Daily Song Study

Archive for June, 2011|Monthly archive page

The Boomtown Rats – I Don’t Like Mondays

In songs on June 30, 2011 at 11:00 am

Most of us who write would like to think that we can keep drawing from the same well we’ve gotten our best ideas from. However, the fact is that most people who write a really great song never write another one. Sure, they may write somewhat good ones, but rare is the songwriter who truly hits it out of the park more than once.

A good example of this is Bob Geldof. He is famous for three things:

1. He portrayed Pink in the film version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

2. He organized the massive Live Aid concert and its follow-up Live 8.

3. He wrote one really great song.

The song comes from his tenure with The Boomtown Rats, a rather disjointed late-70s-early-80s band which promptly disappeared shortly thereafter. This tune is a rarity in that it is done in a very musical-theatre style and at the same time is not a song that I hate. There is a New Wave sensibility in the lyrics and delivery, which adds an ironic bite to the music-hall arrangement. It is reportedly inspired by a California teenager who went on a killing spree and justified her action with the words in the title.

The fact that Geldof was never able to repeat this trick is somewhat regrettable, but having said that, we should all be so lucky as to come up with just one song of this caliber in our songwriting careers.

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Sting – Mad About You

In songs on June 29, 2011 at 7:32 pm

One of the oddest songwriters ever to emerge into stardom is one Gordon Sumner, aka Sting. Here is a man who started out playing jazz-rock, then got drafted into The Police, a band that played reggae-infused punk sung with a Jamaican accent (despite the fact that Sting was English), which then became one of the biggest mainstream pop groups of all time. He has followed that feat with two and a half decades of albums that swerve wildly from classical to celtic to jazz to country to synth-pop and all manner of other hybrids, even bringing far-out time signatures onto the radio, something that doesn’t often happen. That range tends to alienate people, who pick one style of his and decide the rest is crap. I’m one of the stalwarts, although I can’t say I like everything the man’s ever done.

However, I will say that for me, his one unmitigated success was a pseudo-concept album, The Soul Cages, released in 1991. The story comes & goes during the cycle, but the imagery of the lyrics throughout is consistently striking, seldom more so than in today’s track. Take this verse:

They say a city in the desert lies
The vanity of an ancient king
The city lies in broken pieces
Where the wind blows and the vultures sing
These are the works of man
This is the sum of our ambition
It would make a prison of my life
If you became another’s wife
With every prison blown to dust
My enemies walk free
I’m mad about you

 

Combine that with the exotic arrangement, and it brings the listener right into the world created by the author, the goal of every good writer.

Hindu Love Gods – Raspberry Beret

In songs on June 28, 2011 at 11:04 am

Sometimes collaboration can be a key component of creativity. Today I present an excellent example, which is something of a musical menage a trois.

In 1990, two acts going in different directions got together to form Hindu Love Gods, a short-lived combo featuring Warren Zevon (on his way down in the charts) and 3/4ths of R.E.M. (on their way to megastardom, and having recently appeared on Zevon’s Sentimental Hygiene album). The resulting album is an interesting collision of styles, but it produced one piece of certified magic, in the form of the attached tune, a cover of a tune penned by none other than Prince.

This is the sort of thing that threatens to not make any sense, but in a weird way it does. Four people happened to see the same thing when they looked at a particular piece of music. It didn’t happen again, but creativity is often like that. Human lives and experience are constantly in motion, and the view changes so often that it’s good to take occasional snapshots and compare them with those others have taken. If you’re lucky, they sometimes match up.

Cracker – Lonesome Johnny Blues

In songs on June 27, 2011 at 3:43 pm

When I lived in NYC, I lost track of the number of times I heard this: “I like all kinds of music…except country music.”

It’s interesting to hear that sort of talk in the land of Springsteen, because rock and roll wouldn’t exist without country music. So allow me to introduce some country music by a rather non-country band, Cracker:

Known mostly for their loser-rock stylings, the Cracker boys know from whence they came, and their guitarist Johnny Hickman (also the song’s author) delivers this one without a trace of irony.

The argument about what is or isn’t “real” country music obviously takes us into irresolvable subjectivity, so I won’t venture there, except to say that as it pertains to rock and pop history, the further back you go, the more relevant it becomes to the study of songcraft. This tune draws much more from the older school than from the new, despite its relatively recent vintage.

Lyrically, this one benefits from close listening. Check it out.

Robbie Rist – Mr. Bad Example

In songs on June 24, 2011 at 1:58 pm

I mentioned earlier that one good test of a song is whether it can be reinterpreted well by others. Here’s an example where the cover surpasses the original, in my opinion.

This is a Warren Zevon song, but here’s it’s done by Robbie Rist (also known as the infamous Cousin Oliver from The Brady Bunch). His version appeared on the Zevon tribute album my version of Mohammed’s Radio was on (available here), and he later sang backing vocals on my tune The Skyline Hotel.

The song is sung from the viewpoint of an unrepentant asshole, the kind who does so well in this world, much to everyone else’s chagrin. Robbie’s delivery helps underscore the recklessness of the lyrics.

Great tune + great performance = greatness.

Genesis – No Son of Mine

In songs on June 23, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Few personalities have attracted more scorn in the music world than one Philip Collins. This has occasionally been justified. I am, however, an unrepentant fan of his melodic sensibilities, instrumental badassery, and occasionally his lyrics, particularly his work with the oft-maligned Genesis.

This song is from the last album he ever did with Genesis, back in 1991. The lyrics have quite a bit of bite to them, which is enhanced by the atmosphere of the arrangement. It’s a story song, which they didn’t tend to do very much late in their career. The subject matter is risky, but they pull it off exceedingly well in my opinion. Strong melodies, dramatic arrangement, emotive performances, a good snapshot of a band with its powers intact.

Did Genesis produce some bad tunes over the years? Absolutely. Anyone with a career that long will miss pitches. But throwing the bathtub out with the baby makes no sense. If something is good, it really doesn’t matter who made it. Hearing McCartney’s Biker Like An Icon doesn’t make me throw out my Beatles records.

Sit back, forget all you know about Mr. Sussudio, and just listen to this tune.

Howard Jones – No One Is To Blame (acoustic live version)

In songs on June 22, 2011 at 12:45 pm

A skill that I have cultivated is to separate songs from their arrangements and production. Often a good song can get cornered by its trappings, and people are unable to hear its possibilities, or even think much about its meaning.

Thankfully some artists make this job easier, as in today’s example by Howard Jones.

This is a live, acoustic version of his biggest hit, and it helps to showcase the lyrics, which mix contradiction, melancholy, hope and helplessness.

While I’m actually a fan of the original’s production (done by Phil Collins, no less), I do think that this recording removes the song from its temporal prison and allows us to hear what’s going on at its core.

I also love the instrumental tag at the beginning and end. It’s something I keep forgetting to do on my own tunes, but this is a good reminder of why it works.

Tom Waits – Step Right Up

In songs on June 21, 2011 at 12:46 pm

I’m generally of the opinion that a good song is one that can be sung in many different ways by many different artists. But there are a few exceptions to that, and this is one of them.

 

 

I can’t in my wildest dreams imagine anyone performing this song other than Tom Waits. This is from his 1976 masterpiece album Small Change, and unlike most records that came out that year, the track sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday.

It could be argued that this is less a song than a stunt, a stream-of-consciousness piece of performance art set to a beat. But one of the hallmarks of visionary songwriting is pushing the definition of what constitutes a song, and pedantic categorization anxiety is never useful in appreciating any form of art, musical or otherwise. Whatever this is, it’s well done.

Rufus Wainwright – Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk

In songs on June 20, 2011 at 1:34 pm

This song draws from an older musical aesthetic, but the lyrics are completely modern.

His litany of vices starts innocently enough, then descends gradually until we’re at “those other things/which for several reasons we won’t mention…” From there the introspection opens up more broadly, all the while retaining a sense of self-deprecating humor that offers no apologies.

It’s an excellent updating of style with new substance.

Aimee Mann – Jacob Marley’s Chain

In songs on June 17, 2011 at 3:32 pm

When starting a blog about songcraft, Aimee Mann makes an excellent inaugural choice:

This is from her 1993 debut solo album, Whatever, when she was making an attempt at abolishing her Til Tuesday one-hit-wonder status and establishing herself as a serious songwriter.

The song is indeed serious, but it’s also very playful, and wordplay is one of her signature talents. Not very many songwriters would rhyme “hell” with “personnel.” In this she has much in common with writers like Lyle Lovett, those who never choose the obvious rhyme, but instead dig around for something more unique.

Note also the song’s brevity. In the classic Paul Simon school of cerebral pop songwriting, she and producer/arranger Jon Brion get the job done in three minutes. Many artists would string an atmospheric piece like this out instrumentally for at least four (something I myself have been guilty of), but here she illustrates the benefits of packing the goods tightly.