Category Archives: List

Don’t Pass Me By: 5 Songs Sung By Someone Other Than the Lead Singer

It’s nice to see when a band can substitute in different elements while keeping their sound intact – they can swap instruments a la David Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging” or bring in another musician to liven things up a la The Beatles Let It Be with Nicky Hopkins on electric piano. Sometimes it just takes shoving a different guy from the back of the stage in front of the mic and into the spotlight. Hearing a new voice behind a familiar band can radically change of the feeling of the song or get you to notice a facet of the band that you had never noticed before, not to mention some long-hidden-away vocal talent that was just begging to come to the surface. Presented here are five instances of a different person taking the helm and letting ‘er rip:

1) R.E.M. – Superman

On the grounds that Michael Stipe thought the song was too silly for him to sing, bassist Michael Mills stepped up to allow the audience to hear a but of what happens when R.E.M. has a little fun with their material and covers an old favourite by Texas band The Clique. The melody bounces along in a way that R.E.M. songs rarely do and there’s a totally different, fun energy present with Mills’ rendition (though, admittedly, his singing voice is a lot like Stipe’s, if a little less polished). As the album closer to Lifes Rich Pageant, it adds a little levity to the proceedings, as the band does not do a whole lot of covers on their albums – it feels like a “let’s throw one more on there” and I’m glad they did! Apparently Stipe was not too embarrassed to do harmony vocals over top, so you end up with a very different sound overall as you get a glimpse of the music that was making them excited. Funnily enough, it ended up being one of the singles from the album and received a decent amount of air play.

2) The Clash – The Guns of Brixton

Paul Simonon’s songwriting and vocal debut for the band on their smash London Calling conjures images of rough lower-class resistance “when they kick at your front door”, not just in lyrics but also in the reggae feel of the music and the accent Simonon adopts to sing the song. The rough and angry timbre of his voice suits the sentiment perfectly as he muses on the heinous acts of the local police towards the immigrants there, issuing a warning to them that “you can crush us/you can bruise us/but you’ll have to answer to/the guns of Brixton”, which is fantastically ominous and a reminder that nothing is forgotten. The way the vocal falls to “the guns of Brixton” is where you can hear the narrowing of the eyes instead of producing a big loud chorus, as the whole song is very much uniquely suited to Simonon’s voice – had Mick Jones or Joe Strummer tackled it, it might not have stood out quite so much as the rebellious anthem it clearly is.

3) Pink Floyd – Have A Cigar

Not even in the band, but in the studio next door, British folk great Roy Harper sings vocals on this track about the emptiness of the music industry. Both Roger Waters and David Gilmour had tried to record the vocals (both separately and together), but were not satisfied with any of them. In a way, it’s perfect. The song is from the perspective of a record label exec or a manager who’s supposed to be addressing the band, so for the vocals to be by someone else, you really get that sense of someone interfering in the record – “You gotta get an album out/You owe it to the people”. He has just the right amount of sleaze in his voice to deliver the faux-fawning patter as he asks them “oh, by the way/which one’s Pink?” as you wonder who the hell this guy is and why he should be strutting in the middle of this Pink Floyd album to chum up to the band. He knows when to keep it conversational and when to stretch the notes out and sounds like a total natural fit. Had it been Waters or Gilmour, it might not have had that visceral, unexpected punch to it.

4) Queen – Good Company

While Brian May’s can be heard on virtually every Queen track – he is approximately a third of the harmonic assault at any given time – his vocals don’t get spotlighted that often, as he was in the same band as Freddie Mercury. On this track from A Night at the Opera, it’s pretty much just his show as, apart from creating an entire Dixieland jazz band from his guitar, he sings about a man gradually losing his friends and loved ones as he gets further and further into his work, providing lead and backing vocals both, which gives it a different feel from when Mercury and Roger Taylor are also in the vocal mix.  Unlike some bands where the vocalists seem to share a lot of similarities, the singers in Queen actually have quite diverse voices that blend well – the song still has that big ‘Queen’ feel, but May has a more nuanced and lower voice than the other two and is a perfect fit for this humble tale.

5) Genesis – More Fool Me

Back in 1973, it was unusual for Peter Gabriel to relinquish the microphone, but they took a chance on giving their young drummer a track or two to sing his song, that drummer’s name, of course, being Phil Collins. Yes, Collins would go on to front Genesis for longer than Gabriel did at the end of the day, but at the time, this was only the second song he’d sung lead vocals on and the first that was over two minutes, and the music being made scarcely resembled what the band would become later. The simple strummed acoustic guitar, along with Collins innocent vocals sound miles away from “Invisible Touch” or “I Can’t Dance”. You could tell right away, however, that the man knew a hook, as this song picks up quite nicely at the chorus and provides a sense of quietude on the sprawling Selling England By the Pound, in both instrumentation and subject matter. This was the initial flag-planting for Mr. Collins within the band that proved he’d be able to step out from behind the drum kit and take the mic (and sound a heckuva lot like Peter Gabriel, quite honestly).

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Tale of Two Johns: They Might Be Giants in 10 Songs

They Might Be Giants have been around for so long now and are so prolific that there’s no way they weren’t going to engrain themselves into popular culture, regardless of whether people knew that they were there or not. From writing and composing the themes of The Daily Show and Malcolm in the Middle, to their songs being featured on Tiny Toons, to their collaboration with the Brothers Chaps at Homestar Runner, not to mention 16 studio albums to date, the two Johns from Brooklyn are seemingly inescapable in one small way or another.  These points are only the tip of the iceberg, however.

Rounding about 30 years making music together, John Flansbergh and John Linnell are seemingly tireless with adapting to new styles, sending up existing ones, oftentimes trying the patience of the audience and always keeping things very silly. It always takes me awhile to parse a They Might Be Giants lyric, because they look at life from the most obtuse angles. “Ana Ng”, a potential love song to the one time Vietnamese smallest woman in the world begins with “Make a hole with a gun perpendicular/to the name of this town on a desktop globe/exit wound in a foreign nation/showing the home of the one this was written for”. To stay on the subject, in “Purple Toupee” they describe the Vietnam War as “Chinese people fighting in the park/We tried to help ’em fight – no one appreciated that.” Theoretically, many of the things described in the songs are things we all experience, but you have to tilt your head at a hell of an angle.

Here’s ten songs to act as sort of a broad primer to this quirky band, though there’s so much to uncover, it’s hard to know what to leave out!:

1) Don’t Let’s Start, They Might Be Giants (1986)

Described as being about “not let’s starting” by John Linnell, this was TMBG’s first single – their first cry into pop culture as they started to find their way. And what a cry it was. Ostensibly about a break-up, few songs contain the strange mix of absurdity and melancholy sent to an intermittent jangly guitar rhythm as this one does. The narrator keeps trying to cope with what’s going on, but spends the whole song talking around the subject.”Wake up! Smell the catfood/In your bank account” cries Linnell, after comparing the subject of the song to a cat for about a verse, while a minute later, shoegazing with the line “everybody dies frustrated inside/and that is beautiful”. It’s a peppy, energetic song and the combination of pop hook and sad lyric would serve them well throughout their career. The balls-out commitment and refusal to tone down any of the weirdness gives that “two against the world” feeling of a fresh new band trying to make their indelible and confusing mark (there were no band members other than the two Johns until 1994’s John Henry) The video contains what would remain hallmarks for quite a few of their videos – weird choreography, goofy faces, black and white, and giant cut-outs of the head of newspaper editor William Allen White.

2) They’ll Need A Crane, Lincoln (1988)

From one of my favourite albums of all time, this is the one. The poppiest, heartbreakingist track you’ll ever hear. Second album in and they nailed it. As is often the case, the title belies the true focus of the song – a relationship in just complete dissolution as they cling tighter to the architecture of it: “They’ll need a crane/to take the house he built for her apart”. The song is peppered with clever little stories and observations about our protagonists, Gal and Lad as they come apart – “Lad looks at other gals/Gal thinks Jim Beam is handsomer than Lad/He isn’t bad” – as the wobbly bassline (wobbly as in coming from an 80s synth, not as in dubstep) bops along underneath, displaying the poppiness of the track almost brazenly in the face of the destruction of the couple’s metaphorical home. Never has it been easier to sing along to something so devastating as Linnell and Flansbergh once again prove their knack for earworms.

3) Birdhouse in Your Soul, Flood (1990)

Stepping away from the theme of love, this is one of the Giants’ more popular songs, having been covered on Pushing Daisies by Kristen Chenoweth and steering just shy of psychedelia into silliness. Though the narrator of the song is stated outright at the beginning – “Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch/Who watches over you” – it’s a little hard to swallow that this is going to be a song from the perspective of a nightlight. The best moment comes when he realizes that if he were to the light in the lighthouse that steers Jason and the argonauts home, that he probably wouldn’t do a very good job, which makes things even stranger. Rather than being in a situation that is relatable, TMBG takes the perspective of something mundane and utterly nonhuman, and shows us its perspective – it just wants to be “the only bee in your bonnet” after all. It’s hard to deny it’s a charming song. The four-note trumpet solo in the middle sort of underlines the absurdity of the whole proceeding, though the song is actually a bit more nuanced than its predecessors, with a few distinct sections and a deft synth guiding us through the whole thing.

4) The Guitar, Apollo 18 (1992)

One of TMBG’s experiment at playing with convention, you leave “The Guitar” both frustrated and amused. After a funky bass intro, the titular instrument shows up and starts to jam only for a couple seconds before it’s found out and the introductory words of “Hey!/Who’s that playin’/Hey!/The guitar” set the tone. “Is it Jim?/I don’t know” serves as a pretty weak interrogation to get to the bottom of the mystery, but a much more interesting one makes itself known soon after. The tune of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” interrupts the song three times, each progressing a very strange story we get to see so frustratingly little of “In the spaceship/The silver spaceship/The Lion take control”, the first line ominously tells us, soon to be followed by “The Lion’s on the phone” and “The Lion waves goodbye”. What does the Lion want from us? It is unfortunately, never made clear, nor is the identity of the guitar player (though it’s probably John Flansbergh). Despite the guitar being the titular instrument, it’s really the saxophone that takes centre stage here, as it lays down the big riff during the chorus and peels away in the middle of the song, presumably out of frustration at not being able to figure who is playing the guitar.

5) Meet James Ensor, John Henry (1994)

“Meet James Ensor” would definitely go in the category of  one of the Johns’ ‘cute little songs.’ It clocks in at 1:33 and moves along at a rapid pace, providing sad detail about actual Belgian painter James Ensor, who lived “before there were junk stores/before there was junk” and seemed to be quite a tortured genius. Seeming to really be interested in people learning about him, in the chorus, TMBG asks you in a sort of morbid way to “dig him up and shake his hand”. They seem to have good intentions, but it’s difficult when you hear a gobsmackingly well-written and saddening stanza as “He lost all his friends/he didn’t need his friends/he lived with his mother/and repeated himself.” A little space is carved out in the last twenty seconds for a groovy low guitar riff to come in and get harmonized by accordion and bass, which seems like it might launch into another  song, but instead just ends with another appeal to “appreciate the man!”

6) Dr. Worm, Severe Tire Damage (1998)

Another biography here, this time of a fictional character who says he “is not a real doctor/but I am a real worm”. Whether this is metaphorical or literal is anyone’s guess, but it’s seems like he’s getting good at the drums (he’s studious – he’ll “leave the front unlocked ’cause [he] can’t hear the doorbell”), and he’s definitely in a band with bassist Rabbi O. As sort of a posturing move, he tries out his identity by saying “Good morning/how are you?/I’m Doctor Worm/I’m interested in things”, hoping that someone will “call me by my stage name”, so he’ll get the chance to put it into practice. Musically, the song is a front-loaded brass assault, with a few layers of brass introducing the song and giving it a ska feel as it toots into an appropriately energetic rhythm from the drums – this would foreshadow the expanding of the band’s instrumental repertoire as they get further and further out from the standard rock band set-up.

7) Older, Mink Car (2001)

There are few songs by the band that are more frustrating than “Older”. It crawls along at a snail’s pace, and the instruments provide just the bare minimum framework to cover Linnell’s quiet vocals, which are telling us “you’re older than you’ve ever been/and now you’re even older/and now you’re even older”, almost taunting in a fashion while being absolutely right. After a verse of this, John Flansbergh bursts in with a crescendo from the band to comment on the proceedings: “Time is marching on!” he cries, before a another blast from the band with a fairly assured “And time…is still marching on!” Dedicating a song to the maddening repetition displayed in this song is a hallmark of the band – they’re perfectly willing to hand an entire track over to this single concept and just let the people do what they will with it. My favourite? Certainly not. It makes a better story that they have a song like this than it does a song. But classic TMBG? Undoubtedly.

8) Stone Pony, Venue Songs (2004)

“Stone Pony” comes from the quest TMBG set upon in 2003/2004 to write a song for every venue that they played on the tour, on the day of their concert there. The result was Venue Songs, a collection of a short little ditties covering quite a variety of styles about the various clubs and bars dotting the USA (Venue Songs also gave John Hodgman the character he uses to this day – that of the Deranged Millionaire, who would unleash his marauding teams of baseball players on New York York unless the band kept using their magical talisman to keep writing songs). “Stone Pony” was the stop in New Jersey and has a very jazzy feel to it, with the walking bass and heavy ride action. The main beat is used to tell the short story in slightly increasing detail – a word or two added with each telling – about how the guy who stole that other’s guy beer just LOOKED like me. It’s a wonderful, strange little song and the fact that it was invented mere hours before its debut gives it a charm that it might not have had if it were overcooked in the studio.

9) Marty Beller Mask, Album Raises New and Troubling Questions (2011)

One of my absolute favourite little-known tracks by the band, “Marty Beller Mask” claims that Whitney Houston grew tired of all the stardom she was receiving put on the mask of TMBG’s drummer, and has been drumming ever since. Just hearing the concept affirmed over and over again has me rapt with attention for its two minute length, especially, when totally flat readings of Whitney Houston lyrics are added as a build up to the chorus as “proof” (“Don’t walk away from me/I will always love you”). The drums are quite low and supple, building the mood while the guitar spends the verses getting into a reggae groove in the offbeat and marking out time in the chorus. The whole thing has a bit of a grunge/lo-fi feel, but without being quite so noisy, with Linnell’s vocals sounding very matter-of-fact, if not outright just talking. Easily one of their most hilarious songs.

10) The Lady and the Tiger, Join Us (2011)

This song absolutely blew me away when I first heard it. 15 albums into their career, I was not expecting They Might Be Giants to pull out a track like this, ever, nor would I have blamed them for it. Their experimentation continues here, as a wandering melodic beat sets the tone for the mumbling, distracted vocal that sets the tale of the captive titular beings. The interlocking saxophones that serve as a bridge between the verses were totally out of left field for me. They’d used the sax to great effect before, but playing two different, but complimentary riffs that each seem to do their own thing, but still in harmony, made me gain a whole new respect for them as songwriters – not to mention, it’s hella catchy in its own way. The incessant, thesaurus-heavy rhyming scheme used is good ol’ TMBG by this point – “felines and dames in flames/will hardly serve my aims/do you surmise it’s wise/to have laser beams emitting from your eyes?” Every seemingly-disparate element clicks here and serves up a completely unique and compelling track.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

List-O-Mania: 5 Songs That Are Pastiches of Other Artists

Bands going outside their comfort zone produces some interesting sounds. But bands deliberately imitating other bands makes the situation so much more interesting! Why exactly are they going lengths to ape someone else’s sound? Is it an homage, a rip-off or a send-up? More importantly, do they hit the mark or do they fall short?

The Beatles’ “Back in the USSR” might serve as the most famous example, hitting both simultaneously: a loving homage to the Beach Boys right down to the lyrics, which of course substitute the  then-verboten USSR where otherwise would be the good ol’ US of A. Whether it was overtly political or they were just having a laugh at transplanting American music, it creates the interesting effect of hearing a band through someone else’s ears first, at which point it’s then handed over to you. It sometimes can offer a different perspective on an act you already thought you were intimately familiar with! Without further ado, five more examples:

1) R.E.M. – “The Wake-Up Bomb” (T-Rex) (1996)

One thing I don’t think people were except from R.E.M. in the 90s was a paean to glam rock, but then sprawling, hour-plus-long New Adventures in Hi-Fi surprised a lot of people. The lyrics recall in crystalline detail the experience of the young glam rocker of the early 70s who would “practice my T-Rex moves and make the scene”, complete with requisite descriptions of the garish outfits. Despite their staid image, there’s no way this song is emerging from anywhere but experience. Michael Stipe delivers his lyrics with an unusual sneer as he defiantly informs us that “I get high in my low-ass boot-cut jean/I like being seen”, very much expressing the all-too-familiar confidence and vanity of youth – a journey that the band takes right along with him. There’s no subtle textures or nuance to the track, just big swaggering chords and a good ol’ beat to swing around to, with an organ being slammed in the background for good measure. On an album full of introspective and ponderous songs, this one for the extroverts does its job admirably: sometimes you just wanna wear your “metallic sick wraparound blackout tease” and rock the hell out.

2) Simon & Garfunkel – “A Simple Desultory Philippic” (Bob Dylan) (1966)

While a cover of Bob’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” on their first album would suggest a reverence for the folk-rocker’s work, “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)” perfectly captures Dylan’s new (at the time) electric sound, while lyrically sending him up. The song is stuffed with contemporary references at every line (even in the title), while in between them Simon blows tunelessly into his harmonica. “He’s so unhip, when you say ‘Dylan’, he thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas, whoever he was!” is perhaps the most telling line as Simon’s lyrics send their barbs at the ultra-hip of the time, whose dialogue is alive with current topics and a myriad of slang terms (“I smoke a pint of tea a day”), but really pay little heed to the intellectuals that preceded them, and are really just playing at intelligence by using obscenely clever words while getting high. The fact that that is followed up with “But’s alright Ma/Everybody must get stoned!” leaves little doubt at who the figurehead. Though it seemed to be a little too pointed to be a pure jest, the fact that his last harmonica solo is punctuated with a declarative “Folk rock!” followed by Simon dropping the the instrument and sullenly stating “I’ve lost my harmonica, Albert…” is enough to make it at least hilarious.

3) The Guess Who – “Friends of Mine” (The Doors) (1969)

It’s nice to know that musicians are listening to the same music that you are. One of Burton Cummings’ idols entering the rock world as a singer was Jim Morrison, and this track makes it very plain. The song runs an exhausting ten minutes, much of which is Cummings repeating “Buh-babe-buh-babe-buh-babe-buh-babe-ay!”, spouting lines of pop culture, personal anecdotes and vague psychedelia as the band vamps underneath on a couple of chords. Not long after that, the band becomes quieter, opening the door to show you Cummings channelling Morrison’s rambling soothsayer persona for the telling of a macabre story Though it doesn’t quite have the conviction of “The End”, I would argue that the climax is even better. In case you forgot of the band’s country of origin, and because they presumably gotta make the ten minutes, Cummings begins to recite In Flanders Fields before changing the lyrics – “To Flanders Field the hippies go!”, he spits. The affection for the Doors’ original material is clear, as the whole band sounds the part, right down to the deft organ work thoughout, the jazz-inflected drumming and even the seeming telepathy of the original band, as they ebb and flow with the vocals just as well. Any ten-minute-long parody song is going to have to be a labour of love.

4) The Beatles – “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” (John Lennon) (1968)

Paul McCartney’s attempt to do a basic blues song with a screaming sort of vocal a la Lennon (the genuine article of which can be found on the same album – “Yer Blues”) only contains the words in the title plus “No one will be watching us”, repeated over and over again. Apparently inspired by McCartney seeing two monkeys copulating in the middle of the road while on the Beatles’ Indian retreat, it’s his meditation on “how simple the act of procreation is”*, but might also be saying the same about Lennon’s songs. At under two minutes, the song was never going to have fantastic legs (he’d revisit the idea more fully a few songs later on “Helter Skelter”), but it makes its point and displays a sort of rawness that always seemed to come without hesitation to John and didn’t fit as well with Paul’s more orchestrated songs. Fitting, too, that it makes its home on the incredibly disjointed White Album as the portrait of the band fracturing (only Paul and Ringo recorded the track, at which John was miffed) – why not send up one of your own and try something silly if everyone’s recording in their own little corner?

5) Talking Heads – “The Overload” (Joy Division) (1980)

This one might be a little bit of a cheat, as no member of Talking Heads had ever heard the music of Joy Division before – “The Overload” was an attempt to emulate them as they had been described by music critics. They didn’t get it totally wrong. The song is all gloom and dourness, with a buzzing, impatient guitar in the background and David Byrne intermittently being roused from his sleep to deliver the vocals – you can feel the cold sweat and longest nights behind them (probably the closest the song gets to the actual sound of the band). What sound like submarine signals ping back and forth in the background as a heavy beat trudging a path through the whole proceeding. It’s gloomiest the band ever sounded, but is a welcome experiment to add to their oeuvre.

*Source: Wikipedia’s page on the song, quoted from the Barry Miles biography of Paul, Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

List-O-Mania: 5 Alternate Versions of Songs Better Than Their Original Counterparts

As per my discussion of music mythology previously, a good alternate version of a song is a music nerd’s dream. “Oh man, you gotta hear this outtake version!”, “The demo is wayyyy better!” etc, etc. Sometimes it’s not quite cooked until after the album’s been cut and it gets worked over on the road or perhaps the line-up will change and offer a new angle to the song or it even just gets injected with a little more energy and suddenly you hear the song with new ears and realize what was in there in the first place. Listed below are five such songs for which I always have a ‘preferred version’.

Of course, ‘better than’ is one of the most subjective of terms, so I’ll explain some of my feelings towards it right up front: you can’t beat a good melody. Anything that uncovers, unclutters or enhances the melody of the song being sung is always going to raise it in my estimation – in most cases, the melody IS the point of song, and to improve that improves everything. Often, groups will get too interested in tinkering and lose the focus a little bit and only realize it later on down the road.

I’ve chosen ‘alternate version’ as opposed to saying ‘live version’, as I realized that some of these are done live in a studio (4), and two are just straight up studio re-dos of older songs (2 and 3), so the lines are a little blurred, to say the least, and I figured ‘alternate version’ would cover myself pretty nicely. All of these, however, are new performances of the songs by the original group/artist rather than covers or remixes (a list in and of itself!).

1) Talking Heads – Burning Down the House (Stop Making Sense)

Though I could easily include any performance from the phenomenal Stop Making Sense on this list, the huge “Burning Down the House” makes it on simply because the original song on its own sort of left me wanting. Yeah, you have the big group coming in on the titular line, but large parts are just sort of monotone and staccato, as, leading up to the chorus, Byrne recites each syllable exactly in time to the beat, with very little in the way on inflection. During the energy of the live show, however, the song gains just a little momentum and a whole bunch of energy – it’s going at a quicker tempo than normal. And it’s a little too fast for Byrne to do the lyrics staccato like in the original version, so he has to syncopate – and what a difference it makes. The build-up to the “burning down the house!” is so much livelier – this time around it really sounds like a party (“Three hundred *pause* sixty-five degrees!”)! That little touch in tempo gels the song together so much more nicely and trades any sort of clinical feel the original might have had. The tom barrage that opens onto the main section of the song, the synthesizer solo, Byrne’s frenetic strumming – they all shine like they didn’t quite get a chance to originally.

2) Peter Gabriel – In Your Eyes (New Blood)

Admittedly, this was actually the first version of the song that I heard. My reverence for the original, however, didn’t get very far. Though the melody and rhythm are very strong in the original version, the production, synthesizers and drum machines really do sound dated, which I find very distracting when listening to it – more like I’m hearing a relic of the era rather than concentrating on the important parts. On the appropriately titled New Blood, Gabriel goes back and literally orchestrates some hits from his back catalogue, without any traditional rock instruments present. Immediately, the song is given more gravity as a myriad of strings pick up the melody and swell as the chorus is reached, while the lack of drums creates a sense of spontaneity and the impression of the song being moved by emotion more than anything. Being played with classical instrumentation puts more focus on the melody and at once adds a sense of timelessness to the song. That sense was richly deserved all along, but the context needed to be changed in order to appreciate it.

3) Across the Universe – The Beatles (Let It Be… Naked)

There have actually been three or four versions of this song released, but this has gotta be the one. A beautiful acoustic track by John Lennon with psychedelic lyrics, this is the one version unadorned by wildlife noises, children singing along, and Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” behind it, stuffing every imaginable instrument in the background behind John and his guitar and creating more and more distraction. I find very much that less is more in this instance and the vocals and guitar say all that there really is to say about this track and anything else seems like a frill for the sake of it – even in the other versions, the core of the song sets itself apart at a distance from the rest of the noises. There are also two different speeds to the song, and this one is the slower of them, which allows the song to breathe a lot more and allows you to appreciate the trippy lyrics.

4) Radiohead – Give up the Ghost (From the Basement)

This may be an odd choice, as I listen to both this and the original version with the same frequency, but, for me, this “live in studio” version of the song gets a little more feeling out of it, for one simple reason. The song is based around looped vocals, each of which is double tracked. Because this is being recorded live, Thom Yorke has to do each part twice – you can hear each brick being put into place as more and more layers are added, as well as an extended coda with a little extra ad libbing by Yorke. You also get to spend more time with the song’s hypnotic rhythm and almost mantra-like vocals. Like #3, it is stripped of its ambient sound effects and you’re left with the plain message of the repeated “don’t hurt me/don’t haunt me” that heightens the already raw sense of vulnerability in the song. There’s also something charming about Yorke’s self-effacing “please tell me that sounded alright” after the song comes to a stop.

5) Simon & Garfunkel – For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her (Live 1969)

In the duo’s most plain and beautiful love song, the curious choice was made on the studio version to double-track Art Garfunkel’s voice, rather than have Simon sing along as was usual. The problem is that the double-tracking gets a little loose at the climactic moments in the song and, while sounding smoother, I find actually hides the accuracy and beauty of Garfunkel’s voice in what is surely one of Paul Simon’s best melodies. In the live version, Garfunkel still goes it solo, but no effects are put on his voice whatsoever, as it gently and sensitively carries the melody and crescendoes beautifully with just the right amount of trill. It also sounds less hurried, as they would have become much more comfortable with the song playing on the road for three years than when debuting it on the album. This version ends with something I always thought was interesting to hear on live albums – pure applause without a single person’s voice interrupting it.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

List-O-Mania: 5 Songs Where the Artist Went Outside the Box

Sometimes, a band just gets pigeonholed into a sound and feels the need to break the monotony with something wacky. Sometimes you just found a new instrument and want to see what it’s capable of (see The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”). Sometimes, you let the drummer write a song. Whatever the case may be, I love hearing bands taking a stab and something totally outside of their wheelhouse. It makes one sit up and take notice (for better or for worse) and maybe even develop an appreciation for the curiosity of the members of the band. Either way, here are five tracks where artists went “outside”:

1) The Police – Mother

One of the few Police songs not penned by Sting, this track by guitarist Andy Summers takes the old I-IV-V blues progression and hangs on it an Arabian-tinged dirge more suitable for a slasher movie soundtrack. A far cry from their reggae-flavoured pop/rock, a synthesizer plays a maddening chromatic decent while Sting on the oboe winces in the background. Summers takes the lead vocal, screaming Oedipal declarations (“Well every girl that I go out with/Becomes my mother in the end!”) and laughing maniacally. Stuck in the middle of their pop masterpiece Synchronicity, which spawned both “Every Breath You Take” and “King of Pain”, it’s pretty jarring to hear, but not unwelcome. It’s refreshing that they were still open to that kind of experimentation up to what would be their swan song.

2) The Decemberists – Like A Lion

A far cry from their usual jangly folk-rock, “Like A Lion” does feature Colin Meloy and an acoustic guitar, but everything else seems…off. Based around a sample of an orchestral flourish that intrudes at odder and odder intervals, the acoustic guitar doesn’t have it usual deftness but instead is being hammered and sounds stunted and low, which fits the funereal atmosphere. When the song drifts away momentarily, it’s a gentle beeping which brings us back in. Later on, string scratches and feedback join the festivities and refuse to leave, building up an ugly wall of sound as it heads towards the finish. Meloy’s usual sprightly voice is dour and double-tracked, mournfully delivering a paean to that moment after you’ve held your breath and how “time stands still/until now”. Attempting to make sense of what he experienced at the birth of his son, “Like A Lion” is, on the surface, majestic, but one layer deeper, profoundly confused.

3) Peter Gabriel – Excuse Me

Before Peter Gabriel really found his groove with the rhythms that would define his later solo career, it released a rather eclectic first album after splitting from Genesis. One experiment he would not duplicate was the barbershop and light jazz of “Excuse Me”. On the introduction with Gabriel’s theatrical, exaggerated lead, you can practically hear the straw boater hats and canes. The a capella group is nary to return for the rest of the song, but are soon replaced with honky-tonk piano, slide whistle and tuba as Gabriel ends every verse by stating “I wanna be alone” as he yearns for everyone to get out of his mind, out of his life and out of his way for just a moment. The song is very much reminiscent of Queen’s “Seaside Rendezvous” as being a total throw back to 20s/30s music, but where Freddie Mercury adapted his voice to sound as if it emanated from the era, Gabriel sounds like his is stuck out of time and only has a 20s backup band available to get his thoughts across, so he might as well use ’em.

4) David Bowie – Yassassin (Turkish For: Long Live)

Bowie is well-known for being an experimentalist and trend-setter and has made a career out of getting to and defining the ‘latest thing’. An album after his side-long ambient experiments with Eno, Bowie released Lodger, which, as the title suggests, deals with his feelings as a world traveller. Though he doesn’t explore a whole lot of world music on the album, there are a couple of spots where the international flavour is felt and no more so than on “Yassassin”, which combines two styles, neither of which Bowie would return to much later on in his career: reggae and Turkish folk music. The offbeat reggae rhythm starts off the track, soon joined by a tinny organ, and then a wandering violin gives us the Turkish tune that goes for pretty much the whole song, gently soloing in an Eastern mode. It, strangely enough, works pretty well, with Bowie giving enough deference to both genres and giving a slightly accented vocal about being “just a working man/no judge of men” and an all male backing chorus telling us to “look at this!”

5) Muse – Madness

Though the song is quintessentially, undeniably Muse, there’s something different about “Madness” that catches the ear on the otherwise totally bombastic The 2nd Law. It’s mainly about control. Most Muse songs wield powerful riffs, lush, orchestrated harmonies, gasping breaths, shouted paranoid lyrics and piercing falsetto (in fact, all of these things can be found on the tracks proceeding it, “Supremacy”). But “Madness” is controlled. It has a simple beat, a plaintive melody, is about love of all things (though seeing love as an encroaching mental illness is very Muse), has measured harmonies and slowly builds up, with each verse adding a couple more layers. The guitar solo is absolutely precise, gorgeous and the perfect length for the song. This is Muse with their powers focused into the 3-minute pop song (well, 4:40) and it just emerges crystalline. Not that they aren’t one of the best rock groups on the planet, but this is just a surprising entry to their oeuvre that produced fantastic results.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Music Mythology: 5 Great Rhythm Section Performances

I’ve always been intrigued with music mythology. Hearing about some band’s ‘legendary bootleg’ from Brighton in ’72 – “man, they were never better than that night” – or “Paul McCartney said this was the best bassline he’d ever written” or that it has been X amount of days since The Grateful Dead played “Dark Star”. All of these are really just ways of expressing fondness for a piece/oeuvre of music, but in such a way that goes a bit beyond “I like this”. It’s the conjuring up of this statements and passing down through the ages that makes them so interesting to me. They all begin with a kernel of simple fondness and then grow as that fondness becomes contextualized within the rest of a band’s work. When delivered to me in those sentences, it just gets me beyond to excited to join up with that experience and join in the magic all those people are already in on.

As my way of propagating this practice, I’ve compiled a small list of songs that I think have outstanding rhythm section performances. And really, it’s one of the things that is easier to mythologize. A great guitar solo is pretty self-evident, as is an outstanding vocal performances. Riffs and basslines will grab you pretty hard and even a great drum performance will not escape keen ears, but the rhythm section? Basically bisecting the band and looking not just at individual instrumental performances, but looking at the core and pulse of a song as the group of lesser-touted instruments make it all work. “This song has a killer rhythm section” is one of those perfect little things to pass on:

1) The Who – The Real Me

Welcome to classic rock’s premier rhythm section. Musically, John Entwhistle and Keith Moon absolutely dominated The Who’s records, with Moon restless bashing and Entwhistle’s high fills. No more so than on “The Real Me”. The first real song to kick off the concept double album, they start fast and heavy and just go up from there. By the end, Keith is basically doing a constant drum solo while John Entwhistle is flying up and down his fretboard. Check out the second verse (starting at 1:30), which is just Moon and Entwhistle underneath Daltrey’s voice, and you get an idea of the sheer power of the duo. Constantly moving, constantly adding dribs and drabs in every conceivable second, you can see how The Who gained the “Maximum R&B” label early on in their career.

2) Radiohead – The National Anthem

And here, we have the exact opposite. Colin Greenwood sticks on that four-note bassline throughout the entire song with aplomb, with the rest of the world fizzing and popping and cracking and melting around it. It’s the one constant for the entire duration – almost mantra-like. Phil Selway meshes into it perfectly with his ride-heavy jazz-tinged drumming that is nevertheless a pretty straight-ahead 4/4 affair. The thrill of this two working with mechanical precision is the couple of times that Selway simply stops for a bar, creating mad hot space, before starting back up again. Pretty much their only trick in the bag for this song, for which they have to keep the sanity somewhat moored while a bass section goes ballistic around them. A bass player and a drummer just playing in the pocket can be a hell of a thing.

3) Elvis Costello & the Attractions – Lipstick Vogue

Starting off with a Pete Thomas beration of his toms and snare, Bruce Thomas (no relation) soon picks up the aggression with his burbling bassline.This is a punk rhythm section that is about as articulate you can get as Pete throws in jazzy little fills into his straight ahead 100-mile-an-hour beat and Bruce’s bassline paces up and down while occasionally rearing up and tossing back its head. The whole aggression of the song rides on the Thomases stepping on gas while Costello spits out his usual vitriol, and does less guitar-playing than usual, mostly stepping back while the rhythm section does all the talking.

4) Austra – Beat and the Pulse

It starts out oddly, with Dorian Wolf imitating a bass synth…with his bass, playing a sweet staccato line that runs through the entire song and gives it its momentum, articulating the chords nicely and letting everything build on top (the actual synths). Maya Postepski comes on top with a snare that cuts through every other sound in the song and a shuffling electronic beat that cuts in and out, providing another option for your ears to catch onto under the backbeat. The strange interpolation of musicians playing their instruments in the manner of instruments that synthesize being played by musicians just gives an indication of how impressive the musicianship actually is and that new ways of driving songs with a rhythm instrument in your hand are being found all the time.

5) Our Lady Peace – Starseed

Jeremy Taggart is probably my favourite drummer of all time. His fills are never egregious, but never unimpressive and his snare patterns would make fantastic riffs on their own. Through Chris Eacrett was replaced on subsequent OLP efforts by Duncan Coutts, they do share one defining similarlity – they like to get low. As such, the bass does a lot of lurking in the depths of this song while Taggart’s snare-and-hi-hat-heavy performance puts him front and center in the mix. Eacrett puts out wave after wave of resonance, where Taggart’s lively performance frames it and shapes it with snare pummelings, working together to create something just as much felt as heard.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow: 5 Fantastic Codas

You can’t beat a good coda. That point in the song by which everyone is swaying and drinking it in. You’re just sort of basking in the setting of the sun (regardless of how elaborate that may be). Pop music has a great history of codas – of evoking just that ‘again! again!’ feeling that can grab people when they hear such a dynamite passage.

The Who’s Tommy ends with the best material on the entire album, with the “Listening to You” section that spurred a thousand fist pumps. The coda to The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”  is the ultimate stuff of standing arm in arm and belting it out, dominating  a majority of the song and employing a 2-minute-plus-long fadeout. When The Police’s “Message in a Bottle” gets to “sending out an S.O.S.”, you wonder to yourself ‘why isn’t this the chorus?’

It seems sometimes that artists tend to hang onto the best stuff to make it the last thing you remember when you’re done the song. Partially, it’s the mantra-like repetition for what is usually a pretty short phrase that works fantastically on its own, but provides a very solid frame work for everything to ramp up around it. Given that, here five great examples of fantastic finishes:

The codas have the greatest impact if they come at the end of the songs, of course, but I have earmarked the approximate times they start if you just want to hear them by themselves.

1) Dirty Ghosts – Ropes That Way (2:53)

Yeah, sometimes it’s just a chorus. Throughout most of the song, you get one or two repetitions of the chorus, sparsely accompanied before heading back into the too-cool-for-school delivery of Allyson Baker of the verses. It’s at the end, however, where you get to glory in the chorus as that little bit of overlap between repetitions amps you up and you get that sense of incredible forward momentum. Beginning with the bass and drums, the synths lay a speedy pattern down, and the electric guitar comes thundering to life underneath as they crash headlong into the end of the song.

2) Yes – Starship Trooper (5:35)

One of Yes’ signature tunes, it is, of course, ten minutes long with three distinct (named) sections, the coda comprises the entirety of section three (“Wurm”), and a good chunk of the song. It begins with Steve Howe playing the an incredible descending chord progression on his flanged guitar, while the rest of the band slowly wakes up around him, alternately playing with him and then against him rhythmically, with Bill Bruford changing emphases constantly and Tony Kaye intermittently introducing some atmosphere on the organ. The final minute is where Howe finally lets go of playing the chords himself and gets into a tasteful solo, which the track fades out on. It’s remarkable to see how they play within and around the basic guitar track while building the the energy up, but this one really comes down to the fact that I could listen to that progression for days.

3) Dream Theater – Learning to Live (10:30)

Another long entry, this was the final track on Images & Words and a showpiece track that runs quite the gamut of musical passages through its 11:30 length. It all leads up to to the coda, however. With exactly one minute left to go in this song, John Petrucci unleashes this unreal, uplifting riff on his guitar that just seems to climb furiously higher and higher with every iteration, as a chorus of voices come in around it, the keyboards handle the chords and another electric guitar rips loose underneath. The works fabulously as a cathartic, unifying moment for a song that feels like it goes kind of all over the place in its preceding ten minutes, and brings everything into a sharp focus for the grand finale.

4) David Bowie – Memory of a Free Festival (3:30)

From way back on Space Oddity, this album closer is based around chords emanating from a child’s electric chord organ as Bowie recalls his experience at a music festival he performed at (notably that he “kissed a lot of people that day”). At pretty much the exact halfway mark, he’s done with his remembrances and gets everyone ready to have some fun as he repeats over and over that “the sun machine is coming down/and we’re gonna have a party!”, in a perfect sort of groovy mantra for the era. The instrumentation expands as Mick Ronson launches into a jazzy solo filling up the corners of the song over handclaps and a multitude of voices, as the chords get emphasized with more guitar and big cymbal crashes from Woody Woodmansey. By the end, you’re left so pumped for a party that, if you can’t be at theirs, you’re gonna have to start one of your own.

5) Elbow – One Day Like This (3:30)

Pure, unadulterated and honest saccharine, Guy Garvey recounts with clear fondness the experience of waking up beside the person you love. So much so that an orchestra needs to be employed with a repeated chorus that will refuse to let the smile on your face do anything but widen. Over chords already established earlier in the song, Garvey adopts a slow chants of “throw those curtains wide/one day like this a year would see me right” on top of multitude of backing vocals singing the same and a string section playing sweet octaves. After not too long, he reasserts the song’s main chorus of “Holy cow/I love your eyes!” on top of everything else, creating the best of possible vibes everywhere you turn.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,