Aretha Franklin’s “Lady Soul”

Cover for Aretha Franklin's album Lady Soul

This week, I’ve been listening to Aretha Franklin’s album “Lady Soul” from 1968. This marked her twelfth album released in seven years since her first in 1961. Just over a week ago, I spent a week with her tenth album, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” from 1967. Both are fantastic. The songs of Aretha Franklin often played in our house when I was growing up. My mom had a copy of the “30 Greatest Hits” compilation on CD. She and my sister listened to it a lot. “Natural Woman” and “Respect” especially got a lot of play. Though her music filled my childhood, it took several years before I actually developed my own appreciation. Franklin’s singing amazes every time I hear her. She knows how to fill the songs with such emotion and power. A lot of singers attempt the same and often just sound like they are yelling. Aretha Franklin sings!

Chain of Fools

The album opens with “Chain of Fools,” written by Don Covay. The speaker of the song is in a relationship with a philanderer. She discovers that he has other lovers and that she is just one of many “fools.” And yet, she is determined to stick it out as long as she can handle. They use the metaphor of a chain consisting of links to represent the collection of lovers. This metaphor is used throughout the song, maintaining consistency.

There are three verses, the first two are eight lines, the third consists of four. Each set of four lines follows a ABCB rhyme scheme. With the exception of “fool/cruel” and “break/take” the rhymes are not strict. We have “man/chain”, “link/strength”, and “home/strong.”

For five long years
I thought you were my man
But I found out, love
I’m just a link in your chain
You got me where you want me
I ain’t nothing but your fool
You treated me mean
You treated me cruel

There is no real chord progression to the song, though there is plenty of groove and movement. The song provides soulful rock riffs over the same chord all the way through. The guitar mostly plays arpeggios, with a little melodic riffing, of the same minor chord. Joe South’s lead guitar plays some gritty low notes through a clean amplifier, again it’s simple but effective. The bass guitar rolls along, mostly repeating the same two bar pattern, one bar answering the other.

A Natural Woman

The soulful “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman” closed side A of the record. Carole King wrote this song with her then husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin. I heard this song so much as a child that it feels like the first verse and chorus are just woven into me. It reminds me of the front door and windows being open throughout the house in the early spring. The lead and backing vocals joining and dancing around each other.

Spooner Oldham’s perfectly understated piano starts the song with a simple set of chords, like the piano in a small church. The verses follow a chord progression of I-V-VII♭-IV. Then Aretha begins “Looking out on the morning rain,” joined by the bass guitar. Gradually, the strings and drums also begin to play. A gentle, cautious, pre-chorus follows ii7-iii7, a progression that feels like it’s waiting for strength. Then the strings and backing vocals rise up in the chorus with religious joy, “You make me feel.. you make me feel.. You make me feel like a natural woman!”

Looking out on the morning rain
I used to feel so uninspired
And when I knew I had to face another day
Lord, it made me feel so tired
Before the day I met you
Life was so unkind
But you’re the key to
My peace of mind
‘Cause you make me feel
You make me feel
You make me feel like
A natural woman

Adele’s “21”

Cover for Adele's album 21

This week, I’ve been listening to Adele’s second album “21” from 2011. I first became aware of Adele with the song “Chasing Pavements” from her debut album. She reminded my wife and I of singers like Duffy and Amy Winehouse who were doing a revival of jazzy-blues soul in pop music during the aughts. I thought Adele was a fantastic singer, but the songs didn’t grab me quite as much as those of Duffy and Winehouse. I heard “21” a lot in the house after it came out, but I never really spent time listening to it on my own until now. Though they’re still not really to my tastes, these are good solid songs worth the time.

Rumour Has It

The second track “Rumor Has It” provides a good example of story-telling in song. The narrator is speaking to a man with whom she shares feelings. He’s already with a young woman, but is secretly seeing the narrator on the side. It seems that he has been talking too much, because rumors are getting around. And now the singer hears that he is planning on leaving his lover for the narrator. Ah, but with the last line, she sticks the knife in: “But rumor has it, he’s the one I’m leaving you for.”

The lyrics tell none of this through straight narrative; It is revealed through what is likely a soliloquy. The songs consists of two verses, a prechorus, and a bridge. The bridge provides foreshadowing for the twist at the end, “Just because I said it, don’t mean that I meant it; Just because you heard it…” The verses following an AABBCD rhyme scheme, using slant rhymes: “real” with”will” and “age” with “strayed.” The chorus is pure hook, consisting of the repeated phrase, “rumor has it, rumor has it.”

The music mixes big-band swing drums with pop soul. The instrumentation is actually pretty simple. The vocals drive the song while being supported by the drums. Bass, piano, strings, and electric guitar provide further accompaniment, but these sit back in the mix. It’s the backing “oooo” and “rumor has it” backing vocals that are brought more forward.

Set Fire to the Rain

A lone piano opens “Set Fire to the Rain” with an arpeggio. After four bars, the vocals and a simple tom-drum pattern enter. After eight more bars, a bass guitar joins filling in the bottom end. There are then eight more bars to the first verse before the pre-chorus begins. With the pre-chorus, the strings begin to come in quietly in the background, the vocals drop down a little in energy. There’s a brief rest and then the chorus starts. The chorus brings the strings in full with the vocals rising up in energy and pitch. It’s a very aughts way to do a chorus, for a while it was almost part of the definition. For a while, I made a point of writing choruses that did the opposite, but even then I realized that even the opposite is a variation of the same.

Someone Like You

Adele closes the album with one of the best tracks, “Someone Like You.” The instrumentation is beautifully and emotionally simple, just piano and lead vocals. The bridge presents the only exception, with Adele singing her own backing vocals. The piano plays a spinning arpeggio that follows the same melodic pattern through most of the track. The vocals really indicate the difference between verse and chorus.

The refrain before each chorus is well-written heart-breaking and catchy set of lyrics. The great line “I hate to turn up out of the blue uninvited” sticks with you. The sparse instrumentation and the slight drop down in energy into the refrain emphasizes the emotion, there’s a touch of shame in the sadness. It’s absolutely that feeling one has after a break-up before fully letting go. That bit of a thread remains, even when the relationship is gone. If only they knew…

I hate to turn up out of the blue uninvited
But I couldn’t stay away, I couldn’t fight it
I had hoped you’d see my face
And that you’d be reminded that for me, it isn’t over

Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors”

Album cover for Coat Of Many Colors

I’ve been listening to Dolly Parton’s album “Coat of Many Colors” from 1971, this week. This was her eighth solo album, just four years after her debut album. During that time, she also recorded six albums with Porter Wagoner. That’s amazing, especially considering her work also on The Porter Wagoner Show tv series. The audience of that show apparently didn’t like Parton at first, since she replaced a former star on the show. Parton is an amazing singer, songwriter and guitarist. Her personality is undeniable and impossible to not love. She went on to become one of the most famous, prolific, and influential country artists of all time.

I don’t recall ever hearing any of the songs this album before. Of course, I know some of her later hits like “Jolene” and “9 to 5.” That last recorded for the great movie starring Jane Fonda, Lilly Tomlin, and Dolly Parton. I’ve been looking forward to this week and it was worth it. With the single exception of the Wagoner penned “The Mystery of the Mystery,” this album holds a tremendous collection of songs. The second track song humorous “Travellin’ Man” is a joy to listen to and I almost chose it as one of my featured three. However, instead I’ll talk about “Coat of Many Colors,” “Early Morning Breeze,” and “Here I Am.”

Coat of Many Colors

In the title track “Coat of Many Colors,” Parton tells a true story from her childhood. Born in a one-room cabin on a farm in Appalachian mountains of eastern Tennessee, Parton grew up with little money and many siblings. In Parton’s words, they were “dirt poor.” This song shares how her mother made her a coat from “a box of rags someone gave us.” In 2015, the story was shown as a tv movie with the same name.

The song opens with a great acoustic guitar-picked rising arpeggio. Parton’s voice, electric bass guitar, and a hi-hat join in for a short intro verse and then the first verse. An organ join for the second verse, padding with extended chords. Backing vocals then contribute to the chorus.

The chord progression is a folk-country I-I-I-V-I-IV-I-V-I. Though the verses do not end with a repeated refrain, musically the verses have a ballad-like quality. The last line of the lyrics provides the only rhyme of the verses, which is worth two lines previous (love/of, happiness/kiss). The chorus rises up with a IV-I-IV-I-V-I-IV-I-V-I. After the first chorus, the chord drops down to the major VI, which serves as a pivot for key change, that’s major VI becomes the major V of the new key.

The rising key change goes with the hope Parton felt as a child of proudly wearing her new colorful patchwork coat to school. However, when she gets there, the other kids laugh at her. Even when she tells them about how her momma lovingly made the coat, they just roll their eyes and make fun of her.

But they didn’t understand it
And I tried to make them see
That one is only poor
Only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me
Made just for me

Early Morning Breeze

The second song on the second side, “Early Morning Breeze” caught my attention immediately. This idyllic description of morning in a beautiful country meadow takes the listener to where the speaker goes walking and to pray. Musically, it leans more towards psychedelic folk than country. There’s a taste of Irish folk music mixed with hippie blues. At the end of the chorus, I almost expected a Led Zeppelin style break-down to happen.

An electric bass opens the track with sparse drums, to be joined by vocals. Then a picking and strumming on an acoustic guitar. For but a bar, the drums and bass pick up for the chorus, but that’s it. There’s a lot of space between instruments, making the song sound light and airy, much like that early morning scene.

Rainbow colored flowers kissed with early morning sun
The aster and the dahlia and wild geraniums
Drops of morning dew still lingers on the iris leaves
In the meadow where I’m walking
In the early morning breeze

Here I Am

With “Here I Am,” the album provided another surprise to me as Parton took a very soulful turn. Considering this was a country album from 1971, that started off with a very traditional country feel, I did not expect the variety on side two. This song would not be out of place on a record by Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, or Dusty Springfield. “Here I Am” is some gospel soul offering love and hope. The spirit-filled backing vocals emphasize the message. Dry punchy tight drums keep the song rocking, doubling up on the kick drum at times with a march feel. A clean electric guitar and clean electric bass playfully interact with each other, building musical phrases between verses that are truly amazing.

I love that guitar riff that happens during the post-chorus leading into the verses. It’s a simple blues-rock melodic clean dry guitar, instantly enjoyable and totally memorable. The bass guitar completes the phrase, in a modest but wholly necessary way. It’s a counterpoint that enriches that guitar, by bouncing up and down between the lead-melodic parts.

Here I am, reaching out to give you love that you’re without
I can help you find what you’ve been searching for
Oh here I am, come to me, take my hand because I believe
I can give you all the love you need and more
Oh here I am, oh here I am, here I am

James Brown and the Famous Flames’ “Live at the Apollo”

Album cover for Live At The Apollo

I’ve been listening to James Brown’s live album “Live at the Apollo” from 1963, this week. The record captures an amazing performance of James Brown and the Famous Flames at the Apollo in Harlem the previous year. It’s a great collection of R&B, Soul, and the beginnings of Funk The Famous Flames provide the backing vocals. The band consisted of a drummer, a bassist, a guitarist, an organist, and seven horns. Among those horns, we can hear saxophonist St. Clair Pinckney, who played with Brown until 1999 and had a couple of solo albums in the 80s.

The album opens with an aggrandizing track with organist Lucas “Fats” Gonder introducing James Brown, “So now ladies and gentlemen, it is star time… the hardest working man in show business.” Then Brown performs shuffling rhythm and blues track “I’ll Go Crazy” with a guitar line that rolls along like a locomotive. The song starts without any accompaniment as Brown sings with response from the audience: “You know I feel alright! (yeah) You know I feel alright, children (yeah) I feel alright!” He and the crowd just sound like they are having a great time and the interactions are real.

Try Me

Brown starts the soulful third track “Try Me” with just his voice singing the titular first line. We’ll immediate recognize the doo-wop chord progression of I-vi-IV-V, as well as the fairly typical doo-wop rhythm pattern. The Famous Flames sing ‘dooo… ooo’ underneath Brown’s lines and then answer back, repeating his lines “Try me.”

As with many of Brown’s songs the emphasis falls on the first beat, but that is less prominent here out of respect for the genre. The hi hat hits on every eighth note, with just a mild touch of swing; brushes hit the snare every second and fourth beat. The bass walks up and down, bringing the change from one chord to the next. The bass also supports the backing vocals, by matching their rhythm when singing.

Night Train

“All aboard the Night Train!” Brown opens their cover of jazz saxophonist Jimmy Forrest’s 1951 tune “Night Train.” Though Forrest’s tune was really a reworking of an even older song “That’s The Blues, Old Man” by saxophonist Johnny Hodges in 1940. Hodges was a member of Duke Ellington’s band, and the melody may have some roots there as well.

It’s a melody I know well; I grew up hearing the cover by Marvin Berry and the Starlights from the Back to the Future soundtrack. This version by James Brown has tremendous more energy, groove, and funk. The addition of vocals grants it even more excitement. They aren’t even necessary, but they make it personable and tie it together into the loose concept of losing and finding love that seems to run through the album.

The song follows a basic 12 bar blues chord progression, with a distinctive clean guitar riff. The bass drives along, a nonstop groove train. I love the choppy chords played on the organ through a Leslie speaker. It’s energetic and lively. This constant shuffling grooving energy clearly had influences on many, even post-punk rock bands like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. I like that

Lost Someone

Brown keeps “Lost Someone” going for over ten minutes, frequently teasing the audience building suspense. He utilizes this technique throughout the album: leading up to something to create anticipation and then dropping into the next segment or song. In this case, what feels like an extremely extended bridge turns out to be a drawn out coda that ends suddenly with the next song.

In spite of, or because of, I’m not sure.. this was my favorite song on the album. No small feat considering for nearly 8 minutes, the band is playing pretty much the same two bars over and over. Sometimes, the horns will pull back a bit, or work an octave lower. A mid section of under 2 minutes has no horns, but then they return as if to say, “We’re not done with you yet.” Sometimes the bass will hold back, or the drums will pause. Then after Brown builds up intensity, like a preacher, the drums will hit the snare and cymbal. The audience will scream in reaction.

This is a strong example of what the Music Genome project calls Extensive Vamping. The band will play the same short phrase repeatedly while a lead instrument will riff, or solo, over top. In this case, James Brown’s voice plays the role of the lead instrument. He teases and excites the audience. Encourages them to scream along, “Don’t just go “aah”, go “ow!”

I got something I want tell everybody
And I got something I everybody to understand now
You know we all make mistakes sometimes
And all the ways we can correct our mistakes
We got to try one more time
So I got sing this song to you one more time
I want you to know I’m not singing this song for myself now
I’m not singing the song only for myself now
I’m sing it for you too
And if I say stuff that makes you feel good inside
When I say that little thing
I say that little part that might sting you in your heart now
I want to hear your scream
I want to hear say ow!

Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life”

album cover for "Songs in the Key of Life"

I’ve been listening to Stevie Wonder’s 1976 double-LP “Songs in the Key of Life” this week. After spending a time with his 1973 album “Innervisions” back in August, I was looking forward to this one. Overall, this proved to be another great album by Wonder, serving up more of his unique blend of funk, soul, pop, and jazz. That said, I liked “Innervisions” more. My main complaint is that there’s too many songs and many of them are too long. This could’ve been two fantastic albums, but instead it is one overly long album. Many of the tracks have unnecessarily long codas. Still, I had difficulty picking just three tracks to dive into here, because there’s so much good stuff to choose from.

Sir Duke

I’ve known the song “Sir Duke” for a long time now. Several years ago, I got curious about the source material for the song “Let’s Get Busy Baby” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Of course, I also first heard “Pastime Paradise,” because of Coolio’sGangsta’s Paradise.” “Sir Duke” begins with a dry kick drum hitting on every beat, with horns on the the first, second and third beat.. and just before the fourth. Then the next few bars mix horns on beat and syncopation. This mixture of percussive hops on the beat and then grooves on the upbeat is on the main ingredients of funk. Wonder users it expertly throughout the album.

Very dry bass and drums in the center channel emphasis the downbeat, while providing additional rhythm interest at the end of each measure. A clean electric guitar bounces in the right channel. An electric piano plays chords and syncopated arpeggios through a slowly rotating speaker on the left half of the stereo field. The chorus and break feature horns playing rhythmic melodic blasts in unison.

I especially like the rhythm of the pre-chorus, with instruments stacked in staccato eight notes, with a little hop during the 4th beat of each measure. This section, perhaps, pays the most musical tribute to the song’s name sake, jazz legend Duke Ellington. In a broader sense, Wonder sings in praise of swing. He mentions Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald in the second pre-chorus:

For there’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo
And the king of all, Sir Duke
And with a voice like Ella’s ringing out
There’s no way the band can lose

Summer Soft

“Summer Soft” follows the winter and summer out-of-touch with each other. Summer is represented by a female character that leaves in October, while the male October leaves in April. I’m not sure I understand what he’s trying to do with the lyrics with the two characts/seasons always leaving. It reminds me of 14th century poetry with its combination of simplicity and metaphor. The music is relatively upbeat, but the focus seems to be on confusion and loss.

The track combines pop-soul with jazz. The generous use of seventh chords contribute to the jazz-feel. Except for the intro, a swirling mixture of instruments play throughout. They contribute to a general sense of atmosphere, mostly padding out the background during the verses. However, during the chorus and the outro, these instruments all come alive. They pick up in energy, brightening and moving forward in the mix. I particularly enjoy the parts where subtle synths play smooth pulses like Morse-code echoing across the left and right channels.

I Wish

The side two opener “I Wish” quickly became my favorite song on the album. I found the song lends itself well for walking on the sidewalk. It has a forward-driving bounce and a city heartbeat that feels good. On the show “Classic Albums,” Stevie Wonder gave an informative demonstration on how he wrote and recorded the song. He played the majority of the instruments, including drums, keyboards and vocals. The bass in the song is also keyboard, played by Wonder.

Wonder is a very capable drummer, and he demonstrates that in this song with its amazing percussive groove. There’s no flash, he’s not showing off on the drums. The kick drum mostly hits on the down beats, with occasional hops on the upbeat. The 2nd and 4th beat of each measure usually has a snare drum, sometimes accompanied or replaced by handclaps. The hi-hat taps along keeping the tempo, a cymbal crash introduces the start of each section of the song. During the chorus he opens the hat giving some funk the drum groove. Then for the post-chorus, the hat opens giving a forward-pull to the upbeats.

Plucky bass synths dance in the left and right channels. This is fairly unusual, because producers, especially in the 70s, would keep the bass in the center. This is because having bass panned off-center could didn’t always work well with the needle of record players. But here, he has two basses, that will balance each other out. There’s also a bass guitar that usually mimics the bass synths, but draws attention to itself by adding some funky slides up and down the neck. During the chorus, the 2nd and 4th beats are strongly emphasized by the horns shouting out between Wonder’s single-syllable vocals on the downbeat. Man, this song really makes you want to dance. It’s impossible to sit still.

Dusty Springfield’s “Dusty in Memphis”

Album cover for Dusty in Memphis

This week, I’ve been listening to Dusty Springfield’s 1969 album “Dusty in Memphis.” Previous to this week, I really only knew “Son of a Preacher Man” and “The Windmills of Your Mind.” from this album and her earlier hit “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” Springfield was British performer who started off in a girl group, before going solo. The music of Motown captured her heart. She championed those American groups in the UK as well as recording music in a similar style. “Dusty in Memphis” was recorded with producers that had worked with some of those Motown artists she loved.

Possibly Springfield’s most famous track, “Son of a Preacher Man” is a great soul pop song. It had originally been written for Aretha Franklin, who did record it but actually passed on it. Franklin’s recording had a little more R&B feel where Springfield’s is a bit more pop. Springfield’s voice and the lyrics are narrative in style, her singing casually expressive and a little sultry.

The verses of the song follow a I-IV-I-V chord progression. The first chord lasts a full measure, the next measure has the IV-I, the third continues the I, then the V lasts a full four measures. The melody falls in pitch during those four measures This softens the tension that would often be created by an extended V chord. There’s still a sense that the story is building up to something, but it’s conversational.

After the second chorus, there’s a key change to the subdominant (the IV chord becomes the tonic). Springfield’s voice rises in pitch and amplitude, supported by the backing brass. This gives the sense that the narrative has changed perspective or that the story takes a turn. Actually, neither of these happens; it’s rather that the story-telling continues. Perhaps the key change is to emphasize the emotion nature of the memory.

How well I remember
The look that was in his eyes
Stealing kisses from me on the sly
Taking time to make time
Telling me that he’s all mine
Learning from each other’s knowing
Looking to see how much we’ve grown

The rhythm section consists of a woody electric bass and a drumkit. The drums present a punch driving rock beat, with a snare on the second and fourth beat. Interestingly, the kick often rests on the first beat, tapping instead an eight note later on the upbeat. This gives the song a little hop at the beginning of each measure. The bass guitar often fidgets, moving up and down the scale dancing. This adds energy. Plus, the bass is in the back enough that it doesn’t overpower the song.

Another favorite from the week was “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore.” This was a new song to me, and I first noticed the wonderful story telling technique. The song is about a woman discovering that her husband is unfaithful. However, the lyrics focus on the speaker’s desire to pretend its not happening. She overhears the neighbors talking about it, which she tries to ignore. I only just learned that this song was written by Randy Newman, one of my favorite songwriters. It was also recorded around the same time by Scott Walker, who is another of my favorites.

I don’t want to hear it anymore
I don’t want to hear it anymore
Because the talk just never ends
And the heartache soon begins
The talk is so loud
And the walls are much too thin

This slow tempo song rolls along with the compressed mono drums in the left channel. They are probably going through a reverb chamber, or at least the compression is pushing forward the natural sound of the room. Bass balances out the rhythm on the right channel. Again, like “Son of a Preach Man,” the bass plays intricate rhythms giving texture to the bottom, only letting up for sections that require rest.

Tremendous reverb gives atmosphere to Springfield’s voice, especially audible during the choruses when the other instruments let their notes ring out. Lush strings pad the sound, again with reverb, giving the song a feel of heartbreaking nostalgia. I do not know if the sound felt nostalgic at the time, but it certainly does in 2018. Horns provide counterpoint to the melody, especially at the end of verses.

I also loved “The Windmills of Your Mind” from this album. I’ve known about the song for a very long time, though. Originally, through an instrumental Moog version by Electronic Concept Orchestra. I liked the haunting chamber pop feel of their recording. Then I also heard another instrument version by Peter Nero, which was more upbeat but still haunting. Then I saw the amusing Muppets treatment.

It was still some years before I heard the Dusty Springfield version. I’m really backwards on these things sometimes. And this week, I learned that the song was originally performed by Noel Harrison for the movie The Thomas Crown Affair. His version is a little more jaunty with the melody becoming almost Scottish in a Donovan sort of way.

I like the building intensity of the melody and music that exactly expresses and emphasizes the meaning of the lyrics. The lyrics are a poem, and the music does what the words describe. Never mind that I’m not sure what the analogy of an “apple whirling silently in space” is supposed to convey.

Round like a circle in a spiral,
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning
On an ever spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain,
Or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that’s turning
Running rings around the moon
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping
Past the minutes of its face
And the world is like an apple
Whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind!

Prince and the Revolution’s “Purple Rain”

Prince Purple Rain album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to Prince and the Revolution’s album “Purple Rain” from 1984. As a listener, I know few albums more than this one. I was seven years old when it came out; My teenage aunt was a big fan and I really got into Prince through her. About this time, I told her that I wanted to grow up to be a rock star like Prince or Michael Jackson. that I wanted My mom bought the record and I recall I was NOT allowed to listen to “Darling Nikki.” That’s the song that pushed Tipper Gore to start the PMRC, which lead to the Parental Advisory stickers on albums.

About five months ago, I spent time with “Sign O’ The Times” and I was not particularly impressed. Many authoritative voices praise “Sign O’ The Times” higher than “Purple Rain” and I absolutely disagree. “Purple Rain” is a wholly conceived and beautifully performed and recorded funk pop-rock album. Even though this album has been endless played and has influenced so much that came after, it still maintains a fresh sense of risky inventiveness and stellar musicianship across the board. 

I like to choose three songs from each album to look at specifically; this was not an easy task for “Purple Rain,” but ‘et’s get to it.

The seventh track “I would Die 4 U” opens with a high note, presumably on bass guitar. This leads to a pulsating synth line that plays the rhythmic role often assumed by the hi-hat, giving the song a 16th note disco feel. I believe this is also doubled by a hi-hat sound (likely from Prince’s favorite drum machine, the LM-1). This keeps a gentle sense of urgency throughout the song, only broken for a few seconds before the coda. The lines of “I would Die 4 U” become a chant towards the end, especially during live performances.

As good as the music is, the lyrics are daring and unusual. On one hand, the song comes across as a love song, with a chorus repeating, “I would die for you, Darling, if you want me to.” However, this idea of being so devoted to a lover that you would sacrifice your own life is paralleled with images of Jesus Christ. He opens the song with the memorable, “I’m not a woman; I’m not a man; I am something that you’ll never understand.” An fitting line from a man whose androgynous personality was amplified for the stage, making many 80s parents uncomfortable. 

Then later, he explains that’s not “your lover” or “your friend,” but rather “your messiah and you’re the reason why.” It’s difficult to say if Prince is proclaiming himself to be a messiah, saying that his sense of devotion in love is like that of a messiah, or speaking from the perspective of a love-god concept. This ambiguity leaves the song open to multiple interesting interpretations, but the subject matter begs interpretation. I don’t think he means this in a martyr sort of why, but rather the speaker is the listener’s messiah, because the listener is worthy of a messiah. Or as he says later on, “All I really need is to know that you believe.”

The hit song “When Doves Cry” remained in the number 1 spot for 5 weeks becoming the top-selling single of the year. This song, too, is full of unusual lyrics for a pop song; again with a thread of ambiguity. The verses dream of idyllic love between the speaker and the listener; in contrast, the chorus speak of how they fight. But look at how they conflicts are addressed: the speaker assumes responsibility and looks for answers in their upbringing:

How can you just leave me standing?
Alone in a world that’s so cold.
Maybe I’m just too demanding.
Maybe I’m just like my father: too bold.
Maybe you’re just like my mother:
She’s never satisfied.
Why do we scream at each other?
This is what it sounds like
When doves cry.

The album closes with its title track “Purple Rain.”  The song combines stylistic elements of rock, gospel, soul, and blues. It carries the audience along at a slow tempo: just under one beat per second. To simplify it, the chord progression is a I-vi-V-IV (coincidentally the first four chords of a circle-of-fifths progression). From what I’ve found online, it’s a little more like a I9-vi7-V-IV (or more precisely Iadd9-vi7add11-V-IV)

As we also know, the song bears a resemblance to Journey’s “Faithfully” which had an earlier release date. I do not know if it is certain if Prince drew inspiration from “Faithfully” or it was a coincidence; apparently Prince was a fan of Journey guitarist Neil Schon and called Journey to get their OK due to the similarity.  The songs share the I-vi-V-IV chord and similar endings.

In my twenties, I also did a lot of home recordings using a Tascam portastudio. I frequently found my way of thinking about starting and ending albums resembled the construction of this album. The song “Purple Rain” launches into a heartbreakingly affirming solo full of atmosphere and then drifts off into lingering strings. And this closes the album. I’ve always felt that was so perfectly beautiful and effective.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Electric Ladyland”

This week, I’ve been listening to the 1968 album “Electric Ladyland” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. About six months ago, I spent time with their first album “Are you Experienced?” That album was released just 17 months before this, their third and final album.

They certainly evolved over this short period of time. While I truly enjoyed their debut album, I absolutely loved this one. The first album was more of a psychedelic blues rock. This album takes that sound and launches into the stratosphere, pushing the experimental psychedelic elements. They’ve also folded in some ingredient of soul and funk.

The album opens with intro track  “And the Gods Made Love” which is some slowed down stuff. It’s kind of neat the first couple times and then I found it annoying. I wanted to talk here about the first real song 
Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland),” but I like to include a video link of the songs here and it’s not available on YouTube. Anyway, it is a great track and from the first thirty seconds, I knew I was going to love the album. It’s opens as a rather soulful funk-aware R&B song. Strange things are happening with the rhythms as the song seems to swirl upon itself. Experimental yet immediately accessible.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded a fantastic cover of Bob Dylan‘s song “All Along the Watchtower” for this album. From what I’ve read, Hendrix got ahold of Dylan recording pretty early and liked this song immediately. The Experience worked on their cover for a few months and it was released within a year of Dylan’s original.  As great as Dylan’s lyrics are, the incredible soundscape of Hendrix’s version towers above the words. I know many of the words, but don’t really know what the song is about because what’s happening musically is so amazing. The verses serve more as passing narrative between the real action: Jimi’s lead guitar. 

A twelve-string acoustic guitar strums the chords throughout the song simply.  The lead guitar gives the track much of its psychedelic blues rock flavor. Jimi’s plays his stratocaster through a chorus and fuzz, with expressive filter modulation provided by a wah pedal. This sound of this combination of guitar and effects is all over the album. To see how the wah pedal is used to create these sounds, check out this excellent video by fuzzfaceexp. Some additional use of delay provides depth to the leads as well.

Another great song is “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” towards the end of the album. Again, the track mostly provides a space for Jimi’s chorus-fuzz-wah lead guitar to soar into wildly expressive explorations of sound. This starts with the opening measures, one of the Hendrix’s most famous riffs. One that I, unfortunately must admit, first hear in middle school as sampled in a 2 Live Crew song. The Hendrix track has a marvelously live jam quality to it; Even though it features use of overdubbing additional tracks, it was initially created as a jam.

I continue my complaint about the Jimi Hendrix Experience and overuse of stereo panning as an effect. Sometimes it adds something to a song, but mostly I find it annoying and distracting. Better, I feel to use panning of a delay effect, but that may not have been as readily an option as it is today.

Overall, I loved the album “Electric Ladyland.” There’s more playful experimentation than found on “Are You Experienced?” as well as a greater sense of skill and experience with their direction and recording.  Great album.