Daily Song Study

Archive for January, 2012|Monthly archive page

Gotye – Somebody That I Used To Know

In songs on January 31, 2012 at 9:27 am

I may never tire of studying deceptive simplicity. Thankfully, it is alive and well.

Wouter “Wally” De Backer, known professionally as Gotye, employs merely three chords here, placing delicate layers of complexity upon them and building dynamically and melodically until a full-blown song has emerged where once was a ditty. Bringing in the sultry pipes of Kimbra on the last half adds not only another sonic layer, but a perspective that keeps the tune from becoming lyrically claustrophobic.

Quite an achievement for a three-chord song.

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Wholes and Sums of Parts

In songs on January 30, 2012 at 11:02 am

I’ve made no secret that Toad the Wet Sprocket is one of my favorite bands. While they have currently reunited, back in 1998 it definitely seemed like splitsville. In 2000 two albums were released, one by the band’s main songwriter Glen Phillips and one by guitarist Todd Nichols & bassist Dean Dinning (with occasional assistance from drummer Randy Guss), in a new outfit called Lapdog.

The interesting thing about the two records is that you can actually identify, almost surgically, the pieces that each of these members contributed to the distinctive Toad sound. On Phillips’ album, you hear the off-kilter lyrics and oddball melodies.

On the Lapdog record, we hear the lush instrumentation and precise delivery.

Both on their own are quite nice, but when united, they create that blend which has endeared the band to so many over the years. Here’s hoping that the new material meshes those elements as effortlessly as in years past.

But as to today’s examples, they are fine tunes which can be enjoyed in any context. Music is an odd beast, and it is often the case that things must be broken to be fixed again.

Everclear – Santa Monica

In songs on January 27, 2012 at 9:29 am

As discussed earlier, sometimes a song’s eventual arrangement can be driven by the forces prevalent at its release. For instance, this is a country song:

I know, because I’ve heard Joe Tucker play it live, and it was indistinguishable from the other country tunes in his set.

However, the song was released in 1995. Which is immediately obvious from the arrangement here, Smells Like Teen Spirit guitar plot & all. But because it’s a country song, there are elements present here that make it stick out. The high harmony is straight-up hillbilly, as is the melody.

Mind you, I’m not criticizing any of this. It’s a great track, one that can be played well in many styles. But studying the elements behind its construction is a good exercise.

Those who know a bit about Everclear are obviously aware that Art Alexakis has, in the intervening years, written and released pretty much this same song at least 5 times with different lyrics. But if we write off early tunes based on later indiscretions, we’d have to chuck the Beatles catalog into the fire as well.

What we have here is a solid hook, delivered with authority, which instead of simply pandering to its era’s zeitgeist, added something distinctive. Well played.

Marina and the Diamonds – Oh, No!

In songs on January 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm

Mentioning the idea of social commentary within catchy melodies yesterday reminded me of our old friend Marina Diamandis. Today’s example is a biting look at self-control and/or the lack thereof.

TV taught me how to feel
Now real life has no appeal

It’s a modern dilemma, and what better format to present the idea than in a dance-pop extravaganza?

Madness – House of Fun

In songs on January 25, 2012 at 10:20 am

The ska revival of the late ’70s and early ’80s produced some interesting sounds, the oddest of which were Madness.

In addition to being an excellent example of that era’s mix of emotionally detached vocals (Pet Shop Boys, etc) and sly commentary within radio-friendly melodies (Boomtown Rats), today’s example is also a tribute to the voice of the producer.

The traditional tale is that a producer comes in and waters down the voice of the artist for greater commercial response. And while this certainly happens a lot (see Aimee Mann & Sara Hickman, among many others), often a producer can be a useful voice outside of the artist’s head that gives the music a clearer perspective.

For instance:

Today’s song was originally recorded under the title “Chemist Facade”, without the “Welcome to the House of Fun” chorus. However, while the song was being recorded, head of Stiff Records Dave Robinson demanded that the band add a chorus, to ensure the song was a hit. Upon hearing this, band member Mike Barson immediately wrote the “Welcome to the House of Fun” refrain on his piano.

However, at this point, the song was already recorded, and the management decided not to re-record the whole song. Instead, the recording was edited, and the chorus instruments and vocals dubbed onto the recording. This proved to be difficult, mainly due to technical limitations at the time, and it resulted in the first part of the word “Welcome” being cut off. Due to this, the chorus seemed to begin “Elcome to the House of Fun”, so lead singer Graham “Suggs” McPherson was forced to overdub the word “Welcome”. Although this proved to be a tough task, it was completed successfully, and the song is far better for it.

Songwriters and performers have choices to make at many points during the creative process, and one of the most important is deciding which outside opinions deserve consideration. With technology and communication being what it is these days, it’s fairly easy to incorporate a suggestion and then scrap it if it doesn’t work. Nothing will ensure the best outcome one hundred percent, and opinions will always differ across the vast mass of humanity. But it is good to step outside one’s grand vision now & then to see if something is really there or if it is in fact a mirage.

Ladyhawke – My Delirium

In songs on January 24, 2012 at 2:26 pm

We’ve spoken here before about doing retro right. And though it may make certain of us feel a bit old, the ’80s is now very retro. This tune is the brainchild of a writer raised in that era.

Ladyhawke is the pseudonym of Phillipa “Pip” Brown, who had played around in a variety of bands for many years until deciding to create an alter-ego, “a sort of pop superwoman creating radio-friendly songs with a single bound.”

One of the things that 1980s pop songwriting brought was an attention to distinctive parts carrying their own melody alongside the main vocal line. Brown has reproduced that focus perfectly on this track. The guitar, keyboard, and even bass parts are singable, yet occupy their own space to give room for the catchy lead melody. It’s a nice trick, one that needn’t be confined to the shoulder-pad decade.

Blue October – Overweight

In songs on January 19, 2012 at 10:10 am

The words Blue October can be divisive among listeners. Call me nuts, but in Justin Furstenfeld’s lyrics there are some very honest observations on being a fucked-up individual trying to figure out how relationships work.

This is a particular brand of songwriting, the calling out into the wilderness for some sort of answer. And the discovery that even upon enlightenment, simply possessing the knowledge isn’t always enough to be able to naturally adhere to it. Furstenfeld is frank about that, and melodic as well.

I’m really sick of saying sorry, but I will

Attempting fundamental change is hard, and you can hear that struggle in Blue October’s tunes. It may not be everyone’s musical cup of tea, but as I appreciate dramatic tension in films & novels, so do I respond to it in songwriting. Putting the contents of one’s brain out into the world is always a harrowing experience. But that’s how you find out you’re not alone, and that change is possible. If you happen to be an asshole, it’s best to be a self-aware one.

R.E.M. – The Wrong Child

In songs on January 18, 2012 at 1:38 pm

We’ve spoken here before about controlled chaos, and at their best, R.E.M. were excellent at the art.

The tale is told much as the music progresses, first through a confused wilderness of instruments and thoughts, then resolving beautifully into clear, melodic hope.

Ben Folds and Nick Hornby – Saskia Hamilton

In songs on January 17, 2012 at 11:37 am

I’ve spoken here about the value of collaboration, and lately one of the best examples has been Ben Folds‘ unorthodox partnerships with non-musicians. We covered his work with William Shatner earlier, and recently he did an album with author Nick Hornby which is just as engaging.

This combination of an author’s verbal prowess with Folds’ quirky arrangements and melodic sense makes for an absolutely unique listening experience, a good songwriting goal.

Peter Gabriel – Digging in the Dirt

In songs on January 16, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Songwriting can be a bit like cooking. The elements you combine are important, but often it’s the way you combine them that makes the difference.

This is probably one of the better examples of switching modes from introspection to rage in quick succession. The transition is made both lyrically and musically, and all in a very catchy manner.

It’s a contrast to our earlier Peter Gabriel study, wherein a mood is taken from one dynamic level to another in a very steady and climactic progression. Today’s tune throws those moods into sharp contrast, in the process showing us how interconnected they are.