Daily Song Study

Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

Roger Miller – King of the Road

In songs on December 30, 2011 at 10:21 am

Layers are important in songwriting. Today’s tune, for instance.

Enumerating the reasons why this song works is harder than it sounds.

Obviously there is the melody, immensely singable and put to a simple chord progression. Then there are the lyrics and highly original phrasing that wouldn’t be out of place on a Tom Waits record (and predate Waits’ debut by 7 years). Observe also the vocal delivery, rough around the edges but still likable, as is the song’s protagonist.

All of that might be enough, but upon closer examination we can see the production decisions that contribute to its uniqueness. The arrangement is sparse, driven primarily by a jaunty bass line and reverberating finger snaps. Other elements are added strategically as the song progresses, first acoustic guitar and then piano on the key change. Unlike many country songs of the era, there is no backing choir, no steel guitar, no string section. It stands out as much for what is not there as for what is.

And is it even really a country song? Nominally, perhaps, but there are elements of jazz & blues in there, which practitioners like Ray Charles know are “the same goddamned thing exactly.” Truthfully, it’s a pop song, in the purest sense of the word. Popular because it connects easily with the listener.

The fact that all these elements can be combined in this fashion is due in no small part to Miller’s own biography. He served as fiddle player for Minnie Pearl, drummer for Faron Young and Ray Price, and was also proficient at piano and banjo, in addition to guitar. He had spent time in cotton fields, in the army, and as a hotel bellhop while trying to make his name in music.

When someone sits down to write a song, they bring to the table only what they have gathered. Though Miller was only 29 when King of the Road was written, he brought in so much collective experience that this unique synthesis was made possible. He would use that varied palette to construct the tunes for the musical Big River two decades later.

Songs are made of layers because people are made of layers. Add more to one, and more is added to the other.

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Garrison Starr and Glen Phillips – All I Want

In songs on December 29, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Even the best songs can wear down a listener’s ears over time if they are ubiquitous enough. And while I am an immense Toad the Wet Sprocket fan, I am not always prone to keep the radio on when their biggest hit comes on. It’s a beautiful song, but it has been played to death over the past 20 years.

So it’s nice when someone comes along to reinterpret tunes like this with a fresh approach, even taking liberties with the melody to reintroduce us to its possibilities. Today’s track is a great example.

Even the presence of the song’s main author and original singer Glen Phillips doesn’t dent the originality, and I suspect that it’s as nice for Phillips to try singing a different part as it is for us to hear it.

XTC – The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead

In songs on December 28, 2011 at 11:01 am

XTC is often a go-to band for people who want to hear a bit of pop music, but don’t generally like pop music. Their tunes don’t pander, but are intensely singable. Witness today’s example.

In addition to being catchy, the song tells a really engaging story about a fictional messiah who runs the standard course, ending up crucified on live television. This is a simpler chord progression than the band normally use, and it fits well with the populist tale.

From a production standpoint, I just have to say that this may be my favorite drum sound ever. For that, credit Nick Davis, who has also engineered fantastic sessions for Genesis.

People often think they don’t like pop music, which I can certainly understand, given that field’s checkered output. But when we hear artists like this, it reminds us that the form itself may not be the problem, but instead the low standards to which it is commonly held in the culture. If we demand more XTCs, will they come?

Copeland – No One Really Wins

In songs on December 27, 2011 at 9:36 am

Rock and roll as originally conceived was much more about roughness than beauty. However, over the years the definition has evolved, and there are many rock bands who make albums every bit as lovely as they are loud and raucous. Consider Copeland:

Given the fuzzy intro, the introduction of Aaron Marsh’s lilting vocal is a bit of a surprise. The arrangement develops its own surprises as the song develops, switching from clean to dirty on a dime. The production by Matt Goldman and Ken Andrews is gorgeous in its own right, helping to keep the aural balance in line.

This is also an example of a band that is nominally Christian bucking the constraints of the “Christian rock” box. Much like U2, the sound comes before the message, as it should in any tune wishing to make a point.

Annie Lennox – No More “I Love You’s”

In songs on December 26, 2011 at 4:48 pm

I’ve spoken before about how sometimes the definitive version of something isn’t necessarily its original take. This is a fine example.

Originally written by Joseph Hughes and David Freeman for their band The Lover Speaks in 1986, it was covered spectacularly by former Eurythmic Annie Lennox in 1995, rendering the original rather easily forgotten.

The lyrics are unmistakably British, mixing sing-song whimsy with dark emotions, which make the whole experience a bit like a fairy tale. Musically, the mix of the nonsense backing vocals throughout give the affair an R&B flavor, fitting Lennox’s soulful voice. The 1980s production style is out of step with its mid-’90s release date, which was a bit ballsy for the time, and certainly doesn’t hurt the listening experience today.

It’s a good example of someone hearing what a song can be and saving it from obscurity. The dream of many a workaday songwriter.

David Gilmour – Murder

In songs on December 23, 2011 at 2:28 pm

In the musical powerhouse that was Pink Floyd, Roger Waters is the first name that comes to mind when it comes to songwriting. And deservedly so. However, quite a bit of their best material was either written or co-written by David Gilmour. When at last he struck out on his own, the results were hit-and-miss (as indeed Waters’ solo efforts were), but a few real gems stand easily on their own. Today’s study may be foremost among them.

It goes without saying that the performance is dazzling. There are few examples of Gilmour ever turning in a lackluster studio session. Noteworthy here is how comfortable he is in both a folk and rock setting, as the song takes us through its dynamic turns.

The lyrics search for the meaning in horrific acts of violence (and are also unapologetically grammatically correct even as the guitars blare, another Pink Floyd staple), and his vocal, like his guitar, makes the shift from quiet wonder into burning rage at the irreparable nature of those acts. Bridging those sections is a truly remarkable bass solo by Pino Palladino, which in a lesser song by almost any other guitarist would be the highlight. The time-shift at the end takes us into more familiar Floyd territory, a nice release from the tension built up in the tune.

Being the second-best songwriter in a band is not necessarily a bad thing. Think of the Beatles‘ third-best songwriter, George Harrison. Good is good, hierarchy be damned.

Joshua James – Coal War

In songs on December 22, 2011 at 9:03 pm

Surprises in pop music are good, and this song is full of them.

Nearly two minutes into the tune, all we’ve heard are vocals and percussion, each of those building slowly in complexity. Then out of nowhere comes not only a full band, but a succession of dynamically diverse passages that, lo and behold, bring us back to where we began.

Bringing all these different elements in and making them mesh can be a tricky songwriting job, but few things will separate a writer from the pack more quickly. Definitely made me sit up straighter.

Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra – Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop

In songs on December 21, 2011 at 8:13 pm

When we think of rock and roll, the default birthdate is set in the 1950s. But as Piero Scaruffi and a few other music historians note, that is bollocks.

Lionel Hampton, 1945:

This is a rock song. Little Richard could do it. Or Bill Haley. Yes, it’s a blues tune done with a jazz arrangement, but change a few players here & there and bammo, it’s rock.

But more importantly, it’s catchy and delivered superbly. Which makes genre nomenclature all the more irrelevant, but it’s a good idea now & then to take a look at old assumptions and see if they stand up. This tune, however, does.

Paul McCartney – Ou Est le Soleil

In songs on December 20, 2011 at 7:51 pm

I’ve spoken here before about the undervalued joys that instrumental tracks can contain, and this is one of my favorites in that regard. Though not technically sans lyrics, the words are minimal and serve mostly to drive the instrumentation.

Post-Wings McCartney is often justifiably impugned on a variety of counts, but his 1989 album Flowers in the Dirt succeeds much more often than it fails, not least on this number. Taking a simple progression and putting it through a variety of arrangement changes is a nice technique, one that was used to great effect throughout the ’80s by acts like U2 and Depeche Mode. Here it is done in identifiable Macca style, but with a definitive late-1980s palate. For some, that phrase conjures up images of Milli Vanilli and Technotronic, but remember that this period did bring some of the decade’s greatest audio triumphs (Graceland, So, The Joshua Tree, Deep, and Violator, among others). This may not quite reach those vaunted heights, but it shares many of their better traits.

Someone whose best work took place with arguably the most important rock band of the past century is thereafter going to be held to a standard that even the best songwriters would be hard-pressed to approach. Forget for a moment whose brain this escaped from, and just see if it doesn’t strike you as a really cool track.

John Mellencamp – Save Some Time to Dream

In songs on December 19, 2011 at 7:42 pm

Though I have enjoyed some of his tunes over the years, I’ve never really considered myself a real Mellencamp fan. That said, it’s always been obvious that the man has gifts, and the album he put out last year with T-Bone Burnett (my hero) showcases them right upside your head, most notably on today’s tune.

This is the modest-but-wise Mellencamp, the one who knows the olden country music tradition of giving advice while knowing full well that the giver is not himself a shining example. Humility in the face of time, something that often goes lacking in message-based tunes. Answers followed by more questions. It’s good songwriting, but maybe also good living.