Lou Reed’s “Transformer”

Album cover for Transformer

This week, I’ve been listening to Lou Reed’s album “Transformer” from 1972. My dad gave me a copy of “Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed” as a gift when I was a teenager. I was already a fan of the Velvet Underground, who I’d learned about through an interest in Andy Warhol. So, I’d already heard some of this album from that compilation, plus some other sources. Still, there were a few tracks here that I’d never heard before, and the whole album is great. Reed studied creative writing in college and had an obsession with Rock N Roll. I believe he dreamed at various points of being a poet, novelist, or journalist. He found an outlet for those drives in the lyrics of the Velvet Underground and later his solo work.

Walk on the Wild Side

The first time I heard the music from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” was in the Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch song from 1991 that sampled it. Thankfully, I heard Reed’s song a couple years later. A couple decades later, I still love it and I’ve forgotten all about the Marky Mark song. ” The music is cool, smooth, and cinematic; Reed’s nearly spoken vocals deliver poetic voyeuristic journalism over grooving, cool, cinematic music.

The song opens with Herbie Flowers playing the iconic bass riff. Flowers produced this groove by layering an acoustic upright bass with an electric bass, both fretless. The upright gives the groove its percussive quality, while the electric smooths the glissando between notes. Rhythmically strummed chords on a significantly high-passed acoustic guitar shuffle above the bass like a hi-hat. Brushed snare completes the rhythm, gently emphasizing the 2nd and 4th beat.

The instrumentation remains fairly sparse throughout. Distant strings pad the atmosphere, playing long extended notes in the upper range. Wordless backing vocals bridge between verses, sung by vocal group Thunder Thighs. Reed speaks like poetry that the “the colored girls sing doo doodoo doo doodoo,” and their vocals pick up the riff, singing. A fantastic baritone saxophone solo by Ronnie Ross, with a bit of echo, leading us through the closing fade-out. I dislike a lot of saxophone solos, but this I love.

Reed wrote short vignettes of people he knew around the Warhol Factory scene for each verse of the song. The second first, below, paints a picture of actress Candy Darling. I don’t know how pleased she may’ve been with this description; Still, Darling managed to be fairly successful, especially for a transexual in the early 1970s.

Each verse is a set of two couplets. The first two lines introduce the character and the following two lines describe what they do. Each verse is followed by repeated refrain of “Take a walk on the wild side.” The colored girls singing “doo doodoo” follows the 2nd verse and then the fifth verse, acting first as a bridge then as an outro.

Candy came from out on the island,
In the backroom she was everybody’s darling,
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, hey baby, take a walk on the wild side
Said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side
And the colored girls go

Hanging’ ‘Round

On “Hangin’ ‘Round,” Lou Reed plays more of a straight-forward rock no roll song. Again, like “Walk on the Wild Side,” he introduces the listener to three different characters. In this case, they are people from the past that keep trying to reconnect with the speaker, even though he’s moved past that lifestyle. He looks at them now with a bit of disgust.

Immediately, the groove starts with bass, guitar, and two dirty overdriven guitar. One guitar chugs along a rock n roll rhythm while the other, with mid-range kicked up, plays repeated rhythm-lead riffs. The verses follow first a I-IV-I played twice, and then II-IV-I-II-IV-I repeated twice, folled by the V to allow the next verse to provide cadence.

The first two lines of the verses introduce the character, their appearance then something about their behavior. The difference in chord progressions emphasizes the twist. Then the next two verses provide a contrast in their behavior, a little twist of consequence. The first two lines rhyme at the end, the second two do not. However, he does play with internal rhymes within the second two lines. They way the second two lines rhyme, though, is not done consistently across verses.

Cathy was a bit surreal, she painted all her toes
And on her face she wore dentures clamped tightly to her nose
And when she finally spoke her twang her glasses broke
And no one else could smoke while she was in the room

Satellite of Love

One of my most favorite songs by Lou Reed, “Satellite of Love” was the opening track on the RCA best of compilation, “Walk on the Wild Side.” Here, the placed in the inauspicious position as the second song on side 2. The song tells the story of a man watching the a satellite launch on tv, while plagued by jealousy over his girlfriend’s cheating. Reed recorded a demo with the Velvet Underground, but they did not record an official album version. The narrative slightly reminds me of Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” where “the girl with the mousy hair” disappointedly watches a movie while wishing to escape her dull life. Coincidentally, Bowie sings backing vocals on “Satellite of Love.”

The bass, kick drum, and piano come in at the same time to open the song. The vocals begin at just one second in. The feeling of late night longing and thoughtfulness is presented in a casual, somewhat languid manner, yet the song wastes no time getting started. Mick Ronson plays the distinct piano riff that combines ascending and descending arpeggios with chords.

The verses repeat a I-II7-IV-V chord progression. That second chord is a major 7th supertonic, which is usually played in minor. Raising it to a minor and playing it in a the seventh adds a little tension. It also hints that the opening chords are the IV-V7 of the dominant key. Because of this, the feeling is that we’re coming to a resolution that doesn’t happen until the I-V-vii-IV-I-V-vi-I-IV-I-V chorus leads back into the verse.

I love the way the chorus ends on the dominant chords (a common thing to do) and rests with the unfinished line: “Satellite of..” This unfinished chorus comes to it’s conclusion with the beginning of the outro. In the Velvet Underground and his solo career, Reed demonstrated in a few songs that he likes a Latin flavored coda, and this song is a great example. A variety of instruments, including backing vocals, recorder, trumpet, tuba, hand-claps and fingersnaps join in. It’s a triumphant end to a wistful tune.

Satellite’s gone up to the skies
Things like that drive me out of my mind
I watched it for a little while
I like to watch things on TV

Elvis Presley’s “The Sun Sessions”

Album cover for The Sun Sessions

I’ve been listening to Elvis Presley’s “The Sun Sessions” this week. This 1976 album presents a collection of recordings of Presley from 1954 and 1955. Sun released ten of these songs as singles in the mid 50s; His debut album from 1956 on RCA Victor collected some of the others. This is a great collection, even with the less than stellar environment and recording equipment at Sun at the time. Of course, I’ve heard all of these songs in some form or another; If not these Sun recordings, I’ve heard later recordings of the same songs by Elvis and/or cover versions by other artists.

What we hear on this album is some early rock n roll in its youth. The genre did not start with an one single recording, but rather evolved naturally as combination of blues, jazz, swing, gospel, and folk music. Throughout this album, Presley gives us rock n roll versions of songs from the previous decades, further pushing that evolution. Among those is Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” from 1947, which combined blues and swing in a way that definitely sounds like rock n roll with jazz instrumentation.

Presley was a great singer, guitar, and performer, he was not a songwriter. Depending on who you ask, he only wrote one song: “Love Me Tender.” However, Elvis did not write the music, and the song sounds a lot like the Civil War song “Aura Lee.” He is listed as co-writer on a few other songs, but his actual contribution was probably very little. Still, what he’s done is brought these songs together and played them in this new style, or emphasized that style, in an exciting way. While Presley was an important part of this evolution, he unfortunately gets a lot of credit at the expense of those he drew influence and also worked with. I believe that Presley deserves great recognition, but so do others who were denied the same attention because of their race.

That’s All Right

The album opens with Elvis’s first single, a cover of Arthur Crudup’s rhythm and blues song “That’s All Right Mama” from 1946. Crudup potentially got his chorus from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s country blues song “Black Snake Moan.” Presley’s cover introduced him to much of the world, as it was his first single. I love it, but now that I hear Crudup’s, I think I prefer the original.

Presley’s version opens with strummed acoustic guitar, joined by an acoustic bass. Elvis then sings with energy, “Well, that’s all right, mama, that’s all right for you.” The chord progression repeats I-I-I-I7 for the verses, and then the refrain has IV-IV-V7-I. The bass guitar mostly bounces between the first and up to the fifth note of each chord.

A clean electric guitar plays single note leads during the verses in a country style. However, the electric guitar plays two-notes to open the guitar-solo bridge. There’s not really any intentional bending of strings here, just straight-played notes.

Blue Moon of Kentucky

Probably one of my favorite recordings by Elvis Presley, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was the b-side of “That’s All Right.” This recording reworks Bill Monroe’s bluegrass waltz of the same name from 1946 as a rockabilly track. I love the sound of the slap-back echo on the vocals, especially the energetic way that he sings them. Again, there’s minimal percussion, just a shuffling of sticks on a surface, with the slap of the upright bass providing additional percussion. The acoustic guitar strums chords emphasizing the a swinging syncopated rhythm.

Presley and the other musicians performed this in the same key, with nearly the same chords, as “That’s All Right.” Here was have I-I7-IV-iv-I-I7-V-I-I7-IV-iv-I-V-V7-I. That’s a few more sevenths, plus a shift to minor for the fourth at the end of the 1st and 3rd line of each verse.

The guitarist plays a solo on a clean electric guitar during the bridge. The solo combines single notes and two notes played on adjacent strings. Again, these are played without bends. There are two bars of playing quick staccato notes on the beat, followed by two bars of syncopated notes.

Mystery Train

I really enjoyed Presley’s cover of Junior Parker’s 1953 song “Mystery Train,” which had also been recorded at Sun. While Elvis’s rockabilly version certain rocks more, it loses the emotion of Parker’s electric Memphis blues style. The lyrics of Parker’s song build on a verse of the Carter Family’s folk country “Worried Man Blues.”

The band play a variation of the 12-bar blues progression with a driving railroad rhythm: I-IV-I-I-I-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I. The bass hits every note, acoustic guitar plays constant rhythm in the background, rising at the end of the bars between vocals. Electric guitar shuffles and swings between the bass adding an urgent syncopated triplet groove.

Train, train, coming ’round the bend
Train, train, coming ’round the bend
Well, it took my baby, but it never will again
No, not again

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.

Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors”

Album cover for Coat Of Many Colors

I’ve been listening to Dolly Parton’s album “Coat of Many Colors” from 1971, this week. This was her eighth solo album, just four years after her debut album. During that time, she also recorded six albums with Porter Wagoner. That’s amazing, especially considering her work also on The Porter Wagoner Show tv series. The audience of that show apparently didn’t like Parton at first, since she replaced a former star on the show. Parton is an amazing singer, songwriter and guitarist. Her personality is undeniable and impossible to not love. She went on to become one of the most famous, prolific, and influential country artists of all time.

I don’t recall ever hearing any of the songs this album before. Of course, I know some of her later hits like “Jolene” and “9 to 5.” That last recorded for the great movie starring Jane Fonda, Lilly Tomlin, and Dolly Parton. I’ve been looking forward to this week and it was worth it. With the single exception of the Wagoner penned “The Mystery of the Mystery,” this album holds a tremendous collection of songs. The second track song humorous “Travellin’ Man” is a joy to listen to and I almost chose it as one of my featured three. However, instead I’ll talk about “Coat of Many Colors,” “Early Morning Breeze,” and “Here I Am.”

Coat of Many Colors

In the title track “Coat of Many Colors,” Parton tells a true story from her childhood. Born in a one-room cabin on a farm in Appalachian mountains of eastern Tennessee, Parton grew up with little money and many siblings. In Parton’s words, they were “dirt poor.” This song shares how her mother made her a coat from “a box of rags someone gave us.” In 2015, the story was shown as a tv movie with the same name.

The song opens with a great acoustic guitar-picked rising arpeggio. Parton’s voice, electric bass guitar, and a hi-hat join in for a short intro verse and then the first verse. An organ join for the second verse, padding with extended chords. Backing vocals then contribute to the chorus.

The chord progression is a folk-country I-I-I-V-I-IV-I-V-I. Though the verses do not end with a repeated refrain, musically the verses have a ballad-like quality. The last line of the lyrics provides the only rhyme of the verses, which is worth two lines previous (love/of, happiness/kiss). The chorus rises up with a IV-I-IV-I-V-I-IV-I-V-I. After the first chorus, the chord drops down to the major VI, which serves as a pivot for key change, that’s major VI becomes the major V of the new key.

The rising key change goes with the hope Parton felt as a child of proudly wearing her new colorful patchwork coat to school. However, when she gets there, the other kids laugh at her. Even when she tells them about how her momma lovingly made the coat, they just roll their eyes and make fun of her.

But they didn’t understand it
And I tried to make them see
That one is only poor
Only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me
Made just for me

Early Morning Breeze

The second song on the second side, “Early Morning Breeze” caught my attention immediately. This idyllic description of morning in a beautiful country meadow takes the listener to where the speaker goes walking and to pray. Musically, it leans more towards psychedelic folk than country. There’s a taste of Irish folk music mixed with hippie blues. At the end of the chorus, I almost expected a Led Zeppelin style break-down to happen.

An electric bass opens the track with sparse drums, to be joined by vocals. Then a picking and strumming on an acoustic guitar. For but a bar, the drums and bass pick up for the chorus, but that’s it. There’s a lot of space between instruments, making the song sound light and airy, much like that early morning scene.

Rainbow colored flowers kissed with early morning sun
The aster and the dahlia and wild geraniums
Drops of morning dew still lingers on the iris leaves
In the meadow where I’m walking
In the early morning breeze

Here I Am

With “Here I Am,” the album provided another surprise to me as Parton took a very soulful turn. Considering this was a country album from 1971, that started off with a very traditional country feel, I did not expect the variety on side two. This song would not be out of place on a record by Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, or Dusty Springfield. “Here I Am” is some gospel soul offering love and hope. The spirit-filled backing vocals emphasize the message. Dry punchy tight drums keep the song rocking, doubling up on the kick drum at times with a march feel. A clean electric guitar and clean electric bass playfully interact with each other, building musical phrases between verses that are truly amazing.

I love that guitar riff that happens during the post-chorus leading into the verses. It’s a simple blues-rock melodic clean dry guitar, instantly enjoyable and totally memorable. The bass guitar completes the phrase, in a modest but wholly necessary way. It’s a counterpoint that enriches that guitar, by bouncing up and down between the lead-melodic parts.

Here I am, reaching out to give you love that you’re without
I can help you find what you’ve been searching for
Oh here I am, come to me, take my hand because I believe
I can give you all the love you need and more
Oh here I am, oh here I am, here I am

Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”

album cover of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

This week, I’ve been listening to Lauryn’s Hill’s debut solo album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” from 1998. Though I was aware of its existence, I missed out on this album when it came out. I was well aware of the group Lauryn had just left, the Fugees, through their cover of “Killing Me Softly” from radio play. Lori Lieberman recorded the original, but it’s more likely that the Fugees cover more resembles the Robert Flack recording. Lauryn Hill’s singing was great, but I found the percussion and reggae vocal injections (“one time.. two times..”) annoying.

The Fugees had recently split up in 1997 and Hill began work on her this solo album. Bandmates Hill and Wyclef Jean had been romantically involved during their time in the Fugees. Jean continued the relationship even his marriage to another woman. During this affair, Hill started dating Bob Marley’s son Rohan, who was already married with two children. Rohan and his wife soon divorced and he and Hill stayed together and she soon had a son with Rohan. These are the circumstances under which Lauryn wrote this album, which touches on many of these topics.

Apparently, Lauryn drew some inspiration (and samples) from the movie “The Education of Sonny Carson.” I don’t know if there was much inspiration beyond the title, but the whole movie IS currently on YouTube. Several moments that reminded me of Stevie Wonder, especially “Every Ghetto, Every City.

From what I can gather in just one week, there’s an over-arching theme to the album running through between-song skits and emphasized by the album title. During the opening track, we hear an elementary school class start with the roll-call and Lauryn Hill is absent. She is absent on the day that the class learns about love, as revealed throughout the rest of the skit segments throughout the album. The point being that Lauryn missed out on the lessons of love and had to learn the hard way, by making mistakes. That’s probably how we all do it, actually.

Lost Ones

The first proper song of the album “Lost Ones” slam right into a rhyme-filled response to an ex after separation. Hill explains how she is the emancipated winner after the breakup. The chorus repeats “You might win some, but you just lost one.” referring to both Lauryn Hill and the battle.

The drum machine punches right in the middle, record scratches syncopation leading up to bar changes. Backing vocals echo and repeat the rhymes at the end of each line. The accompaniment is hard-hitting, but sparse. There’s not a lot going on underneath the vocals. Drum machine and record scratches run through the song, dropping out occasionally for emphasis. Dub-style echo-delay effected keys and guitars stab on the fourth beat of the verses, but even those are below the forward drums. A very low bass mostly rests, but plays notes to mark the movement from between every two or four measures.

There’s nearly non-stop rhyming, which has the effect of making some of the lyrics feel like punchlines. The verses do not have the same number of lines (18, 20, and 16), which is kind of strange. The first verse has the following rhyme scheme: A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-B-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A. The last line is the refrain “You might win some but you just lost one.” Hill delivers that line that doesn’t rhyme different, playing with the fact the third to last syllable DOES fit the rhyme scheme. The second verse: A-B-B-A-A-B-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-D-D-D-D, and those B’s are arguably slant rhymes of A. These lines are full of religious and cultural references, allegedly tying these comments directly to personal subject matter. Much lays on idea of temptation, repentance, and judgement.

Every man want to act like he’s exempt
Need to get down on his knees and repent
Can’t slick talk on the day of judgment
Your movement’s similar to a serpent
Tried to play straight, how your whole style bent?
Consequence is no coincidence
Hypocrites always want to play innocent
Always want to take it to the full out extent
Always want to make it seem like good intent
Never want to face it when it time for punishment

Ex-Factor

The feeling changes with the soulful next track, “Ex-Factor.” Here, the kick drum is still the strongest part of the accompaniment, but there’s much more instrumentation. A simple two note piano motif repeats at the end of several bars, creating movement. There are two organs: a gospel organ playing extended chords through a rotary speaker in the right channel, and a jazz organ playing ascending bright notes in the left channel. Where Hill rapped in the previous, here she sings beautifully. Both of which she does extremely well.

Lyrically, this song shows another emotional layer to the same breakup of the “Lost Ones.” Hill sings more about loss, confusion and helplessness in the face of betrayal. She’s been lied to and hurt; still accusing, but instead of preaching, she’s asking why. With this pair of tracks, we’re given two sides of why Hill should move on.

It could all be so simple
But you’d rather make it hard
Loving you is like a battle
And we both end up with scars
Tell me, who I have to be
To get some reciprocity
No one loves you more than me
And no one ever will

Doo-Wop (That Thing)

“Doo-Wop (That Thing)” mixes some instrumentation of doo-wop with hip hop. The song, however, lacks the doo-wop chord progression, but rather has an strange iii-ii chord progression. The horn riff plays a IV-iii-ii, with a pause after the ii chord. You can feel the resolution to the tonic, but it never actually happens. I like that.

The cautionary lyrics talk about one-night stands and reckless dating. Hill advises both men and women to grow up, be true, and sincere. She also warns about the temptations of sex that can lead to betrayal and dishonesty. Wordplay happens throughout, sometimes with lines rhyming with each other and featuring plenty of clever internal rhymes.

Talking out your neck, saying you’re a Christian
A Muslim, sleeping with the jinn(gin)
Now that was the sin that did Jezebel in
Who you going to tell when the repercussions spin?
Showing off your ass cause you’re thinking it’s a trend
Girlfriend, let me break it down for you again
You know I only say it cause I’m truly genuine
Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem

James Brown and the Famous Flames’ “Live at the Apollo”

Album cover for Live At The Apollo

I’ve been listening to James Brown’s live album “Live at the Apollo” from 1963, this week. The record captures an amazing performance of James Brown and the Famous Flames at the Apollo in Harlem the previous year. It’s a great collection of R&B, Soul, and the beginnings of Funk The Famous Flames provide the backing vocals. The band consisted of a drummer, a bassist, a guitarist, an organist, and seven horns. Among those horns, we can hear saxophonist St. Clair Pinckney, who played with Brown until 1999 and had a couple of solo albums in the 80s.

The album opens with an aggrandizing track with organist Lucas “Fats” Gonder introducing James Brown, “So now ladies and gentlemen, it is star time… the hardest working man in show business.” Then Brown performs shuffling rhythm and blues track “I’ll Go Crazy” with a guitar line that rolls along like a locomotive. The song starts without any accompaniment as Brown sings with response from the audience: “You know I feel alright! (yeah) You know I feel alright, children (yeah) I feel alright!” He and the crowd just sound like they are having a great time and the interactions are real.

Try Me

Brown starts the soulful third track “Try Me” with just his voice singing the titular first line. We’ll immediate recognize the doo-wop chord progression of I-vi-IV-V, as well as the fairly typical doo-wop rhythm pattern. The Famous Flames sing ‘dooo… ooo’ underneath Brown’s lines and then answer back, repeating his lines “Try me.”

As with many of Brown’s songs the emphasis falls on the first beat, but that is less prominent here out of respect for the genre. The hi hat hits on every eighth note, with just a mild touch of swing; brushes hit the snare every second and fourth beat. The bass walks up and down, bringing the change from one chord to the next. The bass also supports the backing vocals, by matching their rhythm when singing.

Night Train

“All aboard the Night Train!” Brown opens their cover of jazz saxophonist Jimmy Forrest’s 1951 tune “Night Train.” Though Forrest’s tune was really a reworking of an even older song “That’s The Blues, Old Man” by saxophonist Johnny Hodges in 1940. Hodges was a member of Duke Ellington’s band, and the melody may have some roots there as well.

It’s a melody I know well; I grew up hearing the cover by Marvin Berry and the Starlights from the Back to the Future soundtrack. This version by James Brown has tremendous more energy, groove, and funk. The addition of vocals grants it even more excitement. They aren’t even necessary, but they make it personable and tie it together into the loose concept of losing and finding love that seems to run through the album.

The song follows a basic 12 bar blues chord progression, with a distinctive clean guitar riff. The bass drives along, a nonstop groove train. I love the choppy chords played on the organ through a Leslie speaker. It’s energetic and lively. This constant shuffling grooving energy clearly had influences on many, even post-punk rock bands like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. I like that

Lost Someone

Brown keeps “Lost Someone” going for over ten minutes, frequently teasing the audience building suspense. He utilizes this technique throughout the album: leading up to something to create anticipation and then dropping into the next segment or song. In this case, what feels like an extremely extended bridge turns out to be a drawn out coda that ends suddenly with the next song.

In spite of, or because of, I’m not sure.. this was my favorite song on the album. No small feat considering for nearly 8 minutes, the band is playing pretty much the same two bars over and over. Sometimes, the horns will pull back a bit, or work an octave lower. A mid section of under 2 minutes has no horns, but then they return as if to say, “We’re not done with you yet.” Sometimes the bass will hold back, or the drums will pause. Then after Brown builds up intensity, like a preacher, the drums will hit the snare and cymbal. The audience will scream in reaction.

This is a strong example of what the Music Genome project calls Extensive Vamping. The band will play the same short phrase repeatedly while a lead instrument will riff, or solo, over top. In this case, James Brown’s voice plays the role of the lead instrument. He teases and excites the audience. Encourages them to scream along, “Don’t just go “aah”, go “ow!”

I got something I want tell everybody
And I got something I everybody to understand now
You know we all make mistakes sometimes
And all the ways we can correct our mistakes
We got to try one more time
So I got sing this song to you one more time
I want you to know I’m not singing this song for myself now
I’m not singing the song only for myself now
I’m sing it for you too
And if I say stuff that makes you feel good inside
When I say that little thing
I say that little part that might sting you in your heart now
I want to hear your scream
I want to hear say ow!

Arcade Fire’s “Funeral”

Album Cover for "Funeral" by Arcade Fire

This week, I’ve been listening to Arcade Fire’s debut album “Funeral” from 2004. I loved this band from the first time I heard them. I believe Yahoo Music introduced them to me; it was probably the song “Rebellions (Lies).”

“Funeral” consists of individual songs, a suite of songs, that form a unified whole. There’s some repetition of musical ideas, especially the rhythms used to convey driving emotion. With a few brief rests in the twilight, a driving rhythm marches throughout these songs.

The music and lyrics elevate the troubled restless thoughts of our more meek moments; Arcade Fire gave voice to these emotions and filled them with a triumphant sense of purpose, even if that purpose was just to carry on. With universal lines like “Our bodies get bigger, but our hearts get torn up,” it’s no wonder this album resonated with so many. The message is affirming by recognizing the fragility of life and emotions.

Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)

Arcade Fire open the “Funeral” with the “Neighborhood” suite of four songs, with an additional track between Neighborhood #2 and #3. I don’t know if this is an interlude or part of the suite. I suspect the band grouped the songs more out of acknowledgement that they loosely shared the theme of neighborhoods more than an intentional concept. The song “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” begins the suite.

Arcade Fire emphasizes every beat throughout much of the album. We’ll hear a lot of four-on-the-floor rhythms. This starts immediately with the first track with pizzicato strings, which then become staccato bowed on the beat. Piano tinkles and then plays a six note motif that will be repeated after stanzas of the verses. At 35 seconds, the vocals and kick drums join simultaneously, with the kick on every beat 1-2-3-4. This is how that march happens. Instruments one by one join in, adding to that continuous rhythm, combined with the rising intensity of Win Butler’s vocals.

The lyrics present a scenario where there’s so much snow that it buries the neighborhood. The (presumably teenage) speaker makes plans to meet their beloved when their parents begin to cry. The song offers some visuals like a wondrous children’s book that’s magical yet vaguely sad. The grown-up plans they make are remotely childlike, frightening and playful. The lyrics make use of repetition, sometimes just a word or two, like a stutter, or pulling back to explain; Occasionally there’s rhyme of the last two lines of each stanza, but not always.

And if the snow buries my, my neighborhood
And if my parents are crying then I’ll dig a tunnel
From my window to yours
Yeah, a tunnel from my window to yours


You climb out the chimney and meet me in the middle, the middle of the town
And since there’s no one else around, we let our hair grow long
And forget all we used to know
Then our skin gets thicker from living out in the snow

Une année sans lumière

One of my favorite songs has always been “Une Annee Sans Lumiere,” even though I’ve had no idea what the French lyrics means. So today, I finally looked them up. So, the lyrics are about a young couple; the girl’s father either can’t see or understand their love. I like the sound of the vocals; In addition being half in French, they are also sung more softly and carefully than on other songs. While there’s still a driving rhythm, they break from the four on the floor pounding that happens elsewhere. It’s gently pretty and I’m bobbing my head to it.

The verses follow a I-IV-V-iv-I-IV-V-I-VIb-VI-V-I chord progression. The I-IV-V sections have a strong movement (“Hey, the streetlights all burnt out” ; the sections between the I-IV-Vs are played as an aside (”
Une annee sans lumieres”) with the male vocals joined by Regine Chassagne’s female vocals. I especially like the way the rhythm relaxes for the chorus, where we hear a I-VIb-IV-iv-I-V#-V-I chord progression. The use of borrowed chords, combined with the lack of drums gives the chorus a suspenseful yet weak feeling; It’s somewhat haunting.CBbF Hey, your old man should know FmC If you see a shadow G#GC there’s something there

Hey, your old man should know
If you see a shadow
There’s something there

Rebellion (Lies)

I like to consider “Rebellion (Lies)” as the last song, becuase I don’t like the actual last song. Immediately, the kick drum pounds in on the four-to-the-floor beat. A piano drives along hitting at a constant eighth note rhythm. This song ends the album on an uplifting anthemic march, strengthened by the repetition of a I-IV-I-vi chord progression and a few upward key changes. Again, as with other songs, instruments join one at a time at the beginning of bars. And as the song progresses, those instruments intensify their emphasis of the beat.

The lyrics deal with slightly-dark universal themes of the cultural deception and mythology, ending with an affirmation that things will be alright anyway. At a surface level, it’s a rebellion against the parental commandment to get sleep: “People say that you’ll die faster than without water, But we know it’s just a lie to scare your son and scare your daughter.” Further, it’s a proclamation that maybe we don’t need to hide our selves in the darkness of night, under the covers, under the control of society and our parents.

Now here’s the sun, it’s alright!
Now here’s the moon, it’s alright!
But every time you close your eyes, lies!

Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life”

album cover for "Songs in the Key of Life"

I’ve been listening to Stevie Wonder’s 1976 double-LP “Songs in the Key of Life” this week. After spending a time with his 1973 album “Innervisions” back in August, I was looking forward to this one. Overall, this proved to be another great album by Wonder, serving up more of his unique blend of funk, soul, pop, and jazz. That said, I liked “Innervisions” more. My main complaint is that there’s too many songs and many of them are too long. This could’ve been two fantastic albums, but instead it is one overly long album. Many of the tracks have unnecessarily long codas. Still, I had difficulty picking just three tracks to dive into here, because there’s so much good stuff to choose from.

Sir Duke

I’ve known the song “Sir Duke” for a long time now. Several years ago, I got curious about the source material for the song “Let’s Get Busy Baby” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Of course, I also first heard “Pastime Paradise,” because of Coolio’sGangsta’s Paradise.” “Sir Duke” begins with a dry kick drum hitting on every beat, with horns on the the first, second and third beat.. and just before the fourth. Then the next few bars mix horns on beat and syncopation. This mixture of percussive hops on the beat and then grooves on the upbeat is on the main ingredients of funk. Wonder users it expertly throughout the album.

Very dry bass and drums in the center channel emphasis the downbeat, while providing additional rhythm interest at the end of each measure. A clean electric guitar bounces in the right channel. An electric piano plays chords and syncopated arpeggios through a slowly rotating speaker on the left half of the stereo field. The chorus and break feature horns playing rhythmic melodic blasts in unison.

I especially like the rhythm of the pre-chorus, with instruments stacked in staccato eight notes, with a little hop during the 4th beat of each measure. This section, perhaps, pays the most musical tribute to the song’s name sake, jazz legend Duke Ellington. In a broader sense, Wonder sings in praise of swing. He mentions Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald in the second pre-chorus:

For there’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo
And the king of all, Sir Duke
And with a voice like Ella’s ringing out
There’s no way the band can lose

Summer Soft

“Summer Soft” follows the winter and summer out-of-touch with each other. Summer is represented by a female character that leaves in October, while the male October leaves in April. I’m not sure I understand what he’s trying to do with the lyrics with the two characts/seasons always leaving. It reminds me of 14th century poetry with its combination of simplicity and metaphor. The music is relatively upbeat, but the focus seems to be on confusion and loss.

The track combines pop-soul with jazz. The generous use of seventh chords contribute to the jazz-feel. Except for the intro, a swirling mixture of instruments play throughout. They contribute to a general sense of atmosphere, mostly padding out the background during the verses. However, during the chorus and the outro, these instruments all come alive. They pick up in energy, brightening and moving forward in the mix. I particularly enjoy the parts where subtle synths play smooth pulses like Morse-code echoing across the left and right channels.

I Wish

The side two opener “I Wish” quickly became my favorite song on the album. I found the song lends itself well for walking on the sidewalk. It has a forward-driving bounce and a city heartbeat that feels good. On the show “Classic Albums,” Stevie Wonder gave an informative demonstration on how he wrote and recorded the song. He played the majority of the instruments, including drums, keyboards and vocals. The bass in the song is also keyboard, played by Wonder.

Wonder is a very capable drummer, and he demonstrates that in this song with its amazing percussive groove. There’s no flash, he’s not showing off on the drums. The kick drum mostly hits on the down beats, with occasional hops on the upbeat. The 2nd and 4th beat of each measure usually has a snare drum, sometimes accompanied or replaced by handclaps. The hi-hat taps along keeping the tempo, a cymbal crash introduces the start of each section of the song. During the chorus he opens the hat giving some funk the drum groove. Then for the post-chorus, the hat opens giving a forward-pull to the upbeats.

Plucky bass synths dance in the left and right channels. This is fairly unusual, because producers, especially in the 70s, would keep the bass in the center. This is because having bass panned off-center could didn’t always work well with the needle of record players. But here, he has two basses, that will balance each other out. There’s also a bass guitar that usually mimics the bass synths, but draws attention to itself by adding some funky slides up and down the neck. During the chorus, the 2nd and 4th beats are strongly emphasized by the horns shouting out between Wonder’s single-syllable vocals on the downbeat. Man, this song really makes you want to dance. It’s impossible to sit still.