Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue”

For the past week, I’ve been listening to Miles Davis’s 1959 album “Kind of Blue” for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. Though not my first time hearing the album, this week definitely served as an introduction. As the songs are all instrumentals, I have no lyrics to discuss. Yet, the music itself speaks in a different language than I’m accustomed.

This is instrumental jazz instead of the rock and pop that I usually listen to. Furthermore, it presents to me the unfamiliar concept of modal jazz. I avoid giving an explanation here for fear that I get it wrong. The article on Wikipedia gives a basic description. Modal jazz is challenging to me, because I’m accustomed to tonal music. In tonal music, the foundation of a song consists of chord progressions that travel from and return to the tonic chord. As I understand it, modal jazz utilizes modal changes instead of chord progressions. Hack Music Theory has a short video explaining Modes. With modal jazz, Miles Davis gave freedom to the melody by releasing it from constraints of chord progressions. I hope I’m getting this right.

Still, my familiarity with tonal music contributes to “All Blues” being the song I most enjoy. While the songs goes through mode changes, within each the song follows a 12 bar blues chord progression. “All Blue” probably fails to be a true example of modal jazz for this reason. The track is in 6/8 time with the emphasis on the first and fourth eight note. Secondary emphasis on the third and sixth give the rhythm a little hop. A gentle rumbling piano opens the track to be joined by horns. This gives an atmosphere of the train yard in twilight or early morning. The rhythmic hi-hat tapping emphasizes this feeling.

That brings me to how fascinating I find the percussion on this album. It’s almost completely based on the hi-hat. The cymbals are played with great expression to convey rhythm. In rock and pop, the hats are most often used to keep time while the kick and snare convey rhythm. The percussion on “Kind of Blue” gives the hats great importance. The drummer plays the other drums much less often than I’m used to. The snare provides occasional emphasis, to add some flavor or to occasionally signify a change. A brush slides across the surface, the rim is tapped, or light trills provide texture. This greater variety of sounds from the snare really gets my interest.

The opening track “So What” also grabbed my interest. The piano plays “buh-boop” followed by the bass “duh doodoo doodoo doodoo doo doo” introducing the foundation of the song. There’s 16 bars in one mode, then 8 in another, returning to 8 of the first mode. Once this is introduces, a splash of cymbal tells kicks off the real journey. Horns take turns soloing improvisational melodic lines over the rhythm section. As mentioned earlier, the cymbals provide the sense of rhythm. The bass gives a foundation for that rhythm. On the piano, chords are played but they are not the drive of the song. They more provide interesting emphasis and offsets to the rhythm. Sometimes, to my ear, the chords sound strangely wrong, but oddly appropriate. This cool music sounds alien to me. I don’t understand the language, but I can feel it.

I definitely need more than a week with this album to full appreciate it. Its cool smoky night-time feel really gets me. I’m looking forward to more from Miles Davis as well as some of the other musicians on this album. John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley played the saxophones and Bill Evans played the piano. I already know some of Coltrane’s work. I understand that Bill Evans was a major part of this album’s compositions.  Also Jimmy Cobb played the drums here. I feel that I can learn a lot from his use of drums for my own programming of drum machines. I can learn a lot from this album, especially in the way instruments are being used and interact with each other.  The concept of modal jazz presents a challenge to me which gives me a desire to further understand it.

Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols”

Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks album coverThis past week, I’ve been listening to the Sex Pistols’ 1977 debut (and only) album “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” for lessons I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. Admittedly, that statement isn’t very punk rock and seems antithetical to the idea of the Sex Pistols. I’m not very punk rock either. Still, John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) spoke of the importance for musicians to know their craft and the work of others. I do that every week.

The album opens with the sound of troops marching as “Holiday in the Sun” begins. The dirty distorted guitars buzz in, providing a fantastic start to an album. Here comes the first line “Cheap holiday in other people’s misery” during the intro riffs. It hints at the tone of the album and introduces the listener to singer Johnny Rotten’s vocal style. His voice confidently delivers an attitude at turns sardonic, accusatory, witty, disgusted and angry. That single opening line expresses all of that really well before the actual lyrics even start. Most of the lyrics attack an institution of some kind, whether it’s the royal family, classicism, social norms, government, or even the music industry. This album gives voice to the disaffected frothing with disillusionment.

Twenty years ago, I thought it was sounded universal and fresh, now it definitely sounds 1970s and British. It’s the sound of youth, but it’s the youth of today’s youth’s grandparents. I imagine to a younger generation it might even have all the quaintness that “Rock Around the Clock” had to me at their age. Still, the Sex Pistols music is so infused with rebellion that it still carries some sense of danger, however outmoded.

The distinguishing riff of “Holiday in the Sun” follows the Andalusian cadence; This is a descending I5-VII5-VI5-V5 progression; Of course, the V (G5 in this case) provides a perfect return back to the I (C5) so it sounds great to our ears. It’s always been one of my favorites. This solid progression can provide a sense of menace as it does here. The Ventures’ “Walk Don’t Run” provides a much less menacing example. A verses repeat a V chord, dropping down to IV for rhythmic emphasis, and the choruses are I-II. This sounds a lot of like  I-IV-V, giving the song a solid rock n roll feel.

The track “Pretty Vacant” has always been one of my favorites. The song opens with the guitar playing a distinctive broken A-chord. Undoubtedly, the opening riff provide some inspiration to Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. A I5-VII5-IV5-I5-VII5-V5 chord progression supports the verses. The choruses follow another descending riff: IV5-IIIb5-I. I notice here playing the chords within the key is not necessarily a conscious concern. As with Nirvana, the Pistols like wrote songs by finding movements of power-chords along the frets that sound good.  Basically, for rock n roll, sometimes you gotta get your head out of the books and your fingers on the guitar.

The closing track “EMI” has also been one of my favorites since I first heard it. Johnny’s catchy vocal delivery instantly makes the song lovable. Plus, who doesn’t love a good middle-finger to the record company track? Well, okay, it could be pretty lame and come across as cry-baby whining that the average listener can’t relate to. I appreciate the audaciousness involved in blatantly naming the company. They lyrics involve too some admonitions regarding pop culture and the music industry for everybody’s ears. That and the song gets strength from its fantastic mixture of anger and fun. One can get a lot of musical miles out strong vocals, a chorused (or is it double-tracked?) overdriven guitar, bass, and drums.

The final song of the Sex Pistols final concert (not counting reunions) was an emotional expression of disappointment and disgust. For an encore they performed a cover of The Stooges’ song.  Appropriately, this song was “No Fun.”  I’ve never heard the original, but I’ve always liked the Pistol’s covers of it. I won’t go into the background stories of the Winterland concert, but suffice it to say Johnny had had enough; He was facing that realization and the last few minutes of that performance were the result.  The Pistols weren’t built to last, but they produced a powerful album during their short existence.

Joni Mitchell’s “Blue”

I have been listening to Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album “Blue” for past seven days. This album was all new to me, but I have not looked forward to this week. What little experience I’ve had with Joni Mitchell proved to be unpleasant. This time allowed me to develop an appreciate for the songs. Joni Mitchel is a noteworthy songwriter and a great pianist and guitarist. Many people love her singing, but I’m not one of them. I like her voice in the lower alto range, but too often her singing often dances up to a soprano. Thankfully, everything else on the album is good, so there’s plenty else for me to appreciate.

In contrast to Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited“, the instruments play in conversation with each other. The voice provides the primary source of melody, but also takes part in the conversation. Sometimes an instrument will continue a melodic phrase at the end of a verse or chorus. I see this album categorized as Folk or Folk-Country, but I hear a lot of jazz influence. Some of her melodies and the way the piano and voice work together make me think more of vocal jazz than folk. I see now how later musicians that I’m more familiar with like Alanis Morissette, Counting Crows, Tracy Chapman, and Tori Amos drew much of their influence. I enjoy her oft-clever use of phrasing, story-telling and descriptive language.

Carey” immediately caught my attention and quickly became my favorite song on the album. The breezy strummed dulcimer of this jaunty song appropriately suggests both dancing at a cafe and travel. “Carey” is one of the few songs on the album with percussion and even this is an unobtrusive hand percussion. The lyrics are a farewell letter from one who’s decided living the beach commune life isn’t their thing. They did not always get along, but they were still friends (“Oh you’re a mean old Daddy, but I like you”). I love the opening verse that perfectly introduces the setting, topic and tone of the song.

The wind is in from Africa;
Last night I couldn’t sleep.
Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here, Carey,
But it’s really not my home.
My fingernails are filthy,
I’ve got beach tar on my feet,
And I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne.

The other song that I liked was the album closing “The Last Time I Saw Richard“. The melody flits seemingly aimlessly like bumblebees across flowers, while on the piano she plays arpeggios as if searching for a song. The thing is that this sense of searching without getting there suits the song perfectly. I can imagine the piano player in the dark corner of the cafe at closing time. Maybe there’s a few customers left, but the singer ignores them. She remembers the cynical Richard in the first verse as criticizing her “You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you all those pretty lies, pretty lies”. However, when he plays a song on the jukebox, she points out his own hypocrisy and contradiction in one of the best verses on the album:

He put a quarter in the Wurlitzer, and he pushed
Three buttons and the thing began to whirr.
And a bar maid came by, in fishnet stockings and a bow tie,
And she said, ‘drink up now it’s getting on time to close.’
‘Richard, you haven’t really changed’, I said.
‘It’s just that now you’re romanticizing
some pain that’s in your head.
You got tombs in your eyes, but the songs
You punched are dreaming;
Listen, they sing of love so sweet, love so sweet.’
When you gonna get yourself back on your feet?
Oh and love can be so sweet, love so sweet

I love that line “You got tombs in your eyes, but the songs you punched are dreaming.”

As these verses from “Carey” and “Last Time I Saw Richard” demonstrate that Joni Mitchell incorporates rhyme in her songs, though not she’s not as strictly formal as Bob Dylan on “Highway 61 Revisited.” She doesn’t mind breaking a rhyme scheme, or even having many lines that don’t rhyme. Her use of rhyme is also more subtle and natural. For example, in “Carey”, when she rhymes “not my home” with “French cologne.” The lyrics and melodies maintain natural flow much more than stick to a traditional rhythmic pattern.

I have learned to appreciate Mitchell’s songwriting. Unfortunately, my dislike of most of her singing will keep me from returning to this album after this week. IT’s a shame, because some of the songs are very good.

The Beatles’ “The Beatles”

The Beatles: The Beatles

This week, I’ve been listening to The Beatles’ self-titled 1968 “white album” for what I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. Such a variety of fantastic songs fill this double LP that I find it difficult to generalize or say only a few things. A week was not enough. This is probably my second favorite Beatles album. It opens with the rocking “Back in the U.S.S.R.“, closes with the gentle “Goodnight”, and journeys through a spectrum of Beatles styles on the way.

The noisy chaos of “Helter Skelter” makes it one of my favorites. The song nearly gets away from The Beatles, as if they’ve created a monster that they can’t keep up with. I believe they were inspired by The Who’s “I Can See For Miles” and you can certainly hear the influence. The drummer pounds on the snare and cymbals as if he’s afraid nobody will hear him over the other instruments. There’s brilliantly fuzzed guitar constantly provides an atmospheric noise in the background; A raw punk bass angrily struggles to keep up with the drums; A lead guitar plays a descending riff after the vocals in an attempt to keep things grounded. The vocals too are strained. Even though they are playing together, all of the elements are fighting to be up-front and the loudest. It’s the greatest. “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey” enters has a similar feel, but with less chaos. I love them both.

I didn’t care for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” when I was younger, but I actually like it quite a bit now. The rhythm puts unusual emphasis on the first and second beat. There’s a kick on the first and second beat of most measures and a snare on the third. This gives an almost trudging sense to the song, because this is a typical drum pattern played half speed. The muted fuzz electric guitar drives along on the first and second beats also, resting for the second half of each bar. The beautiful lead guitar solos sometimes melt into the organ, while a syncopated piano plays in the background. The way the instruments play against and with each other throughout the song really grew on my throughout the week.

“Dear Prudence” opens with a what sounds like finger-picking on an electric guitar and a quieter acoustic guitar. The arpeggios spin like a carousel; a glissando-filled bass-line in the next verse enhances that spinning sensation. At the end of each section, there is a rest before the the next begins. Each section adds layers of instruments building up to the final section. Another electric guitar joins about halfway, during the “look around, round, round” bridge, letting us know that the big finish is coming: an optimistic coda “the sun is up, the sky is blue, it’s beautiful and so are you.”

I’ll also add that I’ve always loved the Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of Dear Prudence. I don’t know if Robert Smith of The Cure played in the song, but he does show up in the music video.

The Beatles’ “Revolver”

Revolver album cover

I’ve spent the past week with The Beatles’ 1966 album “Revolver“, listening for what I take away from this album as a songwriter to improve my craft? I went in and out of feeling underwhelmed by the album, but there were some songs that I particularly enjoyed. For me, this is not one of the Beatles better albums. Sure, some tracks are great with very good songwriting. But musically, some of the songs seem rather thin on ideas and I got tired of them after a few days. The first song provides a good example.

The opener “Taxman” starts with a lead-in count, “1. 2. 3. 4.”, appropriate given the often rough raw feel of the album. The complaints about tax collectors, “if you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet”, is not particularly interesting to me. The song reminds me of The Fall with its repetitive punk sound, but lacks the colorful attitude of Mark E. Smith. In contrast, sophisticated-sounding strings provide the only accompaniment in the second track “Eleanor Rigby“. This contrast between songs keeps the whole engaging.

My favorite track, “For No One” features some particularly good songwriting. Engaging imagery draws the tale of a relationship’s end. There’s some exposition, but there’s a delicate subtlety in the telling; This is why it’s so heartbreaking. In addition, the lyrics utilize an unusual second-person perspective to put the listener in the story. A sense of detached going through the process of a breakup runs through the lyrics and it’s emphasized by the rhythm of the piano and vocals during the verses. They read like “step 1.. step 2..”. I particularly enjoy the faraway sound of the piano. This combined with the french horn solo creates a poignant atmosphere of nostalgia that is suits the lyric perfectly. Some days I could not stop listening to this one.

It’s followed by the fairly fun romp “Doctor Robert”, but I often found I skipped it like “Taxman”. I think it could do with a few less “Doctor Robert”s.

I also love the fuzz guitar and rambunctious drums in “She Said She Said”. An annoying high-pitched note plays on the organ through much of the song like tinnitus. Thankfully a song this good can withstand the attempts of one instrument to ruin it. Reversed drums add an almost-but-not-quite psychedelic feel as well as contribute to the forward motion of the song. It’s interesting that different sections of the song have similar accompaniment but different vocals.. and then some sections have much different accompaniment.

Overall, I think there are some interesting tracks on this album that are well worth a songwriter’s time to study. There’s several weaker tracks. Even though “Yellow Submarine” has a playful childish quality that makes it fun, it also makes it so that after a few listens I’ve had enough.