’s vocals launch into a continuous stream of lyrics with a paranoid cutup of the sociopolitical climate. Lyrics like these undoubtedly had influence on many later musicians like Beck, whose “Loser” immediately earned him Dylan comparisons in the 1990s. The promotional film with lyrics on cards has been imitated countless times.

He takes brief breaks between verses to play the harmonica. One wonders his lung capacity, especially since he was a considerable smoker at the time. Each verse has 17 short lines run together in an almost monotonous rhythm. The famous opening line tells us where the song is headed immediately:

Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government

And of course the song ends with one of the most memorable lines, by anybody: “The pump don’t work, ‘cuz the vandals took the handles.” This rhymes with the earlier lines “Don’t wear sandals, Try to avoid the scandals.” This nonsense set of admonitions about keeping in line remind me also of Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier.” Seems like the vandals might be having more fun, even if they’ve ruined our chances of using the pump, which I assume to be a water pump, but maybe it’s gasoline?

Love Minus Zero/No Limit

This week introduced me to the song “Love Minus Zero,” which I don’t believe I’ve heard before. I hear roots of some of the songs on the Velvet Underground’s debut album here. The song features acoustic guitars, a clean electric guitar, bass guitar, and drums. The performance and chord progression give the song a ballad feel. Like a repeating cycle telling a tale, or in this case, perhaps, more a vignette. He sings about his love, but in praising her qualities he also implies criticism of society in general.

In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Some speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all

Mr. Tambourine Man

At this point, I’m more familiar with the Dylan version, but I knew the Byrd’s recording of “Mr. Tambourine” first. It definitely has more of the rectangle eye-glasses psychedelic feel than the original. I’ve also enjoyed William Shatner’s unique kitschy take, which sounds like it was recorded in front of Laugh-In’s joke wall. “

Many have covered “Mr. Tambourine Man.”: The song even became subject of literary interpretation in the movie “Dangerous Minds” from 1995. I admit I’ve never seen the full movie, but I have seen that clip. In the scene, the teacher suggests that the titular Mr. Tambourine Man is a drug dealer. This is a common, and commonly disputed, interpretation. It’s not difficult to see the possibility, and it’s certainly difficult to unsee it. We cannot trust Dylan to talk about his songs either.

Dylan plays the song in the key of D, which I think tends to sound ballady or jangly. I like that the song break into a chorus which start with the dominant (V) chord of G, rather than the typical tonic(D). Dylan’s voice jump directly into the opening “Hey!”; He sounds caught in the middle of a melody and he’s grabbing the listener into it.

The chord progression for the chorus is V-IV-I-V-I-V-IV-IV for the first two lines, which is unresolved. That resolution to the tonic comes at the end of the last two lines of the chorus. Those last two lines follow the same progression, except finish with the tonic D chord instead of extending the subdominant A.

The verses repeat a similar pattern, though Dylan sings the verses a little lower and more restrained than the chorus. Here the verses repeat the V-IV-I-V-I-V which open the chorus, then deviate with I-V-IV. He plays this twice before returning to the chorus.

Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you

U2’s “Joshua Tree”

Album cover for U2's "Joshua Tree"

This week, I’ve been listening to U2’s amazing fifth album “The Joshua Tree” from 1987. My parents bought a copy of this CD soon after it came out. That means I undoubtedly heard and listened to it many times when I was ten years old.

My opinion on some albums have come and gone as I’ve progressed through different stages of my life. I always loved “The Joshua Tree” no matter what my tastes were at the time. It’s a great album for listening. For a musician and songwriter, it provides rich and exciting possibilities for sound within the context of a rock song. They’ve managed to naturally find a brilliantly glowing spot between the genre’s of post-punk, pop, and rock here; I still think of this as their most perfect album.

The Edge’s Use of Delay Effects

A musician, especially a guitarist, would find it impossible to talk about this album without mentioning The Edge’s use of delay. Les Paul’s guitar in “How High the Moon” features one of the earliest uses of delay created using tape. Pink Floyd, especially guitar David Gilmour, made frequent use of delays synched to the tempo of the song. This can be heard on the bass in “One Of These Days” from 1971 or the guitar in “Run Like Hell” from 1979. In most cases, Pink Floyd’s delays were either synched to the 1/8th note or a triplets, that’s 1/3 of a 1/4 note, with several repeats.

There is a great study of The Edge’s use of Delay at amnesta.net. To summarize, The Edge frequently syncs the delay to dotted 1/8 (aka 3/16) or 1/8, and isn’t afraid to have several repeats to create depth of space and rhythmic textures. Without the delay, these are still good guitar riffs, but so much simpler than what we’re hearing on the album. I made great use of 3/16 and 5/16 tempo-synced delays in my electronic music over the past 10 years, directly inspired by The Edge. I love the sound of this album, especially the guitar.

Where the Streets Have No Name

The album opens with atmospheric synth pads fading in, morphing into the sound of an organ playing chords. These tones fold into each other. Then, The Edge’s clean electric guitar with tempo-synched delay creates a fractal-like driving texture. Bass guitar rolls in, filling the bottom layer. Drums begin to beat as the guitar grows in scratchy urgency. The song feels like a stadium, even within the studio. It’s an epic, driving, pulsating sound: full of atmosphere and determination. There’s a sense that this song MUST be performed.

The verses hold on to the tonic chord for several lines, to drop down to a IV, to pull up to vi, to V. From this V, the chorus jumps to a flattened VII, which feels like a modest key change, then to IV, which would be the V if the chorus was in a different key. Then we’re back to the vi. We’re still in the original key. That is the key of D, which coincidentally is the key of Irish bagpipes which play a continual drone. I may making too many assumptions, but U2’s Irish roots may’ve had some subtle influence here.

These first person lyrics describe a desire to escape a vague current situation. There’s a hint of a love falling apart, mixed with disappointment with effects of industrialization. The song makes use of anaphora, which is the repetition of a short phrase at the beginning of each line. When this device is used in speeches, it provides a verbal from of bullet points. It adds an immediate sense of structure to lyrics, giving the listener something to grab unto. In addition to the repetition of “I want to”, three of the four verse stanzas in the song have the titular refrain “Where the streets have no name.” This six word phrase also gets repeated twice at the start of the chorus. Furthermore, each stanza follows an AABB rhyme scheme.

I want to run, I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside
I want to reach out and touch the flame
Where the streets have no name

I want to feel sunlight on my face
I see that dust cloud disappear without a trace
I want to take shelter from the poison rain
Where the streets have no name.

Bullet the Blue Sky

“Bullet the Blue Sky” has long been one of my most favorite songs. The drums and bass guitar drive along repeating a menacing pattern. The bass repeats the same two bar pattern throughout. This forms the bed of the song. Overdriven guitar noises and feedback fill the background with large reverb, providing a sinister atmosphere. Much of these noises seem to be created by shaking the guitar, scratching the strings, spinning a tremolo bar, trembling a slide without actually playing notes, etc. I absolutely love these noises.

The song pretty much stays in the major tonic chord throughout. The last 1/8 note of each measure, drops to the major seventh to provide movement. During the spoken bridge in the middle of the song, the chord drops to the minor tonic. Here, U2 uses the major third instead of the major seventh at the end of each measure. The bass lines stays the same.

In God’s Country

“In God’s Country” sits near the middle of the album. It sounds fantastic and the lyrics and melody are particularly catchy. However, this song took some years to grow on me. Though the song is unique, I don’t think it stands out enough from the rest of the album. By the time we’ve heard the six songs that precede it, it can sound like a less creative version of more of the same.

The song opens with chords played on a jangly light acoustic guitar; I believe this may have a very tight stereo delay, or a stereo chorus (which is really just a modulated delay). This spreads the guitar across the stereo field. An clean electric guitar, again with delay, lightly picks single muted notes. This somewhat suggests a xylophone. When the bass and drums come in, the guitar becomes overdriven and plays high chords echoing across the stereo field with delay. For this song, there are two delays on the main electric guitar: one synched to 1/8 note, the other to a dotted 1/8 note. Throughout the song, The Edge builds picking patterns into this delay that fill the space with rhythmic intensity. At times, this becomes an overwhelming mix of swirling repeating plucks and soaring sonic leads.

The lyrics in this song also make use of repetition. Each verse consists of two stanzas. With the first verse, the first two lines of each stanzas are very similar. The “Desert sky” of the first stanza is like the “Desert rose” of the second. Likewise the second lines of each stanza are “Dream beneath a desert sky” and “Dreamed I saw a desert rose” respectively. This type of repetition is not repeated for the second verse. However, both verses use an AAAa/AAAB rhyme scheme. The third lines of both stanzas in the first verse do make use of internal repetition, with the word “run” in the first stanza and “in” for the second stanza. This is another technique not reused in the second verse.

Desert sky
Dream beneath a desert sky
The rivers run but soon run dry
We need new dreams tonight

Desert rose
Dreamed I saw a desert rose
Dress torn in ribbons and in bows
Like a siren she calls to me

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Electric Ladyland”

This week, I’ve been listening to the 1968 album “Electric Ladyland” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. About six months ago, I spent time with their first album “Are you Experienced?” That album was released just 17 months before this, their third and final album.

They certainly evolved over this short period of time. While I truly enjoyed their debut album, I absolutely loved this one. The first album was more of a psychedelic blues rock. This album takes that sound and launches into the stratosphere, pushing the experimental psychedelic elements. They’ve also folded in some ingredient of soul and funk.

The album opens with intro track  “And the Gods Made Love” which is some slowed down stuff. It’s kind of neat the first couple times and then I found it annoying. I wanted to talk here about the first real song 
Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland),” but I like to include a video link of the songs here and it’s not available on YouTube. Anyway, it is a great track and from the first thirty seconds, I knew I was going to love the album. It’s opens as a rather soulful funk-aware R&B song. Strange things are happening with the rhythms as the song seems to swirl upon itself. Experimental yet immediately accessible.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded a fantastic cover of Bob Dylan‘s song “All Along the Watchtower” for this album. From what I’ve read, Hendrix got ahold of Dylan recording pretty early and liked this song immediately. The Experience worked on their cover for a few months and it was released within a year of Dylan’s original.  As great as Dylan’s lyrics are, the incredible soundscape of Hendrix’s version towers above the words. I know many of the words, but don’t really know what the song is about because what’s happening musically is so amazing. The verses serve more as passing narrative between the real action: Jimi’s lead guitar. 

A twelve-string acoustic guitar strums the chords throughout the song simply.  The lead guitar gives the track much of its psychedelic blues rock flavor. Jimi’s plays his stratocaster through a chorus and fuzz, with expressive filter modulation provided by a wah pedal. This sound of this combination of guitar and effects is all over the album. To see how the wah pedal is used to create these sounds, check out this excellent video by fuzzfaceexp. Some additional use of delay provides depth to the leads as well.

Another great song is “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” towards the end of the album. Again, the track mostly provides a space for Jimi’s chorus-fuzz-wah lead guitar to soar into wildly expressive explorations of sound. This starts with the opening measures, one of the Hendrix’s most famous riffs. One that I, unfortunately must admit, first hear in middle school as sampled in a 2 Live Crew song. The Hendrix track has a marvelously live jam quality to it; Even though it features use of overdubbing additional tracks, it was initially created as a jam.

I continue my complaint about the Jimi Hendrix Experience and overuse of stereo panning as an effect. Sometimes it adds something to a song, but mostly I find it annoying and distracting. Better, I feel to use panning of a delay effect, but that may not have been as readily an option as it is today.

Overall, I loved the album “Electric Ladyland.” There’s more playful experimentation than found on “Are You Experienced?” as well as a greater sense of skill and experience with their direction and recording.  Great album.