Monday, October 5, 2009

Superfly on Drugs


It should go without saying that Curtis Mayfield's achievement amounts to more than being sampled by Beyonce and writing "People Get Ready." In addition to his early work with the Impressions, he also recorded one of the best film soundtracks ever, 1972's Superfly, the sales of which outgrossed the film it was created for, and in the process forged a much-parodied and taken-for-granted genre, what might be called crime funk, duly parroted by every cop show in the '70s. But the original is a tight-knit work of genius, an entirely free-standing work. Back when I used to listen to albums all the way through, this was a favorite spin.

And I happened to notice something back then about two of the album's signature songs, and ostensibly its two main narrative guideposts (as far as I know--I've never seen the film): the insinuating, repetitive pitch of the "Pusherman," and the inevitable, chilling result of his ministrations, "Freddie's Dead." The sound clips may speak for themselves:



Freddie's Dead


Did you catch the identical three-note figure? It's an unmistakeable internal reference. Written in C, the figure would read like this:


The figure is phrased differently in each: In "Pusherman" it's manic, obsessive, unrelenting, shambling forward to land on either side of the beat.



While in the magisterial "Freddie" it slams down assertively on the downbeat (and yes, Mayfield's vocal adds another note on top):



The effectiveness of repurposing a musical motif this way should be self-evident, thematically and narratively: It links these two songs in our heads, and even points a finger of blame for Freddie's untimely end back to its source.

What I was curious to see, then, is whether or not Mayfield used this figure throughout the Superfly record. Well, that I discovered several examples is hardly slam-dunk evidence that Mayfield did this with any kind of intention, because that figure is a staple of blues, R&B, rock and roll--indeed, it's such an unremarkable series of notes, just a doodle on the pentatonic scale, that you can find it all over all kinds of music from nearly any time or place. Still, I wanted to see how it turned up--and I'm relatively persuaded that its frequent recurrence on the songs of Superfly represents the use of a leitmotif, either conscious or (more likely) unconscious. As most film scores are written in a compressed amount of time between the completion of shooting and the theatrical release date, it's likely that Mayfield simply found himself falling into a musical shorthand that happened to rotate, in part, around this three-note "drug motif."

In fact, it shows up in every song except the film's one love song, "Give Me Your Love," and it only just barely flares by in the guitar part of the bridge of the film's title song, "Superfly":



I would argue that one reason these songs don't use the "drug motif" is that they are the least germane to that subject. Though "Superfly" is a fine movie theme, I don't really feel Mayfield's heart is in this outright celebration of ghetto gangsta-dom; the love song is also fine but somewhat generic.

But it's in a series of moralizing songs about inner-city pressures and lives gone wrong that the three-note "drug motif" so prominent in "Pusherman" and "Freddie's Dead" turns up with a frequency that's hard to ignore.

Consider "Little Child (Runnin' Wild)." The bass line starts with a climbing elaboration of the figure:



And then the chorus hits the figure head-on:





Considerably sunnier is "No Thing On Me (Cocaine Song)," in which Mayfield uses the figure specifically to repudiate drugs, indeed with the words "the man can't put no thing on me":





And here, by using the Pusherman's motif, he makes it clear exactly which "man" he's talking about:



More troubled and hortatory is "Eddie, You Shoulda Known Better." As this is a more subjunctive, less assertive argument than "Freddie's Dead," the three-note figure is accordingly embedded a little more subtly. But it's still evident, and it accents some key lyrics:





The instrumental "Junkie Chase," strangely enough, doesn't seem to include the drug motif. But then there's "Think," arguably the still, quiet heart of Superfly--a mildly anguished yet sun-kissed instrumental ballad with a spindly, fluttery guitar figure that recalls "Little Wing." This, of course, is the piece the aforementioned Ms. Knowles so memorably collaborated with on her "Resentment," a song very far away in intent and tone from the blaxploitation-scape of Superfly--but then, a great instrumental piece is a house with multiple entrances. In its original context, "Think" swims along meditatively, soberly, transcending the struggles of the rest of the record.

As such, it wouldn't be surprising if the three-note drug motif was missing. But in fact, though it's subtle, it's definitely there, and as a penultimate cadence, like the comma before an amen:



You can find clusters of notes in common among infinite numbers of songs if you look and listen, and it usually doesn't mean a thing (if it ain't got that swing). But it's clear to me that the three-note drug motif, this resilient strand of the blues scale, went viral in the bloodstream of Superfly, and it's at least one reason the album is a natural high.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Fractured "Jawbone"

"What do you think of the beginning of 'Jawbone'"? a friend wrote me after seeing this blog. I have to confess I'd never really taken note of the song, a track on the The Band's seminal self-titled 1970 album (record company must have loved taking that to market). Now that I have digested the motley moritat that is "Jawbone," my initial response would be: Beginning? What about the rest of it? It's nuts, and I mean that in a good way.

I've probably taken The Band for granted. When I saw The Last Waltz years ago, I was checking it out for all the guests--Dylan, Joni, Emmylou, Muddy Waters--more than for the furry Canucks who were the ostensible subject of the concert film. On the advice of several musician friends, I've schooled myself a little in the group's essentials ("The Weight," "The Shape I'm In," the problematic "Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"), and even discovered an unlikely favorite, the disturbing childhood reverie "Moon Struck One."

But one reason it's easy to under-rate The Band is that their songs, like many of Hoagy Carmichael's or John Fogerty's, just sound like they've always been around, or as Ralph Gleason said of "Dixie," "the rhythmic structure, the voice of Levon and the bass line with the drum accents and then the heavy close harmony of Levon, Richard and Rick in the theme, make it seem impossible that this isn't some traditional material handed down from father to son straight from that winter of 1865 to today. It has that ring of truth and the whole aura of authenticity." Their songs' terrain feels familiar, even well-worn; you feel like you know exactly where you are all the time, and where you're going.

But from the first notes of "Jawbone," with the piano meandering and eerie harmony vocals slipping and sliding in weightless free time on the words "Old jawbone/Where did you first go wrong?", you have no idea where you are, what's happening, what's going to happen next. And when the beat kicks in (at :25), you start knowing even less. For a song that's resolutely major-key, and not even particularly bluesy, it remains deeply disorienting pretty much throughout.



I'm not sure I know how to count 3/2, but the three-beat bars of the verse here ("Three-time loser/You'll never learn") certainly don't feel like 3/4 or 6/8. There are eight of these, plus an extra beat, and then comes the song's catchiest hook, its reason for being--and strikingly, its only switch of perspective, as the narrator who spends most of the song ragging Jawbone for his unlawful ways hands the mike to the subject, who wails unapologetically, "I'm a thief, and I dig it" (:42) over a four-beat bar, followed by an inspired jig of 6 beats, as if Jawbone is kicking up his heels in defiance. There are three of these, and then we slide into a gently chastened 6/8-feel boogie version of the "Old jawbone" chorus (1:02) for eight bars.

After another verse (with the priceless lyric about Jawbone lamenting the small print of his post-office wanted poster) and another "I'm a thief" jig break, the 6/8 chorus returns, but with a discombobulated waltz feel (2:00) this time, and an odd five-then-four-bar shape. Another verse and jig break, only this time the third 6-beat jig is lopped off at four beats--you can almost hear the band rearing up in resistance (2:46) to the fancy meter and ready to rock on straight 4. Which they do for a generous solo section, followed by another verse and jig break.

I'm not sure how often I'll be spinning this odd track in future, but I doubt I'll ever dismiss The Band as derivative roots-rockers again. Clearly all that musty Americana artfully disguises their true art-rock ambitions.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Not Alone

Some years ago I saw Elvis Costello give a great show at UCLA's Royce Hall, just him and Steve Nieve. And one of his 10 encores was an extremely unlikely cover: the Rodgers & Hammerstein anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone." I scratched my head, filed it in the Costello-will-try-any-style-once file, and moved on.

And then I read about Clive Owen's love for soccer in the New Yorker this week:
[Owen] was surrounded by about fifty boozy soccer fans, who stood beneath flat-screen TVs showing the Leeds United vs. Liverpool game, singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the Liverpool anthem.

Looks like we can thank Costello's fellow Liverpudlians, Gerry and the Pacemakers, for popularizing a showtune with football supporters.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Interval Memes

For a wobbly-relative-pitch person like myself, here are a few shorthand tricks I use for remembering these (please contribute your own, if you are so moved):

Minor second: "Jaws"; "Misirlou"; in reverse, "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" (I am six-teen), "Fur Elise"

Second: "Hello My Baby!" (Hel-lo my ba-by), "I Would Die 4 U" (I would die 4...), "The Man I Love" (Some-day he'll come...)

Minor third: "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" (She's not...), "The Man I Love" (Some-day he'll come a-long)

Fourth: Wedding march, "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," "I've Never Been in Love Before" (I've nev-er been...)

Flat fifth (tritone): "Maria" (Ma-ri...); in reverse, "Heart-Shaped Box" (I got a new complaint), "YYZ"

Fifth: Take the A Train, Chim Chim Cheree (Chim chim-in-y), "Moon River" (Moon riv...)

Minor/flat sixth: (in reverse) "Love Story" (Where do I begin)

Sixth: "My Way" (And now...), Taps (first and third note)

Dominant seventh: "Somewhere" (There's a...)

Major seventh: "Johanna" (I feel you)

Octave: "Johanna" (I feel...), "My Sharona"

Beach Boys, Down and Up

It wasn't just in the Pet Sounds/Smile era that the Beach Boys were harmonic innovators. Two of their earlier signature songs have well-placed chord twists that give them their distinct emotional color: one blue, the other sunny.

The first is the unutterably sad "In My Room," which we may hear now in hindsight as Brian Wilson's depressive mission statement but which still packs a melancholic punch without any knowledge of its author's psychological profile (listen to the Langley Schools version, for instance). The harmony seems bone simple and the melody plain, but I'd point to two quirks that make this gently rocking 6/8 lullaby ache the way it does. The song is the key of B, and there aren't a lot of chords here, but the second one we get is wholly counter-intuitive and pretty haunting. The melody starts out by clinging, childlike, to notes of the major triad, B, D#, and F#:

Thoughout all this the harmony thrums brightly on the B chord, except for two beats in measure 3, when it moves not to E, as it "should," but to an A--a downward move that beautifully conveys the singer's wallflower reticence, not to mention creates an attenuated major-seventh harmony:

This I-VII progression soon becomes the song's ambling vamp. The other note I'd make here is that the way "in my room" is phrased from the start is exceedingly shy and retiring--"in my" are pickup notes, "room" is on the downbeat over a C# minor...and there's no more new information, except a lovely VII-V turnaround in the underlying chords, for about two bars. That's a pretty gaping emptiness at the heart of this heartbreaker.

The other song, in a totally different color, is one that's always unaccountably moved me, "Don't Worry, Baby." No, it's not because I've since learned that drag racing, or even "chicken," is apparently the song's dramatic backdrop; I thought it was probably just my weakness for yearny vocal harmonies (blame the Stand by Me soundtrack, but this is one of my favorite songs and I can't be talked out of it). Upon examination, though, what makes "Don't Worry, Baby" pop is another good old-fashioned chorus lift. We're resolutely in the key of E for the verse; then at ii-V turnaround, we lift subtly into the iii-VI, and the sudden A# note in the melody cues us that we're sliding into a new key:

The only quibble I have with the craft here is that the songwriters (Wilson and Roger Christian) haven't figured out a graceful way to get back to the home key, so we get this little bit of harmonic housekeeping tucked in there:

That's easy to forgive, though, when the overall effect is so transporting.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Baby Irony Advisory

Among the things that's tripping me out the most about being a new father is that a new consciousness is forming next to my wife and myself--at just shy of three months, he's just starting to really see us and respond, but he has yet to learn to love his first song, see his first movie or play, read his first book.

Not that we haven't been reading and singing to him, and, of course, making mix CDs for his crib CD player (yes, he's got one, because I hate the thought of leaving his lullaby playlist to the discretion of the fine folks who make those shaky seats with an "on" switch for "music"). I confess I'd given a thought or two to whether I need to slightly baby-proof my vast iTunes library--maybe de-select songs with gratuitous swearing, shotgun effects, heavy breathing, and/or an overly aggressive sound/tone? But then recently three songs in a row came up on random shuffle that really gave me pause--not for their transgressive content, exactly, but for the fact that none could/should be taken at face value. All have a meta-meaning apart from their surface appeal, and I wonder what it would mean to have a small child's mind absorb them before he learns, well, other important things about life and the world. The songs were:

Randy Newman's "Rednecks." All right, this song liberally uses the "n" word, so on those grounds alone I shouldn't play this song for my son till he's old enough to know you don't say that--not unless you're an acerbic social critic with many layers of bitter irony at work.


"Tomorrow Belongs To Me" from Cabaret. Christ, I love this song, but I know that somehow I "shouldn't." It's not a real Nazi anthem but merely an incredible simulation, and it's as beautiful and seductive as intended; I remember Reza Abdoh employing the song with withering irony in Bogeyman (it was sung by a chorus of naked men, many of them pierced and shaved, if I recall correctly). In short, though there's nothing overtly objectionable about it, I would be a little queasy hearing my son sing it around the house.


"Lake of Fire" by the Meat Puppets. Another head-scratcher. It's a funny and chilling parody of backwoods fire-and-brimstone, but the details are a little too grisly to be laughed at too easily (that girl with the rabies is a particularly fine and disturbing touch). But not least because it's light years away from my own personal theology, I would hesitate to have a child learn anything about hell this way, even if the Pups are winking through the sulfur.

(I can't find a decent YouTube of my fellow Arizonans doing the song, so I've posted the most famous version below)


Now what do I do about "Welcome to the Terrordome"?

Make Your Own Radiohead Song

I remember reading that Yorke and the Greenwoods were listening to a lot of Morricone in their formative years, but I'd forgotten the reference until I heard this classic film theme. With its sweeping minor-key soundscape, odd phrasing, harmonic layering (you might even call it counterpoint), and chord changes on unlikely beats, this is practically a Radiohead template. Add your own gnomic, yearny keening over this and voila! You don't have to wait for their next release (the thing really kicks in at :35):

"Air" Apparent

There's a good reason that k.d. lang included Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood's mini-epic "The Air That I Breathe" on her sleepy concept album Drag. Though nearly every other tune on that record is about smoke, cigarettes, addiction, etc., "Air That I Breathe" only suggests, in the long sweep of its sound, a languourous post-coital puff ("Making love with you/Has left me peaceful, warm, and tired").

The Hollies made the biggest splash with it:
There are a few ways this song achieves a simultaneous sense of languor and excitement, of sighing and exultation. The first is the rather revelatory major third it springs in the verse (the tuning of the video above is wonky, but the closest I can get it is C major to E major; the k.d. lang version goes from Bb to D). This is a fantastic progression, as I noted in passing before, and Radiohead fans will recognize it from "Creep" (apparently the band actually credits Hammond and Hazlewood as co-songwriters--a lot of props for one chord!). That bright chordburst stands the song in such good stead that it lingers in the verse for an exceptionally long time--15 bars, then an 8-bar bridge that veers into Orbison territory, then another 8 bars of verse.

This long foreplay has a surprising and foreshortened climax. The chorus sounds to us like an ecstatically unbalanced repetition of a four-bar phrase, then three bars, then two:
Sometimes
All I need is the
Air that I breathe and to
Love you

All I need is the
Air that I breathe and to
Love you

All I need is the
Air that I breathe

And "breathe" keeps soaring into a stormy minor break. What just happened? Actually, the nine-bar chorus is underpinned by a two-chord progression that repeats three times, so that the structure really looks like this:
Sometimes
All I need is the
Air that I breathe and to

Love you
All I need is the
Air that I breathe and to

Love you
All I need is the
Air that I breathe

I can't pretend to know how this songwriting team happened upon this unconventional and evocative form to convey this very particular emotion in ways that lyrics can only hint at (a curious anecdote about the song's lyrical inspiration here), but they clearly knew what they were doing. In songs as much as in any art, form to a large extent is content--or, as Kurosawa once said of noh theater, "The style and the story are one."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Pleading the Sixth

In his idiosyncratic landmark survey American Popular Song (one of the inspirations for this blog, in fact), Alec Wilder notes the "mysterious" and "hypnotic" lure of the major sixth interval, shown here in the key of C:

It's not hard to understand why it's a haunting, almost-resolved sound, though: It's really a relative minor spelled differently. Move the top A below the C on the bottom, and you have an A minor. Keep it on top and it's a chord with a yearning, major-minor feel.

Its most famous use, of course, was in Weill and Brecht's standard (sung here by Dave Van Ronk):


That last note may be the most famous sixth in popular music, but what's easy to forget is that the song also resolves on that sorry-grateful chord (I believe this is Brecht himself on vocals):


It's also the final cadence of "Surabaya-Johnny":


The sixth chord is such a shorthand for the Weimar era, in fact, that it's the first chord you hear in Cabaret:


And surely it's no mistake that it features heavily amid the corrupted splendor of postwar Vienna in The Third Man:


Stateside, the sixth is a staple of jazz, such that when a jazz singer does "Mack the Knife," she enters on it:


"Too jazzy" was apparently George Martin's objection to this iconic choral flourish (he was, thankfully, overruled by the lads):


The Fabs liked this effect a lot:


One of the Beatles' songwriting heirs, Elvis Costello, has internalized the appeal of the sixth to such an extent that he's turned it into a kind of vocal tic. Sometimes he puts it clearly and unambiguously in the melody, as in the last note of "Sunday's Best":


More often, though, he uses it as a kind of extension or subversion of what our ear hears as the "natural" melody, as in "Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes." On the last note of the word "refuse," hear how he slides up to the C# over the E chord, where a B would be the more obvious choice:


Same with the title line, in which, over the A chord, he could easily repeat the E note of "red" but can't seem to resist kicking "shoes" up to the F#:


To demonstrate why I think this is a vocal tic as much as a compositional choice, consider "Secondary Modern," in which the last note of the title line, a D over an F chord, really wants to slide back to the C that the phrase started on, but Elvis teasingly withholds resolution:


Whereas, in a later live recording, he gives in to the chord's pull:


Lest you think the sixth is some pretentious affectation of effete pop snobs, I'll leave you with a considerably sunnier application, courtesy Mr. Hank Williams (via):

Sunday, September 27, 2009

In a Sentimental Chapel

Today with the church band I did a mash-up of two songs whose opening lines echo each other almost exactly, though the harmonies, and everything else that follows, are completely different: Artie Glenn's 1953 gospel classic "Crying in the Chapel" and Duke Ellington's 1935 standard "In a Sentimental Mood." Elvis' version of the first is the most famous:

And it's hard to beat Ella's rendition of the latter:

The harmonies in Ellington's piece are particularly thick and rich: While the opening line of "Chapel" lands on the sixth of a major chord (in the Elvis arrangement, it's C# over an E chord, which is the subdominant or IV chord in relation to the song's home key of B), in "Sentimental" it lands on the tension-laden fourth note of a minor chord (in the Ella version it's an A note over an E-minor chord, which in this case is the sub-mediant or vi chord in relation to the home key of G). Essentially, the "Sentimental" harmony functions like a substitution of the "natural" use of the IV chord, then takes it on many winding paths, including an amazing bridge in the exotic key of E-flat.

But it's not just the cool substitutions and cadences that make Ellington's harmonies smudge and purr delectably in the ear; the melody almost pathologically avoids landing on the triadic note of the chord underneath it. Starting at the top:

Then the marvelous figure over the A-minor ninth chord:

The cadence of the first eight-bar section teases us by landing not on the tonic note but the second (or ninth) note of the G:

And it only just sneaks down to the tonic the second time:

In the bridge section, the pattern continues (the last chord should probably be spelled Fm9, my bad):

Then, the ear-bending transition back to the home key starts, not surprisingly for this song, on the fourth note of a minor chord:
And finally, Duke gives us the tonic at the end of all this lovely fizz. Most satisfying:

Here's my take on the whole Ellington chart.

UPDATE: This helpful site points out another song with a nearly identical opening line.

Chorus Lift-Offs

I was arranging the Style Council's blue-eyed soul classic "You're the Best Thing" a few years ago for guitar and trombone (with a cool Bacharach-y 6/8 feel) and I figured out why the song has such a sunny-sounding chorus. The verse lurks around A-major seventh and its relative minor, F#, ending on a B, which makes our ear subtly expect the chorus to start on an E chord. Instead it starts on an F# major, which gives us a double lift: We're a whole step higher than we expected, and the A# note Paul Weller hits at the top of the chorus (the third of F# major) "improves" on the verse's key of A. It's a nice trick (chorus at 1:20):


Not to stick with '80s Brit soul, but I noticed another brilliant chorus lift in Dexy's "Come On Eileen." The verses are in C, but notice at about 1:03 how the G chord vamps for an extra bar, then gives us the chorus not in the expected C but in D:

Not to toot my own trombone, but I used a similar trick in a song for the Ed Wood musical I'm writing with lyricist/librettist Justin Warner. In Ed's ode to his favorite material, "Angora," I put the verse in Gm, with a big helping of Cm and related keys with a couple of flats. The verse builds to a descending bass under a Cm chord, leading us in an ambiguous direction...and then I bust into a chorus that alternates A-minor and E-major, with some suspensions on the melody to up the tension. I think it works well, if I may say so myself. Performed by Kurt Robbins at Ars Nova:

Saturday, September 26, 2009

This Week's Laura Nyro Blogging

Sorry, I couldn't resist after the pleasure of ringing her "Wedding Bell Blues": I tried picking apart "Stoned Soul Picnic," as perfect a marriage of druggy stream-of-consciousness and tightly knit '60s pop as you can find, and though I didn't get a chance to work out the harmonies, which are alternately basic and tricky, the form alone is another stunningly cubist Nyro construction.

The words "verse" and "chorus" aren't much help here, so bear with my attempts to describe these sections:
  • Four bars of the "Can you surrey/can you picnic" query
  • Four bars of the "Surrey down" invitation, with two bars for the added enticement of "lots of time and wine"
  • Three bars for the memorable wine list of "Red, yellow, honey, sassafrass and moonshine," followed by two bars of half-time (in a 6/8 feel)
  • Four bars extolling the "stoned soul"



The form then repeats the above from the "Surrey down" line, with slight lyric changes introducing both "green and sun" and "Lord and the lightning." Then, after two bars resembling the "time and wine" turnaround, comes the song's catchiest, sexiest turn: Five bars of a suddenly bluesy "Surrey." Which slides seamlessly into four blissed-out bars about "chains of flowers," followed by a winding seven-bar bridge Burt Bacharach would envy.

If you're not thoroughly stoned by that structure, you're not listening closely enough. Nyro ends by repeating the top form from the "Surrey down," tagging on another "time and wine" turnaround, then rocking that sexy "Surrey" to the fade. I try to avoid '60s nostalgia when I can, but this song makes those summers of love sound more fun (and quaint--I mean, "surrey"?) than they had any right to be.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Interchangeable Phrasing, Berlin/Williams & Cash/Townsend Edition

Noticed that the chorus of the old semi-standard "Red Sails in the Sunset" is interchangeable, phrasing-wise, with that of Irving Berlin's rock-solid standard "How Deep Is the Ocean":
Red sails in the sunset
Way out on the sea
Oh, carry my loved one
Home safely to me

You can sing it to the tune of Berlin's standard, or vice versa:
How much do I love you?
I'll tell you no lie
How deep is the ocean?
How high is the sky?

Which reminded of my favorite interchangeable-phrasing parlor trick. I'll sing Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" all the way through, then add this verse, which fits the tune perfectly (particularly the last five words):
Ever since I was a young boy
I played the silver ball
From Soho down to Brighton
I musta played 'em all
But I ain't seen nothing like it
In any amusement hall
That deaf, dumb, and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pinball

Try it at home!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Reign of Nyro

It's a little hard to place the late, great Laura Nyro, who originated such late '60s-early '70s classics as "When I Die," "Stoned Soul Picnic," and the subject of today's post, her ebullient, open-hearted "Wedding Bell Blues," which was a hit for the Fifth Dimension. Sitting somewhere between Carole King and Joni Mitchell, between Brill Building pop/soul and sui generis singer/songwriter, the dark-haired, Bronx-born Nyro seems above all to have been ahead of her time, as Elvis Costello suggested on his talk show Spectacle, in conversation with Elton John (whose piano-based pop/gospel pastiche makes a useful comparison to Nyro's work, come to think of it). Today, it's clear, Nyro would be right at home somewhere between Amy Winehouse and Fiona Apple.

Part of what sets Nyro's work apart is a paradox: Her songs have a seemingly unconventional, even free-ranging structure, which captures a sort of stream-of-consciousness feeling, but they typically employ a sophisticated pop sound that we don't associate with rambling coffeehouse bards. So the effect is often pleasant and deceptively straightforward, but pay even a little attention, or try to follow along, and you're likely to find yourself lost.

"Wedding Bell Blues" is a great case in point, because at first it sounds like a sunny girl-group rave-up, though with an unmistakeable strain of melancholy. These contrasting emotional colors, I think you'll see, are achieved by some tricky, unexpected songcraft that creates a sense of simultaneous rising and falling, of backward and forward motion, that's appropriate for the song's lyric, in which a young woman pleads with a recalcitrant lover to "marry me, Bill."


The song kicks off with a quintessential '60s progression that encapsulates the up-down oscillation to come, as inexorable as "All Along the Watchtower," say, but so much brighter: F major 7, with the E natural on top, then Em7 with the D on top, then Dm7 with the C on top. That gives us the lovely parallel motion of sevenths: E over F, D over E, C over D. And then it slides back up, Em7 to FMaj7, and the vocal enters on a piercing C with the long note "Bill."

The innovation has already begun: The first four bars, repeating the words, "Bill/I love you so/I always will," will return as the song's chorus, though they really sound more like a tag or place holder--like a part of a chorus, or the end of a chorus, but not the whole thing. We'll see why soon enough. After resolving to C, the song's home key, what I can only call a post-chorus follows, because the lyrics are different each time: It's here that our heroine tells Bill, in various ways, that he hangs the moon but will he ever propose? This eight-bar section, too, has the bounce and swell of a chorus, or something leading into a chorus. But it doesn't: Next is what would have to be the verse, over a ii-V-iii-VI progression, in which the singer bolsters her case with proofs of her fidelity through tough times. That continues for eight bars, then starts ascending from on the ii (Dm) again--and before we know it (in just two bars, in fact), we've hit G and are back at the top of the FMaj7 rollercoaster with "Bill."

Here's where this four-bar chorus earns its keep: It functions both as a tag/add-on at the end of the verse and as the start of a new chorus. What Nyro has done is essentially build two complete forms, a 12-bar verse and a four-bar chorus, then locked them together with an imperceptible overlap--in this case, a two-bar overlap, so that the verse plays for 10 bars and the chorus 4, or the verse 12 and the chorus 2, though what it really sounds like to our ear is a complete 12-bar verse and a complete four-bar chorus, just laid over each other in that two-way two-bar embrace. Couple this trick with the fact that the song has essentially unfolded backwards, intensity-wise--the chorus that started it felt like the end of a chorus, the post-chorus that came next sounded like it was building up to a chorus, and the verse that followed that brought the energy back down--and you have some sense how this ebullient, carefree-sounding song manages to pack such an emotional punch.

The construction all pays off in the end, when she breaks off in the middle of the third post-chorus--tellingly, just after the point she's stopped asking when and has simply told Bill, "But you're never gonna say your wedding vows"--and grooves with her backup singers on the plea, "Come on and marry me, Bill," for a spell (and citing the song's title in passing) before going back to the descending "Bill/I love you so" chorus. Which, by this point, is sounding more and more like defeat: "I love you so/I always will," after all, removes any pressure for Bill to act. And so, that chorus that sounded like the end of a chorus indeed serves as the song's bittersweet ending. And in less than three minutes Nyro has both celebrated the empowerment of a woman who can call her man on the carpet for not proposing, and even playfully propose herself, and captured the sadness of a woman who's had to resort to such a drastic measure. Speaking for myself, if I were on the fence, this song would convince me.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Waters of Oblivion


I've got a soft spot for Peter, Paul & Mary. Yeah, I know now that they were a cobbled-together and commercialized facsimile of a "real" folk band, the kind of protest singers even Mitch Miller could love. And I don't care if I never hear "Puff the Magic Dragon" or "Lemon Tree" again--ugh. Still, ever since a hippie second cousin gave me his old LP of Album 1700, I've been more or less in. I later binged on PPM again during an obligatory high school folk phase (and you'd never guess whose record collection I plundered for its Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, etc.). I now like to think of vintage Mary Travers as the good-girl doppelganger of Nico, and though I'm not particularly into blondes, her vigorouos performance above is pretty savory. It also happens to be one of those timely/timeless, quasi-Biblical Dylan lyrics she's tearing into with her soulful soprano:
Too much of nothin' can make a man abuse a king
He can walk the streets and boast like most but he don't know a thing.
It's all been done before, it's all been written in the book.
But when it's too much of nothin', nobody should look.

Interesting thing about that song: PPM's version is harmonically radically different, and dare I say better, than Dylan's, which is nothing if not bold--check out the chords that kick in at about 24 seconds in:

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Quotations: The Bowie/Rodgers, Jackson/Satie, Davis/Stravinsky Edition

It took me years of listening to catch the quote from "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" in Bowie's "Future Legend" (starts at about :30):

But it only took me a few spins to hear Satie's Gymnopedie No. 1 embedded in the chorus of Janet Jackson's catchy "Someone To Call My Lover," starting at :52:

And here's a really weird one that took me a few head-scratching spins to get: In Sammy Davis Jr.'s version of "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone," the opening and closing vocalise seems to be lifted from, of all places, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring":

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pixies: More Than LoudQUIETLoud

I haven't seen the Pixies documentary loudQUIETloud, but I know the band is said to have influenced Nirvana and a number of other '90s grungers with the remarkable innovation of dynamics (think of the verse-chorus contrast in "Smells Like Teen Spirit").

Now, I can take or leave about 50 percent of the Pixies' work, though "Here Comes Your Man" remains one of my favorite pop singles of all time (yes, I said pop), and when they were good, what distinguished them--and was not widely imitated--was their innovative song structure, not their use of dynamics. Sure, their harmonies are nicely jagged and worthy of further study (see below), but what hits me most about their songwriting is their odd elongations and elisions of form. Almost every pop or rock song you could name has a kind of couplet/quatrain format, with verses and choruses grouped in four, sometimes two lines; and this binary form, as natural to us as breathing out and breathing in, or our heartbeat, or walking on two legs and having four limbs, is built deep into most songs' DNA, so that there are often also two or four or eight bars, and two or four or eight beats per bar, and so on.

So when a song violates that rule of fours, it stands out. I think of the irregular three-line pre-chorus of Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone," which makes the chorus a consistent surprise, or the beguiling three-line verse of the Beatles' "Every Little Thing." The Pixies do this sort of thing so often it's almost a tic. Try to count along with the sweeping "Velouria," for instance. An even better illustration is the terse, brilliant "Is She Weird," the verse of which has four sections, but with an odd shape--they're all in 6-bar lines, except for the last line leading into the chorus, which has an extra two bars to create a more standard 8-bar line. This has a very imbalancing effect, and it sets us up for an equally odd chorus, also consisting of six-bar sections of three lines apiece ("Is she weird, is she white/Is she promised to the night/And her head has no room"), and that triple phrase is repeated...three times rather than four. And I'm not even addressing the stunning bridge from nowhere (roughly at 1:30). This is a raggedy performance, but it's all there:

This kind of art rock takes real confidence to pull off this offhandedly well, but I would have taken 10 bands that followed this kind of lead, in whatever style of rock, for every sweaty Stone Temple Pilots knockoff.

UPDATE:
I checked out the harmony. This is art rock, as studiedly dissonant and architectural as early 20th-century "classical" music. The whole thing is built on a majestically rising progression of F#, A, C#, E, which swells for four bars, then folds back down for two bars on B and C# to create the song's weird flow-and-ebb gait. The vocal line, and the guitar noodling throughout, explore the chromatic possibilities of that progression (the first two notes of the melody are A# and A-natural), but the most haunting harmony of the song is on the final word of the chorus: "And her head has no" is sung on a D# over a B chord, then "room" is a D-natural over a C# chord--an extremely jagged dissonance that not only lodges this song in the brain but functions as a spur to push the song forward, as dissonances usually do. And the final resolution is a great payoff: The vocal repeats "head has no" on the D note but the accompaniment moves to a D chord, then the vocal and the accompaniment drop to B and B minor, respectively. Beautiful.

Again, this is not my favorite Pixies song or even their most ambitious, but it's a great reminder that from the ashes of punk and prog rose a mutant rock phoenix that variously inspired the likes of the Pixies, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, and the best of the grungers, before finally morphing into Radiohead. (In addition to my own work, I consulted this page.)

That Weird Rockabilly Sixth

I'm not a big fan of Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue," preferring the bigger beat of "Rave On" or the tamped-down sweetness of "Every Day" (more on that one later, perhaps--a deceptively simple-sounding, childlike song with a surprising set of chords in the bridge). But it does have a startling chord change plunked down in the middle, and you can actually see Buddy finger it at about the 1:38 mark. The song's in A...and then he throws in an F, a minor sixth of the tonic:

That's nice and ear-bending, and you might think unique. But then I remembered Carl Perkins' "Honey Don't," which uses the same odd change in its verse. The first instance starts at 12 seconds, wrenching from the song's key of E to a C:

I don't know what it is about early rock 'n' rollers and this I-vi change, but obviously they felt this was a great way to spice up the standard country/blues recipe. It's a little stark for my tastes; to get a similar lift or jolt, I kind of prefer the more gospel-y choice of going from the tonic to a major sixth (sometimes with the V chord between the two, as in "I Wanna Hold Your Hand"), or going from the tonic to a major third (Radiohead's "Creep," "Hey Ya").

Monday, September 14, 2009

"Wonderful"

This obscure Beach Boys song has a beguiling and slightly mind-bending harmonic progression. Anyone who's tried to figure out the chords for the songs from the Pet Sounds era knows there's some crazy-beautiful stuff going on in that period of Brian Wilson's composing (props should probably go to Van Dyke Parks for some of the more arcane harmonies). I'm thinking of songs like "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," "I Know There's an Answer," "Caroline, No," and of course the classic "God Only Knows." The key with transcribing these harmonies, I've found, is to listen closely to the bass; it's very often not the root of the chord, or there's a movement in the bass that functions as a chord change but doesn't really change the harmony.

Here's the recording:


And here's my chart (I've stopped short before the "hey baba reba" goof ending).

(I got some help from this guy, though he's transcribed the "new" Brian Wilson version, not the old bootleg one I've always known, and I hear some of the chords differently)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Brooklyn AZ 90026

That's what I started to write in the return-adress space on a bill just a minute ago. I'm experiencing geographic dissonance: New York, Phoenix, and Echo Park are all in me now, and I'm all right with that.

At the L train station tonight...


This blog will mostly be about what comes up on my iPod each day, but I thought I'd kick it off in high style.