Wednesday, January 12, 2011

1/12/11 - Songs of the Summer, #54-55 - "I Swear" and "Waterfalls"

Top Song of 1994: "I Swear", by All-4-One

I always respect it when a band throws the chorus upfront a cappella. It always feels like a small piece of bravado, even in a vibes 'n' vibrato piece of squishiness like "I swear", a way to say: this right here is awesome, it's the best part of the song, it's the chorus, and it's going to get STUCK IN YOUR HEAD. Granted, the only other example that I can think of off of the top of my head is "You Give Love A Bad Name", but when prime Bon Jovi's making the move, the move leads only one direction, and that is to the top of the charts. Gary Baker and Frank J. Myers, who wrote the song, knew they had a winner as soon as those first lines of the chorus were set down.

It's a good thing, too, because the rest of the song is about as colorless as a bowl of oatmeal. The vibes that sounds like a Casio keyboard set to "Vibes". The tasteful and tasteless "funk" guitar backing. This was the sound of Babyface, who absolutely dominated the R&B charts for a spell in the late 90s; I still remember "Change The World", his lite-rock lite-R&B collaboration with Eric Clapton, showing up on MTV about 3,000 times per hour. This song makes me appreciate the Ushers and the Ne-Yos of todays evolved new jack swing, because the romantic contours of "I Swear" are a little too close to the squirmy romantic sensibilities of late Vagrant label emo for my taste. And I have quite the soft spot for wimped out '90s pop-punk, even.

Top Song of 1995: "Waterfalls" by TLC

If "I Swear" comes out of the gate all blatantly needy/confident, chorus first, "Waterfalls" takes the opposite tactic, playing the cards close to vest, letting the instruments take the listener slowly inside the sonic world of the song, before TLC even start singing. The drums kick it off, with that wah'd out guitar coming in for texture, and then the vocals start. It's a long way off before the powerhouse "Don't go chasing waterfalls," in the chorus. It's the more conventional song structure, but no less effective for that. It's not like the principles of building a house has changed all that much since the invention of the house.

Choruses. It's true that, in general, lyrics don't really mean much in pop music. There is a loud and proud history of hooks and choruses that are meaningless, just plain asinine, and sometimes both. "Go Johnny go/Johnny B. Goode" - profound in its way, but not making into the new Norton Anthology of 20th century poetry, necessarily. Same with "I can't live/with or without you", or "Ohahahahahahooooooooooooaaaa I'm still alive", etc., etc. So witty turns of phrase or elegant metaphors are no prerequisite for a great chorus - it's all about melody and delivers. That being said, when that melody or hook is paired with a sentiment that does capture something universal and human, a song can often vault into the stratosphere, as "Waterfalls" did. The "don't go chasing waterfalls, please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you're used to", scans awkward on the page, and gives one pause to contemplate the metaphor to a certain extent. But the sense of it, and the image of it, compared with the aching way TLC sing it, drills down into a very specific kind of sadness that cuts across the human experience; the sadness in knowning someone diving headlong into their own demise, pushing the limits of something known to the point of danger. It's somewhat of a surprising lyric, paired with the kind of prosaic urban ills-depicting verses, but the sudden contrast works. The beauty and danger of the natural world, along with its purity, colors the emotional landscape of the verses, and, even if you don't even listen to those verses, those two simple lines captures something very complex and sad.

It's the same way that "Smells Like Teen Spirit", nonsensical as the rest of it is, nevertheless acquires a certain crystal clarity with the chorus: "With the lights out/it's less dangerous/here we are now/entertain us/I feel stupid and contagious/here we are now/entertain us". All the loading up on guns and incoherent loser wordplay of the verses gives way to a universal sentiment: I feel like I don't belong, so I will smirk my way through this experience to protect myself. Or, to put it another way, stick to the rivers and the lakes that I'm used to.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

1/11/11 - Songs of the summer, #52-53: "Baby Got Back" and "That's The Way Love Goes"

Well, that's a long time between entries, and now it's not summer anymore (hello 2011), so this project is now summer songs during the wintertime. But that's what happens when there's a wedding to plan and a honeymoon to go on. Wouldn't trade it for the world.

But now, I am, as Aerosmith would say, back in the saddle again, to finish off the songs of summers past, starting with...

Top Song of 1992: "Baby Got Back" by Sir Mix a Lot.

As long as there are karoake bars, this song will never die. Why? Because it speaks, in witty and catchy fashion, to the timeless appreciation of the female posterior, a topic which has still not been exhausted nearly twenty years later. Sometimes innovation loses pace once the influences have been absorbed (see Presley, Elvis), but sometimes the first one to say something says it best. Not that Sir Mix a Lot expressed big butt appreciation first, per se, but he might have been the first to exhaust the topic in the manner he does here.

The genius of this song, I theorize, is in that opening line: "I like big butts and I cannot lie". It's the cannot lie part. Sir Mix a Lot is no sleazy leering Lothario that the ladies should beware of, no, he's the George Washington of rear lust. Like Washington boldly refusing to lie about the cutting down of the cherry tree, Sir Mix a Lot will not compromise his principles, he will state his preference for big butts no matter what the consequences. The consequences, in this case, being filthy lucre and a huge, huge hit from now until the rest of time. The thing to love about this song is that it is NOT smooth, is is NOT suave, it's almost unhinged. When Sir Mix A Lot says he "don't want none unless you got buns hon", the whole thing hits staccato, hitting street preacher rhythms, as though the Word is possessing him and he just can't help but testify. It's a lot closer to the real male libido than the laconic posturing of the gangsta rappers to come.

Top Song of 1993: "That's The Way Love Goes", by Janet Jackson

It seems like it's damning Janet Jackson with faint praise to say that her most impressive accomplishment is coming out of her family and life halfway sane, but it's astonishing. When you look at the level of adjustment that Janet seems to have compared to big brother Michael's, it can get hard to see past that to the music beyond.

And certainly, Janet's a known hitmaker in her own right. This song isn't my cup of tea for something to crank up and really pay attention to, but it's got a slick, soulful groove and is as solidly constructed as a Midwestern farmhouse. That's about the extent of it, though, and that gets to the tricky thing about Janet, for me. I get that she's an artist in her own right, but the things that probably enable her to have a sane life are some of the same things that prevent her songs from burrowing as deep as her brother's.

Michael Jackson is a man with demons, and men (and women) with demons are often responsible for some of the best pop music, as they wrestle those demons into catchy 1-4-5 bound shapes. The craftsmen, by contrast, are their companions on the charts, but more rarely have their songs adopted as cultural hymns. The thing about Janet, though, is, that critically she seems to get a bit of a pass, merely for not being as queasiness-inducing as her more famous brother. No doubt, her success is earned, and you don't hit #1 after #1 without at least a modicum of talent and determination, but the gap between "Billie Jean" and "That's The Way Love Goes" is the gap between a photograph and a snapshot.

Friday, September 03, 2010

9/2/10 - Songs of the Summer, #50-51 "Step by Step" and "Summertime"

The Master List

Top Song of 1990: "Step by Step" by New Kids On The Block

Boy bands really came a long way from NKOTB, who sound like a rough draft of the finished work to come at the end of the '90s in the form of the two-headed Backstreet Boys/N Sync beast. The beginning of the song is pure pop bliss - the "step by step" refrain getting the angelic harmonic counterpoint of "gonna get to you girl". That descending melody on the second and fourth lines of the chorus are the song's secret weapon. For about ten seconds, I thought that maybe this song was some kind of lost classic.

And then the music kicked in. Sweet Moses, is it terrible. The tinny drum machine, the terrible sounding synth bass; I simply cannot believe how many songs sounded like this in the late '80s and early '90s. The perfectly serviceable pop cotton candy at the heart of this song is trampled beneath the machine-tooled crappiness of its production. There's also the small matter of the fact that the song leans really, really hard on its secret weapon of a hook, to the point that secret weapon may not be a very accurate description of it. Not that I'm crying out for more of the New Kids' philosophy or anything, but would it hurt to have a verse or two?

I do have to say that I really appreciate listening to the inspiration for the genius bridge of "Dick in a Box", though.

Top Song of 1991: "Summertime" by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.

I can't really be objective about this song. It's one of my absolute favorite songs ever, and one of the most perfect summer songs that I've ever heard. It's this kind of song that prompted me to start this project; fixing as it does to my memory of one summer in Brooklyn, recently graduated from college and soaking in adult life to an endless loop of that lazy, hazy Kool and the Gang sample, with Will Smith piloting the narration with charm and efficiency. Everything works together in this song - Smith's low-key description of the kind of idle summer bullshit that make the season so wonderful floats around inside the background chatter and those synths in a way that make you feel that the coolest person around is taking you on a leisurely tour of the finest of the four seasons. To me personally, it's the Rosetta Stone of the summer song - a song that stand on its own, sure, but when paired with hot weather, windows rolled down, and the other signifiers of summer takes on a sacramental air.

A lot of times, summer signifies hedonism; what I like about this song so much is that it takes a different tack, highlighting the way that the warm weather brings out a kind of ease in humanity - a widespread bonhomie that spreads like a warm breeze. Even the carnality is easy-going and flirty, with the depiction of the both genders flocking to the basketball courts, ostensibly for the game but really for a different kind of game entirely.

That Kool and the Gang sample that the song is built on, too, is expertly used in the hands of DJ Jazzy Jeff. A lot of hip-hop production circa '91 is so bare-bones as to be fairly monotonous, but the looped and chopped sample creates the kind of hazy good vibes that Dr. Dre would push in a gangsta direction a few years later. For all of Will Smith's frontman charisma, the song wouldn't work without the looped sample and drum track creating a warm bed of sound for Smith to bounce on with his customary ease.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

8/19/10 - Songs of the Summer, #48-49: "Dirty Diana" and "Right Here Waiting"

The Master List

Top Song of 1988: "Dirty Diana" by Michael Jackson

Man, Michael Jackson. When he died, and the world exploded in appreciation for his peerless pop gifts, it was like a flood of pent-up relief that we no longer had to reckon with the complicated horror-show that popular adoration can be for those subjected to it. If you want to chill your blood, read this profile of Justin Bieber in New York: Bieber's plaintive attempts to get some, any downtime, straining gently against bonds that he is only just beginning to perceive, were strikingly uncomfortable for me to read. For all that showbiz success seems to be some sort of glorious golden prize, it can in practice often turn out closer to Tolkien's One Ring to rule them all. Beautiful, compelling, desired by all, and terrifically dangerous and addictive.

You can see the Smeagol-to-Gollum transition just by tracking the evolution of Jackson from his early hitmaking days on through the hits and into the wheel-spinning '90s and '00s. All fresh-faced and innocent to start, Jackson put out a throat-clearing disco innocent collection of songs in Off The Wall before declaring himself a solo artist with authority with "Billie Jean", one of the most paranoid chart-toppers ever recorded. Even in a list of summer songs that includes "Every Breath You Take", that's a feat. "Dirty Diana", coming as it does a scant three years before the grunge explosion of the early '90s that really destroyed Jackson's club pop until the tide receded at the end of the decade, is at the beginning of the end of Jackson's reign of King of Pop. It sounds it, too - the clockwork drum machine, dry guitars, and Jackson in full-paranoia mode - it's a relatively desparate and off-putting song, a kind of quasi-prequel to "Billie Jean".

And, because it's Michael Jackson in the late '80s, it's catchy as hell. The way the guitar rises in the chorus after snaking threateningly through the verse gives the song a queasy anthemic quality; some of that Van Halen rubbing off, maybe? The vocal melody is catchy all the way through, snaking against the guitar in the verse to rise and fall to the incantation of the title as refrain. Success did not come unearned to Jackson, though it ultimately destroyed more of him than is comfortable to contemplate.

Top Song of 1989: "Right Here Waiting For You" by Richard Marx

Oh, the ridiculous piano balladry with the overemoting singer. I believe it was "Endless Love" that I was struggling with earlier. This song is of a piece with that, or any other piece of Adult Contemporary syrup.

The thing about songs like this is that they seem insincere. Marx's delivery is so over the top, so ridiculously plaintive, and the piano is designed for maximum tear-wringing "melancholy" in its melodic construction, that something seems off about the whole thing. It's an easy type of song to mistrust. It's hard to locate the beating heart at the core of the song. Is it a cynical Hallmark card? Preying on a universal emotion to sell some CDs (or iTunes downloads in the current day)? Or is this really a cry from the soul of Richard Marx? One suspects the former, even if the strings, acoustic guitar solo, and melody try to point at the former.

All it takes is to be in the right frame of mind, and you can be gobsmacked by a song like this; feeling melodramatic, perhaps driving late at night through the rain and turning the radio dial to catch something to ease your boredom, thinking of things that make you sad, and then BAM! That piano has you right where it wants you. Even if, like dirty Diana, its intentions are less than pure.

Monday, August 16, 2010

8/16/10 - Songs of the Summer, #45-46: "Papa Don't Preach" and

The Master List

Top Song of 1986: "Papa Don't Preach" by Madonna

In 2010, the Summer of Gaga, it's worthwhile to go back to the original source, because Gaga seems like the chopped-up remix of the original article; the two share an overwhelming desire for fame and success, a willingness to deploy eroticism in service of same, and a knowledge that all of the identiy exploration/transformation, sexual and otherwise, don't mean a thing without great songs to wrap the whole package in.

"Papa Don't Preach" is Madonna at her best; pouring all of her efforts into turning out a great song, so that it can be a hit, so she can be famous. She would obviously go on to have many more great songs and her plan worked to perfection, but there's something incredible about the kind of high-quality pop music that comes from burning ambition not yet realized. It usually results in songs like this; drum-tight, without a wasted moment.

The song started with strings that nod to disco, before kicking in with a terrible-sounding '80s bass part that is nonetheless a fantastic bass part, before Madonna starts singing the verse. The verse then maneuvers back and forth between major and minor keys, before landing on that staccato chorus. The effect is that of a gently undulating rollercoaster, peaking naturally at the chorus after the melodic hooks intensify throughout the pre-chorus.

This is true '80s club-pop; sonically, I can't stand it, but I can't deny the greatness of the song itself. A theory I've always had is that a great song will sound great played on acoustic guitar along (probably not an original theory), and this song passes that test with flying colors.

Top Song of 1987: "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" by Whitney Houston

This is perfect example of a song, that, while superficially similar to "Papa Don't Preach", falls short of the former song's greatness due to inferior supplemental construction. By which I mean that both songs have great choruses, but "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" is just marking time until the chorus rolls around.

The song begins with synth bass, as "Papa Don't Preach" does, and then the instruments kick in, but it maintains the same burbly club-pop mix all the way through the entire verse. The verse itself isn't that catchy - Houston can obviously sing, but the way the synthetic vibes skitter around her vocals just detract from the main melody. Even when she hits the pre-chorus, she just continues along a somewhat half-catchy melodic path, as opposed to Madonna's deft shift between minor and major key to capture the shades of grey of the situation depicted in the lyrics.

But, the chorus is pretty awesome. The syncopation between that monster hook and the double-note synth stab is pretty much unstoppable.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

8/12/10 - Songs of the Summer, #43-44: "When Doves Cry" and "Everybody Want To Rule The World" "

The Master List

Top Song of 1984: "When Doves Cry" by Prince

Things end badly for perfectionist pop maestros. Look at Billy Corgan, who wrote some of the most dynamic singles of the grunge era and wound up kicking out every member of his band except for his otherwordly drummer, who then quit because he wasn't satisfied playing music w/Corgan anymore. Look at Rivers Cuomo, who, after serving as the architect of two of the best albums of the '90s, successfully drove Matt Sharp out of his band, turned Weezer into a kitschy pop band with songs as emotionally deep as the average Katy Perry hit. Look at Brian Wilson, who went insane for decades after composing his impossibly gorgeous teenage symphonies. Look at Phil Spector, who brandished a gun at the Ramones and later killed a woman after overseeing the sonic blueprint of an entire pop movement.

Prince has settled into Cuomo territory: he seems happy, he fills stadiums, he makes money hand over fist, and his muse has completely betrayed him. The thing about being an exacting pop genius (I would guess), is that you have to be willing to say "screw you, I'm right", as you pursue the sounds that only you can hear in your head, but that same impulse means that you aren't going to listen to anyone when you start turning out crap. After all, when that muse is on target, you turn out something like "Geek U.S.A.", or "Say It Ain't So", or "Then He Kissed Me", or "When Doves Cry", so why should you listen to anybody tell you anything?

"When Doves Cry" is a great song, first and foremost. Prince is, if anything, underrated as a songwriter (and as a guitarist: listen to that first guitar solo; the man can shred when he wants to, which on record is rarely). The construction of the song is immaculate; it's one of those songs that could easily be played on an acoustic guitar; the melodies are strong enough to support it, twisting against the syncopation in the verses and then opening up for the naggingly insistent chorus. The keyboard riff that comes in after the chorus, too, adds another hook to what is already an immensely catchy section. Lyrically, too, the Freudian depths suggested by the mother/father lines give the song a charged, dark undercurrent. For all his freakery, and probably because of it, Prince has always been interesting. When he paired that with his formerly unerring pop instincts, he was pretty much unstoppable.

Which just makes it even more amazing that he took the bass out of this song, just as he did with "Kiss". For an '80s pop song, that's absurdly ballsy. The bass carries the funk, and for a dance-influenced/oriented tune, bass is by far a more important instrument than guitar (or keyboards). But to Prince, it sounded too conventional, so he took it out. It was his call, after all, since he played every single instrument on the song. This kind of damn-the-torpedoes thinking would later lead him to record a triple album described by a review on as "so full of filler and misguided ideas that it actually makes nowadays bubblegum pop albums look cohesive". So it goes in the life of the pop perfectionist: sublimity leading to putridity.

Top Song if 1985: "Everybody Want to Rule The World" by Tears for Fears.

I hate this song. I like some music from the '80s, but this is a perfect example of the kind of plastic '80s synth-pop that drives me crazy. What do I hate about it? Let me see...

  1. The fake, hollow, fake synth bass. God I hate that synth bass sound. It just screams robotic artificiality. Sucks the feeling right out of any song in which it appears. Music is so often a way to communicate messy feelings, and that boinging synth bass just leeches the feeling right out, underpinning the whole song with the sound of something tinny and false.
  2. The overdramatic vocals slathered in reverb. Again, all technique, no heart.
  3. The drums or drum machine, I can't even tell which. Along with the synth-bass, it adds to the mechanical, bloodless feel of the song.
  4. Overuse of keyboards. It's true that I'm a keyboard skeptic, nonetheless, some of my favorite songs prominently feature keyboards/synthesizers ("Just What I Needed", "Baba O'Reilly", "I Just Threw Out The Love Of My Dreams"), but this is good example of a song that suffers from too much keyboard goop. Just a whole lot of rococo flourishes that clutter things up.
Haterade drank.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

8/10/10 - Songs of the Summer, #42-43: "Eye of the Tiger" and "Every Breath You Take"

The Master List

Top Song of 1981: "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor

"Eye of the Tiger" belongs to a very unique and particular subgenre of songs: those where the intro of the song is way, way better than the song itself. The opening power chords of this song are iconic for a reason: they are fantastic. The way they hammer down onto the muted guitar notes create instant momentum propelling the listener on a rocket ride to...a song that sucks.

Not all songs like this are as bad as "Eye of the Tiger", but there are definitely a fair share of songs that really fall off once the intro is over. So instead of spending more time elucidating the divide in quality between the intro of this song (awesome) and the rest of it (tripe), I will lay out some more examples below. I'd love to hear more examples in the comments.

Europe: "The Final Countdown"
Deep Purple: "Smoke on the Water"
Styx: "Renegades"
Jimi Hendrix: "Foxy Lady"
Led Zeppelin: "Misty Mountain Hop"
Radiohead: "The National Anthem"
New Radicals: "You Only Get What You Give"

(Thanks to Andrew & Mike for the assist on these).

Andrew additionally suggested a complementary category: great songs with bad intros, offering up:

Genesis: "Watcher of the Skies"
Rolling Stones: "You Can't Always Get What You Want"
Tool: "Parabol/Parabola"

I'd love to hear more in the comments.

Top Song of 1982: "Every Breath You Take"

The song so good, it was a summer hit not once but twice: once in this form, and once in 1997 when Puff Daddy/P. Diddy jacked it and renamed it "I'll Be Missing You". It speaks to the elementary power of the riff at the core of the song that it was good enough to sustain a summer hit twice fifteen years apart. It is, in fact, a great riff, and further supports the point that I made about the Replacements in an earlier post: it's a great riff greatly recorded. The spacey, haunting quality of the way the song sounds is what gives it so much of its melancholy power. There's a lot of empty space in the sonic architecture - note the way that the core riff is played pizzicato, with hardly any sustain. The notes cut off almost as soon as they begin, which opens up space for the bass and drums to be heard. The drums, though, are also somewhat muted, and despite Stewart Copeland's technical virtuosity, he plays only a basic backbeat. The space, then is partially filled by Sting's quietly pinging bass, and partially by nothing at all.

The sense of open space is there in the vocals as well; unlike the instrumental, there's a lot of echo and reverb in the way that Sting's vocals are recorded, which gives them a haunting, ghostlike quality. It's as though there's a haunting spirit floating around a empty house, which matches the feeling of the lyrics perfectly, as the narrator haunts his lost love. The irony of Sting's lament "Oh can't you see/you belong to me" when it's clear that the object of his affection couldn't disagree more is carried in the lyrics, but also the sonics of the song itself. Even when Sting amps up the vocal intensity in the chorus, the instruments expand a bit (the guitar takes up more space), but they stay restrained, further emphasizing the disconnect between the narrator and the stalkee. Even if the song weren't recorded in the style that it is, it would be great do to the solid songwriting on display, but the sounds of the song push it up into the stratosphere of greatness.