Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”

Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" album cover This week, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan’s 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks” to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. Each Bob Dylan album so far has been monstrously impressive from a songwriting perspective. His skill to employ metaphor within narrative songs that utilize rhyme is astounding. For me, this album is right up there with “Blonde on Blonde” and I can’t get enough of it now that I’ve spent a week with it.

Finger-picked blues guitar drives the track “Meet Me in the Morning.” At first, I didn’t care for this song due to its repetitive nature. A twelve bar blues progression (I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-V-I-I) provides foundation upon which Dylan sings lyrics that follow the twelve-bar blues blues format of one line repeated twice, then a line in response. Like much of the album, the lyrics deal with a struggling relationship.

The first verse opens with the title “Meet me in the morning, 56 and Wabasha. Honey, we could be in Kansas by the time the snow begins to thaw.” I’m not sure why they are meeting to travel, except perhaps as a change of scenery or escape. The next verse tells how some say it’s darkest before the dawn, but the singer is always dark. But, when the morning rooster crows in the third verse, the singer feels mistreated by his lover. He feels persecuted and trapped, and wonders if the love was a curse. “Look at the sun sinking like a ship. Ain’t that just like my heart, babe, When you kissed my lips?”

I loved this catchy song by the end of the week. I like the layers of multiple guitars.  In the right channel , a bright acoustic guitar plays rhythm-lead lines. A fuzzy slide guitar soaked in reverb provides some atmosphere in the background. Another acoustic guitar quietly strums the chords. And yet clean electric guitar joins later to pick some lead lines and also gets in conversation with the fuzz guitar during the outro.

Also, I find it impossible to not sing along to the mellow grooving bassline.

On “Shelter From the Storm,” Dylan sings tenderly of a love lost. The jangly acoustic guitar dances nervously between the bass and vocals. We hear the sound of the pick and/or guitar strap ticking and rattling against the guitar. These additional sounds of guitar-playing unintentionally provide the only percussion. This type of natural imperfections lends a sense of authenticity to the recording. The chord progression throughout is a basic I-V-IV-I, with the melody providing a sense of variation through the verses.

These are some tremendous lyrics. The song is about confusion, loss, frustrations and heartache, but he’s telling it through the sweetness and tenderness. That’s how the song manages to be so powerful.  Rather than talking so much about pain and loss, he talk about promises and what was lost. However, it’s the middle verse that puts everything in perspective.

Now there’s a wall between us, something there’s been lost
I took too much for granted, I got my signals crossed
Just to think that it all began on an uneventful morn
Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm

Of course, there’s layers of ambiguity here as other themes become part of the picture. Images of Christ come into play, which could embarrassingly make a martyr out of the speaker, but I prefer to avoid that interpretation.  It’s too mighty a structure of self-pity, and also would be too self-righteous in contrast to other statements in the song.

The brilliant “Tangled Up in Blue” opens the album and remained my favorite song the full week. I rather feel it’s too great of a song to be the first. The opening chords of A and Asus4 play in my head all day. The verses are in a I-VIIb-I-VIIb-I-VIIb-I twice, followed by V-vi-I-IV twice and ends with VIIb-IV-I for the refrain of “Tangled up in blue.”

The first half of each verse is sung in a restrained back-and-forth melody, with the pitch rising for the second half. The percussion and other instruments likewise pick up in energy. This is balanced by the lower-pitched chords of E and F#m. The the refrain anchors the verse back to the tonic on “blue.” It’s interesting the use of chords for this key. The chords are more likely those of a song in the key of G, while the melody is actually in key of A.

As with the whole album, the layering and interplay of instruments is fantastic. Multiple strummed and picked acoustic guitars provide a full atmosphere of sound. Still they are mixed in a way that manages to keep things feeling stripped down.

The lyrics are the most amazing part of the song. A week definitely provides too little time to fully appreciate all he has going on here. At the very basic level, I appreciate the narrative quality of the song. Songs that tell stories, especially about characters and their relationships, get my interest. I especially appreciate tales of that touched on and lost and over-arching tales that narrow in on details. This is especially made poignant by going back to a place while accentuating the distance.

So now I’m going back again,
I got to get to her somehow.
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now.
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenter’s wives.
Don’t know how it all got started,
I don’t know what they’re doing with their lives.
But me, I’m still on the road
Heading for another joint
We always did feel the same,
We just saw it from a different point of view,
Tangled up in blue.

Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions”

Stevie Wonder: Innervisions album coverThis week, I’ve been listening to Stevie Wonder’s 1973 album “Innervisions” for lessons I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriter. For years, my only real awareness of Stevie Wonder was his work in the 1980s. At eight years old, I saw his appearance on the Cosby Show. I watched it many times on VHS and used to sing the song “I Just Call To Say I Love You” throughout my childhood. By the time I hit my teens, I grew to find songs like this and “Ebony and Ivory” were just cheesy. I didn’t become aware of his fantastic 1970s work until fairly recently. Some of the stuff I had heard before without realizing who it was. I absolutely loved spending a week getting to know this album.

Wonder is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and plays many of the instruments on the album. Every instruments on “Living for the City” is played by Stevie Wonder. Fender Rhodes electric piano opens the song spinning left-right through the stereo tremolo. As with much of the album, Wonder makes use of the legendary TONTO for fantastic synthesizer  sounds. Once the drums start, the kick hits on every quarter note through the verse and chorus, though changes for the bridge.

The chord progression is very simple for the verse: I – ii – I7 – ii, with the synth bass mostly bouncing on on the tonic every quarter note. The chorus rises through a IV-IV-V6-V7 progression. The da-da-da-da bridge contrast with the rest of the song by being in 3/4 time as borrowing a series of chords from outside of the key. The first chord of the bridge could be vi7♭5,  then to vi♭ to v♭ coming done to ii♭ back to I.

Though the music is funky with a definitely bouncing groove, it would feel rather laid back without the vocals. Wonder’s singing gives the track its energy. He sings the verses with a rhythm and a simple melody; it’s almost rapping. He also punctuates the rhythm with non-verbal grunts, pops and ‘hee’s;’ Michael Jackson undoubtedly drew influence from Stevie Wonder. The synth bass and electric piano may be the heart of the accompaniment, but the vocals are the drive.

One of my favorite tracks, “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” closes the album. Wonder provides all vocals and plays all instruments except the electric bass guitar. Acoustic piano plays chords throughout. The chord progressions runs I-I7-I6-iv6-I-V-IV for the verses and a bridge/chorus of ii-I-IV-V-vi7-V-I-ii7. This use of extended chords provides interesting movement while essentially staying in the same chord.

A different idea for me, that seems so natural in the song, is the use of multiple time signatures within the verses. The whole song is in 4/4 time with an exception at the end of each verse. Every verse has the refrain “He’s miistra Know-It-All” in 2/4 time.

I like the use of synthesizers to add little magical flourishes to the top end of the piano lines. Sometimes they are like soft sparkles drifting into the air.   At the half-way point, Stevie’s vocals pick up in energy and hand-claps increase the sense of energy. It also helps the song feel like it’s coming to a close.

Paul Simon’s “Graceland”

This week, I’ve been listening to Paul Simon’s album “Graceland” from 1986. I remember enjoying the video for “Call Me Al” because it was silly. Other than that, I’ve not been much of a fan of Simon. His music came across too pleasantly adult contemporary to me, especially during my teens. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to enjoy some of his work, but I don’t get excited about it. This week allowed me to get to know these songs much better. I came to appreciate his songwriting, even the recordings themselves are still too pleasant sounding.

This album has a rather controversial background story. A guitarist friend had lent Paul Simon a bootleg tape of music from South Africa. Simon loved it. He wanted to incorporate the sounds and rhythms in his own music. He traveled to South Africa to find out who the musicians were on this unlabeled tape. This search led him to the Boyoyo Boys. He hired members of the band, as well as other South African musicians, to work him on this album. Bakithi Kumalo’s basslines stand out as particularly notable. I don’t really like the mwah sound of fretless bass, but his work is incredible. Really adds a lot of the character to the music.

At the time, many musicians had an active boycott of South Africa in protest of the apartheid. The boycott specifically prevented performing in South Africa. A performance there meant playing before segregated audiences. Simon was recording with primarily black South African artists. However, the fact that he was working there during the boycott looked to many as a statement of apathy. These were contemporary controversies. A modern perspective also opens questions of cultural appropriation; That’s a complex subject, and I’m actually here to listen to the songwriting. Let’s also ignore all the accusations against Simon the he failed to give credit to his collaborators.

The title track “Graceland” provides a great example of good songwriting. Before this week, I’d not really paid attention to the lyrics. I wrongly assumed it to be some fatuous song about tourist destination for Elvis Presley fans. Simon uses the narrative of a man and his son on a pilgrimage as a window to the actual topic. This song deals with the complex mixture of emotions, especially unresolved turmoil, in the midst of a breakup. The second verse leaves me awe-inspired by how the tremendous writing. Keep in mind that this verse introduces the topic of the breakup, like an unexpected slap in the face. This is a great example of use of visual imagery to express thought and emotion. Also notice the use of repetition and rhyme:

She comes back to tell me she’s gone
As if I didn’t know that
As if I didn’t know my own bed
As if I’d never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

The track “Gumboots” is more than inspired by the Boyoyo Boys; Apparently the music started as a direct copy of one of their instrumental tracks. From what I understand, Simon wrote the vocals and added the horns. I like the non-stop jittery groove of the music, though without the vocals I feel it would be annoying repetitive. A sort of rhythm background music. What grabs my attention about this song are the lyrics. The song fades out with Simon singing a repeat of the first line “I was having this discussion in a taxi heading downtown.” It’s a great generic line, not necessarily interesting on its own but rife with possibilities. The speaker could take the story anywhere. But like the breezy music, the storyteller seems have a lot more to say than they actually do.

Another song I enjoyed was “I Know What I Know” which also incredibly derivative of a song on that bootleg tape. This time a song by M.D. Shirinda & Gaza Sisters. Lyrically, the song has a humorous opening and continues from there with a vignette of pseudo-intellectual high-society. It’s difficult for me to separate Paul Simon from this crowd enough to completely see this as an outsider criticizing. To me, it feel more like a silly look at the world Simon roams around in.

She looked me over and I guess she thought I was all right
All right in a sort of a limited way for an off-night
She said don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party
I said who am I to blow against the wind

Johnny Cash’s “At Folsom Prison”

Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison album coverI listened to Johnny Cash’s 1968 live album “At Folsom Prison” this week for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. June Carter, Marshall Grant, W.S. Holland, Carl Perkins, Luther Perkins, and the Statler Brothers joined Cash in two performances at the prison. From these live recordings, they selected 16 excellent tracks for the album. While I had some appreciation, I never really cared much for Johnny Cash. A week with this album changed my mind.

Cash’s signature “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” opens the album. The audience of prisoners dutifully keep silent until he finishes introduces himself, then they cheer. He fittingly starts with the “Folsom Prison Blues” which he had originally recorded in 1955. This narrative country song follows a standard country-blues chord progression of I-I-I-I7-IV-I-V7-I. Cash sings while strums acoustic guitar with a steady rhythm. The bass guitar bounces between the first and fifth note of the chord on each quarter note. A clean electric guitar punctuates with staccato syncopation. This electric guitar combined with the drums creates the railroad train rhythm of the song.

The lyrics tell the first person narrative of a man “stuck in Folsom Prison.” Often a song with this setting would have us feel sympathy for the prisoner. However, since this one “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” it’s difficult to feel to bad for him. Cash later said that he tried to think of the most evil reason to kill somebody. So, this isn’t a case of somebody being stuck in prison that didn’t deserve it.

“I hear the train a comin’ It’s rollin’ ’round the bend” introduces the train. This  becomes a major symbol in the song. Cash uses the train to provide contrast with the prison. The prisoner hears the train go by routinely and envisions the passengers having a good time. He could accept his imprisonment were it not for this reminder of what he’s missing out on.

Well, I know I had it comin’,
I know I can’t be free,
But those people keep a-movin’,
And that’s what tortures me.

The lines utilize an ABAB rhyme scheme. Throughout the song, the second and fourth lines are always end with a true rhyme and the first and third lines usually end with slant rhymes.

I also particularly liked “Cocaine Blues,” which is a cover of an old Red Arnall. Cash keeps the hyper tempo of the song, but gives the vocals a more human treatment. The chords travel along a simple I-V progression throughout until the final couplet. The song ends with a I-IV-II-V-I. This song also tells of a murderer imprisoned through a series of couplets.

Early one mornin’ while makin’ the rounds,
I took a shot of cocaine and shot my woman down.
I went right home and I went to bed,
I stuck that lovin’ .44 beneath my head.

This man blames it on a mixture of jealousy, whiskey, and cocaine. He “shot her down because she made me sore. I thought I was her daddy but she had five more.” He closes the tale by advising the listeners to “lay off that whiskey and let that cocaine be.” In the original version, Red Arnall said it was okay to “drink all you want to, but let that cocaine be.”

During the second half of the album, Cash’s soon-to-be wife June Carter joins him to sing “Jackson.” This was a cover of a song by Billy Edd Wheeler. I enjoy Cash’s bit of flirting with Carter before they start the song, as well as her witty response. Much like “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Jackson” drives through a country-blues chord progression. The first two lines of each verse are I—I7, with the second two following I-IV-I-I-I-IV-V7-I. Again, the bass bounces through the first and fifth note of each chord emphasizing the rhythm. The drums also roll along in the background.

June also joins along in “Give My Love to Rose” which was written by Johnny Cash. They give an excellent performance at Folsom Prison, but I prefer the sound of the original 1957 single. We see here another chord progression built entirely on I, IV, and V chords. The first two lines of each verse are I-IV-I-I, and the second two are IV-IV-I-I-V-V-I-I. That makes this song a type of country-blues. This first-person narrative is actually a third-person tale. The speaker meets up with a dying man by the railroad track. The dying man had just finished serving his time in prison. He was “trying to get back to Louisiana to see (his) Rose and get to know (his) son.” The simple chorus gently delivers the strong emotion of the story.

Give my love to Rose, please won’t you mister.
Take her all my money, tell her to buy some pretty clothes.
Tell my boy his daddy’s so proud of him
And don’t forget to give my love to Rose.

This was a tremendous album that gave me an appreciation for the work and performance of Johnny Cash. I’m ready now to revisit his other material that I’ve written off before. The songs provide examples of great songwriting. They tell stories about unlikely characters that can be appreciated at a surface level; They also present additional layers using symbols and implied meaning. All elements of the performance are there to support the lead vocal, which is there to tell the story. That songs of Johnny Cash “At Folsom Prison” demonstrate how much you can achieve with the most basic elements when the songwriting is strong.

My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless”

This past seven days, I’ve been listening to My Bloody Valentine’s album “Loveless” from 1991. I devote each week to a different album considered great in order to improve my own craft as a songwriting musician. It also introduces me to a lot of great music. This week was an unusual challenge. At first, I thought the album was awful. By the end of the week, I thought it was mostly awful. The blame does not fall on the songwriting. In fact, I find it difficult to speak about the songwriting at all. The recording and production choices stand as a major hurdle for me. The way they play their instruments did not help either.

This album drowns the listener in a lush warm fuzzy wall of sound. The use of reverb, including the weird reverse-reverb, gives instruments like the guitar an expansive atmosphere of depth. Or at least they would, except the sound is often flattened by emphasizing the production layer. This album often reminded me of an old cassette tape deck I had. The worn out belt would cause the playback speed to rise and fall. Parts also reminded me of another tape recorder on which the head wasn’t aligned quite right. When used to record music on a tape that already had something on it, you would get a mix of the new audio, the previous audio, as well as a little bit of the opposite side in reverse. All of these oddities brought focus to the medium of tape, which is flat. Much of “Loveless” sounds two dimensional to me in the same way.

Guitarist and principal artist of My Bloody Valentine, Kevin Shields, has a fascination with the whammy bar. He strums the guitar while applying pressure to the bar. This creates an effect where the guitar frequently undulates in and out of tune. Pushing this through layers of reverb provides the listener with a feeling of seasickness. It sounds cool, except that he’s doing it too much.  As a child, I dug the syncopated way my Speak-N-Spell said “apostrophe.”  I pushed the apostrophe button over and over again; It brought me joy while annoying everyone around me.

The guitar, the effects on the guitar, dominate the album. For most songs, the guitars shove the other instruments to the back. Drum loops rotate behind the wash of fuzzy reverb. Hints of bass guitar come and go. Sometimes something that sounds like keyboard overloading a toy speaker pushes between the blanket of guitar.

The songs also have vocals. I’ve heard them washed out by reverb and pushed well-beneath everything else. This is not true with all songs, but it seems to be the preference. The vocals sing in a quietly disinterested way, as if they are provided more out of obligation than desire. This expresses a cautious layer of self-conscious cool.  It almost works, but I would push the vocals more forward, give them some presence. They do have melodies and probably even lyrics, if you can manage to hear them.

The start of Only Shallow misleadingly implies a guitar-driven alt-rock album. As mentioned earlier, the focus on the album is more production and creating atmospheres of noise. While it can be argued that these are integral to the songs, I feel that the songs became reasons to create noise. This leads to soundscapes enjoyable in small doses. They wear tiresome long as whole songs.

Frequently, I would get whiffs of Stereolab, one of my favorite bands. The second track Loomer reminded me of Stereolab’s album Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements like the song “Jenny Ondioline” which I love. My Bloody Valentine released “Loveless” two years before that Stereolab album. I may’ve liked My Bloody Valentine more if I’d heard them when I was in high school, instead of 25 years later.

Here Knows When” provides a strong example of the elements I don’t like about this album. I suspect fans of the band love this song for the same reasons. Imagine alternately recording Cocteau Twins, Jesus and Mary Chain, Stereolab on a worn out cassette tape with a cheap recorded and then recorded the sound of a motorcycle race over it. I really feel like this started as a good song.

For me, When You Sleep stands out as the best track. the song brought “Degrassi High into my mind for reasons I can’t understand. The use of a melodic instrument between verses and choruses helps tremendously. Vocal samples of ‘ooo’ played like a warped mellotron interact musically with the apparent synth. They’ve layered male and female vocals in a way that successfully brings the vocals forward, almost. I still don’t know what most of the lyrics, but I like what I’ve caught. I suspect an expression of awkward teen crush and bubblegum. Then it goes on too long, over-compressed and lacking variation.

Radiohead’s “OK Computer”

Radiohead "OK Computer" album coverThis week, I’ve been listening to Radiohead‘s 1997 album “OK Computer” to learn from as a songwriting musician. I remember when this album came out and I loved it immediately. This week served not as an introduction, but as an opportunity to re-examine the familiar for something new. As soon as I heard the open guitar line of “Airbag” I knew it was going to be a great week. I love this album. Unfortunately, that makes it difficult to listen to objectively and write about.

Guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood enjoys experimenting with the possibilities of his instruments. Effects pedals alter the sound of the guitar in unusual ways. He also incorporates a variety of unusual playing techniques. I remember being blown away the first time I saw the “Creep” music video. Jonny’s guitar stabs introduced the chorus. His manic strumming launched into a guitar solo that feels much more like he’s trying to save his life.

The song was innovative for Radiohead’s sonic character of their instruments, including vocals. The song itself borrows a lot from The Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe” but the sound and performance are wholly unique. Today’s listeners often hear “Creep” as typical 90s alt-rock. Radiohead so quickly evolved far beyond their first album, it’s difficult to realize how strange it sounded when it first came out.

The second track “Paranoid Android” remains one of my favorite Radiohead songs. It opens with a latin-influenced rhythm including a clave and a gentle acoustic guitar playing broken chords. This suggests an atmosphere of elevator and dreams of a 1950s family vacation. Appropriate for the “Please could you stop the noise

I’m trying to get some rest” line. The second verse has the unfriendly, yet catchy, line “When I am king, you will be first against the wall.” After about two minutes, the music takes on a slightly sinister feel thanks to some rhythmic single low notes on the guitar. At 2:40, distorted electric guitar strike as Thom spits, “You don’t remember…” Jonny then plays a great, flourish-free, fuzz guitar solo panned full left. A mixture of time signatures add to the exotic other-worldly feel of the song. And then it moves into a mourning-choir section. Distorted guitars rip back into the song. The Rhythm guitar and drums play the ending rhythm, but the fuzzed out lead guitar soars into high notes drawing the song back into life before letting it end.

The great song “Karma Police” does interesting things with chords in their key. The first part of the song is in G major, then the outro is in B minor. The chord progression for the verses could be i-III-v-VII if in A minor, which would be great. However, being in G major, the chords actually follow an unusual ii-IV-v-I progression.

The chorus could be a I-II-V-IV#7 in the key of C major, which again would be great though weird. But, still in G major, the chorus is actually a IV-V-I-VII7. These unusual progressions are played simply on the piano with a strummed acoustic guitar adding texture to the background. Overall, the song has an ambivalent feeling of stability and fragility, marching and floating.

Thom lifts his voice up during the outro;  He sings, “Phew for a minute there, I lost myself.” This matches the peculiar contradiction of a minor key with a triumphant feeling. I love that combination. The opposite happens in the chorus where the chord progressions seem to go from A minor to C major, but the mood drops with an mildly threatening statement of purpose: “This is what you get when you mess with us.”

The blissfully perfect “No Surprises” remains one of my favorite songs. Sonically, it bears some resemblance to The Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” from their debut album. With the slower tempo, use of glockenspiel and guitar over a bassline with little percussion and softly sung vocals. The two verses vollow a I-vi-ii-V-I-iv chord progression. The minor iv adds a sense of longing to the pull for resolution. I love this song. The sound is delightfully pleasant tinged with melancholy.

Throughout the album, obtuse lyrics build emotional images of anxiety and distress. I don’t want to make too much of the comparison, but it bears some relation to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Both albums deal with the difficulty and burden of living in modern society.  With Radiohead, the lyrics are much more post-modern. At times, they’ve constructed lyrics from lists and yet others are collections of sentiments.  These are pulled together to create an overall sense of meaning, sort of like reading between the lines.

Overall, “OK Computer” continues to be one of my favorite albums. Radiohead make great use of inventive chord progressions. I also appreciate their attention to sonic detail, from use of effects to the choice of instruments. This is true, of course, with all bands. Yet, Radiohead seek out new ways to create strange auditory experiences. They thoughtfully combine these in meaningful ways that suit the songs.

Prince’s “Sign ‘☮’ the Times”

Prince's Sign O The Times album coverI’ve been listening to Prince’s 1987 Double LP “Sign ‘O’ The Times” for the past seven days. I devote each week to a different great album in order to learn as a songwriting musician. It also exposes me to a lot of great music. When “Purple Rain” came out when I was seven years old and I’ve been a fan ever since. Still, this week was really my introduction to “Sign ‘O’ The Times” which I’ve mostly ignored until now.

Despite some incredible high points, I found the album on a whole to be underwhelming. Some of that may be the expectation that it was going to be better than other Prince albums, due to collective critical acclaim. I just don’t think it is. I feel like much of it sounds like interesting song ideas and experiments that need more work. However, the album carries several great songs that I will definitely come back to.

The second track “Play in the Sunshine” was the first to get my attention. This upbeat track combines dance music with psychedelic pop. The chord progression is mostly I-I7-IV-IV7 repeated with a break between verses. The live percussions helps this track stand out. We can hear Prince’s favorite Linn LM-1 all over this album. His expert use of this machine leads to innovative and distinctive patterns; unfortunately he doesn’t incorporate enough variation within the tracks. “Play in the Sunshine” provides a great exception Even though the song only has a 100 BPM temp, the energy feels like much more. The use of the snare outside of the typical 2nd and 4th beat contribute to this.

There’s a sparse layering of instruments. Drums and bass play almost constantly; there’s a couple of keyboard lines that add effects and melodic color. I love the guitar solo in this song, even though it has little more than style. There seems to be a mixture of light flange with heavy distortion as he plays and bends screaming notes, adding a little wah towards the end.

Housequake” sounds like Prince had fun, but the fun didn’t last over repeated listening for me. There’s some great use of James Brown influence on the track. I really hear it in the funky clean guitar riffs and the way the real and synth horns are used. I also pick up on some George Clinton Funkadelic influence in the vocals. Especially in the way he’s being goofy and creating a character to encourage people to dance. But where Clinton could keep a repetitive groove going and maintain my attention, “Housequake” just doesn’t do enough with it’s 4 minutes and 42 seconds.

The track “It’s Gonna be a Beautiful Night” more successfully goes for that funk jam party feel. The kick drum hits on every beat for a dance-worthy four-on-the-floor rhythm. With snare and handclaps hitting on the 2nd and 4th beats. Parliament-inspired chants like “We are beautiful, it’s gonna be a beautiful night” encourage audience participation. Another chant repeats the Wicked Witch’s guards “Oh-wee-oh” from The Wizard of Oz. The chant reminds me of the “Oh-wee-oh-wee-oh” of The Time’s “Jungle Love” which was primarily written by Prince. This song manages to keep me engaged and feels like a good time to listen to. The greater use of variety throughout the song is an improvement over “Housequake”. I also suspect that other musicians had great input, which can enrich a song.

Starfish and Coffee” instantly became one of my favorite songs. The song opens with digital piano simply playing the chord progression of I-ii-V-I-vi-ii-V-I. This is based on the Circle Progression which is common turnaround progression in jazz and pop music. Vocal and drums then begin. Prince sings a simple melody that encourages sing-a-long, especially withe use of doubling backing vocals. Swirling synth pads give the song the psychedelic feel that the lyrics ask for. The lyrics are another strong-point for this song. They are narrative and provide a vignette of Cynthia Rose, a colorful unique character in the classroom.

Several moments of this album remind me of how I frequently hear Prince’s influence in the work of Trent Reznor. The track “U Got the Look” could very well be an NIN industrial track if the heavily distorted guitar was brought forward. The track also features a lot of great percussion work, with toms and bongos getting extra attention. Marching-band style rolls add an interesting texture to the track. I also just really love the sound of Prince’s guitar. I believe there’s some light flange or chorus with mixture of overdrive and distortion and a subtle reverb. It’s a great sound.

This album grew on me as the week progressed. I don’t personally agree that it is Prince’s greatest album. To simplify the story, Prince mostly wrote and recorded “Sign ‘O’ The Times” after suddenly firing his band The Revolution. I believe it suffers from being too much of a solo album. Perhaps we can all learn from this. The input of others can improve what we do, even one as incredibly capable as Prince. On the other hand, he’s also experimenting with combining genres and sounds. This experimentation is at times exciting, but sometimes leaves things feeling unfinished raw. Overall, a fantastic album, but not his best.

Led Zeppelin’s IV

Led Zepplin 4 album coverI’ve been listening to Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album from 1971. Each week I devote to an acclaimed album to learn as a songwriting musician. As with “Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd, I grew up hearing this Led Zeppelin album often. I imagine many of us born in the 70s did. Even with all of that exposure, it’s still a great album with surprises.

The fourth track “Stairway to Heaven” pulls together the greatest qualities of the album into one song. As an unfortunate side effect of being one of the greatest songs ever, it has become amazingly overplayed. I sigh with lack of interest when the song starts. My favorite portion of the song starts at after five and a half minutes. First, the guitars signal a transition through a dramatic series of chords sounding like horns. Jimmy Page then provides a fantastic soulful guitar solo. I like that the they did not distort the rhythm guitar to get a rocking sound. They gave it a sense of being big by double-tracking with some strong spring reverb. There, I talked about “Stairway to Heaven” mostly because I’d feel foolish not mentioning it. Seriously, I skipped it many times this week.

Four Sticks” got my attention this time around. I hadn’t given it much attention in the past, so it still had a little sense of novelty. Also, the unusual rhythm of the song intrigued me. Some research revealed that most of the song is in a very unusual 5/8 time, withe some parts in a more common 6/8. I read that the rhythm of the song was so difficult that they almost gave up on recording the song. I hear a few times on the recording that they do slip up as a result. There’s a vaguely middle-eastern feel to the music. This comes from the combination of odd time signature, droning ascending scales, driving percussion, and energetically strummed acoustics. I sometimes find that songs in odd signatures will feel like they drift or ramble, but the 6/8 sections of this song give a sense of journey.

The seventh track “Going to California” is comparable to “Stairway to Heaven” while being much better. I like the collection of acoustic guitars and mandolin creating musical textures through arpeggios. They are panned mostly hard left and right, leaving space in the middle for the bass and vocals. The lyrics are more relatable than the Tolkeinesque-Rumi vagueness that happens on some of the other tracks like “Stairway.” The first verse is a pair of beautifully written narrative couplets. They get the listeners attention immediately through emotional story-telling:

Spent my days with a woman unkind
Smoked my stuff and drank all my wine.
Made up my mind to make a new start
Going To California with an aching in my heart.

Speaking of Tolkein, my other favorite track is “Misty Mountain Hop.” There’s also something unique about the rhythm of this song. The main riff of the song, which is played on both guitar and electric piano, actually starts an 8th note before the first beat of each measure and least for a full quarter. This song provides an a great example of what I first think of as the Led Zeppelin sound. There’s big loud drums, a heavy bass bottom, a blues-inspired hard grooving guitar riff, and Plant’s high-pitched vocals. The narrative lyrics describe a situation, a certain place and time, written with an ear to both blues and high fantasy balladry.

So I’ve learned a bit about the possibilities of mixing time signatures in a song. Their use of mysticism and fantasy elements is most enjoyable for me for telling real-world narrative. In addition, the way that they double-up on instruments to strengthen a riff is very effective. And you can’t deny the power of big drums.