Thursday, May 5, 2016

A Dash of Excitement

So naturally I've got lots of Prince tracks on the brain of late--beats, choruses, lyrics, etc. But the thing I most respond to in most music, and one of the many reasons I cherish his, is harmony. That's why I tripped out on the mind-bending flat-V in "Sometimes It Snows in April," why "Ballad of Dorothy Parker" is maybe my favorite of all his songs (well, it's not just the harmony in that case, but those chords!), why I love deep cuts like "The Question of U" and "Joy in Repetition"...and why a bracing string filigree in the otherwise straightforward ditty "Take Me With U" just knocks me out. Over the song's sunny, "1999"-ish synth hook in A, Prince layers a rapid little seven-note riff more or less in the key and scale of B, and it gives the song a little shot of adrenaline each time (it first appears at 1:06). If may not make the song bitonal, exactly, but it certainly feels bi-curious. And of course it's not just a random decoration: It gives this song about escape with a lover a real dash of adventure and excitement.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Sometimes Prince Goes to Bb

My nominee for most mind-bending chord in Prince's whole catalog: the Bb he goes to on "wish" in "Sometimes It Snows in April." The song is a pretty straightforward (and heartrending) ballad in E and the chorus has a very soothing Amaj7 feel...until he sings an F natural over a Bb chord on "wish" (1:35 below). It feels wrong in the best way, almost cubist, and I guess you could say it suggests the profound disorientation of grief and/or the impossibility of a wish for eternal love. Anyway, it hits me like a quiet thunderbolt and gives me a little shiver every time I hear it (and try to sing along with it). Facebook post with comments here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Williams Files

Sometimes when you blog about a topic you really care about, however intermittently, and you happen to know editors of publications other than the one you run, it may happen that you're asked to write about the topics you know too much about for actual for-sale publications. That was the case when Allison Adato, an editor at Entertainment Weekly books and an old college friend of mine, was putting together a Star Wars guide last fall and she asked me to write about what made John Williams's scores so special. I'd written at some length about revisiting the original 1977 soundtrack album here; and I happily obliged giving the scores another spin in anticipation of that what's-it-called movie about the force. A sample:
Think of the opening anthem, which accompanies each chapter’s expositional crawl: This octave-spanning tune, in wholesome B-flat major, is irresistibly stirring not only for its leap-frogging melody but for what that melody leaps over: a harmony built partly from a “quartal” chord, so-called because it’s essentially a stack of fanfare-like fourth intervals (the opening notes of “Taps” or the “Wedding March” are fourths), and a restless rhythm in the underscoring that alternates off-beat bursts of syncopation with an even-keeled march, keeping this otherwise straightforward processional on its toes.

Bowie Diddley

Among the many musical tropes that Bowie returned to throughout his long career, one he especially seemed to relish was the 3-2 clave tattoo known as the Bo Diddley beat. After spending weeks swimming in his catalogue, from its depths to its shallows, I can trace the line from his first real rock album, A Space Oddity, on which the beat recurs repeatedly, in the moving folk ballad "God Knows I'm Good," and in one memorable instrumental acoustic-guitar figure in the title track, but most forcefully in the beguiling jam "Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed" (beat starts at 1:10 and doesn't stop)...

...to the middle of his early Ziggy period, with the snaky "Panic in Detroit..."

...to the peak of his Berlin period, in the underlying feel of his great "Sound and Vision" (it's most pronounced on the "chorus," which first appears at 1:05)...

...to this amazing variation on the beat, retooled for 7/4, from Scary Monsters' "Up the Hill Backwards"...

...and finally to this hard-edged variation, from his last record ★, "Sue"...
And the beat goes on.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Jamming Good



A few random Bowie thoughts after a week-and-change of binging on his catalog:

1. VOICE: I read and heard very little last week about the extreme oddity of his vocal range and stylings, which he used to full effect from "Life on Mars" (try singing that whole thing through without resorting to falsetto) right up to his last record. Really, it was an extraordinary instrument, and I think it's safe to call it unique in rock. (I remember thinking how perverse it was for him to cover the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" in a bass croak; I'm sure he was having a laugh on us with that one.)

2. ACCENT: Unlike his countrymen in the Beatles or the Stones or the Who, even Elvis Costello, who mostly ape American diction, Bowie's crisp London accent was always front and center (with a few arguable exceptions when he was singing full-on blues rock very early in his career, and at his glam-rock height). I wonder if it had something to do with Anthony Newley's influence--one might question a lot about Newley's work (and taste), but never where he was from. (Strangely enough, it's that accent that may be what most moves me about Bowie's amazing cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "America," from a concert after 9/11.) 3. SONGCRAFT: I'd never really taken stock till last week of what an astonishing tunesmith Bowie was. I had registered the hugely varying sounds of his records and clocked some of his obvious templates (blues rock, Philly soul, Kraut rock, folk), and I'd certainly noticed the times he grooved on simple progressions ("Golden Years," "Five Years," "Fashion," "Sound and Vision," etc.) vs. the times he was making what sounded like more ambitious/odd pieces, structurally or harmonically ("Station to Station," "Ashes to Ashes," "Width of a Circle," "Life on Mars," side two of Low). But taking apart some of his tunes in the past week, I'm more in awe than ever. Case in point: "Queen Bitch" has always been a favorite song of mine, and that simple, Lou Reedy I-V-IV progression on side-by-side acoustic and electric guitars is reason enough to love it at first hook. And the chorus always sounded to me like it's got some sort of harmonic lift out of the verse, then a sidelong turn back into it. I checked it out and that's all true, but a little weirder than that: The verse is in C, and the chorus alternates between B and D (getting there with help from E and A), then pivots back out from B to a C  ("Oh God I could do better than that"). That sneaky chromaticism is not something I expected in a blues-rock jam. Now that I can hear it, I love it all the more. This is happening all over the place with his songs now that I'm freshly attuned to it.
4. PRODUCTION: I've read and heard a lot about how he worshipped spontaneity and serendipity in the studio, hated to do multiple takes, etc. That doesn't seem to square with the rich, polished, questing, deeply intentional sounds I've been hearing in my earbuds for the past week; apart from the weirdly under-recorded vocals of "Watch That Man" (anyone know what was up with that?), there isn't really a sloppy or half-baked moment on his records. There are some perfunctory performances and the occasional lapse into slickness, and some very clear stylistic dead ends (Young Americans, I'm looking at you). But nothing that sounds dashed off.

5. LYRICS: Finally, as many of the more astute commenters recently pointed out, the whole Bowie-as-character-chameleon thing is way overblown. In fact, after 1976 he stopped creating characters altogether (slightly changing your look and sound, as he did thereafter, is standard pop-star procedure). While it's true that the stark change-ups of the early '70s, and the fact that he'd gone through what seemed like so many, were what first clued me in that he was essentially a theatre artist in rock and pop form, I could have JUST LISTENED TO THE LYRICS. Duh! His first hit "Space Oddity" didn't just set up the Bowie-as-alien trope that he riffed on throughout his whole career--it has multiple voices in conversation, and tells a story. In other words: a little one-act play. So is the meta-narrative "Life on Mars," and of course the concept albums Ziggy Stardust, Diamond Dogs...and so on. One smart pushback I heard against interpreting his last record Blackstar, and the stage show Lazarus, as autobiographical is that's exactly the kind of thing Bowie pointedly NEVER did. Like David Byrne or Randy Newman, Bowie didn't need to put on a character; his songs were already doing the job.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Surprises and Scares

Today’s formative-album replay: Björk, Post. Björk has always been a worldbuilder as ambitious and meticulous as Tolkien, Whedon, or Punchdrunk; each of her records is a distinctive, immersive sonic landscape to be inhabited as much as heard, almost to a fault. Indeed, I have to admit I’m a few albums behind on her ouevre--I kind of lost the plot after the virtuosic voice orgy Medulla, and indeed have frequently lost my way within many of her more ethereal icecapades. Even this extraordinary collection--now, unbelievably, about to celebrate its 20th birthday--has a few tracks that work less as songs than as mood fugues, which wobble and wander a bit when plucked outside their natural habitat (popping up in Shuffle, in other words).

On this relisten, though, what struck me anew about Post is its dynamic and metric range, from grand bombast to quivering quiet, from explosive, frog-marching club beats to free-time, almost improvisatory musings. It’s a record, in short, as sweeping in scale and as infinitesimally sensitive as Björk’s vocal instrument itself. From the Bonham-worthy drum boom and woozy, electric-eel synth bass of “Army of Me” to the ghostly echo chamber of “Headphones,” from the swaying string swoon of “You’ve Been Flirting Again” to the cagey, clamped-down frenzy of “Enjoy” and “I Miss You,” Post is a house with many mansions. If I had to locate its dark, swarming heart, I’d pick “Isobel,” a jungly fantasia of animist lust with a low, crackling beat covering the floor and a string orchestra throwing up steep walls that Björk’s voice rappels and bungees from with daredevil abandon (“When she does it/She means to”). I would not pick her spirited cover of Betty Hutton’s bipolar romp “It’s Oh So Quiet,” only because, by a weird bit of luck, I had happened upon Hutton’s blazing original a few years earlier on an LP compilation, and found that Björk’s note-for-note copy (really, the charts are identical) didn’t have that much to add.

What "Oh So Quiet" does do, inarguably, is showcase yet another facet of Björk’s genius--the place where her oddball theatricality intersects with Mickey-and-Judy innocence--as if the expansive multiverse of Post needed yet another dimension. But then, while there’s no shortage of whimsy and excess, of mystery and synchronicity, in Björkland, nothing is truly random; when she does it, she means to.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

You Who Know What Love Is

Frederica von Stade sings Cherubino's "Non so piu"; in the recording I grew up on, it was Fiorenza Cossotto
Today’s formative-album replay: Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro (highlights, Guilini/Schwarzkopf). Why did any composer, including Mozart, bother to write anything after Figaro? Could they not hear that Western musical drama had reached its peak and nothing--not a thousand Valkyries or Toscas, let alone MacHeaths or Sweeneys--would ever come close? That’s honestly the way I feel after a fresh encounter even with just this exquisite highlights reel, which was my introduction to the work’s capacious, smiling perfection (neck and neck with a quite-good student production at USC, and another a few years later at the LA Opera). Don’t get me wrong, I love all of Mozart’s operas and plenty of others; but there’s something about the confident, supple, utterly sympathetic but unobtrusive voice of the composer here that makes it all sound both as natural as talking and as heightened as, well, opera. That these lusty, flawed, foolish but refreshingly adult characters sing their love, anger, calculation and contrition makes seamless sense here, in a way I find true in very few works of even the best music-theater, because Mozart’s score is so fully invested in every moment; he does not miss a beat, dramaturgical or otherwise. To my ears (and other organs), it seems the most fully, richly dramatized music ever made.

It doesn’t hurt that Da Ponte’s impish libretto is the ideal playground for Mozart’s mature style--for a composer who feels and can express emotion so directly, even overwhelmingly, that he is drawn, seemingly inevitably, to the masks, feints, and layers that conceal and confound honest human relations, all the better to finally, movingly rip them away. The text’s overlapping plots and deceptions, which crucially include a large serving of self-deception, would be merely sex-farcical if they weren’t underlaid and driven by music of such undeniable, passionate empathy, even for the ostensible villain, the Count. The registers of voice here--the way Mozart indicates characters’ class, age, emotional state, indeed psychological essence--are breathtakingly nuanced. As I think of my favorite example, I have to confess a sort of rooting interest: I’m realizing now that what may have finally sold Figaro for me, who after all first encountered it a tender, horny age, was Cherubino, the hormone-addled teenaged messenger, for whom Mozart wrote some of his most sensitive, lovely and funny music; the way the character worshipfully bleats “donne” (women) captures a whole universe of sweet, painful ardor. That Cherubino is a pants role, played most often by young, sexy mezzo sopranos--well, there you have a recipe for a lifelong infatuation. Original Facebook post here.