Daily Song Study

Archive for September, 2011|Monthly archive page

Jack Blanchard and Misty Morgan – Tennessee Birdwalk

In songs on September 30, 2011 at 9:12 am

One good songwriting trick is to bring elements of the verse back into the chorus. This is achieved, albeit in a very silly way, on this tune, a novelty number from the ’70s.

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t use the term “novelty” as a pejorative. Many of the best tricks that George Martin brought to the Beatles albums are things that he learned while working on novelty songs. Sometimes the only way innovation in a particular genre occurs is when someone brings in something from another field that catches the audience’s ear because it’s unexpected in that format. A good thing to keep in mind.

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Jump Rope Girls – Layaway

In songs on September 29, 2011 at 9:41 am

In the late ’90s, my friend Casey Hess underwent some very risky surgery to cure a heart problem that was going to kill him. It took his band Doosu off the road, and arguably off the path to stardom. He spent a long time in the hospital afterwards, during which he began composing in his head the songs that would become, with the help of producer Don Relyea, the 1999 album Eight Track Demos. The duo billed themselves as Jump Rope Girls, a band which only ever made that one record, but it’s a good one.

There is a palpable sense of vulnerability here, one that is likely born of being tied to a bed, fearing for one’s life. Sometimes experience is the best teacher.

Guster – Diane

In songs on September 28, 2011 at 8:55 am

I like a good dynamic build, and this tune illustrates that idea nicely.

You can hear each tiny element appear one by one, bringing us finally to the addition of the alternate vocal line in the ending chorus, which really drives a fairly simple song into new territory. It’s another good example of creating complexity out of simplicity, as discussed here before. There are good and bad ways to do that, and I’d place this well into the former category.

Cafe Noir – The Great William L.

In songs on September 27, 2011 at 8:32 am

I’ve mentioned before that in years past, a record label logo could sometimes be a mark of quality assurance (as with the aforementioned Chrysalis). Dallas had its own quality mark in the late ’80s and early ’90s in the form of Carpe Diem Records. Operated by Allan Restrepo (later my boss at online retailer w3cd.com), this label put out the first solo album by Rhett Miller (later of Old 97s), most of the Little Jack Melody catalog (my hero), and even albums by progressive alterna-rock acts like Course of Empire, among many others.

One of Carpe Diem’s most successful artists was Cafe Noir, a band whose membership was a hodgepodge of classical & gypsy musicians. On their 1995 album The Waltz King, they combined those elements into an interesting stew. One of the ingredients was national champion yodeler Randy Erwin-Skalicky, who is featured on this track.

Sadly, Carpe Diem fell victim to the rising costs of the music-industrial complex, but I for one am grateful for the works it made possible.

Toad the Wet Sprocket – Something To Say

In songs on September 26, 2011 at 11:29 am

One thing that I consistently appreciate, because it’s so rare, is a well-turned phrase. Glen Phillips is a master of these, and this song contains many of them.

Some of my favorites:

You can take me down
You can show me your home
Not the place where you live
But the place where you belong

You can bend my ear
We can talk all day
Just make sure I’m around
When you’ve finally got something to say

R.E.M. – Fall On Me

In songs on September 22, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Yesterday, one of the most influential bands in my lifetime announced they were breaking up. I myself would argue that R.E.M.’s breakup happened 14 years ago when drummer Bill Berry left for health reasons. Their music hasn’t been the same since, although even prior to his departure it was getting a bit shaky.

Today’s tune is interesting, because it highlights so many of the things that the band stopped doing around the time of Berry’s exit: Alternating vocal lines, catchy melodies, sparkling guitar arrangements, and lyrics dealing with pressing issues. It showcases a compendium of hard-learned tricks that for some reason the group abandoned halfway through their career. Perplexing, but that’s a word often associated with this band.

RIP, R.E.M. Half a career of badassery is nothing to sneeze at.

Aimee Mann – How Am I Different

In songs on September 21, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Returning to Aimee Mann, which I am prone to do fairly often. She really does have some of the most thoroughly satisfying lyrics on the planet, not to mention catchy melodies. This one perfectly encapsulates the fear of engagement with someone or something that you feel in your gut is going to be a disappointment. I identify with it not only based on past relationships, but from pitches I’ve gotten on the musical front as well.

This show is too well-designed
Too well to be held with only me in mind…

Quite.

The Thorns – No Blue Sky

In songs on September 20, 2011 at 8:25 am

I’ve featured a Shawn Mullins song in this space before, and he’s been up to some interesting things since that came out. In 2003 he teamed up with roots-rocker Pete Droge and power-pop maven Matthew Sweet to form The Thorns, a harmony-heavy folk-rock enterprise who put out a self-titled album in 2003.

The attached track is a very Mullins-esque tune, but with the addition of the other singers and big orchestration, it occupies a different sort of space. More epic, if you will. It’s another interesting study in the effects of collaboration.

Dorian Spencer – New York Winter

In songs on September 19, 2011 at 1:44 pm

In late 2003, I was on my way from our apartment in Hell’s Kitchen to do some recording at my friend Paul‘s place in Harlem. Going down to the 1 train station at 50th Street & Broadway, I heard a voice on the platform that made me stop and miss my train. I gave the singer my card, not entirely sure how I was going to work with him, but sure that I wanted to.

For the next year or so, I became his bassist, helped him put together a band that did some club shows, busked with him in various Manhattan parks, and recorded his first EP, Seeds, at my apartment. Our professional paths ended up diverging, but I learned quite a bit from our time together.

This is one of the better 9/11-related songs around, in my opinion. Co-written with John Lynch, it presents slices of NYC life alongside the tragedy that barged through the consciousnesses of everyone in town, regardless of how ensconced they were in their own personal dungeons. An great songwriting feat, to be sure.

Paramore – The Only Exception

In songs on September 15, 2011 at 8:28 am

I’m not a fan of most love songs. However, when they’re done well, I like them a lot. Paramore is an odd little band who tends to write songs about topics that aren’t in the standard plastic-pop box, even if their sound is decidedly mainstream. Today’s study is the kind of love song one would expect from them, in the form of a grudging admission of affection.

Lead singer Hayley Williams grew up with parents who seemed to be constantly switching from one relationship to the other, so the tune comes out as a hard-fought concession to the fact that love may in fact exist despite much evidence to the contrary. It’s an honest love song, which is a rare beast.