Daily Song Study

Archive for July, 2011|Monthly archive page

The Beatles – The Fool on the Hill

In songs on July 29, 2011 at 1:43 pm

I’m generally in the habit of exposing people to songs they don’t know, because I figure the ones they do know are all out there for anyone to spend time studying. However, sometimes a song’s intricacies get overlooked precisely because it is omnipresent.

The Beatles are Exhibit A in this conundrum. Everyone knows Beatles songs, and everyone agrees they’re great. But sometimes it’s good to try and understand why. When people attempt to ape the band, they usually get one of the elements right (production, instrumentation, chord progression, vocal style, melodic pattern), but never all of them at once. The combination is what makes these songs continue to work over 40 years later.

Today’s tune has always been one of my favorites because it is simultaneously pretty and creepy. The bright, playful verse descends into a minor-key chorus that is ultimately a little disturbing. We’re left with a bit of concern about who the fool is and what exactly he’s on about, and also with sympathy for an outsider who is trying to be understood by a society that has written him off.

There’s not much I can write about this song that hasn’t been written before, but for a moment, just pretend you’ve never heard the Beatles, or this tune, and see what elements you notice.


Natalie Merchant – Motherland

In songs on July 28, 2011 at 12:41 pm

Timing can sometimes be everything.

Merchant has received flak for some of this album’s charged political content, the contention being that as it was released right after 9/11, she was making money from the victims’ misery. This flies in the face of reason in two ways:

Firstly, the recording for the album was concluded two days before the attacks.

Secondly, in both her solo work and with 10,000 Maniacs, Merchant has consistently taken on controversial topics. If anything, the fact that songs written before that fateful day would seem relevant to those events means that the issues she addresses have been there for quite some time, and were merely waiting for a massive brushfire to flare them up.

Kerfuffle aside, the song is gorgeous. Her voice continues to gain more depth the older she gets, which bodes well for the future. T-Bone Burnett’s production on this certainly accentuates its power, as it does everything he works on. It exemplifies the power of minimalism amid complexity.

The Jim Carroll Band – People Who Died

In songs on July 27, 2011 at 3:37 pm

One of the best songwriting tricks is to write a sad song that people can dance to. This is one of the better examples, from one of my favorite rock periods, 1980.

Carroll mixes city grit with comradeship, sadness with frustration, and humor with respect. A good trick in and of itself.

2 songs, 1 subject

In songs on July 26, 2011 at 1:38 pm

Today is a two-fer, a study of how similar and different two songs about the same subject can be. While I’m not a big Skynyrd fan, I’d have to be deaf not to know that The Ballad of Curtis Loew is a damned fine song, sharply contrasting ideologically with some of their other output (Sweet Home Alabama, et al).

Compare it to a song written nearly two decades later…

In 1996, I was booking events at Borders in Fort Worth. One day I got a disc in the mail from a singer/songwriter in Atlanta named Shawn Mullins, who had a small catalogue of self-released discs and was on constant tour with a VW microbus and a dachshund. I booked him, and he did a hell of a set in our coffee bar. Not two years later, he was signed & topping the charts with Lullabye, a talky-singy thing not dissimilar to the style he had used on Eggshells, the album I got from him.

One of the best songs on that ’96 disc is this tribute to another guitar-picking senior citizen, similar to Curtis Loew but different in certain respects. It’s instructive to listen to both tunes and see what contrasts pop up.

Hank Dogs – 18 Dogs

In songs on July 25, 2011 at 9:17 pm

Murder ballads are fun, especially when they involve vicious animals.

There’s something about the delivery of this particular story that intrigues me. By singing words like “I’ll take the greatest of pleasure in watching you torn limb from limb” in a detached, airy monotone, it actually makes it creepier than if it had been sung with obvious malice.

At least to me.

The Ventures – Caravan ’65

In songs on July 22, 2011 at 2:11 pm

One genre that has almost completely disappeared from the radio over the last 20 years is the instrumental. For most of the last century, instrumentals could be found in the Top 10 of most styles of music. One of the most popular all-instrumental bands of all time was The Ventures, who contributed heavily to the surf-rock boom in the early 1960s. But unlike many of their contemporaries, The Ventures had a broader range of styles they drew from, everything from country songs to Beatles covers to Latin standards, all done up in surf style.

This tune is an interesting pick, written by Juan Tizol and Irving Mills, first performed by Duke Ellington in 1937. The Ventures played it on their big Japanese tour in 1965, from whence this recording originates. Check out the section in the drum solo where he plays the bassist’s strings with his sticks.

I could go on a long rant about how the modern entertainment industry has made the charting of instrumentals impossible, but that’s for a different sort of blog. Just listen to the tune and be thankful that there was a time such things happened.

Depeche Mode – Little 15

In songs on July 21, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Some artists get tied to a particular time or movement, sometimes for obvious reasons. Take the case of Depeche Mode.

They were very obviously an outgrowth of the synth-pop boom in the early 1980s. At one time their membership boasted Vince Clarke, who later went on to form/become Erasure, one of the genre’s signature acts of the decade. But Depeche Mode was always a hair off-center, owing largely to the idiosyncratic songwriting of Martin Gore, and the strangely dark baritone vocals of David Gahan. Yes, they had radio hits, but even those were weird as hell.

As I’ve mentioned before, my brain contains this built-in layer remover that can hear the song beneath the production. And listening to Depeche Mode, it’s clear that these songs are much more than synth-pop. Today’s tune is a prime example. It could easily be performed by a string quartet, or on solo piano, or any number of different musical settings. But being a child of the ’80s, I do enjoy the treatment here.

R.E.M. – Superman

In songs on July 20, 2011 at 5:55 pm

I mentioned earlier the phenomenon of bands where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the case of R.E.M. Take away any member, and you don’t have the sound (evidenced by how erratic their output has been since drummer Bill Berry left).

This track, originally written and performed in 1969 by a band from Houston called The Clique, showcases R.E.M.’s many secret weapons, from Peter Buck’s alternately sparkling and punky guitar to the vocal interplay between bassist Mike Mills (lead on this track) and Michael Stipe, plus the aforementioned insistent thump of Bill Berry’s drums.

No other group of players would produce this sound, nor would any subtraction from those present. Uniqueness is a precious thing, and we are lucky to have the technology to keep moments in time alive for future ears.

Concrete Blonde – Little Wing

In songs on July 19, 2011 at 1:39 pm

One of the most far-reaching developments in rock history was the merging of the roles of songwriter and performer. This can largely be credited to the Beatles, although certainly folk singers had done it previously, but once it was decided that writing one’s own songs lent an air of authenticity, suddenly everyone had to be both creator and performer.

This has been both a good and bad development. Many are the exquisitely talented singers who croon their own subpar tunes and stay at a middling career level, and legion are the songwriters who can’t sing their way out of a paper bag, thus consigning otherwise decent tunes to obscurity. I myself have often thought it would be extremely liberating to turn my own songs over to a really badass singer to deliver the shit out of them. May do that yet.

So it’s nice to see a great meeting of the talents from time to time, such as today’s example.

The song, Little Wing, was written brilliantly by Jimi Hendrix, who I consider to be an average vocalist (much to the consternation of Hendrix necrostalkers), albeit an extremely innovative guitarist. However, on this version, we are treated to the phenomenal pipes of Concrete Blonde vocalist Johnette Napolitano, someone who, sadly, often doesn’t write songs that properly showcase her talent. And call me crazy (people do), but I really like James Mankey’s guitar work on this version, an interesting contrast to the looser Hendrix style.

Great song, great performance, that should ultimately be the goal, right? Authenticity be damned.

Guster – Fa Fa

In songs on July 18, 2011 at 12:36 pm

One of the great things about pop music is that it welcomes nonsense. Those of us who consider ourselves intellectuals can put up our guards if we want, but damned if we don’t end up singing along to words that don’t mean a goddamn thing.

And that’s okay.

Guster is an interesting study because so much of their appeal lies in the sound of those particular musicians playing together. And yet, there is definitely some craftsmanship going on with the tunes that transcends those individuals. A worthy accomplishment.