Tag Archives: david bowie

Instrumentally Yours: The Saxophone

Damn, do I love me some saxophone. I keep trying to put my finger on what it is that draws me to it such readily, and the only thing that I can come up with it that it sounds more ‘alive’ than any of the instruments in standard rock, as it’s driven by breath – comin’ from the very inside of a human being rather than stemming from the extremities. As flowery as that sounds, it means that no two notes are really the same, as the smallest change can make the timbre sound totally different and you can really hear the effort welling up behind the note, whether it be a quiet toot or a wailing peel.

Used at the low end, it usually has a lot more texture and character to it than just a pluck of the string . There’s a little wildness around the edges as it blasts the low notes into your gut; a feeling that you could just fall right into the gaping hole the sound creates. A little goes a long way. Simon & Garfunkel’s “Why Don’t You Write Me?” doesn’t use it to replace the bass entirely, but does have an irresistible baritone sax part at the break, honking away at either side of your ears and sort of relishing in the deep tones by playing mostly the same note but with a funky rhythm. On his recent album, The Next Day, David Bowie’s opens “Dirty Boys” with the sleaziest, slinkiest bari sax line, barely able to keep itself above board through the verses of the song as Bowie recounts his times of debauchery with the lads. Near the end, it begrudgingly offers up a solo as it crawls towards the finish, no doubt hungover and pissed off and eager to get on with the next night’s activities.

As a lead instrument, it can open up a crazy amount, as you can go through all kinds of timbrel changes even around just the same notes, twisting your mouth or playing with your breath. It’s more akin to singing in that way, as it feels varied and articulate at points. I’d be lying if I said that my adoration of Van der Graaf Generator did not have a major influence on my selection of this subject. Using the sax as their main lead instrument, they’re caught right in the middle of wresting it from the hands of jazz circa 1970. In “Killer”, David Jackson lays down the main riff of the song alongide the organ (playing two saxes simultaneously, might I add), but quickly jumps at the chance to squonk and scronk away atonally – very much echoing the sounds of jazz but in the name of the energy and aggression of rock. The movement from order to chaos exhibited on the sax is awesome – the note becomes completely irrelevant and inaudible as he channels rage into the reed until settling back down at the return of the verse.

Pop music is also unable to resist the dalliances of that sweet sweet horn – it’s something I’m hearing more and more of and I’m getting excited about it. Lady Gaga uses a sax solo for the break in “The Edge of Glory” on Born This Way, and it creates an interesting contrast – hearing that sax wail about against Gaga’s usual bank of synths and drum machine seems like it would make the natural sounds of the sax seem out of place, but it actually fits in better than you’d think. The boisterous sound of sax actually fits in with the carefully tweaked synths that surround it – it has that thickness and character than we want out of synths nowadays, as we’ve long rocketed past the tinny sounds of the Casio. The synthesizer is supposed to sound like a synthesizer, not anything else. As such, it hangs quite nicely as another varied tone in the bunch – just as complex, timbre-wise as anything else in the bunch and  ripping notes to shreds left and right.

And then there’s “Baker Street”. I don’t think I could possibly come up with enough superlatives to describe the sax riff alone. After several listens, I’ve discovered that it actually has verses and a guitar solo, and they’re actually pretty good. But the sax. It plays that eight-bar riff over and over and gives it a different flavour every time – a little more gusto, a little micro-second longer note. It’s transcendent. Just listen.

And putting it all together is Colin Stetson. Often Arcade Fire’s hired gun, Stetson has put out three solo albums now playing only bass saxophone and with no overdubs. He instead has many, many microphones placed all over the instrument to capture every nuance of every little sound he can get it to make. Here’s “Judges” (and here, Colin breaks it all down). He’s playing low, high, the percussive aspect of slapping the keys and using some of his breath before he even gets to the freakin’ sax, which he needs a hell of a lot of to power the beast that is the bass sax. It sounds primal and visceral and otherworldly. The same instrument provides so many different facets at the same time, it’s dizzying. Provided, Stetson has an insane talent, but I really didn’t even know it was possible to do that and have each portion of it sounds satisfying as if each part were given to a different person.

Sax is on the rise, and I couldn’t be happier. Anytime I can turn on the radio and hear some really brassy woodwindy gusto, I’m super pleased. Possibly the reason I can watch this for hours (also because dude’s got serious moves):

P.S. I know it’s a meme – I could not find a video that looped the actual footage of the dude moving that didn’t have dumb text all over it. So I present the whole song because it owns anyhow.

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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.

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