The Strokes’ “Is This It”

Album cover for The Strokes' "Is This It"

This week, I’ve been listening to The Strokes’ debut album “Is This It” from 2001. I kind of remember when this came out and I didn’t think much of it. In retrospect, I don’t know why I had no interest in The Strokes. Somewhere I must’ve picked up the wrong impression of them and wrote them off without actually hearing them. They are totally a type of band that I love and would’ve really been into in 2001 as well.

The very first day of my listening week, I pretty much fell in love immediately. Here’s a group of people the same age as me, their formative years took place during the grunge and britpop eras of the 90s. While certainly influenced by those styles, it’s clear that they particularly appreciate vintage New York City rock n roll. That’s stuff like The Velvet Underground, Television, and Patti Smith. The Strokes manage to be inspired by these greats while still producing their own sincere rock n roll without pastiche. Lead singer and principal songwriter Julian Casablancas told producer Gordon Raphael that he wanted his voice to sound “like your favorite blue jeans.” To me, this indicates that the Strokes romanticized the cool spirit 70s American rock rather than simply seeking to emulate their heroes. That makes all the difference.

The Modern Age

The second track “The Modern Age” opens with floor toms played on the downbeat and slightly-overdriven guitar giving quick syncopated chord strums on the up-beat. These are joined by bass that thrums on the tonic, and another guitar steadily beating out chords. This over-driven constant rhythmic accompaniment sounds somewhat like a dirtier Velvet Underground. The vocalist then sings the opening lines, up against the mic and in our face without reverb and dirtied up by a cheap amplifier and speaker.

While we can hear some natural room, the instruments on this album are notably dry. There’s not much, if any, additional reverb added. They’ve also mixed the drums in a more traditional rock way; that is the way drums were mixed before disco encouraged produces to bring the percussion to the front. Part of the joy of this album is that it frequently feels more like a great recording of a band rehearsing in the basement than a studio album. The band sound loose and authentic, like a band more concerned with playing than with getting a perfect take.

The lyrics are somewhat flippant nonsense with a quality of rock poetry. There’s a clear feeling and emotion that comes across in the words and delivery, but the specifics are vague even with the disjointed apparent details. The use of rhyme comes and goes where convenient, almost more for the attitude than a devotion to structure. The lines pull from the language of rock n roll and teenage New York sidewalks, not from books of poetry and literature. What’s more important is the emotion and attitude.

Oh, in the sun, sun having fun
It’s in my blood
I just can’t help it
Don’t want you here right now
Let me go, oh let me go

Last Nite

I believe that “Last Nite” was the Strokes’ biggest hit in the United States. It’s certainly the song I already knew before this week. I love it. It’s both knowing and adolescent, which so much great rock n roll can be.Like the above song, the lyrics hint at some mixed emotions, romanticized angst and indecisive confusion. But they also come across so vaguely affected that they can be nonsense that suits the sounds more than communicates anything specific.

The song opens with a single fuzzy electric guitar playing an octave chord at a continuous 1/8 note pattern. OK, so technically, we can’t call it a chord if it’s only two notes, and that’s probably especially true when they are the same note an octave apart. Eh well. The drums and two more electric overdriven guitars join in, the drums are dry and centered, the two guitars are panned hard left and right. The drums play a basic rock pattern, with a kick drum fill at the end of every second measure. The two new guitars play the same pattern, but this time adding a sus4, higher up on the neck. A bass then joins playing the same tonic note, then up to the third, and back to the tonic. This all adds up to a mechanically basic rock n roll sound, somewhere between the Velvet Underground and Stereolab.

When the vocals of the first verse, the two guitar panned to the left begins playing a riff that reminds me of something. It’s somewhat like the Bo Diddley, but I think it may actually be something else. I can’t place it. The guitar on the right, starts playing choppy syncopated chords. These two rhythms interact in a rather angular way with each other; This exciting interplay creates a unique stereo effect and strong movement. The bass provides some melodic movement to the accompaniment.

Julian’s energetically disinterested vocals maintain focus throughout the track. The melodies are pretty simple, but the rhythm and delivery more than provide interest. Again, they too are a little fuzzy, just pushing the equipment to the breaking point without getting into unpleasantness. They have a delightfully dirty gritty sound. With the lyrics, the rhymes are again present, but not in a literary poetic way. More as a casual product of the musical style:

Last night she said
Oh baby I feel so down
Oh it turn me off
When I feel left out
So I, I turned around
Oh maybe I don’t care no more
I know this for sure
I’m walking out that door

U2’s “Joshua Tree”

Album cover for U2's "Joshua Tree"

This week, I’ve been listening to U2’s amazing fifth album “The Joshua Tree” from 1987. My parents bought a copy of this CD soon after it came out. That means I undoubtedly heard and listened to it many times when I was ten years old.

My opinion on some albums have come and gone as I’ve progressed through different stages of my life. I always loved “The Joshua Tree” no matter what my tastes were at the time. It’s a great album for listening. For a musician and songwriter, it provides rich and exciting possibilities for sound within the context of a rock song. They’ve managed to naturally find a brilliantly glowing spot between the genre’s of post-punk, pop, and rock here; I still think of this as their most perfect album.

The Edge’s Use of Delay Effects

A musician, especially a guitarist, would find it impossible to talk about this album without mentioning The Edge’s use of delay. Les Paul’s guitar in “How High the Moon” features one of the earliest uses of delay created using tape. Pink Floyd, especially guitar David Gilmour, made frequent use of delays synched to the tempo of the song. This can be heard on the bass in “One Of These Days” from 1971 or the guitar in “Run Like Hell” from 1979. In most cases, Pink Floyd’s delays were either synched to the 1/8th note or a triplets, that’s 1/3 of a 1/4 note, with several repeats.

There is a great study of The Edge’s use of Delay at amnesta.net. To summarize, The Edge frequently syncs the delay to dotted 1/8 (aka 3/16) or 1/8, and isn’t afraid to have several repeats to create depth of space and rhythmic textures. Without the delay, these are still good guitar riffs, but so much simpler than what we’re hearing on the album. I made great use of 3/16 and 5/16 tempo-synced delays in my electronic music over the past 10 years, directly inspired by The Edge. I love the sound of this album, especially the guitar.

Where the Streets Have No Name

The album opens with atmospheric synth pads fading in, morphing into the sound of an organ playing chords. These tones fold into each other. Then, The Edge’s clean electric guitar with tempo-synched delay creates a fractal-like driving texture. Bass guitar rolls in, filling the bottom layer. Drums begin to beat as the guitar grows in scratchy urgency. The song feels like a stadium, even within the studio. It’s an epic, driving, pulsating sound: full of atmosphere and determination. There’s a sense that this song MUST be performed.

The verses hold on to the tonic chord for several lines, to drop down to a IV, to pull up to vi, to V. From this V, the chorus jumps to a flattened VII, which feels like a modest key change, then to IV, which would be the V if the chorus was in a different key. Then we’re back to the vi. We’re still in the original key. That is the key of D, which coincidentally is the key of Irish bagpipes which play a continual drone. I may making too many assumptions, but U2’s Irish roots may’ve had some subtle influence here.

These first person lyrics describe a desire to escape a vague current situation. There’s a hint of a love falling apart, mixed with disappointment with effects of industrialization. The song makes use of anaphora, which is the repetition of a short phrase at the beginning of each line. When this device is used in speeches, it provides a verbal from of bullet points. It adds an immediate sense of structure to lyrics, giving the listener something to grab unto. In addition to the repetition of “I want to”, three of the four verse stanzas in the song have the titular refrain “Where the streets have no name.” This six word phrase also gets repeated twice at the start of the chorus. Furthermore, each stanza follows an AABB rhyme scheme.

I want to run, I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside
I want to reach out and touch the flame
Where the streets have no name

I want to feel sunlight on my face
I see that dust cloud disappear without a trace
I want to take shelter from the poison rain
Where the streets have no name.

Bullet the Blue Sky

“Bullet the Blue Sky” has long been one of my most favorite songs. The drums and bass guitar drive along repeating a menacing pattern. The bass repeats the same two bar pattern throughout. This forms the bed of the song. Overdriven guitar noises and feedback fill the background with large reverb, providing a sinister atmosphere. Much of these noises seem to be created by shaking the guitar, scratching the strings, spinning a tremolo bar, trembling a slide without actually playing notes, etc. I absolutely love these noises.

The song pretty much stays in the major tonic chord throughout. The last 1/8 note of each measure, drops to the major seventh to provide movement. During the spoken bridge in the middle of the song, the chord drops to the minor tonic. Here, U2 uses the major third instead of the major seventh at the end of each measure. The bass lines stays the same.

In God’s Country

“In God’s Country” sits near the middle of the album. It sounds fantastic and the lyrics and melody are particularly catchy. However, this song took some years to grow on me. Though the song is unique, I don’t think it stands out enough from the rest of the album. By the time we’ve heard the six songs that precede it, it can sound like a less creative version of more of the same.

The song opens with chords played on a jangly light acoustic guitar; I believe this may have a very tight stereo delay, or a stereo chorus (which is really just a modulated delay). This spreads the guitar across the stereo field. An clean electric guitar, again with delay, lightly picks single muted notes. This somewhat suggests a xylophone. When the bass and drums come in, the guitar becomes overdriven and plays high chords echoing across the stereo field with delay. For this song, there are two delays on the main electric guitar: one synched to 1/8 note, the other to a dotted 1/8 note. Throughout the song, The Edge builds picking patterns into this delay that fill the space with rhythmic intensity. At times, this becomes an overwhelming mix of swirling repeating plucks and soaring sonic leads.

The lyrics in this song also make use of repetition. Each verse consists of two stanzas. With the first verse, the first two lines of each stanzas are very similar. The “Desert sky” of the first stanza is like the “Desert rose” of the second. Likewise the second lines of each stanza are “Dream beneath a desert sky” and “Dreamed I saw a desert rose” respectively. This type of repetition is not repeated for the second verse. However, both verses use an AAAa/AAAB rhyme scheme. The third lines of both stanzas in the first verse do make use of internal repetition, with the word “run” in the first stanza and “in” for the second stanza. This is another technique not reused in the second verse.

Desert sky
Dream beneath a desert sky
The rivers run but soon run dry
We need new dreams tonight

Desert rose
Dreamed I saw a desert rose
Dress torn in ribbons and in bows
Like a siren she calls to me

Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light”

Talking Heads Remain in Light album cover.

I’ve been listening to the Talking Heads’ fourth album “Remain in Light” from 1980. I first loved the video for “Once in Lifetime” as child seeing it on Mtv. My love and of the song and video have continued ever since. And also the amazing performance of the song in the concert film “Stop Making Sense.” Somehow I managed to never really hear the rest of this album. I looked forward to this week of getting to know the rest of the album. I heard most of these tracks for the first time, which was exciting.

Unfortunately, I lied when I said it was exciting. With the first listen, I kind of liked this album. After seven days, I didn’t care for it much at all. Overall, I was glad that the week was over. The Talking Heads and crew do some innovative things here, but I fail to find the results interesting enough; there’s a lot of repetition without much variation, making the 4½ – 6 minute songs feel very long.

Born Under Punches

“Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” kicks off the album with two percussion hits followed by Byrne’s exclamation “hah!” Immediately, we’re brought into a very textural layering of rhythms. Like Paul Simon some years later, Brian Eno and the Talking Heads were drawing influence from African rhythms. In contrast to Simon, they seem to be playing with possibilities encountered in African music rather than copying what they heard.

This song is full of layers of hand percussion and drum kits, looped and manipulated. Synth bleeps and bloops provide unique rhythm elements rather than pads and melodies. The bass comes and goes ,bouncing to signal openings of bars with sharp plucks providing off-beat movement.. clean electric guitar blips and chops hyperactively, adding to the fractal-like texture of the music. What’s happening musically is very fascinating, even if it wears thin in the listening.

While I talk below about chord progressions, the Talking Heads don’t overtly play chords in most of these songs. The individual instruments focus more rhythm and melodic riffing; yet they work together to form chords over bars, often strengthened by the bass and pad synths.

Listening Wind

Towards the end of the album “Listening Wind” provides a bit of a break from the frantic skittering rhythms of the album. As far as the chord progression, the song follows a basic i-VII. This fragile progression feels less like a chord progression and more like it sinks down to the VII and returns to the minor tonic. With the slow pace and rhythmic delay, the sound is of a slow and determined approach. This movement and emotion suits the lyrics about an African terrorist responding to Western imperialism.

Mojique sees his village from a nearby hill
Mojique thinks of days before Americans came
He sees the foreigners in growing numbers
He sees the foreigners in fancy houses
He thinks of days that he can still remember…now.
Mojique holds a package in his quivering hands
Mojique sends the package to the American man
Softly he glides along the streets and alleys
Up comes the wind that makes them run for cover
He feels the time is surely now or never…more.

The overall sound and use of synths in this song reminds me a lot of David Bowie’s album “Outside” from fifteen years later. Of cours, i love those marimba sounds, which are undoubtedly synthesizer here. Coincidentally, Brian Eno worked on that album as well. I like the undulating delay with echos of the filtered squelches and plucks drifting into the dreamy distance. The song creates a cloudy haze, as the main character responds to the listening wind, from without and within.

Once in a Lifetime

I’m not surprised that they chose “Once in a Lifetime” to promote as the single. With this track, they created the most approachable and enjoyable song. They made use of much of the same experimental techniques and rhythms, but within a more traditional song structure. There distinctive verses and choruses, with a bridge.

The verses follow an unusual chord progression of V-iii-V-iii. The bass emphasizes the change from one chord to the next, with two quick beats in on the first chord and then one on the new chord. The chorus then repeats V-I-iii-IV. This chord progression tricks us, because it never truly resolves; yet, it provides an undeniable forward movement.

Many of the lyrics on this album seem impenetrable nonsense. However, I suspect they are much like the lyrics here. Given enough time, we can fill them with meaning. For me, this song speaks of how time can progress on us when we’re not paying attention. By playing the game idly with obedient sleepwalking, we will wake one day not recognizing the life we’ve made for ourselves.

And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

Television’s “Marquee Moon”

This week, I’ve been discovering Television’s debut LP “Marquee Moon” from 1977. Somehow, this band has managed to escape my notice until now. It’s a shame it took this weekly project for me to learn about them. This album immediately became one of my favorites. Television played post-punk when punk rock was in its infancy.

Proto-punk generally favors shorter straight-forward songs with little-to-know instrumental sections; Television goes off into more complicated song structures that display some influence from The Who. A few moments would vaguely remind me of The Who’s 1973 album “Quadraphenia” which is also one of my favorites.

The album opens with “See No Evil” introducing the sound of the album. We have drums and electric bass guitar in the center. There are three guitar: one purely rhythm guitar in the left channel, a rhythm-lead in the right channel, and the solo lead in the center. The clean rhythm-lead guitar runs through a series of melodic picked riffs. I especially like the arpeggios in the chorus that continue even as the other instruments rhythmically pause. of New York City rock-n-roll lead vocals of Tom Verlaine grab the listeners attention much like those of New York contemporary Patti Smith. Television has a similar sound as Patti’s band on “Horses” and I love that raw dirty-clean guitar sound.

I love all of the songs on this album, which made it difficult to only choose a few to discuss. I’m skipping over the epic title track “Marquee Moon” mostly because it’d be so much to tackle. It’s the song that first made me think of “Quadraphenia” with the end of the song reminding me a lot of “Reign O’er Me.”

Guiding Light” really caught my attention. It stands out as being one of the slower songs, almost leaning towards a spiritual sound. The song starts with clean guitar arpeggios repeating a I-IV chord pattern. This is joined by bass and a piano beautifully accompanied by the echo of the room. The unusually long prechorus has two parts, the first in V-I chord progression and the second part II-IV. The chorus is a standard I-V progression, with the final I getting extra emphasis as a strong cadence. One thing I love about this song is the use of the natural room ambience and space between the instruments and notes. It’s a very natural sound.

The lyrics feature a nice mixture of poetic and straight-forward rock n roll. For example, I especially like the last two lines of the first verse of “Guiding Light”: “I hear the whispers I hear the shouts And though they never cry for help”. What does it mean? I’m not sure I could say. It’s not even really a complete sentence, but it feels. I saw the lyrics described as “impressionistic” and I’d say that’s correct, though I may be putting my own interpretation on what that person meant. You more feel the meaning of the lyrics than you could possibly getting out of them directly.

I fell in love with every song on this album. This one will get frequent listens from now on. I’m only disappointed it took me so long to actually hear it.