Tuesday, July 27, 2010

7/27/10 - Songs of the Summer, #31-32: "American Woman" and "I Feel The Earth Move"

The Master List

Top Song of 1970: "American Woman" by the Guess Who


Here, in "American Woman", comes the first echo of "Wild Thing", and the last summer #1 from the hard rock branch of the rock and roll tree. Here, too, marks the end of a certain furious pace of innovation in rock 'n' roll, because there's much less innovation/evolution from "Wild Thing" to "American Woman" than there is from say, "Heartbreak Hotel" to "I Get Around".

"American Woman" also illuminates one of the issues that I have with classic rock radio. A few entries ago, I wrote about songs that have been played on the radio since they first became hits; most of the time, these are straight up classics, but every so often you get a song like "American Woman" that seems to get continual airplay through simple inertia. It was a hit, it sounds like rock and roll, so slot it in between "Pinball Wizard" and "Hotel California". Classic rock then just becomes an overtly narrow band band of culture, not any sort of sonic organizing principle. So it ossifies into oldies radio, just of different vintage. The opportunity is there to bring in similar sounds, but really it's just the same handful of songs over and over, which do those songs no favors as they quickly become tiresomely overexposed.

But I think I'm out of step when it comes to this song, because Lenny Kravitz recorded a cover of it that was also a gigantic hit, so it has to be the song itself. My sense is that it's the guitar riff syncopated against the "American woman" vocal phrase, which has the same kind of primal thump that "Wild Thing" utilizes so well. Sometimes all you really need is a great, simple guitar riff - "American Woman" has got that. It's just that so little of the song other than that riff stands out in any way.

Top Song of 1971: "I Feel The Earth Move" by Carole King


Speaking of American women, here comes one of the periodic female cameos on this list, Carole King. There's no getting around it; men have a stranglehold on the summer hits list, especially once the rock 'n' roll era comes around. So it's a bit of a breath of fresh air to find such a frank statement of female desire, with the pounding keys underpinning the bluesy chorus emphasizing King's carnality and the lyrics, all apocalyptic imagery of a world coming apart due to the narrator's fierce desire.

The refrain that opens the song is so good, in fact, that to my ear it almost overshadows the weaker "ooh baby" section, where King switches back to a gentler major key and backs off of the aggression. I get the tension between the two parts, and that it makes the refrain hit even harder when she brings it back, but it almost seems like it belongs in a different song. Unlike "American Woman", there's more here going on than just one good riff - the melody is catchy, the lyrics vividly capture a certain kind of volcanic desire, and there's a push-pull between the two sections of the song that keep the tension balanced, even if I'm not sold on the execution of the bridge.

King's percussive piano playing on this song is a style that, in my opinion, isn't used enough in rock music. The appearance of a piano in a rock song usually signals that it's either a sappy ballad or a "rollicking" country-ish song, but the piano is actually a percussion instrument, the closest in feel to the drums of any other standard rock 'n' roll instrument. When Ben Folds Five has their brief window of success in the '90s, it always felt unfair to me that their hit was a ballad, when more than any other artist since early Elton John Folds really explored the piano as a percussive rock instrument. And speaking of Sir Elton, he also briefly dabbled with the style that King plays in here - his 11-17-70 live album is a revelation. Plus, Little Richard and all. I get that it's hard to tour with a grand piano, but hey, I'm a selfish listener. I'd like some more pounding piano, please.


4 comments:

ariyele said...

great point about the piano---hadn't thought of it as like the drums in that they're both percussive instruments.
i completely agree that the carole king song is way better. by a long shot.

ariyele said...

something else that's refreshing is that carole king doesn't have to perform practically naked to have a hit either. that seems to be more and more the norm these days for women artists who rise to the top of the music list food chain. if they're female, they're next to naked with tight bodies and toned everything. carole king seems like she's free to simply be a songwriter/singer/musician/artist. i long for a return to this state for women in the industry.

Rachel said...

word sister

Croz said...

And yet gender relations are much more equal these days as opposed to when Carole K. put this song out. A somewhat ironic inverse correlation.