The Who’s “Who’s Next”

The Who's "Who's Next" album cover

I’ve been listening to The Who‘s 1971 LP “Who’s Next” for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. I wasn’t much into the Who growing up. My parents had the soundtrack to Tommy; This was not the album “Tommy,” but rather the songs re-recorded with performers from the film adaptation. I loved it growing up, fascinated by the apparent story from a movie I wasn’t allowed to see. From oldies stations, I knew a handful of their earlier songs.

In my late teens, I saw the film “Quadraphenia” on IFC at night. I fell in love immediately.  Soon, I discovered that my father-in-law had a copy of the album which I borrowed and never returned. This has long been my favorite Who album. When I went to school for painting, I probably annoyed my studio mates with the frequency I played it. Anyway, except for a couple of songs, I wasn’t really too familiar with “Who’s Next” and I found this album to be great as well; Not as a solid work like “Quadraphenia,” but better perhaps as a collection of individual songs.

The album opens with the electric arpeggio texture of an analog synthesizer. That synth may’ve been an EMS Synthi like Pink Floyd on Dark Side of the Moon. This is joined by piano playing chords in a two bar pattern. This hits the first and fourth beat of the one measure, which leads into the second measure where one the first beat is struck. The bass and guitar soon join in giving this simple rhythm an epic percussive sound. Of course, alongside the constant synth, Keith Moon drives away on the drums. He uses the crash cymbals to emphasize the rhythm. This rhythmic pattern of hitting the first beat of each measure and using the fourth beat to lead into the next second measure gets used in some form throughout the album.

The chords played here follow a classic rock I-V-IV pattern. Though occasionally the order may change some, this is effectively a three chord rocker. The chorus takes a break from the big rock pattern with a V-I-V-IV-I-V-IV pattern coming solely from the synth.  

Roger Daltrey’s vocals complete the sound of the song; they fill it with that punk rock musical passion that The Who were able to pull off. He sings “Out here in the fields, I fight for for my meals, I get my back into my living.” It’s important to know that several of this album’s songs where originally written for a scrapped rock opera called “Lifehouse.” this opening track was to be sung by a farmer heading into London. Townshend wrote the “teenage wasteland” bit as a bit of negative reaction to seeing drugged-out kids at Woodstock

The fourth track “My Wife” was also one of my favorites this week. The use of horns during the second half of the song, really just to punctuate the beat, got my attention first. Each measure start with a full chord strum on the first beat. Again, we hear that classic Townshend straight-forward overdriven electric guitar sound. I think it’s fantastic. Then there’s some partial strums, occasional muted lower notes and arpeggio higher notes. The piano plays syncopated chords bouncing in rhythmic conversation with the guitar. This conversation has been emphasized by panning the guitar left and the piano right. 

The chord progression is not as heavy as the I-IV-V of the first track. I’m not sure I’m getting this right, but this is what I believe the chord progression to be. The verse is I-VI♭-VI♭-IV-III♭-III♭-IV-I then ii-ii-VI♭-IV-III♭-VI♭-V-V. So much for the class rock progressions we heard earlier in the album! This is more the sort of stuff you’d expect from Cole Porter. Rock music typically doesn’t use so many chords in one song, especially borrowed chords.

The track is a bit of a folk-country ballad (in the classic ballad sense) with the Who rock sound. The speaker tells the story of how he got thrown in jail for getting drunk and the trouble he’s in at home because his wife thinks he was with another woman. The tale is dated, but it does make for a good song.

The closing track “Won’t Get Fooled Again” stands as one of the Who’s strongest and most iconic songs. (I’ll reuse the word “iconic” in a bit) The song starts with a lone overdriven guitar power chord that fades out naturally. Beneath this flows another pulsating rhythmic arpeggio synth texture similar to the opening “Baba O’Riley.” Pete Townshend explained the sound is actually an organ played through a sample-and-hold modulated filter. This is heard clean in the left channel with through a delayed-reverb in the right channel to give it depth.

The verses run a I-IV-I-IV-I-IV-V-V chord progression. The chorus also make use of a repeating I-IV progression, though at twice the speed and close with III-V7-III-V7-III-IV-IV7-I. That major III in the chorus gives a more majestic feel than the typical minor iii. Also to be noted is that Pete Townshend prefers to give these more rocking strong anthems simpler chord progressions. These gives the listener something easier to immediately grab unto.  Also, again, the majority of the guitar work is bursts of overdriven strums allowed to ring out. It’s also worth noting that, except for vocals, The Who don’t really have a lead instrument. So, Townshend at times will ramp up from rhythm guitar to a lead-rhythm. 

This 8 minute 33 second song is the climactic closer of the album. At 7:44, Roger Daltrey produces a nearly four second scream of “Yeah!” that is the climax of the song. It also remains one of rock n roll’s most iconic moments. That filtered organ sound is another, and they’re both in the same track. After that “yeah,” he delivers the punch-line (and message) of this lyrics about revolutions: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” After this, the song quickly wraps up The song leads up to that 7:44 mark. A first-time listener might not be aware what they are building up to, but Townshend and crew were seemingly aware that repeat listeners would be. They give a similar moment at 4:29, with a 2 second “yeah” that does not have quite the same power but does tie the two parts of the song together. 

This is an amazing album from start to finish; It really shows what can be done with the essential instruments of rock n roll (drums, bass, guitar, vocals) in the hands of impassioned talented experts. Each member of the band is amazing at what they do. True, Pete Townshend is typically not playing anything technically difficult or complex. People who love Joe Satriani’s showy lead guitar are not necessarily going to be impressed, but I am. Keith Moon always impresses me. I’ve often heard complaints that he didn’t know when to calm down, but I think they just aren’t hearing the whole catalog. Anyway, I love this album.  I still think “Quadraphenia” is better, but we don’t really need to compare, do we?

Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”

Pink Floyd Dark Side coverI spent a week listening to Pink Floyd’s 1973 album “Dark Side of the Moon” for what I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. I do this each week with a different album with some recognition as one of the greats. My father enjoyed Pink Floyd so I grew up hearing this album quite a bit. I know all these songs very well. So there wasn’t a lot of discovery happening; this week reminded me what I love about the album.

Experts on such things recommend that songwriters have interesting vocals start during the first 20 seconds. The thinking went that somebody reviewing demos would hit eject if it didn’t get their attention in that time. In today’s world of internet streaming, recommendations include having an attention-getting hook within 7 seconds.

In sharp contrast to that advice, this album opens with 36 seconds of nothing but a faded-in heartbeat. Indeed, the first 7 seconds only provide near silence. Then a variety of sound effects rise into a maddening crescendo, broken by a slow groove with bass, flanged guitar, echoey slide guitar, and electric piano. Sometimes the electric piano and slide guitar meld into each other, losing their identity. It’s eerily dreamy.

I like that the songs of the album flow into each, but each is distinct. With “Dark Side of the Moon,” Pink Floyd crafted a collection of individual songs conceived as whole. This idea of an album had a huge influence on me. Before Trip Gunn, I designed whole albums. I built a structure of songs supporting an overall concept. My albums incorporated a Floydian style of having one song lead into the next. I decided with Trip Gunn that I would focus on writing good songs rather than always trying to make big albums. Not that one is better than the other, I just felt I needed to change the way I was thinking.

One of my favorite songs “Time” has not one, but two intros. That’s not why I like it, but I find it interesting. The track starts with the end of an explosion (from the previous track) and several clock alarm chimes going off at once. The second intro is a long section of long-held bass notes on guitar, rototom rolls, and electric piano. The rototoms, which were a new instrument at the time, add interest to a section that I would otherwise find too long.

After two and a half minutes pass, the actual songs kicks in with vocals and a funky rock accompaniment. A lot is said about Floyd in terms of space and psychedelic rock, but they had a particularly funky side too. The back-and-forth play between instruments in songs like this is particularly interesting. I love making use of this in some of my own songs and would like to do it more often.

Of course, “Eclipse” as well as the track “Brain Damage” that leads directly into it. The song has a gospel feel, thanks largely to the organ and backing female vocals. But also the repeating I-IV7-I-IV7-I-II-V-V7-I chord progression give it a spiritually uplifting feel. Added to this is that the track builds into intensity until reaching the concluding lines “Everything under the sun is in tune, but the sun is eclipsed by the moon.” And the song is over, fade out heartbeat.

David Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”

David Bowie's "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" album cover This week, I’ve been listening to David Bowie’s 1972 “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”. I’d heard some of the songs before, but I’d not listened to the whole album before this week. I loved the Bauhaus cover of “Ziggy Stardust” and the Nina Hagen cover. This concept album is musical theater that tells stories about a messianic alien outsider. The central character of Ziggy Stardust personifies the legends and mythology of rock music. Bowie wrote his own legend like a child playacting as their self-crafted superhero. There remains this sense of ambiguity, though, so Ziggy could just as well be a combination of Bowie and Ronson.

The album opener “Five Years” set the scene that the Earth is in danger with beautiful variation of the 50s doo-wop chord progression. A dry kick drum and snare slowly fade in to start the song, and then a slowly strummed chord. The well-written opening lines “Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing; News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in” nearly tell the whole story indirectly. I love that emotional imagery hits before the factual news.

Bowie also insist upon rhyme on this album. In the first verse of “Five Years” all four lines rhyme: “sighing”, “cry in”, “dying”, “lying”. After that, the rhymes are in couplets. Towards the end, Bowie sings “And it was cold and it rained so felt like an actor; And I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there.” This particularly clever rhyme made me realize something about the album. While Bowie is definitely singing, his vocals are just as much the performance of an actor.

Moonage Daydream” slams in with glam rock guitars and vocals. Like much of the album, I can hear that Marc Bolan and David Bowie were significant influences on each other. The lyrics bristle with rock n roll nonsense that recalls Bo Diddley, Bill Haley, and Jerry Lee Lewis. As an androgynous space invader, Bowie yanks the danger and fire of 50s rock into 1972.

The next track “Starman” tells of the bewildered and bewitched audience catching the radio pirate emission. The starman arrives a cautious savior warning the inhabits of Earth “not to blow it, cause he knows it’s all worth while.” And then he encourages the children to lose it, use it and boogie, which again makes me think of Marc Bolan. The last verse has two young listeners discussing what they heard on the radio. The final line of “Don’t tell your poppa or he’ll get us locked up in fright” reminds us that rock n roll is risky music for youth in rebellion.

The album closer “Rock N Roll Suicide” is probably my favorite track. It has a driving anthemic rhythm that runs from the intro with bare strummed acoustic guitar to the final crescendo of horns, strings, drums, electric guitars, chorus, and desperately cried vocals of “gimme your hands!” It begs for audience participation. The first verse is cinematic in its narrow focus, iconic and poetic with its step-by-step description of disappointment and emptiness:

Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth
You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette
The wall-to-wall’s calling, it lingers, then you forget
You’re a rock ‘n’ roll suicide

This is another album that musically is built on basic rock ‘n’ roll chord progressions, many looking back to the doo-wop era. The production is early 70s dry, without the massive reverb found in the early 60s or the shimmering reverb later heard in the 80s. The creates punchy drums that sound fantastic on vinyl. While the instruments are generally playing relatively simple parts, they create a great sound. Bowie’s performance makes us want to believe. It’s really quite out of sight.

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

Rosemary Street (2018)

Album Cover for Rosemary Street single, with b-side Levitation of Crystal

Several of my songs take place in a fictional Midwestern town, which is mostly a composite of Athens and Marietta in Ohio. Rosemary Street runs through downtown and is lined with several shops. It’s a good place for taking a walk, getting a coffee, and browsing through books. The lyrics of this song saw a lot of revisions over the course of two years. I started with this idea of two people run into each other at a bookstore after years apart. For a moment it feels as if nothing’s changed, until they see an awkward young couple that reminds them of their old selves.

I had set aside two days to devote to the recording of the guitar and vocals for this track. Unfortunately, an illness descended upon me earlier in the week and I was still tired and congested the day of. Impatient to record and without any more free days coming soon, I recorded anyway. I think the vocals suffer as a result, but I still feel good about the songs; I hope to redo them someday.

Lyrics

Saturday morning’s sun cast shadows
Across the vacant breakfast table;
I drew a frog on your phone book cover,
While your mother said you were out buying records
On Rosemary Street.
On Rosemary Street.

Saturday evening, we almost held hands,
Or at least I thought of it.
The sun broke away unnoticed
And you wished me better luck next time
On Rosemary Street.
On Rosemary Street.

I’m afraid we’ll be afraid
Of whom we used to be
When we meet our old selves perusing
The shelves of the old book store
On Rosemary Street.
On Rosemary Street.

I find it hard to close my eyes,
But I wouldn’t change a thing
Even if I could,
But, oh, if I could.

Levitation of Crystal

Our son’s copy of Dunninger’s Complete Encyclopedia Of Magic inspired this song. The Levitation of Crystal illusion involves raising a glass in the air by secretly looping a thread around it. The book explains many other illusions including several that simulate communicating with the dead. That became the theme of the song. I changed Crystal to the name of the recently departed and I had my story. This spirit uses the medium’s methods herself to constantly reach out to the living.

Lyrics

Crystal’s hands were leaden hands
Arranging matchsticks in the dark
A tapping on the table
A rapping at the door
Spirit mediums in the back of the store

Crystal rings the bells singing
Within the sealed pine black box
Once for yes
Twice for now
Candles dance where no breezes blow

Float above the remaining
Float above their pain
Crystal calls at midnight
Crystal calls all night
And nobody gets any sleep
Nobody gets any sleep
Nobody gets any sleep

Crystal marks the corners of the cards
While drinking from teacups secretly
Leaves the leaves
Discards a coffin nail
Crystal’s eyes tell a ghostly tail

She said “take this coin
And don’t let it go
Some day you’ll find me
By the side of the road
Wanting to go back home.”

IJR2018S006

Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”

Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back album cover

Yeah boy! I devoted this week to Public Enemy‘s 1988 album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” to learn as a songwriting musician. This first first hip hop album for this weekly project. This was also my introduction to Public Enemy, excluding the collaboration with metal band Anthrax in the 90s. My music is definitely not hip hop; so learning from this album works a little differently. Rhythm and tone of voice take precedence over key and melody. While I consider this a valid style, it’s not one that I either have the intention or skill to use. I look to other aspects of the songs for my purposes.

The famous song “Bring the Noise” opens the album after a short intro track. The song starts with the phrase “too black, too strong,” a phrase crafted from a sample of Malcolm X (“It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. […] You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. […] It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep.”). This perfectly introduces an album that frequently takes pride in being “too black” while designed to wake listeners up to sociopolitical issues.

The lyrics are densely packed with meaning. References deal with current events and/or historical context, particularly with racism and corruption within both the media and the government.. The use of phrases and word-choice to convey meaning is particularly interesting to me. Unfortunately, Public Enemy seems to spend more time talking about how controversial and political they are than actually being political. Braggadocio and self-referential lyrics have been a major part of rap music since the beginning. In the mid-80s when Public Enemy were getting started, rap songs usually spoke about partying, dancing, rapping.

The overall message of this album is that racism is still a problem and that minorities, especially the black community, should be proud of who they are and take a stand against social injustices. Public enemy is not here to teach so much as wake people up so they will take themselves to school. Most directly, they point to Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan, saying “a brother like me said, ‘Well What he can say to you, what you wanna do is follow for now.'” Though they generally keep it light, when they hit, they hit hard like in the song “Louder than a Bomb” with lines like “Your CIA, you see I ain’t kiddin’, Both King and X they got rid of both. A story untold, true but unknown.”

Public Enemy assumes a sizable crowd are going to be hearing the songs and they speak to that crowd, and they write for that situation.  In contrast on “Blue“, Joni Mitchell was speaking intimately to a single listener. On “Highway 51 Revisited“, Bob Dylan was usually speaking to the subject of the song.

The music is almost completely built from samples, with turn-table scratching and a Roland TR-808 drum machine keeping the beat. What they’ve done is more than looping a sample; the music is a layered collage of music and sound effects to create a rhythmic atmosphere. The drum patterns make you want to dance. The first beat of each bar is usually dedicated to the kick drum with a snare on the second and third beat. Extra work on the snare and/or hat during space between the second and third beat that give the rhythm their groove.

Limitations of samplers caused them to use short samples, so most samples are either only 4 or 8 beats long.  Since they’ve built each song with a limited collection short samples, chord progressions are nearly non-existent. Changes in the music are created through either having or not having a sample playing; for example, they may cut out the bass line for a eight bars and then bring it back. Combining this layering of starting and stopping phrases with dynamic vocal delivery is what keeps the songs interesting despite the repetitive nature of the music. The siren noises get annoying though.

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.

Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”

What's Going On album cover.

This week, I’ve been listening to Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album “What’s Going On”. What can I learn as a songwriting musician from this great album? I looked forward to this album since starting my weekly albums. This album was mostly new to me, but enjoys critical acclaim. Unfortunately, “What’s Going On” disappointed me. It’s a concept album created as a song-cycle; For me, this is the album’s source of weakness. The songs flow into each other with such continuity that there’s an overwhelming sense of monotony. This monotony makes the otherwise great songs boring. It’s a weird situation, where I can say the whole is less than the sum of its parts. I don’t like the album, but I like some individual songs.

The only song I knew before this week, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)“, remains my favorite on the album. It follows the song “God Is Love” with a noticeable yet smooth key change and drop in tempo. The guitar picks up rhythmically, offsetting the tempo change. A woodblock fills the role traditionally occupied by a snare drum, soaked in what sounds like a spring reverb. It reminds me of some percussion on “Pet Sounds” as well as my grandparent’s Kimball organ. I love the sound. Swelling strings bring overall motion to the song and draw attention to away from the rather repetitive rhythm section. Two of my favorite sounds, tinkling celeste and ringing vibraphone, provide melodic accompaniment. I believe the chord progression is a I7-iv7-ii-IV, like a smoother variation of the 50s doo-wop progression. Part of what works with this song is that it is a break from the monotony of the rest of the album. It has its own groove and sounds slightly different.

The opening title track “What’s Going On” and the closing “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)“. “What’s Going On” has very similar use of rhythm guitar as “Mercy Mercy Me”. The opening track starts the album off with the “welcome home from the war” celebration sound, but that sense of joy is slowly worn away until finally reaching the “Inner City Blues” ending. Conceptually, the journey from start to finish makes great sense, but that doesn’t necessarily make for great listening. I particularly enjoy the rhythm of “Inner City Blues”. The first beat of each measure gets emphasis, with the fourth beat given a rest. The pattern rolls over a two measure sequence, with the first beat of the first measure getting stronger emphasis than the second measure. The bongos add nice depth and movement to the rhythm. It’s one of the few songs on the album where I don’t get bored with the bongos.

Lyrically the album falls short for me as well. There’s the overall concept of the returning war veteran to see the injustice in the society that they’re returning to. A society that they feel deeply apart of, even if they feel disconnected by the distance of time spent over-seas. The concept should provide great opportunity to tell stories that get across a strong message. Unfortunately, these songs often “tell, don’t show“. Some lines sound preachy, while others simply sound like bumper-sticker slogans. Perhaps they require being heard from the perspective of 1971, but that IS 6 years before I was born. What Marvin Gaye is communicating remains relevant today, even if some details of the circumstances have changed; the telling is not engaging. It leaves little more to think or feel beyond “Yes, that’s true. He’s right.”

I learned more about things I want to avoid rather than things I can apply to my own music. I appreciate the grooving basslines, but they are repeated too many times. My biggest problem with this album is the sameness. So, I learned that variety is a good thing. I also learned that I really do prefer some story-telling over platitudes. Oh well, I don’t have to like every great album.