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:
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:
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.

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


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)