Tag Archives: song

Toxic Post-Punk Syndrome: Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives

Having spent a little bit more times on the fringes of reggae (The Specials are my latest venture, getting into full-on ska territory at this point), the realization suddenly dawns on me that there’s a reggae song that I’ve been a fan of from way back, and it turns out that it’s even better now: Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives”. Stapled onto the back of the American version Costello’s debut album, My Aim Is True, it was his first UK hit and an excellent object-lesson in simple atmosphere-building (a technique he’d use later to absolutely devastating effect on “I Want You”). The rest of the album shows of Costello’s songwriting chops, with scathing lyrics and good tunes, but this one feels totally immersive and that you’re only getting a little piece of the much bigger picture.

A Steve Goudling drubbing of the drums pulls us into the story as the slinky bass makes its appearance known and asks you to follow it with morbid curiosity, courtesy of Andrew Bodnar. There’s a slightly sinister air as the bass is slightly too complex to sit on its laurels over the reggae beat, so you get the sneaking suspicion that it knows something that you don’t. Costello’s guitar tries to sidle in without being seen before the vocals come in. As his voice cracks under the pressure, he draws out the scene cinematically “long shot of that jumping sign/visible shivers runnin’ down my spine/cut the baby taking off her clothes/close-up of a sign that says ‘we never close'”. His voice oozes menace as he lingers on those last syllables as Goudling deftly skips along the hi-hat.

The off-beat organ in the chorus makes it sounds little cheesy at first, but by the time the climactic last chorus comes by, you’re no longer laughin’. The vocals get closer and closer together until they’re overlapping each other in paranoia “Now fear is here to stay/Love is here for a visit/…/Someone’s scratching at the window/I wonder, who is it?”. The tension builds and builds as the vocals hammer on the beat harder and harder and the rhythm section fills things out more and more until it all stops and Costello delivers the punishing line “It only took my little fingers to blow you away”. Even though it follows your standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure, there really ain’t no climax until that one little moment where it all comes together beautifully, as the rhythm stays pretty intact up until that point.

Each part under analysis doesn’t seems like it would fit together with everything going on in the song, and perhaps that’s the beauty of it. The song begins to coalesce more and more as it goes on until everyone’s firing on all cylinders when Costello calls “shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot!” during the chorus. The minor key and Costello’s straight delivery avoids the idea that Costello is trying to emulate a reggae song, but rather, is using the form as sort of a means to an end, the tension held together beautifully by the insistent rhythm of the whole thing, the organ in the chorus being the only place they really seems to hang a hat on it. By far one of my favourite songs of his entire oeuvre and one that I have a multitude of listens to give. Building up to that moment every time manages to remain a highlight, no matter how many repetitions. I’m still finding more in it!

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Toxic Prog Rock Syndrome: Gentle Giant’s Wreck

Gentle Giant is known as the prog band’s prog band. They’re doing stuff that gobsmacked the more well-known bands of the time with their polyphony, weird signatures, instruments and staggeringly intricate vocals.Not only drawing on classical music and jazz but also on renaissance and chamber music figures as well, they took their esotericity very seriously. They occupied a second tier of progressive rock that was arguably more experimental and extreme than their more popular cousins (Genesis, Yes, etc), but never quite reached the same fame due to their inaccessibility (the audience was never a chief concern in prog circles). Unsurprisingly, they didn’t handle prog’s transition to pop in the late 70s/early 80s that well – they called it quits after 1980’s Civilian and have not reunited since.

That’s not to say, however, that the band is completely unassailable. They still aspired to achieving the perfect fusion of mature and pop music, and their songs were always tightly written – seldom in Gentle Giant are there 10+ minute songs or wandering instrumental solos. Everything was packed into the main body of the song, it was just the structures themselves that were operating on a number of different levels.

My favourite track by the band has always been “Wreck”, as it’s actually kind of a catchy tune and represents the band in the position of just trying to craft a good old fashioned rocking stomp that will get people into the song. The problem was that, despite this, they were still Gentle Giant, so you get the impression of these guys writing a rock song but not really getting a grasp of the ‘less is more’ approach. The opening riff starts out well, but starts to wander almost immediately as it feels a couple bars too long and begins to wander around the notes, which actually creates much more expressive riff than you’d usually hear. This leads into the bulk of the song with a simplified version of the opening riff in 4/4 which the vocals overtop follow and end every line with a chorus chanting a very friendly “hey/ yeah-e-yeah/hold on”. This part rocks pretty well and you bob your head as you hear this tale  of an awful shipwreck and the sailors going down in it.

This is maintained for a bit as people get into the groove, until this part, in the middle of the song is interrupted by a violin and harpsichord interview and light vocal flitting around notes almost at random. They last like two minutes before they have to let loose with harmonically complex ditties with fancier instruments (at a later point they fade out the rock part of the song to bring you another interlude with a flute at the centre) in the middle. They knew they had to make it rock and make it complex but couldn’t decide on the synthesis and so just broke them up.

I’m not saying it doesn’t work, however. The main part of the song represents the rage of the sea that swallowed the ship, while the more serene part is a distinct reflection on the cruelty of the sea being where they made their living and is now the thing that leads to their destruction. Thematically, they made it work, but it is such a jarring juxtaposition and a good representation in the attitude of the time that the music they’re making should be utterly unlike anything that was out there at the time. The album “Wreck” is included on, 1971’s Acquiring the Taste, even bears this statement from the band:

“…It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular. We have recorded each composition with the one thought – that it should be unique, adventurous and fascinating. It has taken every shred of our combined musical and technical knowledge to achieve this. From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts of blatant commercialism. Instead we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling. All you need to do is sit back, and acquire the taste.”

Pretty pretentious stuff to be throwing around, but I think the statement was more for the band themselves than the listener – sort of their manifesto in that they did not want to rely on previous musical tropes to build their music off of. Nevertheless, this is a song I always go back to. It’s unlike anything I’ve heard, and I really appreciate that the complexity inherent in the song is woven into its own tapestry, rather than being saved for some extended section, but at the same time I still get to yell stuff like “HEY! Yeah-e-yeah, hold on!”

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Toxic Canadian Rock Syndrome: Joel Plaskett Emergency’s Fashionable People

It’s not all Nickelbacks, Dions and Biebers up here. It’s not even all Loverboys, Triumphs and Troopers (still a lot of Rush, though). We still have the rock, sometimes you just gotta look for it. Sometimes, it wins a Grammy and people are angry because they’ve never heard of the group before. Sometimes, it comes in the form of a band that has the best name based around a bandleader since “Blues Explosion.” Joel Plaskett Emergency’s Ashtray Rock brings the quirk, the rock, the jangly indie bits, the sweater vests and a concept album with a story as old as time: two dudes start a band, fall in love with the same girl and have a falling out. “Fashionable People” sets the scene at a party where the narrator has stars in his eyes and attempts to entice a girl away from all the other wannabes.

Immediately, the words of youth – “I feel foolish/I wanna drink too much”. As the narrator drinks, he attempts to talk up this girl he’s met, decrying all the other people at the party as he tries to make himself out to be the clear the prime candidate for attention: “I bet their parents/Are ridiculously loaded/Let’s get moving/Before I’m loaded.” The narrator uses the opportunity to talk about what’s on his mind, flaunting his newly-formed band, reciting the mantra “Fashionable people/Doing questionable things” to set his partying and recklessness up as a contribution to his future lifestyle instead of just being a drunk teenager. All the while, he attempts to be sly in getting with the girl he’s having the conversation with – “I like your boyfriend too/Do you think he’d understand?” – before the booze gets to his brain and he just says what he’s really thinking: “So ditch him/He’s no good for you…Switch him/Switch him up with me/Leave him in a ditch/And you can take a ride for free”. Plaskett’s relaxed delivery perfectly suits the tale as he delivers it with all the swaggering confidence he can muster.

The thing I will always take away from this song is the absolute insane drum sound when the chorus hits and Plaskett sings “the dancers need a dancefloor!”, very much carrying on from the sound used on David Bowie’s Low, but with much more feedback. The verses are light affairs with a heavily accented rhythm of drums, bass and light synth, with the guitar buried in the middle – none of which have any effects on them . This is what makes the chorus seem that much more boisterous when it comes around. The snare simply explodes with a few carefully-measured hits with a beautiful, overdriven raucous sound, as you bang you head and are ready to petition the government for more dancefloor space when you realize that you’re also hearing the guitar unleash for the first time. Drenched in gain but still crisp enough to whiff the fumes of those high notes on the guitar, the verse/chorus dynamic is done simply but very effectively. What makes it curiouser is the almost anti-chorus that follows the melee, as things tighten right back up and a small falsetto chorus chants “fashionable/fashionable/fashionable people” in the most delicate way possible with a little shaker in the background, which is silly but a great hook in its own right – more often than not, that’s the bit I’m singing after the song’s over!

There’s no getting around a solid song with a great hook, and for that, “Fashionable People” has earned many many relistens for me. It might be that I just like singing in falsetto a lot, too, but that certainly ain’t a strike against it!

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Toxic Canterbury Syndrome: Caravan’s Golf Girl

We’re practically awash in all manners of summer here in Southern Ontario, and summertime is when I reach for Caravan. Caravan is a part of that early 70s British prog scene, albeit a specific subgenre of which originated from one little area of the country. It basically started with one band – The Wilde Flowers, who eventually split up and whose members formed Soft Machine and Caravan. These would again split off and create new bands (Gong, Egg, Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North), members would swap, and each new line-up needed a name – not to mention that other people heard what these guys were doing and wanted to imitate it as well. By that point, there were so many bands/projects/albums in that style that it was determined that it had to have a label, which ended up being the town of origin of the whole darn thing regardless of where the majority of the bands ended up coming from.

The actual Canterbury sound was not so interested in terror as King Crimson nor virtuoso performances like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It very much started out rooted in jazz, but with an appreciation for the stronger melodic content of a pop song and a preoccupation with absurd, silly lyrics. Caravan itself took a pastoral and slightly gentle approach, with the melody being the key. No more is this more evident than in “Golf Girl”, a prog pop song if there ever was one.

The song tells the tale of its narrator going out for a game of golf “dressed in PVC” and falling in love with the girl at the golf course selling tea (which is a lovely service for a golf course to provide). The trombone intro gives the song a little flash in straying from the standard rock instruments, as does the piccolo than can be heard throughout, but it plays a goofy little melody that perfectly sets the tone for what I can find no better term for than a light-hearted romp. You can hear the grin in Richard Sinclair’s voice as he documents the charming story, his voice warm and his accent pronounced – he’s not belting by any means, but simply relating – over top of the rest of the band marking the rhythm with some piano and acoustic guitar strums. There’s a bit of an organ solo and a bit more of a piccolo solo, but there’s no feeling that the band is having to prove something here, unlike some of the other prog bands of the time. They’re just trying to write a fun pop song, but the combination of the musicianship and their love of marijuana ensure that it comes out with a few frills going off here and there – each instrument gets its chance to work its way into a silly little corner before coming back into the main tune.

The song doesn’t have any one unbelievable characteristic, it just always puts a smile on my face every time I hear it. The story combined with the surrounding instrumentation is oh-so-English and paints a wonderful little picture of the time. Early 1970s Britain, as the post-Beatles rock explosion began, is one of my absolute favourite periods/places in music, so getting even a small idea of what it might have been like excites me. “Golf Girl” is downright pleasant and feels like summer – when I listen to it, I can feel the sun on my face, and the atrocious pants on my legs.

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Toxic Synth-Pop Syndrome: Thomas Dolby’s Flying North

First off, I wanna start by saying that I’ve reached 500 views! Thank you to everyone who’s been reading so far, and everyone that chooses to do so in the future. In honour of that fact, I’ve decided to do a post on my 500th most listened-to song which, according to last.fm (http://www.last.fm/user/nicholasdaniel), is Thomas Dolby’s “Flying North”. This is fantastic news, as it gives me an opportunity to talk about Thomas Dolby.

Though classified squarely in the One-Hit Wonder category for the amazing “She Blinded Me With Science” for most, Thomas Dolby has a knack for two things – a melodic hook and technology*. Using these talents in tandem, he created the shimmering jewel of synth-pop that was 1982’s The Golden Age of Wireless. The album became a smash, due to the success of the “Science” single, even though any song could have been culled (5 of the 10 tracks did in fact get single releases). The album is shot through with concerns and observations about technology and its increasing effect on our lives, and uses that very same technology to produce its music.

“Flying North” looks at the restless life of a world traveller taking endless plane trips who feels at the mercy of the airport schedules and takes up one of the few constants for those of the jetset – alcohol. But even once home, there’s no getting comfortable for he’ll just be “flying North again tonight”. The song has a restless backbeat and a busy synthesizer riff in between choruses that sounds like a call sign transmission at first before it fills out, with all sorts of small echoed noises rising and shuffling and falling and skittering in the background. The atmosphere of the song is so detailed and finely tuned, that the main riff and melody are only a tiny part of the story, each piece locking into place to create a magnificent whole.

What a first may seem like a simple song opens it doors wide, and you realize there are so many moving pieces that add to the experience that you would never have guessed were there in the first place, such as the modulated ‘landing’ noise which kicks the whole thing off, or the subtle backing vocals that sound like they’re whooshing by on the wind. That’s the great thing about Thomas Dolby – his interest in synthesizers extends beyond which patch to use – it’s every echo, drum beat, sound effect, voice modulation and sample used to create a singular vision, all molded around fantastic melodies. Never had technology felt like such a living part of the music than when in the hands of Mr. Dolby.

*In his break from the music business in the 90s, Dolby pursued the technology bug, where he created the technology that produces ringtones in cellphones!

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