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

U2’s “Achtung Baby”

Album Cover for U2's "Achtung Baby"

This week, I’ve been listening to U2’s album “Achtung Baby” from 1991. I grew up loving their album “The Joshua Tree” that came out when I was 10 years old. When “Achtung Baby” appeared during my freshman year of high school, it didn’t catch my attention. I did like the second single “Mysterious Ways” with its strong guitar riff and trippy music video, though. My tastes were heading towards more moody and less mainstream interests than U2. It’s a shame, because this is a very good album. Maybe I just wasn’t ready yet.

On this album, I hear a band with established techniques and skills fighting against repeating themselves. There’s a good bit of experimentation with sound and techniques, as if they are determined to not make another “Joshua Tree.” The Edge’s use of delay, while prominent all over that previous album, is more subtle and much less frequent. The drums have taken on a more dance feel; Upcoming artists like Jesus Jones, The Escape Club, and EMF already leading this trend. Many predicted this combination of break-beat rhythms with guitar rock would become the 90s alt-rock sound, until Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” flooded the airwaves.

Zoo Station

The opener “Zoo Station” start with 3 seconds of quiet background noise and then odd bursts of distorted guitar. This is the announcement that the listener is in for a different U2 album. The bass and drums groove along with a determined driving beat. A tinny snare drum cracks every 2nd the 4th beat, sounding a little trashy. A minimal chord progression contributes to the pending sense of urgency, mostly staying in the tonic with use of the flattened VII and IV to push it forward. “Zoo Station” feels as much like a journey into the album as a destination of its own. The lyrics, which read more a statement of intent, support this:

I’m ready
I’m ready for the gridlock
I’m ready
To take it to the street
I’m ready for the shuffle
Ready for the deal
Ready to let go of the steering wheel
I’m ready
Ready for the crush.

The Fly

The seventh track, and first single, “The Fly” escaped my notice until this week. While not experimental music, this seems to be one of the more experimental tracks on the album. It has the benefit of feeling more uncharted territory for the band, and therefore has a looser, even sloppy, feel. That’s even with the steady dance beat. My son aptly pointed out the resemblance to one of my favorite bands, INXS. It especially reminds me of “Communication,” which INXS started recording just after “Achtung Baby” was released.

The drums continue a dance-beat throughout almost like clockwork, along with the pulsing driving bassline. They keep the song song grounded while the rest seems to scatter here. The guitar starts with a repetitive riff until Bono begins his chorused and heavily-compressed softly spoken vocals. The echoey, slightly flanged, distorted guitar pulls back and then punches back with seemingly random stabs, scrapes, scratches and slides. The lyrics are a bit of a paranoid cautionary ramble. More like a nightmarish stream-of-consciousness with an apparent illusion of meaning, tangents off the chorus’s couplet: “A fly on the wall, it’s not secret at all.”

It’s no secret that the stars are falling from the sky
It’s no secret that our world is in darkness tonight
They say the sun is sometimes eclipsed by the moon
You know I don’t see you when she walks in the room
It’s no secret that a friend is someone who lets you help
It’s no secret that a liar won’t believe anyone else
They say a secret is something you tell one other person
So I’m telling you, child

One

Just after high school, I was in an emotional relationship; a strong mix of love and hurt between two people who had both to give, certainly some type of codependency. In U2’s song “One” I found a sort-of comfort in hearing words from another that described so well what we had. When in the car with my next girlfriend, this song came on the radio and I mentioned that. She said it was also the song for one of her previous relationship.

What Bono has done with these lyrics is described a commonly set of emotions in a way that many can relate and apply to their own situation. The narrative details of the couple and the events in their lives are completely missing, the actual story is a vast ambiguous cloud waiting for the listener to fill it in. Even their genders are absent. Instead, he reserves his use of detail for the visual imagery for the emotions.

He also combines this with religious allusions, in the third verse, to describe how the other brings their own hurt and needs to the relationship. This verse is tied to the bridge, where the other talks of love as a temple. Despite their praise of the sanctity of love, their own hurt means that loving them is more of a sacrifice than a blessing.

Have you come here for forgiveness?
Have you come to raise the dead?
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head?
[…]
You say love is a temple, love a higher law
Love is a temple, love the higher law
You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl
And I can’t be holding on to what you got
When all you got is hurt

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.

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

Prince and the Revolution’s “Purple Rain”

Prince Purple Rain album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to Prince and the Revolution’s album “Purple Rain” from 1984. As a listener, I know few albums more than this one. I was seven years old when it came out; My teenage aunt was a big fan and I really got into Prince through her. About this time, I told her that I wanted to grow up to be a rock star like Prince or Michael Jackson. that I wanted My mom bought the record and I recall I was NOT allowed to listen to “Darling Nikki.” That’s the song that pushed Tipper Gore to start the PMRC, which lead to the Parental Advisory stickers on albums.

About five months ago, I spent time with “Sign O’ The Times” and I was not particularly impressed. Many authoritative voices praise “Sign O’ The Times” higher than “Purple Rain” and I absolutely disagree. “Purple Rain” is a wholly conceived and beautifully performed and recorded funk pop-rock album. Even though this album has been endless played and has influenced so much that came after, it still maintains a fresh sense of risky inventiveness and stellar musicianship across the board. 

I like to choose three songs from each album to look at specifically; this was not an easy task for “Purple Rain,” but ‘et’s get to it.

The seventh track “I would Die 4 U” opens with a high note, presumably on bass guitar. This leads to a pulsating synth line that plays the rhythmic role often assumed by the hi-hat, giving the song a 16th note disco feel. I believe this is also doubled by a hi-hat sound (likely from Prince’s favorite drum machine, the LM-1). This keeps a gentle sense of urgency throughout the song, only broken for a few seconds before the coda. The lines of “I would Die 4 U” become a chant towards the end, especially during live performances.

As good as the music is, the lyrics are daring and unusual. On one hand, the song comes across as a love song, with a chorus repeating, “I would die for you, Darling, if you want me to.” However, this idea of being so devoted to a lover that you would sacrifice your own life is paralleled with images of Jesus Christ. He opens the song with the memorable, “I’m not a woman; I’m not a man; I am something that you’ll never understand.” An fitting line from a man whose androgynous personality was amplified for the stage, making many 80s parents uncomfortable. 

Then later, he explains that’s not “your lover” or “your friend,” but rather “your messiah and you’re the reason why.” It’s difficult to say if Prince is proclaiming himself to be a messiah, saying that his sense of devotion in love is like that of a messiah, or speaking from the perspective of a love-god concept. This ambiguity leaves the song open to multiple interesting interpretations, but the subject matter begs interpretation. I don’t think he means this in a martyr sort of why, but rather the speaker is the listener’s messiah, because the listener is worthy of a messiah. Or as he says later on, “All I really need is to know that you believe.”

The hit song “When Doves Cry” remained in the number 1 spot for 5 weeks becoming the top-selling single of the year. This song, too, is full of unusual lyrics for a pop song; again with a thread of ambiguity. The verses dream of idyllic love between the speaker and the listener; in contrast, the chorus speak of how they fight. But look at how they conflicts are addressed: the speaker assumes responsibility and looks for answers in their upbringing:

How can you just leave me standing?
Alone in a world that’s so cold.
Maybe I’m just too demanding.
Maybe I’m just like my father: too bold.
Maybe you’re just like my mother:
She’s never satisfied.
Why do we scream at each other?
This is what it sounds like
When doves cry.

The album closes with its title track “Purple Rain.”  The song combines stylistic elements of rock, gospel, soul, and blues. It carries the audience along at a slow tempo: just under one beat per second. To simplify it, the chord progression is a I-vi-V-IV (coincidentally the first four chords of a circle-of-fifths progression). From what I’ve found online, it’s a little more like a I9-vi7-V-IV (or more precisely Iadd9-vi7add11-V-IV)

As we also know, the song bears a resemblance to Journey’s “Faithfully” which had an earlier release date. I do not know if it is certain if Prince drew inspiration from “Faithfully” or it was a coincidence; apparently Prince was a fan of Journey guitarist Neil Schon and called Journey to get their OK due to the similarity.  The songs share the I-vi-V-IV chord and similar endings.

In my twenties, I also did a lot of home recordings using a Tascam portastudio. I frequently found my way of thinking about starting and ending albums resembled the construction of this album. The song “Purple Rain” launches into a heartbreakingly affirming solo full of atmosphere and then drifts off into lingering strings. And this closes the album. I’ve always felt that was so perfectly beautiful and effective.

Television’s “Marquee Moon”

This week, I’ve been discovering Television’s debut LP “Marquee Moon” from 1977. Somehow, this band has managed to escape my notice until now. It’s a shame it took this weekly project for me to learn about them. This album immediately became one of my favorites. Television played post-punk when punk rock was in its infancy.

Proto-punk generally favors shorter straight-forward songs with little-to-know instrumental sections; Television goes off into more complicated song structures that display some influence from The Who. A few moments would vaguely remind me of The Who’s 1973 album “Quadraphenia” which is also one of my favorites.

The album opens with “See No Evil” introducing the sound of the album. We have drums and electric bass guitar in the center. There are three guitar: one purely rhythm guitar in the left channel, a rhythm-lead in the right channel, and the solo lead in the center. The clean rhythm-lead guitar runs through a series of melodic picked riffs. I especially like the arpeggios in the chorus that continue even as the other instruments rhythmically pause. of New York City rock-n-roll lead vocals of Tom Verlaine grab the listeners attention much like those of New York contemporary Patti Smith. Television has a similar sound as Patti’s band on “Horses” and I love that raw dirty-clean guitar sound.

I love all of the songs on this album, which made it difficult to only choose a few to discuss. I’m skipping over the epic title track “Marquee Moon” mostly because it’d be so much to tackle. It’s the song that first made me think of “Quadraphenia” with the end of the song reminding me a lot of “Reign O’er Me.”

Guiding Light” really caught my attention. It stands out as being one of the slower songs, almost leaning towards a spiritual sound. The song starts with clean guitar arpeggios repeating a I-IV chord pattern. This is joined by bass and a piano beautifully accompanied by the echo of the room. The unusually long prechorus has two parts, the first in V-I chord progression and the second part II-IV. The chorus is a standard I-V progression, with the final I getting extra emphasis as a strong cadence. One thing I love about this song is the use of the natural room ambience and space between the instruments and notes. It’s a very natural sound.

The lyrics feature a nice mixture of poetic and straight-forward rock n roll. For example, I especially like the last two lines of the first verse of “Guiding Light”: “I hear the whispers I hear the shouts And though they never cry for help”. What does it mean? I’m not sure I could say. It’s not even really a complete sentence, but it feels. I saw the lyrics described as “impressionistic” and I’d say that’s correct, though I may be putting my own interpretation on what that person meant. You more feel the meaning of the lyrics than you could possibly getting out of them directly.

I fell in love with every song on this album. This one will get frequent listens from now on. I’m only disappointed it took me so long to actually hear it.

Prince’s “Sign ‘☮’ the Times”

Prince's Sign O The Times album coverI’ve been listening to Prince’s 1987 Double LP “Sign ‘O’ The Times” for the past seven days. I devote each week to a different great album in order to learn as a songwriting musician. It also exposes me to a lot of great music. When “Purple Rain” came out when I was seven years old and I’ve been a fan ever since. Still, this week was really my introduction to “Sign ‘O’ The Times” which I’ve mostly ignored until now.

Despite some incredible high points, I found the album on a whole to be underwhelming. Some of that may be the expectation that it was going to be better than other Prince albums, due to collective critical acclaim. I just don’t think it is. I feel like much of it sounds like interesting song ideas and experiments that need more work. However, the album carries several great songs that I will definitely come back to.

The second track “Play in the Sunshine” was the first to get my attention. This upbeat track combines dance music with psychedelic pop. The chord progression is mostly I-I7-IV-IV7 repeated with a break between verses. The live percussions helps this track stand out. We can hear Prince’s favorite Linn LM-1 all over this album. His expert use of this machine leads to innovative and distinctive patterns; unfortunately he doesn’t incorporate enough variation within the tracks. “Play in the Sunshine” provides a great exception Even though the song only has a 100 BPM temp, the energy feels like much more. The use of the snare outside of the typical 2nd and 4th beat contribute to this.

There’s a sparse layering of instruments. Drums and bass play almost constantly; there’s a couple of keyboard lines that add effects and melodic color. I love the guitar solo in this song, even though it has little more than style. There seems to be a mixture of light flange with heavy distortion as he plays and bends screaming notes, adding a little wah towards the end.

Housequake” sounds like Prince had fun, but the fun didn’t last over repeated listening for me. There’s some great use of James Brown influence on the track. I really hear it in the funky clean guitar riffs and the way the real and synth horns are used. I also pick up on some George Clinton Funkadelic influence in the vocals. Especially in the way he’s being goofy and creating a character to encourage people to dance. But where Clinton could keep a repetitive groove going and maintain my attention, “Housequake” just doesn’t do enough with it’s 4 minutes and 42 seconds.

The track “It’s Gonna be a Beautiful Night” more successfully goes for that funk jam party feel. The kick drum hits on every beat for a dance-worthy four-on-the-floor rhythm. With snare and handclaps hitting on the 2nd and 4th beats. Parliament-inspired chants like “We are beautiful, it’s gonna be a beautiful night” encourage audience participation. Another chant repeats the Wicked Witch’s guards “Oh-wee-oh” from The Wizard of Oz. The chant reminds me of the “Oh-wee-oh-wee-oh” of The Time’s “Jungle Love” which was primarily written by Prince. This song manages to keep me engaged and feels like a good time to listen to. The greater use of variety throughout the song is an improvement over “Housequake”. I also suspect that other musicians had great input, which can enrich a song.

Starfish and Coffee” instantly became one of my favorite songs. The song opens with digital piano simply playing the chord progression of I-ii-V-I-vi-ii-V-I. This is based on the Circle Progression which is common turnaround progression in jazz and pop music. Vocal and drums then begin. Prince sings a simple melody that encourages sing-a-long, especially withe use of doubling backing vocals. Swirling synth pads give the song the psychedelic feel that the lyrics ask for. The lyrics are another strong-point for this song. They are narrative and provide a vignette of Cynthia Rose, a colorful unique character in the classroom.

Several moments of this album remind me of how I frequently hear Prince’s influence in the work of Trent Reznor. The track “U Got the Look” could very well be an NIN industrial track if the heavily distorted guitar was brought forward. The track also features a lot of great percussion work, with toms and bongos getting extra attention. Marching-band style rolls add an interesting texture to the track. I also just really love the sound of Prince’s guitar. I believe there’s some light flange or chorus with mixture of overdrive and distortion and a subtle reverb. It’s a great sound.

This album grew on me as the week progressed. I don’t personally agree that it is Prince’s greatest album. To simplify the story, Prince mostly wrote and recorded “Sign ‘O’ The Times” after suddenly firing his band The Revolution. I believe it suffers from being too much of a solo album. Perhaps we can all learn from this. The input of others can improve what we do, even one as incredibly capable as Prince. On the other hand, he’s also experimenting with combining genres and sounds. This experimentation is at times exciting, but sometimes leaves things feeling unfinished raw. Overall, a fantastic album, but not his best.