Tuesday, October 22, 2013

O the bright sun!

Today’s formative-album replay: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Shahen-Shah. Any list of the great singers of all time must include this Sufi qawwali powerhouse, whose vocal pyrotechnics on this--his first full record for Western audiences (and still his best)--feel closer to the Olympian achievement of a virtuoso instrumentalist, and not only because amid the ululated Urdu, the melisma, and the non-lexical vocables, this music doesn't hit me primarily verbally. No, it's really more that the extended, incantatory form of these six "naats" (essentially psalms to the Prophet Muhammad), and the way Nusrat's huge, raspy, imposingly precise but startlingly soulful voice sprawls and climbs and dances within that expansive form, make the listening experience uncannily akin to, say, Coltrane's A Love Supreme, or to Part's Fratres.

There's something else here, too, that gives this music a particularly strong, plangent sweetness, and I figured out on this listen that it's about the scales. Nusrat, along with his eight other singers and two harmonium players, bases nearly all of this music in bright, major-key modes--mostly Ionian, the scale we all learn in the West as the "major" scale, but also in sunny variants of it, like Mixolydian, a kind of happy-blues mode (into which, in the piece excerpted above, he inserts an utterly disarming extra "blue" note--listen for it at 4:07), and the open-ended gleam of the pentatonic scale. By contrast, there's only one Phrygian mode here--i.e. the classic, minor-sounding "gypsy" scale. These bright modes, which are also heard in a lot of African pop, give the record an extra sunburst glow. Nusrat's extravagant ecstasies here, then, have not only the soul-deep ache of all great sacred music but an irresistible spring in their step, as well.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Blues Bite (Guest Post by Mark Edward)

A high school friend of mine who reads the blog and is a fan offered this very thorough look at one of my favorite chords, and its use in some music I know (and some I don't). I first learned this distinctive chord at NAU Music Camp, where the late, great Grant Wolf called it the "blues bite," and I use it whenever I can, almost to a fault (it opens this song, for instance). Without further ado, here's Mark, and his thoughts on the quintessential blues chord.

The 7#9 has appeared in popular music for nearly a half century. It is arguably the “bluesiest” of all chords, consisting of a major triad supplemented with both a flatted seventh and a flatted third (the #9). The dissonance created by the use of both the major and minor third in the same chord gives the 7#9 a unique, pungent sound easy to recognize and difficult to ignore.

For many fans of pop/rock music, the first introduction to the 7#9 came from the Beatles’ 1966 hit “Taxman.” The verse begins with George Harrison playing a straight D7 over Paul McCartney’s rumbling bass line, creating an unsettling feeling underneath the vocals. But the disquietude only gets worse when, at the end of each line, Harrison adds the #9 to the chord (first heard at :13):
The jarring sound of the 7#9 provides a musical exclamation point that drives home the lyrics’ frustration.

Despite the popularity and priority of “Taxman,” the musician often credited with introducing the 7#9 into the rock lexicon is Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix’s 1967 hit “Purple Haze” put the 7#9 front and center for blues-rock guitarists (first heard at ~0:23):
Hendrix’s fuzzed-out guitar sound was the perfect complement for the natural dissonance of the 7#9, and the combination spread like wildfire. Hendrix deployed the 7#9 in other hits as well, including “Foxy Lady” (in which the chord is implied but not played in its entirety) and “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” (in which the chord is used sporadically). As a testament to Hendrix’s influence in popularizing the 7#9, the 1-3-7-#9 voicing that he and other guitarists use almost exclusively is commonly called the “Hendrix chord.”

Jimmy Page, whose greatest musical talent lay in repurposing borrowed elements, picked up the 7#9 baton and ran with it in the early days of Led Zeppelin. E7#9 is prominently featured in “The Hunter” section of “How Many More Times” (first heard at ~5:32):
And in the main riff of “The Lemon Song” (opening measures):
from Zeppelin’s first two albums, both released in 1969. In both of these songs, Page uses the chord to punctuate ascending single-note riffs on the guitar’s bass strings. Page also scratches the same chord in a machine-gun rhythm to open Zeppelin’s 1970 concert in Royal Albert Hall with the first few bars of “We’re Gonna Groove” (opening measures):
With its sour sting, the 7#9 emphatically heralds the band’s arrival.

At around the same time, Joe Walsh of the James Gang availed himself of the 7#9 in 1970’s “Funk #49.” (In an interesting side note, Walsh sold Page the Les Paul that became Page’s main workhorse throughout the first half of the 1970’s.) But Walsh had his own take on the 7#9. After a beautifully sloppy opening blues lick, “Funk #49” finds its groove with a stabbing A mixolydian chord-based riff (at ~0:06):
This section is followed by a descending minor pentatonic single-note riff (punctuated by a few power chords), played four times in A and then four times in B (beginning at ~0:27). At the end of this sequence, Walsh slams an E7#9, then returns to the first chord-based riff in A (~0:47).

The difference between Walsh’s usage of the 7#9 and that of the previous examples is noteworthy. In the earlier instances, the 7#9 is used to “blues up” the tonic in an otherwise slow-moving chord progression – providing harmonic tension is an end in itself because it makes the chord or riff more interesting. By contrast, Walsh uses an E7#9 to facilitate the key change from the linear riff in B back to the chordal riff in A; the chord itself is not part of either riff but rather acts as a bridge between them. The E7#9 in “Funk #49” also has a different relationship to the prevailing modality of the song, being the harmonic dominant (the V7#9 in the key of A) rather than the tonic. As a result, the tension of the chord is resolved, albeit incompletely, when the A7 of the first riff returns, whereas the tension remains unresolved in the earlier examples.

A decade later, the 7#9 became probably the most harmonically complex chord – hell, maybe the only harmonically complex chord – in the recorded canon of AC/DC. In 1980’s “Shoot to Thrill,” E7#9 appears at the end of each verse, immediately before the chorus (first heard at ~0:59):
As in “Funk #49,” the E7#9 here is a dominant chord that is resolved to the tonic when the chorus in A kicks in. As a song construction device, the V7#9 in “Shoot to Thrill” is substituted for the well-worn V or V7 chord at the end of the verse to provide a little extra tension. Although the 7#9 chord is a seldom-used component in rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young’s toolkit (his chords often consist of just the root and fifth), it bears note that the individual elements of the chord (i.e., the 1, minor 3, major 3, 5, and flat 7) are staples of lead guitarist Angus Young’s electric blues style. Thus, the consolidation of these elements in a single chord is not so far afield even for a band with harmonic boundaries as narrow as AC/DC’s.

In contrast to AC/DC, Queen uses more than its share of harmonically complex chords, so hearing the 7#9 on “Don’t Try Suicide” from 1980’s The Game is perhaps unsurprising. What is surprising, however, is how Queen’s Brian May presents the chord. By 1980, May had carved his niche as a master of multitracked guitar harmonies, and his use of bent-and-released strings, finger vibrato, and whammy-bar dives in his layered guitar parts often gives the harmonies a fluid, syrupy feel. Even when strumming chords in a single stroke, May can seldom resist nudging the whammy bar to give the chords an underwater feel. Yet the recurring D7#9 in “Suicide” is played by just a single guitar, unadorned by other harmonic instruments, and sounds (to these ears at least) to have a touch of chorus as its only form of pitch alteration – certainly none of the heavier vibrato that May often uses. When the D7#9 appears in the opening riff, it follows a chromatically ascending bass line, creating a hot splash after the bubbling bass finally boils over (first heard at ~0:12):
Later, May uses the chord to follow a signature multitracked harmonic guitar solo played over a shuffle beat. In this instance, the single jangly guitar chord effects a transition from the busy-ness of the solo to the pared-down simplicity of the opening bass line and resets the entire mood of the song (at ~2:36). And May’s austere presentation of the 7#9 in “Suicide” reminds us that this chord has its own delightful flavor that needs no embellishment.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Nerves on a Knife's Edge

Original Facebook post here.
Today’s formative-album replay: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Imperial Bedroom. I half-dreaded revisiting this pivotal 1982 masterpiece, for fear it wouldn't live up to the high status it's long occupied in the critical firmament, and--after an initial resistance on my part to its self-contained musical brilliance--in my own Costello pantheon.

I needn't have feared; if anything, the record sounds even richer and more resonant with age, from its magisterial songcraft to its utterly singular sonic palette, which is still unlike anything on any other Attractions record, let alone anyone else's. What struck me especially this time around was Elvis' impressively rangy vocal restraint, not to mention his ease in grabbing big notes without popping a neck vein. After years of getting used to the sound of his keening, straining, increasingly vibrato-addled larynx reach for a soulful wail or a punkish sneer, to hear his pipes gambol sweatlessly across these charts, not only the ballads but many of the rockers as well, feels like sweet relief.

Along similar lines, the record holds up as nearly oracular in terms of mapping out the diversions he would take in the coming decades: from Bacharachian and Big Band pop to tender piano standards, from stately neoclassism to spiky art-rock (I'd even rope in the word-drunk quasi-hip-hop of his newest release, Wise Up Ghost!; what else is "Beyond Belief," after all, but a kind of headlong, just-barely-sung rap?). Again, without quite sounding like any record before or after, Imperial Bedroom is like a deep-dish sampler of his pop stylings to come (with the glaring exception of country and folk, which he would spend another masterwork, King of America, mapping out). This might be why this record still turns off fans of the passionate pub-rock precocity of his debut record, or the glinting, unsheathed thrust and parry of his first great Attractions albums, This Year's Model and Armed Forces; by contrast, this Bedroom all sounds too polite, too orchestrated. It would be a mistake, though, to hear the album's sheen as a gloss, as even I did at first; I couldn't see that its considerable gleam was not deflection but crystallization--that by neatly placing the unhinged emotions and tightly coiled, self-defensive patter that are Costello's usual fare within perfectly poised pop constructions, this record achieves a cumulative intensity of feeling that's beyond the reach of the rawest punk scream.

The record does contain, in fact, a series of bloodcurdling, barely human screams (in the fierce framing music of the majestic, Dylanesque "Man Out of Time"), as well as plenty of jagged edges and dark corners. And examined for more than a moment, the architecture of even the most standard-sounding tunes here is actually pretty eccentric, and the record's seeming dips into genre (“The Long Honeymoon,” “Almost Blue”) are deceptively lulling. All the songs here, in short, are roiling, weird, as surprisingly shaped and idiosyncratic as any Costello has made. And the record's odd sound palette--the often absurd high-low vocals, the clatter of harpsichord and sitar, spacey organs that seem to float on their own otherworldly fumes, bull-in-a-China-shop bass parts that keep puncturing the decorum--makes an ideal match for the songs’ unclassifiable scope and scale. Costello has made great records since, and even some that hang together more or less as well as a whole. But I’d venture that if he wanted to, he could rest his reputation entirely on this exquisitely appointed Bedroom.

Cinco Paul Well put. As you know, it's my favorite. The most perfect album ever made, outside of anything by the Beatles.
Rob Weinert-Kendt @Cinco: I feel that way even more now. It was an outlier at the time, and almost hard to see HOW great it was (for me). And even though it was early, it feels even more like a career capper.
Brian Parks A great record.
Joe McDade A few records simply floored me when I simply listened to them cold for the first time, without the hook of an already-favorite tune to ease me in. The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" and "Abbey Road," Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours," Mazzy Star's "So Tonight That I Might See," and--don't laugh--Styx's "Grand Illusion." "Imperial Bedroom" is on that list. The first few second of "Beyond Belief" announced that something wonderful had been loosed upon us.
Justin Warner This was the one that hooked me. The sequence of Long Honeymoon-scream-Man Out of Time-scream-Almost Blue alone would be a worthy artistic legacy.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Period of Grace

Original Facebook post here.
Today’s formative-album replay: Paul Simon, Hearts and Bones. All these years later, I still can’t figure out what on earth possessed this great American tunesmith to write a song about allergies, an ode to cars, and a ditty about numbers, as he did on this wildly uneven 1983 record. Was he secretly auditioning for Joe Raposo's old job at "Sesame Street"? Though he’d always flirted with novelty material ("Paranoia Blues," "One Man's Ceiling," even "Kodachrome" and "50 Ways"), the subject matter and lyrics, not to mention the saggy sound, of a fair amount of the tracks here betray nothing so much as creative exhaustion. After the somewhat unwieldy, often brilliant but cool-to-the-touch concept album/film One Trick Pony, he seemed to be flailing for something to sing about, or a reason to write songs at all. Even the good tunes here--the ambling title track, a kind of middle-aged sequel to "Kathy's Song"; the warmly glowing "Rene and Georgette Magritte"; the sidelong memoriam to John Lennon, "The Late Great Johhny Ace"--are sad, hollowed-out, apologetic-sounding folk pop. It’s true, this is not the case with the convincingly upbeat "Think Too Much," which sounds in hindsight like the missing link between this awkward middle period and the globe-trotting guitar pop that was about to make Simon a star all over again.

Still, I have a big soft spot for this burnished, melancholic record--his first new release at the time since I'd became a teenage fan of his lapidary songcraft--because it accompanied my own searching, introverted high school years. Though I generally remember that as a happy time, in fact, this record reminds me like few other artifacts of those days how much I partook of the solitary, self-dramatizing introspection that can be, in moderation, one of the satisfactions of that rough/tender age. I think part of his appeal for me, then as now, was that when he wasn't being weirdly trivial, as in "Allergies" or "Cars Are Cars" (actual title), he was singing with a kind of wry, quietly nervy circumspection about grown-up problems, about small ironies and serendipities, about spiritual conundrums; learning to love this music accordingly made me feel grown-up, too. And it occurs to me that even since his days with Garfunkel, Simon was always an old soul with an ear for young music--at least one reason why his most recent release, So Beautiful or So What, recorded in his 70th year, is among his best. His actual age is catching up with his spiritual age.

Certainly a part of the appeal of Hearts and Bones, too, was that literally no one else I knew in high school had ever heard of this record, let alone listened to it. It was my music. Then, in 1986, I went off to college, and Simon went to South Africa, and before I knew it, he belonged to everyone again. His underlying craft and lyrical preoccupations hadn't changed all that much, really, but mbaqanga--and later, batucada--clearly gave him the jolt he needed after this downer.

Al Rose Nicely done, Rob
Greg Keller Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance. Everybody thinks it's true.
David Tobocman One of my favorites. I love an underdog. Nice article.
Mary Kate Karr Petras "Cars Are Cars" is the one (and I mean only one) Paul Simon track I routinely skip. Not so crazy about "Allergies" or one of the "Think Too Much" tracks (can't remember which one), either. But "Rene and Georgette Magritte," "Train in the Distance," "Hearts and Bones" and particularly "Late Great Johnny Ace" formed a core part of my high school listening (just a couple of years behind you, apparently).
Jack Lechner That record is the equivalent of Neil Simon's play "The Star Spangled Girl," which inspired this legendary assessment by Walter Kerr: "Neil Simon, your friendly neighborhood gagman, hasn't had an idea for a play this season, but he's gone ahead and written one anyway."