Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”

Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" album cover This week, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan’s 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks” to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. Each Bob Dylan album so far has been monstrously impressive from a songwriting perspective. His skill to employ metaphor within narrative songs that utilize rhyme is astounding. For me, this album is right up there with “Blonde on Blonde” and I can’t get enough of it now that I’ve spent a week with it.

Finger-picked blues guitar drives the track “Meet Me in the Morning.” At first, I didn’t care for this song due to its repetitive nature. A twelve bar blues progression (I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-V-I-I) provides foundation upon which Dylan sings lyrics that follow the twelve-bar blues blues format of one line repeated twice, then a line in response. Like much of the album, the lyrics deal with a struggling relationship.

The first verse opens with the title “Meet me in the morning, 56 and Wabasha. Honey, we could be in Kansas by the time the snow begins to thaw.” I’m not sure why they are meeting to travel, except perhaps as a change of scenery or escape. The next verse tells how some say it’s darkest before the dawn, but the singer is always dark. But, when the morning rooster crows in the third verse, the singer feels mistreated by his lover. He feels persecuted and trapped, and wonders if the love was a curse. “Look at the sun sinking like a ship. Ain’t that just like my heart, babe, When you kissed my lips?”

I loved this catchy song by the end of the week. I like the layers of multiple guitars.  In the right channel , a bright acoustic guitar plays rhythm-lead lines. A fuzzy slide guitar soaked in reverb provides some atmosphere in the background. Another acoustic guitar quietly strums the chords. And yet clean electric guitar joins later to pick some lead lines and also gets in conversation with the fuzz guitar during the outro.

Also, I find it impossible to not sing along to the mellow grooving bassline.

On “Shelter From the Storm,” Dylan sings tenderly of a love lost. The jangly acoustic guitar dances nervously between the bass and vocals. We hear the sound of the pick and/or guitar strap ticking and rattling against the guitar. These additional sounds of guitar-playing unintentionally provide the only percussion. This type of natural imperfections lends a sense of authenticity to the recording. The chord progression throughout is a basic I-V-IV-I, with the melody providing a sense of variation through the verses.

These are some tremendous lyrics. The song is about confusion, loss, frustrations and heartache, but he’s telling it through the sweetness and tenderness. That’s how the song manages to be so powerful.  Rather than talking so much about pain and loss, he talk about promises and what was lost. However, it’s the middle verse that puts everything in perspective.

Now there’s a wall between us, something there’s been lost
I took too much for granted, I got my signals crossed
Just to think that it all began on an uneventful morn
Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm

Of course, there’s layers of ambiguity here as other themes become part of the picture. Images of Christ come into play, which could embarrassingly make a martyr out of the speaker, but I prefer to avoid that interpretation.  It’s too mighty a structure of self-pity, and also would be too self-righteous in contrast to other statements in the song.

The brilliant “Tangled Up in Blue” opens the album and remained my favorite song the full week. I rather feel it’s too great of a song to be the first. The opening chords of A and Asus4 play in my head all day. The verses are in a I-VIIb-I-VIIb-I-VIIb-I twice, followed by V-vi-I-IV twice and ends with VIIb-IV-I for the refrain of “Tangled up in blue.”

The first half of each verse is sung in a restrained back-and-forth melody, with the pitch rising for the second half. The percussion and other instruments likewise pick up in energy. This is balanced by the lower-pitched chords of E and F#m. The the refrain anchors the verse back to the tonic on “blue.” It’s interesting the use of chords for this key. The chords are more likely those of a song in the key of G, while the melody is actually in key of A.

As with the whole album, the layering and interplay of instruments is fantastic. Multiple strummed and picked acoustic guitars provide a full atmosphere of sound. Still they are mixed in a way that manages to keep things feeling stripped down.

The lyrics are the most amazing part of the song. A week definitely provides too little time to fully appreciate all he has going on here. At the very basic level, I appreciate the narrative quality of the song. Songs that tell stories, especially about characters and their relationships, get my interest. I especially appreciate tales of that touched on and lost and over-arching tales that narrow in on details. This is especially made poignant by going back to a place while accentuating the distance.

So now I’m going back again,
I got to get to her somehow.
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now.
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenter’s wives.
Don’t know how it all got started,
I don’t know what they’re doing with their lives.
But me, I’m still on the road
Heading for another joint
We always did feel the same,
We just saw it from a different point of view,
Tangled up in blue.

The Smiths’ “The Queen is Dead”

This week, I’ve been listening to The Smiths’ 1986 album “The Queen is Dead” for what I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. I remember my introduction to this album well. It happened twenty-five years ago, when I was sixteen. I went to a rural school in Ohio. A new kid from Colorado lent me a mixtape to introduce me to music he was into. Between the tracks by groups like Fugazi and the Rollins Band, was a song got my attention. When I asked my friend about the song, he groaned. “My friend made that tape for me and put that song on their as a joke to annoy me.” I immediately fell in love with The Smiths. This week was neither an introduction, nor a revisit, as I’ve been listening to it ever since I first heard it.

The music mixed the old and the new; innovative but through a lens of nostalgia. Just the sound of it felt like warm sadness with lyrics unapologetically near maudlin. The lyrics were boldly melancholic, self-aware, sardonic, and sad. There was a touch of humor without comedy. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, but the atmosphere made it feel like a lost memory.

The song “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” was my introduction to the Smiths. It remains one of my favorite songs by any artist. The lyrics of this song show obvious influence from the New York Dolls’ “Lonely Planet Boy which is also one of my favorites.

Johnny Marr also borrowed a guitar riff from the Rolling Stones’ cover of “Hitch Hike” which was also copied by The Velvet Underground. Light reverb touches the light jangly multi-tracked strummed acoustic guitars creating the first layer of nostalgic atmosphere. The strumming is a standard rhythm guitar pattern. Mike Joyce, likewise, plays a standard and appropriate drum pattern without flourish. Andy Rourke’s bassline provides the only real melodic interest to the musical accompaniment. During the chorus, Marr plays the synth-string on an Emu Emulator with long high-notes with a few trills, again with a light reverb. Later, also is a flute line hauntingly, but playfully, played under a verse. All of these simple elements come together beautifully through layering and production.

While the instrumentation is simple, the chord progression itself is fairly unusual. The tonic chord barely gets used as one until the chorus, which is part of what let’s the chorus sounds as if it is an answer to some question not quite posed by the verses.

The title track “The Queen is Dead is a beautiful mess of organized chaos. A sample from the movie “The L-Shaped Room” starts the track. Then a tom drum loop pounds introducing the drive of the song. This is joined by the rest of the drums, which were recorded separately. A driving bassline supports the track.

Layers of rhythm guitar play V-V-V-V-V-V-VI# for most of the song, closing with a coda of V-VI#-I. At least, that’s how I hear the chord progression. I always feel a little uncertain when there’s a borrowed chord (the VI#), if I’m notating it correctly. A wild guitar with incredible feedback through a wah pedal enhances the sense of chaos and urgency. It also buries the less crazy rhythm guitars.

The opening verse makes clear the speaker’s opinion of English royalty. I’m not sure what exactly is meant by the “boar between arches” line. A search online lead me to plenty of discussions, but not real consensus. I particularly liked the idea that potential play on words with ‘boar’ and ‘bore’ and ‘arches’ with ‘archers’. I also saw mention that the arches were historically a symbol for royalty and that Richard III’s emblem was that of a boar. The Richard III bit seems more coincidence than meaningful to me. It’s also not certain if the speaker feels hemmed in, if the marshes are hemmed in, or if the Queen is hemmed in. Regardless, what we have here are biting comment on the Queen written much more poetically than usual pop and rock lyrics.

Farewell to this land’s cheerless marshes
Hemmed in like a boar between arches
Her very Lowness with a head in a sling
I’m truly sorry but it sounds like a wonderful thing

Near the middle of the album, “I Know It’s Over” possibly received the most plays throughout my twenties. This so slow jazzy blues number tells of loneliness and lost love. Even more so, what the speaker has lost is love, but the possibility of a love to another. “I know it’s over and it never really began, but in my heart it was so real.” Her pending marriage drives home the truth that he will never be loved. He bitterly warns the groom, “Loud, loutish lover, treat her kindly, though she needs you more than she loves you.” Though, it’s clear that he’s not speaking to the groom directly. All of these conversations are imagined from an empty room “as I climb into an empty bed.”

Musically the song rolls through the 50s chord progression (I-vi-IV-V) at a slow tempo starting at about 70 BPM and rising to about 76 BPM for the climactic coda. The drums are minimal through most of the track, focusing mostly on a jazz-inspired use of cymbals and tapping the rim. The electric guitars gently strum chords giving plenty of room for the vocals.

Of course, I could go on and on about one of my long-time favorite records.

Led Zeppelin’s IV

Led Zepplin 4 album coverI’ve been listening to Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album from 1971. Each week I devote to an acclaimed album to learn as a songwriting musician. As with “Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd, I grew up hearing this Led Zeppelin album often. I imagine many of us born in the 70s did. Even with all of that exposure, it’s still a great album with surprises.

The fourth track “Stairway to Heaven” pulls together the greatest qualities of the album into one song. As an unfortunate side effect of being one of the greatest songs ever, it has become amazingly overplayed. I sigh with lack of interest when the song starts. My favorite portion of the song starts at after five and a half minutes. First, the guitars signal a transition through a dramatic series of chords sounding like horns. Jimmy Page then provides a fantastic soulful guitar solo. I like that the they did not distort the rhythm guitar to get a rocking sound. They gave it a sense of being big by double-tracking with some strong spring reverb. There, I talked about “Stairway to Heaven” mostly because I’d feel foolish not mentioning it. Seriously, I skipped it many times this week.

Four Sticks” got my attention this time around. I hadn’t given it much attention in the past, so it still had a little sense of novelty. Also, the unusual rhythm of the song intrigued me. Some research revealed that most of the song is in a very unusual 5/8 time, withe some parts in a more common 6/8. I read that the rhythm of the song was so difficult that they almost gave up on recording the song. I hear a few times on the recording that they do slip up as a result. There’s a vaguely middle-eastern feel to the music. This comes from the combination of odd time signature, droning ascending scales, driving percussion, and energetically strummed acoustics. I sometimes find that songs in odd signatures will feel like they drift or ramble, but the 6/8 sections of this song give a sense of journey.

The seventh track “Going to California” is comparable to “Stairway to Heaven” while being much better. I like the collection of acoustic guitars and mandolin creating musical textures through arpeggios. They are panned mostly hard left and right, leaving space in the middle for the bass and vocals. The lyrics are more relatable than the Tolkeinesque-Rumi vagueness that happens on some of the other tracks like “Stairway.” The first verse is a pair of beautifully written narrative couplets. They get the listeners attention immediately through emotional story-telling:

Spent my days with a woman unkind
Smoked my stuff and drank all my wine.
Made up my mind to make a new start
Going To California with an aching in my heart.

Speaking of Tolkein, my other favorite track is “Misty Mountain Hop.” There’s also something unique about the rhythm of this song. The main riff of the song, which is played on both guitar and electric piano, actually starts an 8th note before the first beat of each measure and least for a full quarter. This song provides an a great example of what I first think of as the Led Zeppelin sound. There’s big loud drums, a heavy bass bottom, a blues-inspired hard grooving guitar riff, and Plant’s high-pitched vocals. The narrative lyrics describe a situation, a certain place and time, written with an ear to both blues and high fantasy balladry.

So I’ve learned a bit about the possibilities of mixing time signatures in a song. Their use of mysticism and fantasy elements is most enjoyable for me for telling real-world narrative. In addition, the way that they double-up on instruments to strengthen a riff is very effective. And you can’t deny the power of big drums.

Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”

Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" album coverI’ve been getting to know Van Morrison’s 1968 album “Astral Weeks” for my “To My Ear” project. Each week I listen to an album generally recognized for being great. The goal is to improve my own craft as a songwriting musician; The process also introduces me to some great music. I disliked this album with the first few listens and was really dreading giving it a full seven days. I heard little more than monotonous ramblings over musicians trying to find a song. Gradually, parts of it grew on me. Not only did I experience usual side-effect of familiarity, but my brain had to learn how to process it. I still don’t really like most of the album, but I came to like a few tracks.

The fourth track “Cypress Avenue” closes side one of the record. The music follows something a blues progression played with in a relaxed chamber folk style. The accompaniment consists of upright bass, acoustic guitar, harpsichord, violins, and flute. The violin and flute seem to be languidly improvising throughout the song. Their apparent lack of purpose beyond atmospheric accompaniment give the song a directionless quality shared with the rest of the album. The feeling of sameness makes the already long seven minutes feel like forever. Still, this song has a stronger sense of rhythm than most them. The blues structure helps the lyrics feel less like poetic ramblings.

Those lyrics carry a sense of nostalgia and longing. Their conscious of the distance between the present and the past within the locale. This is a topic that resonates with me strongly and one that I often visit in my own songs already.

The next track, “Like Young Lovers Do, opens the second side. Like, well, the rest of the album, the song flows along in a monotonous way. In this case it’s forgiven because it’s less then four minutes long. The use of strings and horns provides a sense of movement, especially at the close of each chorus. In fact, these instruments make the chorus feel like the chorus. It’s overall a nice little song. Though, honestly, it may largely benefit from sounding different than the rest of the album.

The next track Madame George consisting stood out as my favorite all week. It was the first to catch my attention. Even after listening to the whole album multiple times, none of them had the same grand sense of purpose and heart as “Madame George.” The lyrics provide enough narrative to draw the listener in, but enough ample room for questions and interpretation. “Madame George” is a seriously good song, even when not considering how boring the rest of the album can be.

Before I get into discussing this one track, let me say that I feel like I’m missing something by not appreciating the rest of the album. Maybe spending more time with it would help. However, my goal here is to improve my songwriting. I feel that a good song gets better with repeat listening; I’m not so sure that it should take more than a week of repeated listening to appreciate a song. I spent a full week with this album and only one song truly grabbed me.

The chords of “Madame George” repeat a standard I-IV-V progression throughout. The bass provides rhythmic movement. The percussion remains silent until the very end of the song a little high-hat picks up the pace of the outro. I’ve learned this option from a few other albums I’ve listened to: have the bass serve the rhythmic purpose usually the responsibility of percussion. Chords strummed on a quiet acoustic guitar add rhythmic texture to the accompaniment. In this case it bounces across the song emphasizing the chord changes.

Over this surprisingly engaging music, Morrison sings well-written nostalgic lyrics about a final meeting (or is it George) and departure. Van Morrison leaves a lot open to interpretation. Who or what is Madame Joy and why is the speaker meeting with Madame Joy? Why is she so concerned with the potential arrival of the cops? Why is the speaker leaving on the train and why meet up with Madame Joy before leaving? Even so, it’s more about emotion than details and backstory. Each verse, a heart-captured snapshot of an event. Of this ten minute song, I do feel like the last four minutes are unnecessary. Though this may represent the speaker riding away on the train, it extends the song past the story.

I love all of the lyrics, but the fourth is my favorite today

And then from outside the frosty window raps.
She jumps up and says, “Lord, have mercy I think it’s the cops,”
And immediately drops everything she gots
Down into the street below;
And you know you gotta go
On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row,
Throwing pennies at the bridges down below.
And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow
Say goodbye to Madame Joy

I like that the startled reaction of Madame Joy gives a glimpse into her personality and lifestyle. The frosty window gives some indication what time of year it may be. We also learn that Madame Joy lives in Dublin and the speaker is taking the train to Sandy Row, which is in Belfast. The song started “down on Cyprus Avenue”, which is also in Belfast. I used Google Maps to figure this out. I get the feeling that the speaker is on Cyprus Avenue and gets hit with memories of Madame Joy, whom he goes to visit in Dublin. The visit isn’t all wonderful, and then heads back home on the train. So this verse helps put more of the story into perspective.

I also like that Madame Joy’s action of “dropping everything she gots down into the street below” will be echoed by the speakers “throwing pennies at the bridges down below” on the train ride. He pictures the “rain, hail, sleet, and snow” saying “goodbye to Madame Joy” which are all forms of precipitation like tears. While the song ends with several reminders to “dry your eyes for Madame Joy.” It’s a great song the way these things reveal themselves upon repeat listenings.

I wish I’d found the rest of the album so rewarding. I will definitely revisit, but I’m taking a break for a while from Van Morrison.

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”

Album cover for Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run"

I listened to Bruce Springsteen‘s 1975 LP “Born to Run” this week for lessons to improve as a songwriting musician. When I was a teenager, I rejected Springsteen’s music. His songs seemed for a completely different crowd, of a different age and a different culture. I heard “Born in the USA” and saw crowds of parents and grandparents pumping raised patriotic fists. I heard another song repeat “I’m going down, down, down, down.” and thought “What awful lyrics!” Only a few years ago did I learn that my assumptions were absurdly wrong. I especially learned a lot this week with my focused listen. Considering my own songwriting style and evolution, this album proves that Springsteen is somebody I definitely should be paying attention to.

The title track “Born to Run” opens side two of the album as the fifth track of the album. It received radio play nearly 8 months before recording of the rest of the album was completed. A wall of sound hits the listener within the first few seconds. The influence of Phil Spector’s signature sound is all over this album. The song “Born to Run” perfectly captures the heart of the album; This makes it a great centerpiece as well as a good introduction. The sound is desperately nostalgic and longingly anthemic; You can smell the roar of engines driven hard by drivers with hands still stained by grease, but also see the high school dance filled with couples nearing the end of youth.

This sound is perfectly suited to the words. The masterfully crafted lyrics on this album deal with tales of working class American youth and early adulthood. They do so with a raw but poetic nostalgia that avoids, but comes quite close to, sentimentalism. The characters in these stories of desperation are taking chances on love and life with just one last hope. They probably won’t make it, but the thrill and experience of the effort is reason enough to try.And see how the story of “Born to Run” is started:

In the day we sweat it out on the streets
of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory
in suicide machines

Basically, he’s saying they work all day so they can drag race at night. But what a way to say it! Through word-choice and carefully selected metaphors, he relates the two activities to enhance their similarities and differences. The work for the “American dream” seems futile while the mansions of those who’ve commandeered the American dream surround the speaker’s dangerous pastime. Here I only start to interpret the first two lines. If I wasn’t determined to describe my experience listening to the whole album, I would love to examine the lyrics of this single song. Given time, I could surely write volumes.

That presents one of the greatest lessons to take away from this album. Springsteen worked and worked on these lyrics. The first draft of “Born to Run” shows how much he changed the verses before the final version. I usually revise my own songs many times for years, but it’s important to see how much can be changed. In a few cases, I’ve kept only a few words of my first draft, but the feeling has remained the same. You can see in his first draft that Springsteen had imagery and emotion, but didn’t quite have the heart of the song yet.

Good poetry often elevates the mundane, often to the sublime. Springsteen so expertly elevates the mundane that it’s difficult to realize that it was ever mundane. He romanticizes the emotional struggle of everyday and the desire to escape the inevitable trap of the day-to-day. In “Thunder Road“, he opens with a description of the unexceptional.

The screen door slams Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again
I just can’t face myself alone again

Standard rock chord progressions and song structures provide the backbone of these tracks, with plenty of I-IV-V and I-V-IV throughout. This strengthens the the mood and theme of the album. This vision of rock music dances on the front porch, but also climbs into the front seat to escape this old town.

The Phil Spector style production sounds better on this album than on most of the records that Spector himself actually produced. For his wall of sound, Phil Spector would record multiple musicians playing the same thing simultaneously and run it through echo chambers. This created a magical mess of sound. If focus on the background accompaniment of The Ronettes’ Be My Baby, you’ll notice how it’s a somewhat indistinct wash of instruments. Yet, Spector’s technique had the power to sonically elevate the mundane. Similar production provides Springsteen’s album with its sound while maintaining integrity of individual instruments. It’s really a wonderful thing to hear. One of my favorite tracks, She’s the One probably gets the closest to that messy wash, but still sounds great.

This has definitely been one of my favorites for this project of listening one great album each week. I’m looking forward to the next Springsteen.

We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels

Patti Smith’s “Horses”

Patti Smith's Horses album cover

I listened to Patti Smith‘s 1975 LP “Horses” for the past seven days. There’s a lot to learn here as a songwriting musician. I’ve heard about Smith for years;  I have fans as friends; Yet, this week was the first time I’ve heard her work, and  I love it. It sounds incredibly like 1970s New York City, sitting somewhere between the sound and intelligence of Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground and the attitude of the Ramones. This album features fantastic lyrics, great music, great production, and cool vocals.

The lyrics star as the focus of “Horses”. With this debut album, Patti Smith produced a rock n’ roll version of the way beat poets like Jack Kerouac gave poetry readings with jazz accompaniment. She arrests your attention within the first twenty seconds; “Gloria” opens the album with the powerful line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” This is not a cover of Them’s “Gloria” or even a re-interpretation. Smith uses the classic garage rock song as source material they way an artist uses an image in collage. Considering that “Gloria” is one of the most covered songs in rock, the use of the chorus gives the audience something they know to keep them invested with the first listen. However the refrain may be using “gloria” as a word rather than a name ironically connects the chorus to the opening line.

In the song, Kimberly, Patti speaks about the desire to keep her little sister safe. She does this through an overt narrative of being in a barn with her baby sister during a storm. The lightning is frightening, so the older sister distracts her baby sister and covers her to hide the flashes. With lines like “I knew your youth was for the taking, fire on a mental plane,” there is suggestion that she’s worried about more than a storm during her sister’s infancy. A verse towards the end of the song, more spoken than sung, demonstrates Smith’s great command of poetry and imagery:

So I ran through the fields as the bats with their baby vein faces
Burst from the barn and flames in a violent violet sky
And I fell on my knees and pressed you against me
Your soul was like a network of spittle
Like glass balls movin’ in like cold streams of logic
And I prayed as the lightning attacked
That something will make it go crack

The lyrics are perhaps at their most dense and intense in “Land” where they also provide the album title “Horses”. The tell a troubling story about a young man named Johnny being raped in the hallways of what is probably a high school during the mid-1960s. Then later the speak has a romantic encounter with Johnny.

The lyrics incorporate several references to Land of a Thousand Dances. I consider these lines as drifting in from down the hall. Perhaps the hallway scene takes place during a school dance. She layers these references to dances of the 1950s and 60s with the rape; Names of dances like the Twist and the Watusi become descriptions of the act. Johnny’s mind escapes into another world, his assailants become as horses. After they finish off on Johnny, an angel or somebody named Angel taunts him “Oh, pretty boy, can’t you show me nothing but surrender?” Then the song further explodes poetic chaos.

There’s ambiguity and layering references to film noir, teen dances, sex, romance, rape, rock n roll, and the poet Rimbaud. They are cut together like a William S. Burroughs cut-up. I sensed this as a long time-Burroughs fan that has experimented with cut-ups many times. However, I also have read this week that Smith was inspired by the novels of Burroughs. Similarly, she has layered vocals so that disconnected lines interact with each other; Interactions like these cause our brains to interpret and fill the space between with meaning. I have always loved methods of layering and creating juxtaposition in all forms of art, and this song is a brilliant example.

And after a description of Johnny leaning against a parking meter, with a vision of him humping it, she ends with a vision of a man dancing to a simple rock n roll song, in the sheets. Is this the bed where Johnny screams out and nobody hears “the butterfly flapping in his throat”? This to is unclear. Is the “simple rock n roll song a Land of a Thousand Dances, or some other song? It’s most likely not self-referential; Of all that “Land” is, it’s definitely not a simple song. To me, this may suggest rock n roll itself as the savior of troubled or misfit youth. In the Velvet Underground’s “Rock N Roll“, Lou Reed described how “Despite all the amputations, You know you could just go out and dance to a rock ‘n’ roll station.” Patti Smith closes this troubled tale of Johnny with:

In the sheets
There was a man
Dancing around
To the simple
Rock n roll
Song

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 Clash’s “London Calling”

London Calling album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to The Clash’s 1979 album “London Calling” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician to improve my craft. It’s been a great week!

I got into The Clash in a rather backwards way. I grew up loving the video for “Rock the Casbah“, but that was mostly because of the armadillo. When I was about twelve, I bought a cassette of Big Audio Dynamite’s 1986 album “No. 10, Upping St.” at a dollar store. Singer Mick Jones had been kicked out of The Clash a few years previous and formed B.A.D. with Don Letts, who had directed several of The Clash’s music videos.  I went from there to The Clash’s 1977 self-titled debut album, which is more of a reggae-aware punk album than the later “London Calling”. It’s difficult to categorize this album. There’s a mix of reggae, ska, punk, rockabilly, post-punk, new wave, pub rock, etc. No matter what you want to call it, it’s definitely the Clash.

The music on “London Calling” has a very percussive quality. In reggae music, the rhythm guitars frequently emphasize the offbeat. For most of these songs, the Clash rhythm guitarist strum hits on the quarter-note along with the kick and snare, emphasizing the beat rather than adding a hop to it. Sometimes the upbeat, the 2nd the 4th beat gets an emphasis, but more often it’s all four. The lead guitars are more likely to play the offbeat than the rhythm, which I find interesting. There are exceptions, of course, with some songs being decidedly more “reggae”, or the hit “Train in Vain” for which the rhythm guitar focuses on the offbeat; and then some sections hits on the downbeat. This change gives these sections a sense of “slowing down” even though the tempo actually remains constant.

The instrumentation and production on this album is very open and light. There’s space between the instruments, with each occupying its own space sonically. There’s also a lot of air. Instruments frequently rest, which makes the sound both open and rhythmic. Strums are muted, or quickly muted, as opposed to ringing out. There’s also not much “padding” to fill the space. It’s refreshing to hear all of this bounce and grit with breathing room.

Every track is fantastic, but “Jimmy Jazz” stands out as my favorite. Our son pointed out that this track may’ve been of particular influence to one of my heroes, Peter Doherty. I like how the song maintains a breezy feel, while still having the percussive quality. A bright acoustic guitar punctuates the beat throughout, with a flanged slightly distorted lead guitar plays on the offbeat. I also like the horns, which is not something I an often say. The lyrics vaguely tell the story of a character named Jimmy Jazz, being sought by the police. An outsider, apparently on the wrong side of the law.

The lyrics on this album combine story-telling with a sense of “sharing the news”. We learn about strange characters, romanticized like the Beats saw old movies and dime paperbacks. These cool scenes of outsiders populate some songs, while others are more like a street-punk standing in the street shouting to fellow rebels, “This is what’s happening, open your eyes, take a stand.” The album combines a multi-national perspective musically, with a boot firmly rooted in the British streets.