Daily Song Study

Archive for August, 2011|Monthly archive page

Dido – Mary’s In India

In songs on August 31, 2011 at 8:49 am

Often good songs can be snapshots of a life, catching a moment in time before it’s whisked away into the past. Here’s a good example of that, a tale of three people at a turning point in each of their lives. In under four minutes, we are introduced to each of these characters, given a glimpse of their history, told of the situation in which they find themselves, and offered a possible future for them. But it’s left just untidy enough to keep an element of mystery about where they might all end up. Much like life itself. The song succeeds precisely because of its ambiguity, even while telling us quite a bit about the people involved.

I am often wary of songs which attempt to present definitive answers to problems. I used to write those when I was young and omniscient, and have had their premises blown to smithereens over the years. Life is open-ended, and often the best songs are as well.

Peter Gabriel – Signal to Noise

In songs on August 30, 2011 at 7:26 am

The conventional wisdom about musical artists is that youth is the peak period. To a degree this is true, although I often wonder how much of that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, there are songs that are only possible when an artist has years of experience to draw on, and there is no better example than today’s tune.

Peter Gabriel has been known as an innovator throughout his career, going back as far as his stint in Genesis during the early 1970s. He has a reputation for throwing pretty much anything against the wall to see if it sticks, and more often than not, it does. In 2002, after a 10-year hiatus, he released the Up album. On that record, you can hear all the various stages in his musical history melding into a cohesive whole. Things that were once experiments which stood alone now mesh with other elements to create a rich sonic palette that drives the songs, which are more introspective than ever.

This one combines many of those elements (the Sufi-based vocals of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, African drums, creepy vocal effects on top of synthesized beats), but brings in a heavy string section at the end to drive the song’s conclusion into the stratosphere. It’s as good a song as he’s ever done, and he pulled it off at age 52. It’s something to shoot for.

Bright Eyes – Arc of Time

In songs on August 29, 2011 at 1:04 pm

I’m usually of the opinion that it takes many years of experience to write great lyrics, but there are occasional exceptions. One is Conor Oberst, the proprietor of indie-rock outfit Bright Eyes, who was barely into his twenties when he wrote this.

The tune is rich in both snark and perspective, not to mention rather catchy. The rhythmic yet chaotic drum track helps to drive the delayed keyboard & guitar riffs, a nice combination. There’s a definite Talking Heads influence here, borrowing without stealing, a good approach.

Ben Folds – Still Fighting It

In songs on August 26, 2011 at 8:11 am

The word “zeitgeist” is a good one. The dictionary defines it as “The taste, outlook, and spirit characteristic of a period or generation.” Every generation has a few artists who, for better or worse, are speaking from a point of view that crosses more common denominators than others. I believe that for a significant number of those who fall within my age group, Ben Folds possesses our zeitgeist.

Take for example today’s track, wherein he becomes a father, simultaneously lamenting the necessity to grow up and being surprised at the attachment he feels to his new son. This is very GenX, being forcibly dragged into responsibility, and finding that some of the things we swore we’d never do are actually good for us. The tone is ironic, one of the signature attitudes of this generation, but not in the self-destructive Kurt Cobain way. Folds is self-aware of his mental predicament, and takes every opportunity to poke fun at himself.

In an era where dads play video games and wear jeans to the office, we are definitely still fighting it. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, so long as you know what’s going on in your own head.

Jerry Reed – Lord Mr. Ford

In songs on August 25, 2011 at 7:41 am

My beginnings in music are solidly based in novelty tunes, with hours spent taping the Doctor Demento show off the radio (where I discovered this song). Most music lovers use the term “novelty” as a pejorative. I disagree, primarily because no one can quite agree what constitutes a novelty song. It could be anything from an odd-sounding movie theme to a spoken word piece, or something like today’s song, written by Dick Feller.

Artists like Jerry Reed understand that categories are bunk. If it’s a good song, don’t bother with where it fits on someone’s periodic table. Despite the inaccuracies here (Henry Ford did not himself invent the horseless carriage), what we have here is an excellent social commentary mixed with badass instrumental licks and a driving stomp. It’s just a great song.

If exploring novelty tunes is the only way to get exposure to songs like this, I’m all for it.

Paul Simon – American Tune (live)

In songs on August 24, 2011 at 9:16 am

I don’t like playing favorites, but there is something about hearing today’s tune that always leaves me dumbstruck, thinking how in the world could anyone ever write another song this great, and how the hell did someone write a song that perfect in the first place?

The lyrics, the melody, the chord progression, the mood, everything appears as if it could be no other way. Of course being a songwriter, I know the various iterations that tunes go through on their way to being born, and so it boggles me to think of the construction process here. It has no chorus per se, simply a few repeating lines here and there, and an unusually elongated bridge. The magic is in the interplay between all the elements.

Like many, I have a bucket list, and learning this song is on it. Which is harder than it sounds, especially when I live in fear of messing up something that I consider absolutely perfect.

Brave Combo – Sixteen Tons

In songs on August 23, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Reinterpretation can be as important as the initial act of songwriting. Making a tune your own requires every bit as much attention to detail and compositional care, plus the consequences if you do it wrong will be negatively compared to the original.

I mentioned my friend Little Jack Melody earlier. The band he currently basses for, Brave Combo, are masters of rearrangement, as shown in today’s tune. Written by Merle Travis (although somewhat disputed by George Davis, who claims to have written a similar song beforehand) in 1946, it was a big hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955, and his version has become the definitive one.

However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to experiment. BC’s head honcho Carl Finch has reimagined it as a cumbia, and here it is sung by their saxophonist Jeffrey Barnes. It may not take Ford’s crown, but it definitely makes you listen. And dance.

Irving Berlin – Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning

In songs on August 11, 2011 at 11:35 am

Irving Berlin was not known for singing his own songs, but here’s a nice exception, from the 1943 film This Is The Army.

On a purely nostalgic note, I enjoy how the opening skit reminds me of the old radio shows I used to find on cassette at my local library as a kid. For some reason, an audio window into a bygone era makes it much more realistic to my brain than a film. Perhaps it’s because in film, you see people and structures that are significantly different than those you’re used to. With radio, you’re hearing everything exactly as someone would have heard it back then. It’s easier to imagine that you’re there, at least for me.

But getting back to the song, it’s a great example of melding a popular sentiment with a catchy melody. That’s a lot of what pop music is about, for better or worse, and in this case, I couldn’t agree more.

U2 – All I Want Is You

In songs on August 10, 2011 at 2:49 pm

It would seem axiomatic that a simple song should have a simple arrangement. But often this logic is confuted, and a very basic song becomes amazingly complex. U2 is one of the bands who is best at this trick, not least on this track from 1988. There are only four chords in the song, but with the help of string arranger Van Dyke Parks, Heartbreakers’ keyboardist Benmont Tench, and some trademark atmospheric Edge guitar, it becomes a worthy end credits theme for their concert film Rattle & Hum.

While it is certainly possible to ruin a simple song with instrumental bloat, it is also intriguing to explore possibilities that less ambitious arrangers may have missed through reflexive assumption. It’s a bit like watching Bob Ross paint. At first it’s a simple tree and water scene, and you say “Oh, that’s nice,” and then he goes and puts a big black line through it. Your first reaction is to jump up and try to stop him, but then it becomes clear that he’s adding another layer that makes it far more interesting. You can always stop at the logical place. But what happens when you don’t?

Fiction Plane – Hate

In songs on August 9, 2011 at 10:56 am

Is it possible to have a serious song that’s also a joke? The answer is yes, rarely. It takes a certain slyness of approach to pull it off, but if anyone has a shot, it would be the son of the aforementioned Gordon Sumner, aka Sting. His firstborn Joe Sumner has an interesting band called Fiction Plane, and with this song, they appear to be joining me in the fight against hipsterism.

Obviously that’s my own prejudicial focus here, because in fact the song is about willful ignorance in general. But it does make some cutting remarks about the constraints of coolness:

“Take a stand and we will cut you down
Be yourself and we’ll call you a liar
Be somebody else and we’ll set you on fire
Keep yourself to yourself and we don’t care if you die yeah…”

But Sumner is careful to caution against withdrawing too completely from society as well:

“Don’t tell me to look at myself
I know that I don’t exist
I am perfect, I don’t exist
In your stupid human world…”

It takes a certain amount of self-awareness, observation and skill to write a song this accusatory and still make it listenable, but here they’ve pulled it off quite effectively. A good lesson.