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.

Hollywood Hills (2017)

I wrote the song “Hollywood Hills” after after watching a Big Star documentary, in the summer of 2015. “Hollywood Hills” combines the feeling of the life of Chris Bell as told by that documentary with various scenes from my own life in the late 90s. I pretty much had the whole thing down within a few minutes. The main story centers around an ambiguous “they”, which I hope comes across as a couple. Initially it was all first person, but it felt too much like I was telling somebody else’s story.

I knew from the start how this how song would sound. For a short period in 2016, I was in a band to whom I presented this song. It went through some drastic changes that I never felt comfortable with and I brought it back to this original vision after the band ended.

Of all of my songs as Trip Gunn, this is the most guitar-oriented. The song reminds me of stuff I was doing around 2000. The track features six acoustic guitars and four electric guitars. These layers of guitar presented some new challenges to me in the mixing process, but I hope that everything worked out in the end. It was certainly fun to create.

Hollywood Hills

They can’t take the trip to the Hollywood Hills
Those celluloid sights fill broken dreams
Like ice hangs from the tailpipes of cars
In the lost memories of a winter

With hands frozen drying eyes on shirt sleeves
The sky high grey and sighing
Through the outline of leaves forever falling
It never ends but the hope is always there

I’m pulling away my cart
Covered in parts of coffins
Through remains of destruction
Places we’ll find your heart
Under the wheels of construction
Your Hollywood Hills

Mixing headaches with heartaches in the morning
They take walks down forgotten paths
And return home with a box of regrets
It’s a dance to hide it under their floorboards

Write a letter home
But you don’t know what to say
Just talk about the new sidewalk
And your broken telephone
And the grey sky raining down on
Your Hollywood Hills

Did you ever do that dance?
Did you ever do that dance?
Did you ever do that dance?
Did you ever do that dance?

Abandoned Cars

This song’s music originated with the band I was in a couple of years ago. I played the bassline on my keyboard and the drummer Bowman Kelley and guitarist Ryan Connor starting jamming over top of it. It was pretty rocking. I sang ad-lib lines about a runaway; I went home and wrote full lyrics based on a couple of lines from a song I’d written a year previous. This driving little number makes me proud and I hope you like it too.

Lyrics

Sleeping in abandoned cars
Count my change, count the stars
Horizon’s fading out, nobody there at all
In abandoned cars

She said we’re going to fall
Took the keys from the table
Ran out the front door in the afternoon
In abandoned cars

I ran a thousand miles
With the photos of our smiles
Paper corners torn, sun faded memories
In the passenger seat

What I saw, what she saw
All the things nobody saw
Sorry I fell down, sorry I fell apart
In abandoned cars

Through the wire of the telephone
I heard her heart was breaking
A plastic metronome thrown down the stairs
We’re abandoned cars.

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The Velvet Underground’s “The Velvet Underground & Nico”

The Velvet Underground and Nico album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album “The Velvet Underground & Nico.” I first sought out the Velvet Underground when I was about 15, because they were managed by Andy Warhol who used them for his multimedia The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. I had seen the documentary “Superstar” about Warhol on PBS, which immediately inspired my creativity and perspective on life. The compilation “The Best of The Velvet Underground: Words and Music of Lou Reed” quickly became one of my most listened to cassettes. The far-out sound opened me up to possibilities I hadn’t even thought of at the time.

The beautiful chaos of the song “Heroin” blew my mind; I remember many times I would listen to the song loudly in headphones to become immersed in the driving rhythm and landscape of feedback. I love that the rhythm guitar and vocals keep going, hanging on to the train while the everything else flies off the tracks in a wild cacophony. This song really introduced me to the idea that a song can sonicly create an atmosphere that embodies what the lyrics describe. The sound is increasingly overwhelming and maddening, the chaos overpowers the structure. And yet, the opening of the song gives no impression of where it is headed. This is the 7th track, which originally opened side B. It may not be the most digestible song, but I think it is the most successful combination of elements that make this album unique. It has Lou Reed’s vocal and lyrics, basic rock structure, with electric violin, and crazy noise with experimentalism. And the last line of the song “And I guess, but I just don’t know” really speaks volumes, not just within the context of the song but also of the scene and time.

The album proper actually opens with “Sunday Morning”, which is possibly the most accessible song. It features viola and celesta, all played in a rather restrained manner. There’s also viola providing a lush bed for the other instruments to play in. It’s pretty and cool. The lyrics relay a sense of paranoia, but with the setting of an otherwise laid back Sunday morning.

In contrast, the next song “I’m Waiting For the Man” has probably the most “Velvet Underground” sound. Lou’s vocal delivery is stylistically cool, like a rock n roll beatnik. The rhythm section of drums, bass and piano play a constant repetitive rhythmic pattern. It’s incessant like a machine running in the background., but mixed low behind the forward vocals and lead guitar.

There’s other moments in the album that truly stand out. The feedbacked start of the guitar solo in “Run Run Run” is brilliant; unfortunately, it devolves into Dick Dale style picking seemingly leaving too much up to chance without enough happy accidents. And that’s what I feel is this album’s greatest source of weakness. Too often it feels like they just went at it, hoping it’ll turn out OK and it doesn’t. I love that attitude, which suits both the punk (before punk) rock and Warhol image, and when it works it really works. Still, I wish it didn’t create so many annoying bits. The song “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is wonderful except for much of the guitar parts, which are what I would expect to hear from a guitarist trying out different ideas before they hit ‘record’.

In addition to the daring qualities of the music, Lou Reed’s lyrics are what make the album. He has a beat knack for the poetic, weaving story-telling elements through each song. Often, these are just vignettes or scenes of a larger story;  In some cases a collection of short vignettes to make up a larger story. He frequently tells stories through the voices of its characters, with “she said”‘s peppered throughout.  The singer’s experience of listening frames the story. Lou Reed was guilty of lines obviously written for the rhyme, which particularly stands out because his lyrics are so strong otherwise. Lou is also a prime example of a great vocalist whose not a strong singer; and rock n roll is the perfect medium for that talent.

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.

The Deadliest Summer (2017)

Album Cover for The Deadliest Summer single

I present a new single release of Trip Gunn music: “The Deadliest Summer” with b-side “Dial Tone”, with a cover featuring artwork by 19th century French painter Eugène Boudin. It wasn’t intentional, but perhaps the September equinox is an appropriate time to share “The Deadliest Summer”.

I wrote this song as “Orange Velvet Crush” in the fall of 2015. The final version differs little from that first draft. Most revisions to lyrics were just a matter of word-choice and rhythm, but the first two lines of the chorus were completely replaced. Originally they were “Times passes slowly, but it goes so fast; I held on to the trees and celebrities.” I disliked them when I wrote them, but I believe it’s better to write anything now and revise later than to wait for good stuff. The inspiration for the new lines came from a line of Henry Darger‘s book Crazy House; The book begins as a reality-based autobiography, but with the line “Oh yeah, there’s one thing I forgot to mention…”, Darger goes from reality to tales in his fantasy world instead. I appreciate that within the context of Henry Darger, but it also fit beautifully with the subject of this song.

This is one of only three songs that I worked on with a band in 2016. We only had a few practice sessions before dealing with typical but annoying difficulties, including practice space issues and scheduling conflicts. At any rate, we played around with the chorus chord progression a bit, but I ended up going with the way I had written it. Either I didn’t heed good advice or it worked out in the end. Still, I finally got to use my Danelectro guitar on this one.

Lyrics

When you walk through the October moonlight
With the smell of streetlights reflected in the rain
Drinking grape soda from glass bottle stars
Where autumn leaves danced between cars

The clouds harbor August memories dark
Windows reflecting legends in dusty panes
Where every portrait is felt by your green
Hoodie and orange velvet crush dreams

It’s the longest winter, the deadliest summer
There’s something I forgot to mention
Ghosts and mirrors, smoke and fog
Too many to count and I forgot them all

When I walk through the November twilight
And the dusty streets of nostalgia
Drinking gun-powder tea from looking glass
Revery’s loose leaves dance past.

It’s the longest winter, the deadliest summer
There’s something I forgot to mention
Ghosts and mirrors, smoke and fog
Too many to count and I forgot them all

It’s time to deny it all
The heart that sighs in December
It’s time to deny it all
The heart that dies in the summer
The deadliest summer.

Dial Tone

For a b-side, I chose the song “Dial Tone”. While “The Deadliest Summer” is revisiting a time associated with a space, “Dial Tone” is caught in a specific time and place. I started with the chorus and took some time to get the verses. Then inspiration came from the line “in my bedroom in those ugly new houses” in The Smith’s song “Paint A Vulgar Picture“; Viewing the chorus through that line, I saw the whole scene. I spent time as a teenager at a brick house on second street in Athens OH. The song has nothing to do with my friends that lived there, but that house serves beautifully as the setting. Regardless, the song is certainly about a very teenage experience.

I knew from the start how the melody for the chorus, but not the rest. So, I chose the key and based some of the chord progression on the dial tone for landline phones. Two sine waves combine to create the tone, one at middle-A and the other is very close to an F below the A. I avoided too obvious a use of a dial tone sound, but played with hints of it throughout.

Lyrics

In a tired brick house on second street
Sitting on a bed corner dying
I held on the telephone a lifetime
And crumpled slowly burning

Listen to the dial tone
Wonder if you’re even home
Would you even answer the phone
I’ll never ever know

Could we shine like the darkest night
Cradles stars in its belly?
Would we fill a shoebox capsule
A heartache waiting to be unburied?

Listen to the dial tone
Wonder if you’re even home
Would you even answer the phone
I’ll never ever know

Tremble so silently
Scribble a diary faintly
In the vacuum of the afternoon
Quietly waiting

A mediocre ineffectual fool
A mediocre ineffectual fool

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