Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Everybody Wants to Rule the World" - Tears For Fears (Songs from the Big Chair)

We continue in the quasi-theme of huge 80's hits that weren't written to be singles with this epic ditty. First of all, I don't remember this video at all. Second, Curt Smith is the lead singer on this song? Really? Curt, oh Curt, can we talk about your hair? Can we? CAN WE??? Third, is the reason that I don't remember this video due to the fact that I've blocked it out because of the dancing black dudes at the gas station? Should I be offended by that? I have no idea. I'm not even going to get into how much of a freak the drummer is.

This song was born when Roland Orzabal came into the studio with a two-chord progression that he had in his head--the producer thought it was cool, and told him he should write a song around it. It was the last track of the album that they recorded, they were burned out on recording, and essentially just put their first ideas to tape and went with it. They had already decided that "Shout" and "Head Over Heels" were the big singles off of the album (which, in fairness, they were--just not as big as this song). Lesson: well, what is the lesson? 99.9% of the time stuff you dash off without really putting effort into it or thinking about it sounds exactly that way--like tossed off crap. Somewhere there is some magic in just "letting go" of something, for some definition of "letting go," which nobody actually knows. Finding that magic: hard.

Actually, I do have a larger lesson here. It's somewhat long, and in two parts. Bear with me for a bit. I have read that Roland Orzabal was off-the-hook OCD about the way his music sounded. For instance, he apparently spent six weeks getting the drum track for "Badman's Song" (The Seeds of Love) just right. Now, I love "Badman's Song"--it's probably on my all-time top 20 something-or-other list--and, no mistake, the drums on this track are incredible. But I'm about 94.6% sure that in the alternate universe where they only spent a couple of days on that drum track, I like the song just as much (the other 5.4% of me thinks that I'm wrong about everything and I'm wasting my time doing this analysis and recording music in general, and should just stick to my day job). I would venture to say, in fact, that the only people who listen to that song and hear the six weeks of effort are 1) Roland Orzabal, and 2) the drummer that he tortured for 6 weeks (possibly also 3) the recording engineer, 4) the producer, 5) Curt Smith). I'm a huge (HUGE) believer in the idea that the only person you can ever satisfy is yourself, and so you should do what's necessary until you're satisfied with your efforts. I'm also a huge believer in the idea that if it takes you six weeks to record one track for one song on one album, you need to re-evaluate your criteria for satisfaction.

That was the first part. The second part is related to a recent experience I had doing a song for this forthcoming tribute album. I recorded it and spent a week or so mixing it, and then sent it off to the guy who owns the record label. He said: great song, the mix is a little fuzzy ("woolen" was the word he used), we can probably fix that in mastering, but maybe take another crack at it? So I went back to it, and I worked on the mix off and on for the next two weeks. I was never quite happy with it, and the average listener wouldn't have noticed a lick of difference between my first mix and my second, and it's as likely as not I made it worse. I sent it back to the label anyway, label said great job, let's get it mastered. A couple of days later the engineer sent me a copy of the mastered version and it sounded like a different song. It was all bright and shiny and sounded like something on the radio. Lesson: while your piece of art could always be better, sometimes you reach the limits of where you can take it and have to let it go or hand it off to somebody who knows more than you.

Anyway, this song. Nice beat that shuffles and drives at the same time (they stole it from a Simple Minds song, according to Wikipedia). On the verse the two-chord structure leaves a space for the singer, like they're taking turns: synth plays two chords, singer sings "welcome to your life," synth plays two chords again, singer sings, "there's no turning back," and so on. You don't really get anything concrete out of the lyrics other than, "everybody wants to rule the world." I never thought of that as a universal sentiment myself, but it's catchy. Also on Wikipedia I read this:
Originally the song was called "Everybody Wants to Go to War"
I might be wrong, but I don't think that a song with everything exactly the same except that the they sing "Everybody wants to go to war" instead of "Everybody wants to rule the world," is a hit song. Is that true? It just seems like it changes everything about it. This should tell us something, but I'm not quite sure what it is.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

"Don't Dream It's Over" - Crowded House (Crowded House)

Wow. Look at this video. Whereas images of, say, A-ha or Duran Duran are forever frozen in the mid-80's in my mind, I've closely followed Neil Finn for his entire career, so seeing him again in his mid-20's heavily made up like an 80's vaguely Euro pop-star is kind of...just...wrong. I like the smashing tableware, but what's with the tempura-on-a-stick floating across the screen? What the hell is that thing?

So first: it's a huge, timeless, international hit song. It's more than 20 years since it was released, and just walking around in every day life you're likely to hear it playing over the PA in a grocery store, or on some Classics-of-the-80's-90's-and-70's radio station that's tuned in at your hair salon. mtg once asked me rhetorically, "What do you think you have done in your life more times than Neil Finn has performed this song?" Beyond, "get up in the morning," not a whole lot.

I imagine (with only minimal evidence to back me up) that Neil didn't write this song thinking it would be a single. I've always assumed that the follow-up release, "Something So Strong" was originally meant to be the single from the fact that their producer Mitchell Froom is listed in the liner notes as having co-written it. It wasn't even the first single released off the album ("Mean to Me," which didn't make much of a dent anywhere, holds that honor). I don't know what the lesson from that is other than, write and record a lot of songs because you never know.

I forget all the time that the original Crowded House was a power trio, though that's probably because of the prominent overdubbing they always did--here a second guitar (it might actually be the same guitar again with a different effects array) starting in the second verse, and the organ in the last third. A lot of detail in the jangly, chorused, and now totally iconic guitar riff--Neil gets multiple different sounds out of the same chord by hitting the low strings on the downstroke and really ripping the treble notes with upstrokes. Really prominent bass. Thick layered chorus of voices on the Hey Now's from which Neil's distinct wail just sort of emerges. No real bridge, just the organ, and only a very brief turnaround where the chords are any different from the verse. The only thing it (the turnaround) does is sort of "surface" from the organ part into the last verse, but it does that one thing perfectly.

This song sounded totally current in the context of 1986--I remember mentally lumping it in with the aforementioned Duran Duran's and A-ha's of the musical world that I knew then. Part of it was the lyrics--"my possessions are causing me suspicion but there's no proof." They were just kind of inscrutably Euro-cool (though Neil is, of course, a Kiwi--a subtlety lost on me when I was 12). The verses are full of little evocative pockets--"in the paper today, tales of warring and waste, but you turn right over to the t.v. page." That one line manages to paint an entire picture of a relationship that, at 12, I had never experienced, but could nevertheless instantly understand. Then there is the chorus, a chorus that anyone can understand. Plus, as an added bonus, every time somebody says, "hey now..." you think of this song. Lesson: your verse lyrics can be complicated or make no apparent sense if you have a simple, accessible chorus. This is a lesson that I note that EVERYONE in indie rock has learned.

The guitars--that 80's Les Paul sound--is the only element of this song that's really of an era in any way, and while it sometimes sounds a little bit dated and cheesy to me, I never feel that way for long. This song is just so damn good.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"Exit" - U2 (The Joshua Tree)

There are about three hundred million points, strictly musically speaking, to be made about U2. One of the main ones of interest to me is that it seems, on the surface, like they pretty much crap hit songs. I've seen (and heard) direct and anecdotal evidence, however, that they actually work very hard to make it sound like that way--recording full demo versions of songs they're working on, listening to them, taking them apart, figuring out what's working and not working, and putting together a new demo. Rinse, lather, repeat. Lesson 1: there can be an enormous amount of effort put into something that sounds effortless. Sub-lesson: making something sound both effortless and, you know, good is almost always hard.

There are, of course, really two U2's. There's the studio version and the live version. As discussed long ago in this very forum, the latter is literally a communal religious experience, and while I suppose there are ways listening to an album can be transcendent in its own way...well, anyway, that's outside the scope of this discussion. The point being that there are songs that are great recordings and don't translate as well live ("Beautiful Day" being an example, so I'm told) and vice versa (most of the rest of their canon I gather, Bono being Rock Jesus and all).

Here's what U2 is all about, in my opinion: space. Compared to almost all other popular music, there's comparatively few parts making up the song--bass, drums, lead guitar, vocal, maybe one harmony. Very few overdubs (our current example has only a little bit of low, rumbling synth in the middle/end, which I defy you to claim that you would have noticed if I hadn't pointed it out). So, on to the construction of "Exit": First verse: the bass and Bono singing breathy, right up into the mic. Second verse: the same thing, with Bono opening up and singing louder. Some drum hits and guitar filigrees (The Edge is all about the filigree, don't you think?). This is a four minute song (I'm talking about the album version now). This band has three instruments total. For the first minute and a half, only one of them is continuously playing. Then they song kicks in for 45 seconds, and then everything but the bass is gone for another 45 seconds, and the rest of the song repeats that basic pattern again. To make a hack-jazz comparison, it's all about the notes that aren't played.

I think space in music is both literal and figurative. The literal is constructed (at least) of both gaps in the sonic spectrum and with reverb (I read in an article about mixing that you can think of sound two-dimensionally with the stereo pan moving a sound left-right and a reverb pan moving it forward-backward. Things with lots of reverb sound farther away). The figurative is whatever it is that lets the listener into the song--metaphorically speaking there's room for him or her to get into the song. That works strongly here--when the song really starts to rock, you've already been sucked in to the atmosphere and it's that much more potent.

I have a theory that the transcendent listening experience happens because of space, for a definition of "space" that I haven't quite filled out. I actually think there's no real meaning conveyed from the song writer and/or performer to the listener, that instead what's happening is that the song creates a space for the listener to insert his or her own life/experiences/humanity/whatever. That is, the listener is doing all the work, he or she just doesn't know it. You like a song before you know what it's about, in fact you've probably constructed your own notion of what it's about, whether you realize it or not. I always feel kind of sad when I find out what songs are actually about--it's like going from the book version of something to seeing someone else's version of it rendered on film. The picture painted by the song writer is always a little smaller than the one in my head.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" -- Daft Punk (Discovery)

Here's a song that, while having absolutely no right to do so, sounds timeless (for a definition of timeless meaning, "could have been recorded any time in the last 30 years." There was no time before that, right?). It would be perfect for the soundtrack of Tron if everyone involved in the production in 1982 had been stoned (as opposed to just the screenwriter and all the people watching it). It also brings up several questions for discussion:

Question 1: Straight-up stealing from other artists: genius, or laziness? Discuss.
Question 2: "Believe" by Cher: is it the single nexus of sound responsible for the nigh-hegemonic, Anteres over-pitch-corrected weirdly post-disco sound found in all top-40 music today? Discuss.

Besides that, what have we got? I find the cheesy synth, casio-keyboard beat concoction of this song to be strangely compelling--it's something I've heard literally a million times before, yet I still can't quite place all the sources. In addition to the hyper pitch correction and other robotic-vocal effects (apparently these guys have gone into interviews and pretended to be robots, in true Tracy Jordan style), there are some neat tricks, both with rhythm (e.g. landing on "never over" at the end of several phrases) and instrumentation (e.g. the portamento keyboard voice, the fingertapping electric guitar voice, both of which I assume are MIDI triggers). 30 seconds of intro with all the dynamics EQ'd out, as if we're listening to tiny, tinny speakers. But the rest of the song doesn't really have a huge dynamic range, and sounds tinny and cheesy by nature, so it doesn't really "pop" when it actually comes in. Is this purposeful/a miscalculation/indicative of the fact that these guys just throw every musical trick they've ever heard at the wall and see what sticks?

What do we learn about stealing?
  • Leave a gap--the clever folks and critical darlings making music right now seem to be taking sounds from the late 70's/early 80's, so what's that--25-ish to 30 years (By that calculation we're due for a major popular resurgence of Michael Jackson's Thriller right about now)? You sound like Stevie Wonder's Inner Visions, you're a genius. You sound like the late 90's, you're a no-talent hack.
  • Steal outright, whole-cloth. Do what it takes to reproduce the sound of the era at which you're aiming. Don't worry about also sounding current--you seem to get that for free.

Monday, January 12, 2009

"Between the Bars" - Elliott Smith (either/or)

Between the Bars - quintessential guitar and voice ballad (though there are at least two guitars here, and there's some kind of organ towards the end). Robbed of almost all the techniques and tools one would normally use to build a song, how does one pull off the feat?

Option 1: Battle depression, alcoholism, and heroin addiction; turn to music as the only possible expression of your own humanity, each song you write and record a tiny, tiny scream into the vast void of an unfeeling universe; realize upon attaining commercial success that now that everyone can hear you, no one is actually listening.

Option 2: Fake it.

Technically, he does what he does--layering voices and guitars in such a way that it still sounds like there's only one of each. Both elements super up-front in the recording. You're in the same room with him, right next to him even, and he's whispering his song to you. One perfect, memorable line: "People that you've been before that you don't want around any more." Everything about the construction of the song is easily repeatable by anyone else except for, you know, the actual deeply personal and profoundly heartbreaking expression behind it.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

"Blue Ridge Mountains" - Fleet Foxes (Fleet Foxes)

(or: surely now I will resume blogging with any kind of frequency at all).

mtg is teaching playwriting this semester, and is considering making her students do a blogging response project, wherein they read plays, blog about what they think made those plays successful, and then read and comment on the blogs of other students who are doing the same. It's an exercise in construction through group de-construction.

Will this work for songs? Who knows? But I'm not blogging about anything else these days, and knowing more about how to successfully construct a good song would be a lot of use to me. The rules will be made up as we go along. So...

Blue Ridge Mountains -- Fleet Foxes' self-titled debut made everybody's year-end top ten list. It would have made mine if I, you know, had one. When this song comes on my machine at work, after thirty seconds I forget what I was doing and start staring wistfully out of the window. It's not just that this song is good, it's transcendent.
  • It sounds epic. Dark, cavernous reverb, like we're in a cathedral. Vocal harmonies to match, it sounds almost like a boys choir in the intro.
  • Interesting, unusual lead instrument. I thought it was a hammer dulcimer at first, but it turns out to be a mandolin doubled with a piano.
  • Starts simple (and in mono--it's not in stereo until about half way through), and builds to a huge crescendo, but without any of the usual rock-and-roll elements. No electric guitars. No driving beats. No bass guitar at all that I can hear. Shakers, pounding on the piano, bass drum, the same lead riff we heard in the quiet parts, those same soaring harmonies all create the drive instead.
  • Unusual structure. No verse/chorus per se, there's a first part and a second part that's repeated, and so is chorus-like. Definitely unlike anything you'd hear on the radio.
  • Lyrically it seems like there's some mysterious family secret being referred to, but otherwise I have no idea what this song is about. And it definitely doesn't matter.
  • Singer with a good and reasonably strong voice with really just a hint of character. Certainly at his edge on this song, he breaks a couple of times on the high parts, but not in a way that sounds unpleasant. He neither carries the song nor impedes it, he just kind of rides it.
This song breaks almost all rules of popular songwriting, I have no idea what genre you'd put it in (alt-folk americana or something?), there's no hook, there's nothing about it that's really hummable. And if I were a record exec, I'd sign the band on the spot after hearing it. What have we learned here in lesson one? If you have a totally original and captivating sound you can break all the rules of songwriting and be successful in spite (or, much more likely, because) of it. And probably some other things, but I don't know what they are yet.