Love’s “Forever Changes”

Album cover for Love's "Forever Changes"

This week, I’ve been listening to Love’s masterpiece LP “Forever Changes” from 1967. I first became aware of this band, and this album, through the Wes Anderson’sBottle Rocket” in 1997. Once I’d heard “Alone Again Or” in that movie, I had to find out more about the song and who did it. Within a few months, I purchased a copy of this album on CD. The whole thing blew me away. This is one of the most amazing musical works I’d ever heard. Each song brilliantly combines musical flavors into a unified whole. There’s elements of psychedelic rock, folk rock, latin rock, and baroque pop.

This was the same year as the “Sgt. Pepper“, “Piper at the Gate of Dawn“, “Surrealistic Pillow“, “Are You Experienced“, “Satanic Majesties“,”Incense and Peppermints.” Rock bands were exploring new sounds, ways of writing lyrics and music, as well as performance and visuals. Much of this music definitely sounds of its time and “Forever Changes” is no exception. However, there’s something about “Forever Changes” the feels more independent of time and location. I think it could be the unique combination of genres as well as the presence of air between the instruments and notes.

Love play the traditional rock instruments: drums, bass, guitar, and vocals. They richly enhanced this core band with a group of session musicians on strings, piano, trumpet, trombones, and additional horns, bass, and drums.

The album has some frightful lyrics, in contrast to the summer of love. One of my favorite tracks “A House Is Not a Motel” begins by offering a heavenly home to take refuge; By the third and final verse, the song paints a world overrun by war.

By the time that I’m through singing
The bells from the schools and walls will be ringing
More confusions, blood transfusions.
The news today will be the movies for tomorrow.
And the water’s turned to blood, and if
You don’t think so
Go turn on your tub
And if it’s mixed with mud
You’ll see it turn to gray
And you can call my name.

The verses of this minor key song follows a progression of i-III-ii-VI twice, followed by ii-VI-ii-VII-ii-VII-i-i. That’s four lines of melody, followed by two, and then a rest. The first pair line two lines start with the tonic chord, establishing the key. It’s an unusual progression to go from III-ii-VI, resulting in a fragile chord progression. This progression contains no IV or V. The second part of the verse almost feels like a key change shifting up on step to ii, but we are still in the same key. Again, there’s no IV of V, and we actually stay raised away from the tonic until the end, which gives this section a continuing sense of suspense. The vocals enhance this feeling with longer pauses between each line.

Something that I really love about this track is the unusually loud guitar solo. Normally, I would feel like this was a bad decision, but it works so perfectly in this track. After the third verse, two electric guitars play a menacing lead riff in unison. They spread across the stereo field with one hard left and the other hard right. To my ear, You could achieve this guitar sound with a treble boost (or open wah) played through either fuzz or overdrive. I’m leaning towards fuzz. After playing this line six times with little variation, the two guitars break off into wildly different solos.

“The Red Telephone” provides a great example of that openness I mentioned earlier. There’s lots of empty space in this track; in time, there’s space between the vocals lines. There’s space between the instruments on the frequency band. There’s also great space between sounds on the stereo field. They panned Things hard left and hard right. To increase this space, we sometimes hear the room reverb on the right for something on the left. I like the way this ties the ears together, making the hard panning feel more natural.

As with many songs of the late 60s, the song opens with an acoustic guitar panned hard right. After an opening riff, the drums and bass join in the left channel. In this case, the vocals begin the first verse at the same time in the center change. This song also delivers lyrics non-stereotypical of the hippy-dippy summer of love, “Sitting on a hillside, watching all the people die.” The words are a general indictment of war, violence, race relations, and police state. Each verse ends with an eerie harpsichord line that suggests dark forebodings.

The end of lines sometimes go into a IV-IV♯7 which gives them an eerie sense of foreboding. Musicians frequently add the seventh to a chord for suspense, depending on the genre. The seventh can also draw a chord towards a more jazzy feel, as jazz makes great use of sevenths, sixths, and ninths. Borrowed chords, like the sharpened seventh, don’t get used too often in rock music. When they do, they provide either an a rise or drop in emotion. Using a sharpened chord right after playing the chord gives a sense of movement, adding the seventh makes it uncomfortable. That happens here. Arthur Lee and Love play up the haunting atmosphere with these unusual chord progressions.

The track ends with a prolonged arpeggio on the vi and VI. They rise from the minor vi to the major VI at the end of each phrase, suggesting we’re going to move on to another chord. However, the progression returns right back to the minor vi. There’s not resolution here, supporting the feeling of the chanted vocals:

They’re locking them up today
They’re throwing away the key
I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow, you or me?

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!

To My Ear: First 50 Albums

I’ve now listened to fifty of the greatest albums of all time, devoting a full week to each. I revisited albums I’ve loved for years, spent time getting to know I only knew a little, and became acquainted with some that I’d never heard before. What did I think personally and what did I learn over all?

As a songwriter, I learned that there the basic standards of songwriting provide the basis for crafting good songs. Still, there are no hard-fast rules. As long as there’s something the listener can hang unto, rules and standards can be broken, ignored, or turned upside down.

Those basics of pop songwriting include the blocks of Verse, Chorus, Bridge and the common arrangements of those blocks (Intro-Verse-Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus-Coda). There’s no shame in using this tried-and-true song structure or typical variations thereof.  It’s not too unlike the structures of plays, movies, novels, or even lectures; You can better engage the listener if the story you tell is built on a structure they know how to follow.

In this way, the structure becomes invisible to most listeners and deviations become visible. In this way, use of an uncommon song structure becomes a part of the narrative, and therefore should support the story in a meaningful way. It doesn’t have to, but it helps.

On chord progressions, I learned something similar.  The most common  progressions possess a lot of strength. That’s why they are so frequently used. They generally provide a good sense of movement and emotion or drive. Again, there’s no shame in using these. Some of the greatest songs from the greatest albums use some sort of I-IV-V chord progression with the exact song structure described above.

Still, I learned that using 7th chords can add tension or emotion to a song. In addition, some very good songs use some strange chord progressions. Borrowed chords particularly give an emotional change to a song without necessary using a full key-change. The further songs get from typical cadences (like V-I or IV-I), the more they can seem to drift along aimless. This can be used effectively as well.

Regarding lyrics, there are two main things I learned. Of course, these are not all I learned, but I think these are the most important for me at this point. First, I confirmed that narrative songwriting best captures my interest. It doesn’t necessarily have to a full tale, it could just be a vignette of somebody making a sandwich. But through these little stories, some sort of emotional conflict can be expressed. Also, the story need not be even coherent or concrete; rather, ambiguity can add a little mystery as well as more room for the listener to move in. I think this narrative element also relates to the concept of “show-don’t-tell” that was taught in writing classes. Don’t say “she is sad,” but rather show how she moves around slowly with her head down. Don’t tell the audience how to feel, let them empathize with the character.

Secondly, I learned to not be afraid of rhyme, but rather to expand my rhyming vocabulary. Bob Dylan in particular is a master of crafting rhymes. Sometimes he’ll use a typical rhyme, but more often his inventiveness allows the story to be told without drawing attention to the rhyme.

In addition to rhyming vocabulary, it’s good to study poetry and old ballads. As a songwriter, I’m writing words I write are meant to be sung with the accompaniment of music. While it is true that lyrics and poetry are not the same thing, there’s a strong relationship between them. And I think that many of these albums prove that a songwriter wielding the tools of the poet can craft better lyrics. This is not writing to sound poetic, but rather, getting a grasp of how poets use meter, rhyme schemes, line structure, stanzas, refrains, etc. And beyond those physical materials of poetry, how do they use things like narrative, visuals, symbolism, metaphors, and allusions.

First 50 Albums Ranked

So, having listened to fifty albums from a composite ranked list inevitably gives one the desire to give their own personal rankings. So, I did it. I point out that my intention was to mostly rank them based on how much I enjoyed and appreciated them. So, this is a very subjective list. That’s always true, but I’m consciously ignoring how great an album was beyond my own tastes. This is very difficult to do, and I don’t necessarily think it’s that important. Still.. if I ranked these same albums again in a month, the order would be a little different here and there.

  1. Beach Boys: Pet Sounds
  2. Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks
  3. Rolling Stones: Exile on Main St.
  4. Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde
  5. Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet
  6. Beatles: Abbey Road
  7. Beatles: The Beatles (White Album)
  8. Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run
  9. Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed
  10. Beatles: Rubber Soul
  11. Van Morrison: Astral Weeks
  12. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited
  13. Patti Smith: Horses
  14. Prince and Revolution: Purple Rain
  15. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours
  16. Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland
  17. Smiths: The Queen is Dead
  18. Television: Marquee Moon
  19. Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You
  20. Doors: The Doors
  21. Radiohead: OK Computer
  22. Beatles: Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
  23. Stevie Wonder: Innervisions
  24. Leonard Cohen: Songs of Leonard Cohen
  25. Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon
  26. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue
  27. Clash: London Calling
  28. David Bowie: Hunky Dory
  29. Sex Pistols: Nevermind the Bollocks
  30. Who: Who’s Next
  31. Johnny Cash: Live at Folsom Prison
  32. Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground & Nico
  33. Pixies: Doolittle
  34. Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced
  35. David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust
  36. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin IV
  37. Joni Mitchell: Blue
  38. Beatles: Revolver
  39. Paul Simon: Graceland
  40. Michael Jackson: Thriller
  41. John Coltrane: A Love Supreme
  42. Ramones: Ramones
  43. Nirvana: Nevermind
  44. Prince: Sign O The Times
  45. Carole King: Tapestry
  46. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation to Hold Us Back
  47. My Bloody Valentine: Loveless
  48. Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On
  49. Massive Attack: Blue Lines
  50. Radiohead: Kid A

Carole King’s “Tapestry”

Carole King Tapestry album cover

For the past week, I’ve been listening to Carole King’s 1971 album “Tapestry” for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. I’ve been more than aware of this album for years. From basement sales, I’ve managed to pick up two copies of it based on the feeling that I should appreciate it. And each time I’ve tried it, I would be disappointed. 

The songwriting is there, but these feel more like demo recordings to me. The musicians are surely capable, but generally play these songs straight. I feel they could use more playfulness and invention that may’ve come from working and reworking the songs. The vocals are adequate and often expressively intimate, but too frequently they feel thin and lacking in confidence. I know that Carole King had written a great many songs for other performers. Frequently, I feel that her performances here are an example of how the song could be sung rather than actually being a performance.

The songwriting is there, but these feel more like demo recordings to me. The musicians are surely capable, but generally play these songs straight. I feel they could use more playfulness and invention that may’ve come from working and reworking the songs. The vocals are adequate and often expressively intimate, but too frequently they feel thin and lacking in confidence. I know that Carole King had written a great many songs for other performers. Frequently, I feel that her performances here are an example of how the song could be sung rather than actually being a performance.

One of the best songs on the album, “It’s too Late,” has a wonderful vocal performance and accompaniment. I contradict my previous assessment of the album’s weaknesses by then talking about this track. However, I do want to talk about what I liked. On this song, poet Toni Stern wrote the lyrics with Carole King writing the music. King’s piano provides the main rhythm and chords for the song, with bass guitar, drums and congas further filling in the chord progression and rhythm. An electric guitar panned left and an electric piano panned right interact with each other across the centered piano chords. The syncopated rhythms of the melody and upbeat tempo of this minor key ballad seem to encourage King to sing with wonderful energy and confidence. 

With “Way Over Yonder,” King provides a soulful track performed with a gospel sentiment. Melody drives the song, carried well by King’s vocals. This is also one of the looser performances on the album; The loose performance, with the piano coming in and out of swing and syncopated time, lends the song a greater human emotional feeling. The slow pace along with three steps leading to each chord change gives the song soul.

The lyrics focus on a life of happiness and sweetness as a goal in life. This vision is presented like a gospel hymn on the promise of heaven. “I know when I get there, the first things I’ll see, is the sun shining golden. Shining right down on me.” Whereas those hymns have an overall optimistic sense of hope; I appreciate that this song has more a sense of longing.

King provides her own take on her song “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” which was originally famously performed by the Shirelles. The Shirelles version, I believe, is featured in one of my favorite movies, “Big Wednesday.” Both versions are performed like a doo-wop ballad. However, the chord progression is not the 50s doo-wop progression, but rather a I-IV-V-I-V-IV♭-IV-iv for the verses. I love the sound of the V-IV♭-IV-iv. The use of the borrowed IV♭ feels like we’re going into a key change, but then we’re brought back to the IV, which gets dropped to a minor at the end of the line. The chord progression is emotionally very effective. 

Overall, I’m still not a fan of this album.  Martika did a great high-energy pop version of “I Feel the Earth Move” in 1989. Having grown up hearing that cover, I find Carole King’s more straight-forward performance to be a lackluster start of the album. So, the album was actually more enjoyable for me if I skipped the first track. However, most of the songs I would love to hear as performed by other musicians, with the exception of “It’s too late” which I love as is.

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.

Leonard Cohen’s “Songs of Leonard Cohen”

This week, I’ve been listening to Leonard Cohen’s debut album “Songs of Leonard Cohen” from 1967. My girlfriend introduced me to Leonard Cohen by giving me a copy of the Phil Spector produced album”Death of a Ladies’ Man.” I slowly grew a deep appreciation for the songs on that album.  The production was like something from a dream; The recordings smelled faintly of liquor and cigarettes.  “Death of a Ladies’ Man” provided a cool, yet haunting, melancholic atmosphere through lyrics, performance and production.

I’ve been looking forward to this week with “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” At first, I was a bit disappointed by the sound. The vocals were too intimately languid and the atmosphere was much different than the Phil Spector produced album. Known as a poet before starting his music career, Cohen writes amazing lyrics. I loved them from first listen and my appreciation for them developed over the week. The music also grew on me as well. The vocals aren’t quite to my taste, but I appreciate that they suit the songs. There’s quite a bit for a songwriting musician to learn form here, especially the lyrics.

“Sisters of Mercy” got my attention first.  The songs of this album are vocal and acoustic guitar based. Any other instrumentation is there to provide support or background. This song features a jangly mixture of instruments in the background that sound like a French street band. This band consists of accordion, glockenspiel, some light percussion. The atmosphere that they provide captured my heart before the lyrics. 

Those lyrics tell a simple story of a passing interaction with two young women whom Cohen had given a place to stay. After some conversation and then seeing them sleep, he was inspired to write “Sisters of Mercy.” According to this tale, he was the person that provided charity to them, not the other way around. However, it seems that they left brightened his evening and left a lasting impression. 

Having bestowed upon them the title of “sisters of mercy,” he continues with references to religious symbolism throughout the song. In the third of the four stanzas, he elevates their conversation to the point of an awakening or spiritual conversion. The confession he mentions in this verse probably refers to the previous verse where he tells of leaving his family and his own soul. He admits to feeling lonely as a sort of punishment for his actions. “When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned.” It’s not clear to me if he says this, or the Sisters do. Like Jesus touched the eyes of the blind, they have given him a new perspective on life and he honors them for it.

Well they lay down beside me, I made my confession to them.
They touched both my eyes and I touched the dew on their hem.
If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn
They will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.

The track “Suzanne” introduces the sound of the album well. Broken chords gently played on acoustic guitar start the track to be joined by Cohen’s reserved vocals. Even the chord progression is a gentle one: I-ii-I-iii-IV-I-ii-I-ii-I for the verses and iii-IV-I-ii-I for the chorus. The verse chord progression rises during the first half across the ii, iii, and IV, to return to ii in the second half. The steps back to the tonic chord keep the progression gently seated. The melody, too, rises and falls. 

There are three verses, each followed by a chorus. The verse follow a rhyme scheme of AABB for the first four lines and then the next two or three lines rhyme, but not following a consistent pattern. Most of the rhymes are slant. In the final verse, he rhymes “river” with “forever” and then “harbor” with “flowers” for the first two lines. The last three lines end with “morning” which somewhat ties together the rhyme of final two lines “forever” and “mirror.”

One could potentially class the titular Suzanne as a manic pixie dream girl. This woman that’s “half crazy (that’s why you want to be there)” takes the listener on a journey of discovery. She knows where the heroes are, even in the most unexpected places. This perspective on life is her gift. In the second of the three verses, where I believe the second person is shifted to Suzanne, the focus is on Jesus, whom Cohen describes as broken, forsaken. Even “he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.” 

Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river
You can hear the boats go by you can spend the night forever
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror

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.