The Strokes’ “Is This It”

Album cover for The Strokes' "Is This It"

This week, I’ve been listening to The Strokes’ debut album “Is This It” from 2001. I kind of remember when this came out and I didn’t think much of it. In retrospect, I don’t know why I had no interest in The Strokes. Somewhere I must’ve picked up the wrong impression of them and wrote them off without actually hearing them. They are totally a type of band that I love and would’ve really been into in 2001 as well.

The very first day of my listening week, I pretty much fell in love immediately. Here’s a group of people the same age as me, their formative years took place during the grunge and britpop eras of the 90s. While certainly influenced by those styles, it’s clear that they particularly appreciate vintage New York City rock n roll. That’s stuff like The Velvet Underground, Television, and Patti Smith. The Strokes manage to be inspired by these greats while still producing their own sincere rock n roll without pastiche. Lead singer and principal songwriter Julian Casablancas told producer Gordon Raphael that he wanted his voice to sound “like your favorite blue jeans.” To me, this indicates that the Strokes romanticized the cool spirit 70s American rock rather than simply seeking to emulate their heroes. That makes all the difference.

The Modern Age

The second track “The Modern Age” opens with floor toms played on the downbeat and slightly-overdriven guitar giving quick syncopated chord strums on the up-beat. These are joined by bass that thrums on the tonic, and another guitar steadily beating out chords. This over-driven constant rhythmic accompaniment sounds somewhat like a dirtier Velvet Underground. The vocalist then sings the opening lines, up against the mic and in our face without reverb and dirtied up by a cheap amplifier and speaker.

While we can hear some natural room, the instruments on this album are notably dry. There’s not much, if any, additional reverb added. They’ve also mixed the drums in a more traditional rock way; that is the way drums were mixed before disco encouraged produces to bring the percussion to the front. Part of the joy of this album is that it frequently feels more like a great recording of a band rehearsing in the basement than a studio album. The band sound loose and authentic, like a band more concerned with playing than with getting a perfect take.

The lyrics are somewhat flippant nonsense with a quality of rock poetry. There’s a clear feeling and emotion that comes across in the words and delivery, but the specifics are vague even with the disjointed apparent details. The use of rhyme comes and goes where convenient, almost more for the attitude than a devotion to structure. The lines pull from the language of rock n roll and teenage New York sidewalks, not from books of poetry and literature. What’s more important is the emotion and attitude.

Oh, in the sun, sun having fun
It’s in my blood
I just can’t help it
Don’t want you here right now
Let me go, oh let me go

Last Nite

I believe that “Last Nite” was the Strokes’ biggest hit in the United States. It’s certainly the song I already knew before this week. I love it. It’s both knowing and adolescent, which so much great rock n roll can be.Like the above song, the lyrics hint at some mixed emotions, romanticized angst and indecisive confusion. But they also come across so vaguely affected that they can be nonsense that suits the sounds more than communicates anything specific.

The song opens with a single fuzzy electric guitar playing an octave chord at a continuous 1/8 note pattern. OK, so technically, we can’t call it a chord if it’s only two notes, and that’s probably especially true when they are the same note an octave apart. Eh well. The drums and two more electric overdriven guitars join in, the drums are dry and centered, the two guitars are panned hard left and right. The drums play a basic rock pattern, with a kick drum fill at the end of every second measure. The two new guitars play the same pattern, but this time adding a sus4, higher up on the neck. A bass then joins playing the same tonic note, then up to the third, and back to the tonic. This all adds up to a mechanically basic rock n roll sound, somewhere between the Velvet Underground and Stereolab.

When the vocals of the first verse, the two guitar panned to the left begins playing a riff that reminds me of something. It’s somewhat like the Bo Diddley, but I think it may actually be something else. I can’t place it. The guitar on the right, starts playing choppy syncopated chords. These two rhythms interact in a rather angular way with each other; This exciting interplay creates a unique stereo effect and strong movement. The bass provides some melodic movement to the accompaniment.

Julian’s energetically disinterested vocals maintain focus throughout the track. The melodies are pretty simple, but the rhythm and delivery more than provide interest. Again, they too are a little fuzzy, just pushing the equipment to the breaking point without getting into unpleasantness. They have a delightfully dirty gritty sound. With the lyrics, the rhymes are again present, but not in a literary poetic way. More as a casual product of the musical style:

Last night she said
Oh baby I feel so down
Oh it turn me off
When I feel left out
So I, I turned around
Oh maybe I don’t care no more
I know this for sure
I’m walking out that door

Love’s “Forever Changes”

Album cover for Love's "Forever Changes"

This week, I’ve been listening to Love’s masterpiece LP “Forever Changes” from 1967. I first became aware of this band, and this album, through the Wes Anderson’sBottle Rocket” in 1997. Once I’d heard “Alone Again Or” in that movie, I had to find out more about the song and who did it. Within a few months, I purchased a copy of this album on CD. The whole thing blew me away. This is one of the most amazing musical works I’d ever heard. Each song brilliantly combines musical flavors into a unified whole. There’s elements of psychedelic rock, folk rock, latin rock, and baroque pop.

This was the same year as the “Sgt. Pepper“, “Piper at the Gate of Dawn“, “Surrealistic Pillow“, “Are You Experienced“, “Satanic Majesties“,”Incense and Peppermints.” Rock bands were exploring new sounds, ways of writing lyrics and music, as well as performance and visuals. Much of this music definitely sounds of its time and “Forever Changes” is no exception. However, there’s something about “Forever Changes” the feels more independent of time and location. I think it could be the unique combination of genres as well as the presence of air between the instruments and notes.

Love play the traditional rock instruments: drums, bass, guitar, and vocals. They richly enhanced this core band with a group of session musicians on strings, piano, trumpet, trombones, and additional horns, bass, and drums.

The album has some frightful lyrics, in contrast to the summer of love. One of my favorite tracks “A House Is Not a Motel” begins by offering a heavenly home to take refuge; By the third and final verse, the song paints a world overrun by war.

By the time that I’m through singing
The bells from the schools and walls will be ringing
More confusions, blood transfusions.
The news today will be the movies for tomorrow.
And the water’s turned to blood, and if
You don’t think so
Go turn on your tub
And if it’s mixed with mud
You’ll see it turn to gray
And you can call my name.

The verses of this minor key song follows a progression of i-III-ii-VI twice, followed by ii-VI-ii-VII-ii-VII-i-i. That’s four lines of melody, followed by two, and then a rest. The first pair line two lines start with the tonic chord, establishing the key. It’s an unusual progression to go from III-ii-VI, resulting in a fragile chord progression. This progression contains no IV or V. The second part of the verse almost feels like a key change shifting up on step to ii, but we are still in the same key. Again, there’s no IV of V, and we actually stay raised away from the tonic until the end, which gives this section a continuing sense of suspense. The vocals enhance this feeling with longer pauses between each line.

Something that I really love about this track is the unusually loud guitar solo. Normally, I would feel like this was a bad decision, but it works so perfectly in this track. After the third verse, two electric guitars play a menacing lead riff in unison. They spread across the stereo field with one hard left and the other hard right. To my ear, You could achieve this guitar sound with a treble boost (or open wah) played through either fuzz or overdrive. I’m leaning towards fuzz. After playing this line six times with little variation, the two guitars break off into wildly different solos.

“The Red Telephone” provides a great example of that openness I mentioned earlier. There’s lots of empty space in this track; in time, there’s space between the vocals lines. There’s space between the instruments on the frequency band. There’s also great space between sounds on the stereo field. They panned Things hard left and hard right. To increase this space, we sometimes hear the room reverb on the right for something on the left. I like the way this ties the ears together, making the hard panning feel more natural.

As with many songs of the late 60s, the song opens with an acoustic guitar panned hard right. After an opening riff, the drums and bass join in the left channel. In this case, the vocals begin the first verse at the same time in the center change. This song also delivers lyrics non-stereotypical of the hippy-dippy summer of love, “Sitting on a hillside, watching all the people die.” The words are a general indictment of war, violence, race relations, and police state. Each verse ends with an eerie harpsichord line that suggests dark forebodings.

The end of lines sometimes go into a IV-IV♯7 which gives them an eerie sense of foreboding. Musicians frequently add the seventh to a chord for suspense, depending on the genre. The seventh can also draw a chord towards a more jazzy feel, as jazz makes great use of sevenths, sixths, and ninths. Borrowed chords, like the sharpened seventh, don’t get used too often in rock music. When they do, they provide either an a rise or drop in emotion. Using a sharpened chord right after playing the chord gives a sense of movement, adding the seventh makes it uncomfortable. That happens here. Arthur Lee and Love play up the haunting atmosphere with these unusual chord progressions.

The track ends with a prolonged arpeggio on the vi and VI. They rise from the minor vi to the major VI at the end of each phrase, suggesting we’re going to move on to another chord. However, the progression returns right back to the minor vi. There’s not resolution here, supporting the feeling of the chanted vocals:

They’re locking them up today
They’re throwing away the key
I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow, you or me?

Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers”

album cover for Sticky Fingers

I’ve been listening to the Rolling Stones’ 1971 album “Sticky Fingers” this week. It’s no secret that I’ve become a fan of the Stones over the past year, listening to these weekly albums. I already loved “Exile on Main Street,” but have since fallen also for “Let It Bleed” and “Beggars Banquet.” From this album, I had heard a few songs before, but only really knew “Brown Sugar.” Of course, by the end of the week, I’d found another favorite album. I finished the week by watching the excellent film “Sticky Fingers Live At The Fonda Theatre” of the band performing the full album in 2015.

The first track “Brown Sugar” cannot be denied, kicking off the opening with one of Keith Richard’s most iconic and representative guitar riffs. Jagger compared the groove to rock n roll classic “Tallahassee Lassie” by Freddy Cannon. The lyrics are a different story, though. Jagger sings about a slave-owner raping slaves “just around midnight.” The chorus of “Brown sugar, how come you taste so good? Just like a young girl should.” makes us question the opinion and intentions of Jagger. A couple decades later, he thought better of it, stating “I never would write that song now.”

Wild Horses

“Wild Horses” is one of the Stone’s most successful anthemic country-rock ballads. The writing is credited to Jagger and Richards, however Gram Parsons worked with them. A bright strummed acoustic guitar opens on the track, joined by a second acoustic guitar. An electric guitar plays a simple melodic line to lead into the vocals: “Childhood living is easy to do…” This electric guitar and amp are set to just under the “breaking point” for the sound, so it’s a clean sound with a slight touch of warm distortion.

After the vocals begin, that first acoustic guitar begins to play muted individual high notes, plucked seemingly randomly. It’s really an odd thing for what started as the rhythm guitar to do. The second guitar picks up the role of rhythm strummed chords. These are the only instruments we hear throughout the first verse and chorus.

The verse follow a chord progression of iii-I-iii-I-ii-IV-V-I-V-IV. The first line and second line of each verse has the iii-I-iii-I pattern. The third and fourth line of each verse begins with ii, and then a hop of IV-V to resolve to I, then hops in the opposite order of V-IV to leave close the pattern. This means that the second line ends with V-IV to continues on to iii at the beginning of the third line.

The chorus stays in the same key, however, it FEELS like a key change. This is a change UP, though from major to minor; so it has that anthem feel, but without the joy. This is enhanced by the addition of drums and bass for the chorus. It feels like a change from G major to A minor. This progression for the chorus is: ii-IV-V-I-VII♭-IV-V, again using that IV-V hop to move to the tonic chord.

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking

The song “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” just blew me away. At first, it was the rhythmic interweaving of the two electric guitars with the vocals; But after about 2 1/2 minutes, the rock stops and the track rolls into an extended jazz-soul mid-section. The groove becomes gradually more Latin; Mick Taylor’s guitar solo that takes us out feels a little like Santana. Put simply, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” is a 2 1/2 minute rocker that’s capped by an atypical but brilliant jam.

Richard’s guitar kicks open the song with a great guitar riff. He frequently uses open-G tuning (aka keef tuning), and that’s likely the case here. Marty Schwartz gives an good demonstration, make the importance of open-G. This also gives visual to what we hear: some stylistic slides up and down the neck between notes. This sliding technique played a major role in the guitar work of one of my heroes: Johnny Thunders. I assume that Richards picked it up from Chuck Berry.

Drums and bass join in the center, punching through the spaces left by the rhythm guitar. The guitar drops down to a lower pitch to signal the start of the next section. Jagger jumps in between the drums and guitar, “Yeah! You got…” A second rhythm guitar in the left channel, matches the first. This one with a little more bite.. And then the two guitars begin to rapidly trade riffs back and forth, left and right. “…satin shoes! Yeah, you got nasty boots.”

This back and forth weaving of guitar riffs full of bursts and riffs runs through the verses. For the choruses, the guitar join together in strumming chords that ring out in a fully overdriven wash of guitar. It’s a totally rock n roll sound. The chorus lacks the punch of the verse, due to the lack of rest and the softer upper-range singing. But this allows the chorus to grow in intensity leading up to the jam.

Moonlight Mile

“Moonlight Mile” closes the album; It became one of my favorite Stones songs this week. It has the unique distinction of being mostly written without Keith Richards. He created a short guitar riff years previous that he called “Japanese Thing” but hadn’t found a use for. Jagger and Taylor stayed up late, after Richards had gone, writing “Moonlight Mile” around “Japanese Thing.” I suspect the Richards bit may be the motif that opens the song and forms the basis of the verses. The remaining music and instrumentation hints at the sound of Japanese music.

Again, they open the track with a single guitar panned hard right. This is joined by an electric guitar playing high notes picked close to the bridge to get a Japanese-sound. This playing of this guitar switches back and forth between this sound and harder strummed slide guitar lines. Watts plays a nearly orchestral drum beat primarily on the toms.. The second chorus, glissando strings provide a lush that enhance the Japanese sound during the bridge. A loosely-played piano drums along in the center channel.

The lyrics talk of estranged life on the road, it’s vaguely lonely and homesick. This sentiment was part of the original idea for “Wild Horses” as well, though narrative elements related to Jagger and Richard’s relationships filled the verses.

Oh I’m sleeping under strange strange skies
Just another mad mad day on the road
My dreams is fading down the railway line
I’m just about a moonlight mile down the road

John Lennon’s “Imagine”

Album cover for John Lennon's Imagine

This week, I’ve been listening to John Lennon’sImagine” from 1971. “Imagine” was Lennon’s second solo album after leaving The Beatles. My friend Mike Frost in High School listen to this CD a lot. He frequently played “Oh Yoko” for me, because it was my favorite. That was a couple decades ago, so I’d actually forgotten much of the album.

I was at first excited to get back into it, but on the first day I was underwhelmed. It seemed this album was overrated just because it was by John Lennon. The overly long “I Don’t Want To Be a Soldier” and the generic blues of the cheeky “It’s So Hard” failed to impress me. I mostly skipped the song “Imagine” simply because I’ve heard it a million times. Shame actually, because it’s an amazing song.

At the end of the week I was still saying the album was overrated, but realized upon reflection that I was wrong. The majority of the album is very good, even if there are some duds. It was actually difficult to narrow down which song I would focus on here. I opted to exclude “Jealous Guy” even though it is a beautiful tune; I also did not include Oh Yoko!” despite that fact I’ve loved it for years. Much of what I’d have to say about it can also be said about “Crippled Inside”

“Crippled Inside” dances like a jaunty country-western pace on a vaudevillian stage. The song opens with finger-picked dobro guitar with slap-back delay, somewhat consistent with the delay Lennon often uses on his vocals. After that melodic intro, the guitar is joined by drums, honky-tonk piano, upright basses, acoustic guitar and slide dobro.

The verses follow a I-I7-IV-IV7-I-VI7-II7-V-I progression; simplified this is a I-IV-I-VI-II-V-I. The bass walks down that VI7 – II7 change to descend with the lines “One thing you can’t hide”, which is answered with the gently ascending “Is when you’re crippled inside.”

Each verse has the couplet refrain rhyming “hide” and “inside”. The first two lines of both verses rhyme “hymn/skin” and “face/race” and the third line has a long I vowel (“tie” and “die”) for a slant-rhyme with the refrain “hide/inside” rhyme.

The melody lines of the vocals are continued by trills on the piano and slide guitar. These keeps a constant flow going through the track while maintaining that country-western feel. I really love the sound of that dobro and piano combination.

The vitrolic track “All I Want Is Some Truth” jumps into Lennon protesting hypocrisy, politicians, critics, and bigotry. Or really, just about anything that grinding his gears. They’re well-written, pointed, lyrics; though, I can imagine an on-the-street interview with a young person on the streets in 1971: “Why you are gathered here today?” ” I’ve had enough of reading things by neurotic psychotic pigheaded politicians. All I want is the truth; just give me some truth.” And that’s part of why the song is so perfect for it’s time. I also really like Lennon’s vocal delivery, which has the same bitterness to it as the words.

The music however gets tiresome as it repeats the same short phrases over and over. The vocals are really what carry this song, with the accompaniment providing a beat and mood. That’s the basic job of accompaniment, but I feel it should provide more. The best part is the slide guitar, which was played by former Beatles bandmate George Harrison.

George Harrison also plays on the best song on the album that’s not “Jealous Guy”: “How Do You Sleep.” It seems odd to me that Harrison would play on a McCartney diss track. While it’s wholly inline with Lennon’s personality, it doesn’t seem like Harrison’s style.

As with the rest of the album, we’re hearing traditional rock instruments: drum, bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, electric piano, and vocals. There’s also some unobtrusive strings providing background padding, and occasionally between vocals lines giving some Indian motifs. For the most part, these instruments are with very minimal effects. There’s a little overdrive and reverb, plus some tight delay, but otherwise a very clean sound.

Again, one of the best parts of the song is Harrison’s guitar playing. You can watch him play in recently released outtake footage on Youtube. The bass played by Klaus Voorman, especially during the chorus, gives the song great movement and bounce. Each of these instruments are interacting with each other in a united conversation. The conversation goes back and forth, each reacting to the other.

There are some incredible tracks on this album, but overall I think it is a little week, especially in the middle. It opens with three great songs and closes with three great song, then there’s four songs in the middle that I could mostly do without. Oh well.

Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love”

Album cover for Kate Bush Hounds of Love

This week, I’ve been listening to Kate Bush’s fifth album “Hounds of Love” from 1985. This was really my introduction to her work. I previously only knew “Running Up That Hill” through the Placebo cover. I had listened to the original as a result, but hadn’t pursued her work any further. I expected the rest of the album to be like “Running Up That Hill.”

While that is a great song, I found the rest of the album to be wildly imaginative. Especially, the second half which forms a conceptual suite of songs. The weird track “Waking the Witch” caught me off-guard. IT opens somewhat atmospheric with various samples of people saying “wake up.” Then the songs explodes into driving synth; vocals shatter across the stereo field with extreme pulsing tremolo, overpowered by evil voices. Its this track that first made it clear to me that something of a larger narrative was happening on these songs. This and some other parts of the Ninth Wave remind me a little of contemporary Skinny Puppy.

“Running Up That Hill” opens the album with a driving percussion and synth lines. This rhythm combined with the minor key gives the song a combined sense of urgency and longing. This suits the lyrics perfectly; Bush sings about a desire for a man and a woman to swap places to feel each other’s pain. It’s really a call for empathy that she feels would only be possible through feeling through the other’s perspective.

The feeling of building urgency, though with a hint of hopelessness, is aided by the chord progression in the verses. Each bar ends with a VI-VII-I, which feels like it’s constantly approaching something but never getting there. In the relative major, this would be IV-V-iii, and IV-V is a major cadence,if it resolved back to I, but it doesn’t. This progression suggests the possibility of a major key, in fact it would be a deceptive cadence if we were in the relative major. However, we are not. This resolves back to the tonic, reminding us that we’re in a minor key.

The melody of the verses adds to this feeling by running ahead of their measure. Instead of starting on, or near, the first beat of the measure, they start half a measure earlier. This creates allows the chorus to stand out dramatically, as the melody begins directly on the first beat. After the expectations set by the verses, this means there is a lull before the chorus, which then feels like it starts a full measure early.

The track “Cloudbusting” tells a story of Wilhelm Reich and his son Peter; Inspiration came from Peter’s book “A Book of Dreams” written about his father. Patti Smith’s song “Birdland” drew on the same book. Bush’s song takes a much more sentimental perspective. I knew about Reich through William S. Burroughs, who believe much of Reich’s ideas.

Reich was an theorist, pseudo-scientist, inventory, and psychoanalyst. It was because of Reich’s ideas about orgone that Burroughs would spend time every day sitting inside a box. Regarding Reich’s ideas, Bush song mostly focuses on the cloudbuster, designed to create rain. In 1953, he apparently proved it successful at generating rain for farmers during a drought. She also incorporates the capture of Peter’s father by the feds, and the feeling of seeing his father taken away.

In Bush’s song, Peter is reminded of his late father by the rain.

Cause every time it rains
You’re here in my head
Like the sun coming out
Ooh, I just know that something good is going to happen
And I don’t know when
But just saying it could even make it happen

I also like this wonderful short verse, which is quite fitting for the controversial Reich. A later verse continues the yo-yo comparison.

You’re like my yo-yo 
That glowed in the dark
What made it special 
Made it dangerous
So I bury it 
And forget

[…]

I hid my yo-yo
In the garden
I can’t hide you
From the government
Oh, god, daddy
I won’t forget

Dusty Springfield’s “Dusty in Memphis”

Album cover for Dusty in Memphis

This week, I’ve been listening to Dusty Springfield’s 1969 album “Dusty in Memphis.” Previous to this week, I really only knew “Son of a Preacher Man” and “The Windmills of Your Mind.” from this album and her earlier hit “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” Springfield was British performer who started off in a girl group, before going solo. The music of Motown captured her heart. She championed those American groups in the UK as well as recording music in a similar style. “Dusty in Memphis” was recorded with producers that had worked with some of those Motown artists she loved.

Possibly Springfield’s most famous track, “Son of a Preacher Man” is a great soul pop song. It had originally been written for Aretha Franklin, who did record it but actually passed on it. Franklin’s recording had a little more R&B feel where Springfield’s is a bit more pop. Springfield’s voice and the lyrics are narrative in style, her singing casually expressive and a little sultry.

The verses of the song follow a I-IV-I-V chord progression. The first chord lasts a full measure, the next measure has the IV-I, the third continues the I, then the V lasts a full four measures. The melody falls in pitch during those four measures This softens the tension that would often be created by an extended V chord. There’s still a sense that the story is building up to something, but it’s conversational.

After the second chorus, there’s a key change to the subdominant (the IV chord becomes the tonic). Springfield’s voice rises in pitch and amplitude, supported by the backing brass. This gives the sense that the narrative has changed perspective or that the story takes a turn. Actually, neither of these happens; it’s rather that the story-telling continues. Perhaps the key change is to emphasize the emotion nature of the memory.

How well I remember
The look that was in his eyes
Stealing kisses from me on the sly
Taking time to make time
Telling me that he’s all mine
Learning from each other’s knowing
Looking to see how much we’ve grown

The rhythm section consists of a woody electric bass and a drumkit. The drums present a punch driving rock beat, with a snare on the second and fourth beat. Interestingly, the kick often rests on the first beat, tapping instead an eight note later on the upbeat. This gives the song a little hop at the beginning of each measure. The bass guitar often fidgets, moving up and down the scale dancing. This adds energy. Plus, the bass is in the back enough that it doesn’t overpower the song.

Another favorite from the week was “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore.” This was a new song to me, and I first noticed the wonderful story telling technique. The song is about a woman discovering that her husband is unfaithful. However, the lyrics focus on the speaker’s desire to pretend its not happening. She overhears the neighbors talking about it, which she tries to ignore. I only just learned that this song was written by Randy Newman, one of my favorite songwriters. It was also recorded around the same time by Scott Walker, who is another of my favorites.

I don’t want to hear it anymore
I don’t want to hear it anymore
Because the talk just never ends
And the heartache soon begins
The talk is so loud
And the walls are much too thin

This slow tempo song rolls along with the compressed mono drums in the left channel. They are probably going through a reverb chamber, or at least the compression is pushing forward the natural sound of the room. Bass balances out the rhythm on the right channel. Again, like “Son of a Preach Man,” the bass plays intricate rhythms giving texture to the bottom, only letting up for sections that require rest.

Tremendous reverb gives atmosphere to Springfield’s voice, especially audible during the choruses when the other instruments let their notes ring out. Lush strings pad the sound, again with reverb, giving the song a feel of heartbreaking nostalgia. I do not know if the sound felt nostalgic at the time, but it certainly does in 2018. Horns provide counterpoint to the melody, especially at the end of verses.

I also loved “The Windmills of Your Mind” from this album. I’ve known about the song for a very long time, though. Originally, through an instrumental Moog version by Electronic Concept Orchestra. I liked the haunting chamber pop feel of their recording. Then I also heard another instrument version by Peter Nero, which was more upbeat but still haunting. Then I saw the amusing Muppets treatment.

It was still some years before I heard the Dusty Springfield version. I’m really backwards on these things sometimes. And this week, I learned that the song was originally performed by Noel Harrison for the movie The Thomas Crown Affair. His version is a little more jaunty with the melody becoming almost Scottish in a Donovan sort of way.

I like the building intensity of the melody and music that exactly expresses and emphasizes the meaning of the lyrics. The lyrics are a poem, and the music does what the words describe. Never mind that I’m not sure what the analogy of an “apple whirling silently in space” is supposed to convey.

Round like a circle in a spiral,
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning
On an ever spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain,
Or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that’s turning
Running rings around the moon
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping
Past the minutes of its face
And the world is like an apple
Whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind!

Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”

Neil Young "After the Gold Rush" album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to Neil Young’s album “After the Gold Rush” from 1970. Other than the title track, this album was new to me. Growing up, I heard his earlier album “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” from my parent’s CD collection. I loved his hard guitar playing style and still do. I remember seeing him play with Pearl Jam on the 1993 MTV Music Awards. I was excited by this mad man that looked like Stephen King’s cousin taking a break from tilling the garden to beat the shit out of a guitar on stage. I still love that wild vibrato-bar abusing solo. The chorus of “Rockin’ In the Free World” repeated in my head for weeks.

“Southern Man” grew on me the fastest, probably because it’s the more rocking track. The song takes the Southern United States to task for the age of slavery and the continued gap between white and black; Even if slavery has ended, the “white mansions” still stand in contrast to the “little shacks.” This because wealthy white families were still living on benefits of the slavery that left black families with a poor start.

The two verses each consist of three rhyming lines, the middle line being a slant rhyme, followed by a non-rhyming two line refrain. The chorus has four lines, two couplets. All of the rhymes consist of monosyllabic words: head/said, last/fast, black/shacks/back, brown/round/down. The voice of the song is that of an outside observer, calling out debts unpaid and hypocrisy.

Southern man better keep your head
Don’t forget what your good book said
Southern change gonna come at last
Now your crosses are burning fast

“Oh Lonesome Me” is actually a cover of a Don Gibson song. Presumably audiences in 1970 would recognize this country song. Neil Young certainly played it much slower, giving it a more lonesome feel. He certainly wasn’t the first or the last to cover it. Elements of Young’s song reminded me of a much later song “Truck On” by Simple Kid from 2003.

The song has a very slow country-blues feel, coming from the acoustic guitar, piano, electric guitar, and especially the harmonica. I just really love the sound of this song. It rolls and hangs, pulling itself a long. The piano here, as on much of the album, is used a rhythm instrument playing chords. The chord progression also brings that lonesome blues feel: I-IV-I-IV-I-IV-I-IV-I-v-I-IV-iv-VII♭-IV-I-I-IV. It’s interesting how that I-V-I-IV section uses a minor v and the IV falls to a minor iv; This makes the typically strong blues progression sound meek and worn, that is.. lonesome. Young’s version feels more raw and vulnerably emotion making the earlier versions seem cautiously upbeat and jaunty.

The title track, “After the Gold Rush,” seems to tell of deterioration of the planet leading to mankind evacuating. Though, it seems more like either a poorly planned escape or an involuntary eviction, since their new home is in the sun. The track opens with tender piano, with a gently bouncing left-hand bassline and syncopated chords on the right. Except for a vocals and eerily sorrowful french-horn solo, the piano is the only instrument on the track. The piano even takes rests, making the accompaniment sparse. This enhances the dreamlike narrative of the lyrics, by allowing focus to fall solely on the vocals.

The middle-verse reminds me of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, especially “Five Years“. Bowie started recording that album a year after Young released “After the Gold Rush.” When Bowie wrote, “News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying; Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying,” was he listening to Young?

I was lying in a burned out basement
With the full moon in my eyes
I was hoping for replacement
When the sun burst though the sky
There was a band playing in my head
And I felt like getting high
I was thinking about what a friend had said
I was hoping it was a lie

Radiohead’s “The Bends”

Album cover for Radiohead's "The Bends"

I spent this week with Radiohead’s second album “The Bends” from 1995. This album came out when my senior year of high school was coming to a close. It seems like I heard the song “High and Dry” a bit, but I don’t recall being too aware of this album until the following year. Several of the songs, especially “Just” and “Fake Plastic Trees” became part of the regular soundtrack of my life. It wasn’t so much my choice, though I did love the song. Both Mtv and my friends played “Fake Plastic Trees” with some frequency. Somehow, I managed to not get to know much of this album until this week.

It’s funny how you don’t realize how “of its time” some recordings can be until you listen to them a couple decades later. This album is definitely within the 90s guitar alt-rock genre. Listening to this album made me really realize how influential the Pixies had been on the sound of 90s alternative. I found this especially noticeable in the way the bass is used in these songs. There will be louder sections with drums, guitars, bass, vocals, etc.. and then these will pull back for quieter sections with crispy bass guitar grooves. Anyway…

The song I most know from this album is undoubtedly “Fake Plastic Trees”. In the video, you’ll see singer Thom Yorke riding around the grocery store in the shopping cart. I guess this was just a thing in the 90s, as Jarvis Cocker did it the year before in Pulp’s video for “Common People.” I know there were others, but all I can remember now is an early publicity shot of Marilyn Manson.

Thom Yorke’s quietly strummed acoustic guitar opens the song. Yorke sings sonorously, wet with deep reverb. The lyrics deal with capitalism and artificiality in contemporary society and culture. A sense of humor runs through the lyrics, while they express an emotional mix of disillusionment, emptiness and longing.

A green plastic watering can
For a fake Chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself

The first chorus repeats the line “It wears her out.” This gets modified to “It wears him out.” in the second chorus and finally “It wears me out” for the third and final verse. I like this use of the chorus as a refrain for verses, altered slightly to match the subject of the verse.

The personal turn the songs takes for the final verse, comes even more raw at the end. Yorke closes “Fake Plastic Trees” wistfully singing “If I could be who you wanted all the time.” This reminds me of the chorus “You’re so fuckin’ special; I wish I was special” in their song “Creep.” He gritted his teeth to sardonically deliver that line in the earlier song, spitting it out more as an insult. But in “Fake Plastic Trees” the line comes out as a painful apology for not being enough.

I came to really enjoy the song “Bones,” which follows “Fake Plastic Trees” on the album. It’s probably the most rock n’ roll track. I really like the use of deep tremolo on the overdriven guitar. With each strum in each verse, they drop the speed of the effect as the chord naturally fades out. They disable the effect for chorus. Still, I’ve found with the Rolling Stones and now Radiohead that I really enjoy guitars through tremolo and rotating speaker. It’s particularly exciting when the rhythm of the strumming is in a fight against the tremolo. This can be heard in “Bones” just before each chorus when they they have the speed up.

My favorite track on the album remains “Just.” The song opens with a particularly 90s acoustic guitar riff, much like we would hear later the same year from Oasis. This style of rhythmic strumming was heard a lot during the decade, probably coming from the Pixies and Boston by way of Nirvana.  Radiohead crafted an excellent song here, but what really gets me is the bridge starting halfway into the song. At about 2:28, we hear electric guitar draw the song back in with string noise through tremolo! I would argue that the bridge of “Just” unusually includes another chorus. This comes to a tense climax when Greenwood’s frantically picked ascending lead guitar peaks.. holding a distorted note threatened by impending feedback. The other instruments pull back giving a floating weightless feeling to the moment. Just before feedback overrides the note, Greenwood slides it back and mutes the guitar. A clean guitar brings back the beat of the song with staccato pronunciations. The the band slams us with one last chorus before closing the song by sudden cutting out.