Daily Song Study

Archive for October, 2011|Monthly archive page

Squirrel Nut Zippers – Blue Angel

In songs on October 31, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Going retro is a tricky business. Making the old new again is a worthy goal, and can be much harder than it looks. You can ape the style, but too much attention paid to old details can stifle the electricity. Often it’s helpful to bring in some modern sensibility so the spark of innovation that gave the original sound its energy comes through. The odd assortment of players who make up Squirrel Nut Zippers have accomplished this, and this tune is a perfect example.

The melody and style (not to mention Katharine Whalen’s time-warp vocals) are definitively rooted in classic pre-WWII pop songwriting, but the arrangement takes many liberties that older groups wouldn’t have attempted.

To make the old new again, sometimes you have to bring the new to the old.

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The Police – Murder By Numbers

In songs on October 28, 2011 at 10:27 am

I’ve mentioned Gordon “Sting” Sumner before, and I’ve been reminded of an excellent tune he did on the Police’s last (and best-selling) album, Synchronicity.

Unusually on this one, guitarist Andy Summers wrote the music, while Sting contributed the lyrics, which are as delightfully twisted as the whacked-out chord progression and detuned chorus guitar.

Seal – Whirlpool

In songs on October 27, 2011 at 10:51 am

One of the best vocalists to emerge in the past 20 years is one Seal Henry Olusegun Olumide Adeola Samuel, more marketably known as Seal. Like many of my favorite artists, he is comfortable in a variety of genres. Today’s tune is from his debut album, which was primarily dance-based, but this track leans in a decidedly more acoustic blues & funk direction.

Trevor Horn’s production lends a spacey air to the affair, making it a difficult sound to place on the periodic table. Which is good.

Two Songs, One Style

In songs on October 26, 2011 at 9:07 am

Music is not the sort of thing that gets most people upset, but little else will cause me to fly into a rage. This happened to me in 2004, when I was watching some late night TV show and saw a band called The Killers performing. The thing that aroused my ire was that they looked and sounded exactly like a band that I had spent the last couple of years getting really excited about, namely Interpol, who to my knowledge had not been on any late night TV shows. It was typical, I figured, for the copy bands to get the glory after some indie band came up with a really good sound. The sound in question is on display here:

It’s a reworking of early-80s Joy Division and assorted new wave rock, but with some nice arrangement twists and less reliance on synths. I knew at the time that the lyrics were nonsensical and could be tightened up, but I figured all of that would come with time.

Later, though, I realized what I was missing. You see, the year that The Killers released their debut album was also the year that Interpol put out their sophomore record. The elements that I had hoped would improve (lyrics, song structure tightening) had not done so, and in fact they had slipped further into the muddle. Interpol is a band predisposed to hipster aesthetics (NYC brats that they are), meaning that if the average person can sing along and get something from the tune, then the act has sold out, and is therefore worthless.

The Killers, on the other hand, are not afraid in the slightest to have large numbers of people sing along, and are quite good at fashioning songs that are accessible, while retaining the musical aesthetic:

So rather than being angry at the newer band, I have at last come to the conclusion that they did a service by bringing that sound to a wider audience rather than burying it under the weight of self-imposed obscurity.

My own journey with music has, overall, been one of learning where and how best to use my passion. If I get worked up about something, it better damn well be worth getting worked up over. This has resulted in a general shifting of vantage point away from the mosh pit and out onto the lawn. Some things look quite a bit clearer with distance and perspective. Many live for the heat of artistic argument, but I’ve done my time in those trenches, and I find that energy is often best spent on identifying what is or isn’t worth arguing about, then getting those important things hashed out. Maybe that makes me old, but there it is.

Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers – I Just Wish You Were Someone I Love

In songs on October 25, 2011 at 1:13 pm

I’ve spoken earlier of songs that are designed only to work when more than one person is involved, and today’s tune is a perfect example.

Layered harmonies are nice, but staggering their entry is an under-used technique for showcasing them, as the Gatlin Brothers do quite well here. Note also that they bring in the middle part first, then the low, then the high, which separates it from the normal linear pattern in which staggered vocals come in. A nice trick, which actually ends up creating the hook.

So It Goes – Fearless

In songs on October 24, 2011 at 8:07 pm

Few other bands have gone through as many metamorphoses as Pink Floyd. Listening to their first and last albums, you might not be able to tell it was the same band. Today’s tune comes from a period closer to the beginning, but still quite different from the overtly psychedelic approach they started with.

Interestingly, the track I’ve attached isn’t Pink Floyd’s performance of the tune. It’s my favorite version, done by my late friend Jason Jackson & my longtime drummer Jeff Simms, who at the time were working as a duo called So It Goes. Their interpretation doesn’t stray far from the original, but they added a lushness that really brings the song to its full potential, in my humble and likely biased opinion.

Note the subtle changes between the two choruses, and how they interact thematically. Definitely a sign of greater things to come.

(P.S: You can download this version–released under a slightly different band name–for free HERE…)

Sarah Jarosz – Tell Me True

In songs on October 20, 2011 at 8:53 am

Atmosphere is an important element in song creation. Finding the right mix of chords & melody to bring about a particular feeling is tricky, and when it works, is immediately apparent. Today’s tune is a good example of that.

The mood is set from the first few notes, and is an accurate harbinger of what the rest of the tune will evoke. While I do enjoy a good surprise, it’s also nice to see a promise fulfilled. It’s also a good example of making the most from a very few elements, and knowing when enough is enough.

She & Him – Change Is Hard

In songs on October 19, 2011 at 6:43 pm

Zooey Deschanel, half of She & Him, gets a lot of hate from some quarters, and I sort of understand that. It really shouldn’t be fair that someone can be a talented actress and also a gifted songwriter & singer. But it’s difficult to listen to her compositions and conclude that she should not be writing songs. If anyone else had written the song in today’s example, they would certainly be encouraged to continue. It doesn’t hurt that the band’s other half, one M. Ward, is a highly skilled arranger and musician as well.

The interesting part is that her tunes draw from a ’60s and ’70s pop aesthetic that had all but died out prior to the advent of She & Him, making her not only a writer, but also something of a musical archivist. Perhaps it’s not fair, but it appears to be a fact.

Huey Lewis and the News – Naturally

In songs on October 18, 2011 at 10:27 am

The 1980s brought back the 1950s in a big way (although technically that started in the late ’70s, but I digress), both culturally and musically. The children of the hippies returned to the pre-counterculture ethos, not so much interested in changing the world as in having a good time. It was a perfect environment for a band like Huey Lewis & the News to inhabit.

While certainly embodying many of the cheesier elements of the era, the News were charmingly unapologetic about their earnestness, one of the many reasons they were prominently featured in the ’80s-’50s collision of Back to the Future. They had the zeitgeist, and they had it bad.

This proved tricky when sensibilities shifted, and much of their output does look a bit silly in retrospect. But it doesn’t mean they weren’t damned good musicians, as highlighted by this track from 1986.

Not many bands from any era can take their members’ instruments away and pull off an a capella number of this complexity, a doo-wop composition (again, the ’50s) that would stymie even many of that genre’s best practitioners.

Smoking Popes – Wish We Were

In songs on October 17, 2011 at 9:13 am

I often have an aversion to earnest love songs, but sometimes I get a soft spot if it’s done well enough. There’s some teen lobe of my brain that still responds to the desperation of the lonely young man these songs tend to depict, and apparently the Caterer brothers, who form the core of Smoking Popes, have a direct line to that world as well.

Here you can note something which I’m a big fan of, namely a two-part chorus. It’s a difficult thing to pull off, and not all songs need such treatment. But it works well in this style, and shows a level of craftsmanship that is not always present in this genre.