The Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street”

Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street" album cover

Each week, I listen to a great album for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. This week’s album has been The Rolling Stones’ 1972 double-LP album “Exile on Main Street”. I already love this album and I have definitely enjoyed a full week of giving it a close listen. I actually only started listening to the Stones about 15 years ago. They were one of the favorite bands of my girlfriend’s father, which prompted me to give them a real listen. Some years passed before I heard “Exile on Main Street”, but it grew on me very quickly.

The blood of Rock ‘n’ roll runs through the heart of this album. Chuck Berry gets cited often by Keith Richards as one of his primary influences. Berry’s songs like “Little Queenie” impressed him by how loose the skillfully played music was. That quality is very present throughout “Exile on Main Street”. Everybody is playing this finely crafted songs together where everything sounds right, rolling with loose execution. The performance swings with a human spirit that sounds so natural and skillful. The lesson here really is to know your instrument, know your parts, and play it with soul.

The rocker “Rocks Off” opens the album with a lone guitar riff, joined by drums, and another guitar, bass and restrained slurred vocals. A few more bars, and piano joins with the vocals picking up in energy. I love the glissando fanfare on the horns in the chorus that act as an extension of the vocals. Like several songs on “Exile”, “Rocks Off” musically starts off as a basic rocker and grows into a party. As mentioned earlier, the song is loose.. but it seems like everybody is playing to catch up with everybody else, as if the energy of the song itself just might outrun the band.

The kick drum often hits on the beat, as well as a eight-note before the beat. This type of kick drum pattern lends bossa-nova rhythms their shuffle, and has the same effect here. Several parts of the song build up intensity and tension; Individual parts seem they are about to lose relationship with each other. This tension is released by the introduction of a section with all parts coming back together, often with backing and lead vocals joining together. This technique is used on several of the songs to great effect.

Something similar happens in my favorite track, “Let It Loose“. The song hints at a chorus through verses and bridge, but it isn’t until 3:53 mark that the backing vocals begin to sing the “Let it loose” chorus. Even then, the lead singer Mick continues to sing for 20 seconds before joining in the chorus himself and the song ends shortly after. This is one of the reasons I love the song. Up until the one and only chorus, the structure of the song feels tenuous. It begins to dissipate a few times, but the lead vocals bring it back on track. Even then, the loosely sung vocals are like a rambling gospel blues seeking structure. There are at times whispered and slurred and other times a soulful raspy holler. I also love the watery picked guitar line, an effect achieved either with tremolo or a rotating speaker. The chord progression is essentially a I-IV-V, one of the most common chord progressions in rock music. According to online sources, it’s I-I7-IV-I7-V-V7.. with some ii in there.

For me, “Shine a Light” shares musical ideas with “Let It Loose”, but with a more common song structure of Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus-Outro. A brilliant breakdown separates the bridge and the final chorus, which provides rest while allowing that final chorus to come back with more energy. Both songs have great lyrics with visual imagery painting a surreal emotional picture.

“I Just Want to See His Face” features the band recorded as if they are playing down the hall and we happen to be in the house. It’s not a particularly engaging song on its own, so I’m assuming this treatment allows the song to act as a transition between tracks. Whatever the reason, it does cause it to stand out oddly in a quiet way. An interesting choice for the middle of a great rock ‘n’ roll album that otherwise puts the listener in the room with the band rocking out.

Nirvana’s “Nevermind”

 

This week, I’ve been listening to Nirvana’s 1991 album “Nevermind” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician. This album hit record stores and the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” started getting played on MTV when I was 14 years old. An adult gave me this album a few months after its release, because they decided they didn’t actually like it. When people call Kurt Cobain the “voice of a generation“, they’re talking about my generation. It’s a label that neither of us cared for. This album is credited with performing various miracles for the world of rock. All of this “blah blah blah” makes it difficult to appreciate the songs. So, I’ve tried this week to forget the myriad of words said about this album over the past 26 years and just listen.

Power barre chords cover this album from start to finish. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” starts the album with a strong example. The opening riff has become one of the most recognizable guitar riffs, which is amusing considering even Kurt Cobain commented on its similarity to the chorus of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” and The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie. That it’s already such a classic rock guitar riff is why it works so well. The song grabs you immediately and you know it’s going to rock.

These are guitar-centric songs written on guitar to be played on guitar. Most tracks are built around a single riff. The bass often bounces under the guitar, even in a head-bobbing early 1960s rock sort of way. While Nirvana was drawing on their alternative rock influences like Sonic Youth and the Pixies, they were also returning to early rock music. People say so much about Nirvana’s use of quieter parts for verses and louder parts for choruses. This is perhaps why the songs can be so repetitive without boring me like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” did. Even though it wasn’t a new concept, the influence was soon seen. Next year’s ep “Broken” by Nine Inch Nails blew me away by pushing this quiet-loud contrast to more obvious extremes.

Rhythmically, the guitar often gives space for the snare drum. This great technique shows up frequently in rock music. Basically, the snare drum will hit on the 2nd and 4th beat of the measure and the guitar riffs will have a brief rest to allow the snare to punch through, like in “In Bloom“. You can often hum the guitar riff and the click your tongue for the snare. For the most part, the use of rhythm is this album is straight-forward. An interesting variation though is in the chorus of my favorite track, “Lithium“, the rhythm accents the 1st beat and then an eight-note after the 3rd and 4th beat.

Kurt was an amazing vocalist. His voice at times cuts through as a raspy howl and at others coarse but mellow singing. It was an influence on me early on, even though I doubt I would’ve admitted it. I was particularly floored by his singing for their 1994 performance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” for MTV’s Unplugged.

The lyrics are raw visceral documents of anger, confusion and disillusionment. They don’t tell stories or even have a meaning in a traditional sense. I can imagine him writing individual phrases and then combining them to form songs. One line will express some raw emotion and then the next line will balance that with a degree of sarcasm. The lyrics express, without romanticism, the difficulties of being an outsider teen in a way that many people experience in an isolated way. It’s no wonder this album took hold and remains important. It’s perfectly adolescent in a way that is summed up in the line “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.”

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.

The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”

The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds album cover

I spent the past week with The Beach Boys’ 1966 album “Pet Sounds”. I first listened to it about 20 years ago and fell in love instantly. Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys accomplished things singularly special with this album. It’s difficult to listen to the Beach Boys music critically or analytically, because it so easy to enjoy. Whereas The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” had simple elements put together in complex ways, “Pet Sounds” has layers of complexity that suggest simplicity. Tremendous and inventive songwriting runs throughout the whole album. A closer listen rewards, even though it may be humbling. The songs highlight the singer’s great abilities. The use of voices on this album is something I can only admire from afar. What else can I, as a songwriter, learn from this album?

It’s worth trying instruments in unusual ways. Throughout “Pet Sounds” there are great examples of instruments performing a different function than usual. In my favorite song, “I’m Waiting for the Day”, the organ often provides the rhythmic beat when there’s no percussion. There’s actually large portions of this album with little to no percussion, especially of the typical drum kit variety. In the song “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”, temple blocks provide a more melodic accompaniment than rhythmic; the plucky bass guitar fulfills that role.

I often either use bass to provide either a driving foundation for a song or to provide a a melodic counterpoint; the bass on several songs on “Pet Sounds” also provides rhythm in the absence of a kick drum. This is something I could easily put to try out. I’m taking the long sections with minimal percussion as a challenge to get away from constant pop percussion.

“Pet Sounds” reminds me of the importance of a good opening. The first 9 seconds of the album are joyfully engaging. A 12-string guitar plays a dreamy music-box like arpeggio, a single drum hit grabs out attention, and then immediately there are vocals with a jaunty accompaniment. Two accordions are played so much like rhythm guitar that I actually thought that’s what they were. The song progresses through several different sections, musically quite different from each other, that work perfect together. Mindboggling; A lesson in how different each section of a song can be, if there’s a sense of natural progression.

There’s so much I could say about this album, but I’ll stop myself here. It defies any attempt I can make at pointing out stand-out tracks, because they’re nearly all incredible. It’s true that I frequently skip the slower hymn “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)”. I could point out that my favorites are “I’m Waiting for the Day”, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”, and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, but that’s not fair to equally brilliant songs like “Caroline, No” and “God Only Knows”. I believe that this may be the greatest album of all time.

The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover

This week I’ve listened to the 1967 album by The Beatles, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band“. I’ve noticed how simple many of the instruments’ individual parts are. A lead guitar will appear, play a few notes, and then disappear for a few bars; While underneath there may be this constant bed of chords played rhythmically on the piano, almost as if some krautrock or Velvet Underground is being played on a radio in the other room. I was reminded frequently by this album of the importance of letting an instrument rest. Also, of how the bass line can be provide interest. In contrast to most rock music, the bass guitar frequently provides melodic counterpoint. Even though much of the individual parts are simple, the accompaniment is made interesting by the way they are layered. They’ve pieced together something fairly complex from mostly simple elements. Ultimately, it became apparent to me the real focus of these songs, musically. The melodies drive every songs. Most of the rest serves to support the vocals.

“Within You Without You” is the only track I do not like. I appreciate what Harrison was doing, but it bores me quickly. Musically, the song sounds nice yet goes nowhere. Lyrically, the song sounds like a hippie neophyte getting excited about Hinduism and I just don’t think it holds up well. I skip the song every time and it improves the album on a whole. It’s not really a Beatles song and it doesn’t fit with the rest of the album; which is definitely something since there’s so much variety on the album otherwise.

A Day in the Life” is absolutely my favorite track. Some very simple instrumentation opens the song with a single acoustic guitar. Piano and bass soon join in. All of these are gently played, especially coming out of the noise and applause from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”. Congas, shaker, and then the drum kit soon join. On top of this accompaniment, John sings beautifully at a relaxed pace. Each line of the lyrics are observational, but end with a sense of questions unanswered that makes the following line welcome. A vague thread of narrative holds these lines together, like old news footage re-filmed through the lens of Godard.

Then the song transitions into McCartney’s section. I’ve always though the transition was too long and dramatic, but the jaunty mid-section makes it worth it. Lyrically, the play between the two sections is interesting. Lennon’s lines are observational of vague events in the outside world with a sense of distant helpless; McCartney’s are very personal events on a smaller scale with a sense of immediate urgency. And that contrast leads to further unanswered questions. The lyrics are descriptive while leaving room for the listener to drop in and find their own interpretations. This is completely a great song and provides much to learn for songwriters.

Some call this the greatest album of all time. I can understand recognizing the importance of the album’s influence, but I wouldn’t go that call it the greatest. I wouldn’t even say it’s the Beatles’ best album, it’s certainly not my favorite. That honor would probably go to “Abbey Road”. There are some great songs on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, though. In addition to “A Day in the Life”, I also love “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “Fixing a Hole”, “When I’m 64”, and “Lovely Rita”. Good stuff.