Fore & Aft: Echoplex

“Ella-ella-ella-ay-ay-ay”. Or so goes the biggest line of the biggest single of 2007. The deviously catchy delivery tactic of that echoing artifact sunk its hooks in so deeply that over the last few years, we’ve heard its success replicated far and wide by both the original songwriting team of The-Dream and Christopher “Tricky” Stewart and their imitators. The pair have clearly become a goldmine for record labels, the go-to team for big hits all over the pop world. And fortunately, we’ve been blessed to enjoy the real McCoy in their success and ingenuity. Not satisfied to settle for juicing every drop from a played-out gimmick, the duo dropped the heaviest, gnarliest, R&B hit of the decade in Beyonce‘s “Single Ladies”–a massive, transforming statement piece that will alone keep them in the history books, goofy Toy Story allusion bedamned–only to suffer an obvious aping with her follow-up single “Halo”, which they did not pen.

Though I’m no expert on their catalog, of what I’ve heard, their most successful ballad–their most earnest and honest and least corny–is the slow jam “Bed” by J. Holiday. As soft and sweet as it is sexy and seductive, and with The-Dream on backing vocals, we have an expertly crafted tune with memorable lines, inventive melodic cadence, and a compelling structure that builds verse hook upon pre-chorus hook upon chorus hook upon bridge and back again. It’s nowhere as explicitly game-changing as “Umbrella” or “Single Ladies” but it’s incredibly refined, well-conceived, and perfectly executed.

J. Holiday – Bed

In the digital age, it’s been light-memes since its 2007 release. It’s 2010 and who now should take up The-Dream’s cause but the one and only R. Kelly.

R. Kelly – Echo

The leadoff single from his newest album Untitled, “Echo” is perfectly R. Kelly, both amazing and hilarious. The background vocal chiming in with “sex in the morning, sex all day” and its converse is fabulous. And the real conversation piece of the track, the yodeling chorus, is yet another historical Kels vocal performance, expertly entwined with the bridge’s “got you sounding like you’re screaming from a mountain peak” line to round out the storyboard of a Ricola commercial for the ages.

Of course, the echoing “echo” is the obvious culprit of the indictment that R. Kelly is just the newest derivative of The-Dream’s trademark work. But when we revisit “Bed”, we start to see it as a kind of model for “Echo”. There’s the lingerie talk, the care-taking of the working-woman partner, the same building structure climaxing in the ecstatic bridge. Of course, these are all topics and cliches of modern R&B, but if “Bed” weren’t so distinctly crafted and well, so “bed-bed-bed”, it wouldn’t be as suspect.

Regardless of the level of influence here, R. Kelly nails it like a consummate professional. Moreover, we can just as easily look at the matter from the other direction. R. Kelly has contributed more to what we know about modern R&B than just about everyone else out there today. If you make R&B you are beholden to his innovations. Right off the bat, I doubt J. Holiday would have ever donned the first initial if R. Kelly hadn’t before him. And we have to remember that the central character in all of this is a writer and performer who clearly hasn’t come into R&B from a vacuum. Innovators succeed by knowing their genre so well as to capitalize on its needs. The-Dream is no different.

Take, for example, one of the standouts from The-Dream’s excellent sophomore album Love vs. Money, “Put It Down”.

The-Dream – Put It Down

This track, as great as it is on its own, would never exist if it weren’t for R. Kelly. The cadence and phrasing of his line “I see you running like a track meet / With your baton, saying ‘Catch me'” is a Kelly trademark (a perfect example is the moment in “Echo” when he stutter-sings “I left your next clue by the sink. It should be a box with your name, open it up, see what’s inside, whatever it is put it on and head to the bedroom”). This imitation runs throughout the entire second verse, in which The-Dream tells his lover how to respond should people ask her if he sings like Usher or dances like Chris Brown, all the while notably avoiding any comparison to R. Kelly. And seeing as no one takes full advantage of the possibilites of lyrical exploration so well as R. Kelly, what other touchstone can we cite for inspiring lines like “I’m all up on you like a monster truck”, “I’m all up on you like a whitey on a thug”, and the chorus’ query “Does he make that horn go beep?”.

The real kicker here is that by the time we’ve gotten to the end of The-Dream’s album, he’s ready to be explicit about the issue. Love vs. Money ends with the track “Kelly’s 12 Play”, the tale of an extended lovemaking sesh that employs as its soundtrack the early R. Kelly classic known for its hit single “Bump and Grind” (and maybe not so known for deep cut “I Like The Crotch On You”).

The-Dream – Kelly’s 12 Play

The song begins with The-Dream searching for his copy of 12 Play in his CD collection, scouring his shelves for the white cover with red letters. He carefully cleans the CD and checks the surface for scratches, pops it in the player, and commences to sexy time. Throughout the chorus, though, in between each lead line about doing, screwing, and brewing it “to Kelly’s 12 Play”, The-Dream utters a soft “oh Kel” that has enough sexual moan in it to get his listener fruitlessly hoping his partner’s name is a female Kelly. The song turns the more idolatrous in the second verse, when in the throws of passion, she thanks The-Dream for his prowess in the sack and, instead of returning the gratitude, he thanks Kel.

According to the bridge, over the course of the evening the couple apparently listen to the album up to five whole times before petering out. And here’s where The-Dream surpasses his inspiration and places himself in the lineage to take the baton from the aging crooner. With the lovemaking session in intermission, and with the last few seconds of Love vs. Money expiring, his partner leaves the bed, walks to the stereo, pops out the CD, and changes the disc in the CD player “to Dream’s Love/Hate“.

Listening to your own music while sexing your lady? I wouldn’t put it past Kanye. But in the context here, it’s less a literal suggestion than a bold move intended to state The-Dream’s claim to R&B sovereignty. The album ends with the self-determined inclusion of The-Dream’s debut album in the canon of R&B classics, the next great 12 Play. Let Beyonce have her crown or robo-gauntlet or what have you. Based on The-Dream’s ubiquitous success, I can’t think of anyone more worthy of inheriting the throne. That is, of course, whenever R. Kelly decides to step down. Someone may have to pry it out of his cold, dead, mannequin hands.

Walk On By Part 2

I just can’t get over losin’ you
And so if I seem, broken and blue
Walk on by, walk on by
Foolish pride, that’s all that I have left

Thanks to a wonderful teacher in high school, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to the entire Stax singles catalog almost immediately upon becoming interested in 60’s R+B. I went from one cd, Otis Redding’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2 to The Complete Stax Singles 1959-1968. I think a lot of folks can hand something this comprehensive to a kid nowadays, off a hard drive, or loaded onto a 3000gb ipod, and they will take it gladly. Though maybe not listen to it. My teacher said, “Here, write a report on it, give it back in two weeks.” Nine discs, about 250 songs, along with a great huge book that came with the set. I devoured the lot. I can still recall hearing Macy Skipper or Eddie Floyd for the first time. Flipping out over Jeanne & the Darlings and Carla Thomas.

The story of a little re-purposed movie theater with a record shop in the front and a studio in the back, where neighborhood kids would come in and make their dreams come true became something close to a fairy tale for me, and I would regale friends about Memphis’ belle epoque. Each player seemed to fulfill some role in the Stax castle, with Rufus Thomas serving as the wizened Shakespearean court jester with a beautiful daughter, William Bell the sad-hearted knight errant, Johnny Taylor the cad, Booker T. & the MG’s standing sentry over the proceedings, ready at a moment’s notice to jump into action, and label owner Jim Stewart running around like Jimmy Stewart in a screwball comedy (“Whoa, we got a goldmine over here!”). At the heart of this myth was its true hero, Otis Redding: a figure so benevolent that he held the entire place together through his kind demeanor and his ability to touch any person to the core with his voice alone. Here was a guy who used lyrics his wife wrote to create one of the greatest breakup songs ever recorded, who was known to throw a song out after the third take because it wasn’t raw enough, who sang a song to kids about staying in school. I remember being shocked while reading Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music when he mentions that Redding actually got upset at Sam and Dave for getting the crowd too riled up before he took the stage. It was, and still is, the only negative thing I have ever heard about Otis Redding.

Of course this version of events is too perfect to be entirely true, and it ends with a crushing blow. That happens on the evening of December 9, 1967, when Otis, his manager and four members of his backing band, the Bar-Kays, are killed in a plane crash in Lake Monona, Wisconsin. Besides the posthumous release of Otis’ biggest hit, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” the coda of this tale is sung in not one but two other songs, “A Tribute To A King” by William Bell, and “Otis, Sleep On” by Redding’s protoge Arthur Conley. The moment I had always thought of as perhaps the most fitting end to Otis’ story is on the last song he recorded “The Happy Song (Dum Dum),” when he laughs his way through the line:

You oughtta see my baby’s face/ she just grins grins grins…

Otis Redding – The Happy Song (Dum Dum)

And right there my concrete sense of Stax ends. Black and White photos turn to that gritty 70’s Brown and Yellow. Al Bell makes some highly-profitable but not-so friendly moves. Isaac Hayes stops writing music for others and starts making music for himself,

and this

turns into this

There I left it, and really have ever since. When I hear about the great Stax artists of the 70’s — Hayes, The Staples Singers, The Bar-Kays, Luther Ingram — I enjoy ’em, but they don’t stir my heart. When I recently watched Mel Stuart’s excellent 1973 documentary, WattStax, I found myself searching the artists’ faces for something of the past. A sheepish grin over all the attention, maybe? An insular attitude amongst the musicians? No dice. There is a powerful composure and professionalism throughout the all the performances. Even Rufus Thomas pulls off some artful crowd control after folks start rushing the field to get closer to the stage. And when Bar-Kays sax player Harvey “Joe” Henderson says, “Freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitude,” he means that he and his bandmates have earned it.

I guess I’m saying that as much as I like the 70’s stuff (and LOVE this performance of “Son of Shaft”),  I don’t pay too much attention.

All of this as a lengthy defense for the indefensible crime of misattribution* by yours truly. In my last post I indulged deeply in the fantasy of a Stax that never existed.

In my mind, Isaac Hayes was backed up by Booker T. & the MG’s in one final late-night jam, as he recorded one of the greatest soul masterpieces of all time: “Walk On By.” But, as my fact-checkin’ cuz Tim points out in the comments:

I hate to burst your bubble, but the MGs are not on “Walk on By”. Booker had just left or was soon to leave Stax, Cropper left soon after this too. That’s The Bar-Kays.

The Bar-Kays. Well, yes and no. The Bar-Kays and Harold Beane on lead guitar. Not Charles “Skip” Pitts who plays wah-wah on Shaft, or regular Bar-Kays guitarist Michael Toles, who plays rhythm guitar on “Walk on By” and on Shaft, and who later became part of Hayes’ touring group, and certainly not Steve Cropper. It is indeed Hayes on keyboard, not Booker T. That fanatic, exhausted drumming is courtesy of the Bar-Kays’ Willie Hall, not my hero Al Jackson Jr. The strings and horns, it turns out, were outsourced to Detroit, with members of the Detroit Symphony playing on violin. Definitely not the Memphis Horns, as I had always assumed. Here is how Marvell Thomas, son of Rufus, piano player and Co-Producer of Hot Buttered Soul tells the story of Beane’s playing to music historian Bill Dahl:

“The guitar solo was not something that was planned on front end,” recalled Thomas. “It was like, ‘Well why not?’ We just stretched out and let it go. When you get in the middle of it, you just kind of ride with it until it stops.”**

And that’s where I’m sort of left too. If I didn’t know a lot of this stuff, especially the bit about Detroit, I think I’d be a lot happier. And if I didn’t talk about it, the song may even be better. The fact that the fantasy of Stax is is impossible is something I’ve probably always known. I’m sure Otis Redding was secretly a shoplifter, William Bell was fiercely confident, and the works of Booker T. are actually by a different man with the same name. The golden age of Stax perseveres not through its anecdotal history, but by the immense, emotional scope of the music, and the joy which one inevitably feels while listening.

And so, I think I’d prefer to let the misinformation of the previous post stand. It’s a reverie brought about by late night radio– a truth that’s undeniable. Plus, everybody knows advice that was given up for free…lots of details to discern. Lots of details.

*This word, by the way, being the ultimate in onomotoseeia.

**This quote, and much of the personnel information comes from AllMusic and the Concord Music Group website, which oversaw the 2009 reissue of Hot Buttered Soul.

Senseis Are Standing By

I wasn’t as enamoured with The Ecstatic as everyone else appeared to be. First off, the mix sounded really strange to me, the same kind of strange that the Q-Tip album sounded. It had sloppy production on the beats end with flat sonics and not much frequency range, so the vocals sat on top of the music in an alien way. And none of the songs seemed very thoroughly explored.

On the other hand, the new track “24-Hour Karate School” renews my faith in the Mighty Mos for still retaining the capacity to make good music. Some critics have complained that he doesn’t spit more than a few bars at a time here, but that’s what makes it for me. Clocking it at just over two minutes, it’s a high-concept mash-up of rap meets 24-hour fitness center meets dojo that explores a laughable fantasy in song form. It’s endearing in a harmless hair-brained stoner-comedy way. And since it has no context, we have no expectations that Mos has to meet. We just get to listen to a little ditty that just so happens to have much better production (thanks to the great Camp Lo collaborator Ski) and a vocal mix that actually sits with the music.

I honestly didn’t find much in a first listen to The Ecstatic to encourage more, but I might give it another shot because of this effort. Maybe I missed something. I doubt it. We’ll see. Nevertheless, while this song is of no consequence, I’d rather have one of these every couple of months than albums of passable material every other year. Because this is fun times for real.

Chop-chop body work…

Mos Def – 24-Hour Karate School

Walk On By

I’ve been digging into the Stax again lately and am just floored by Steve Cropper’s versatility and style as a guitarist. His stuff on ANY given Otis Redding song would be the high-water mark for any other session musician’s career.

Not that he was just a session musician, mind you. Hardly a journeyman, Cropper stuck around the old theater on East McLemore Ave. from his teens in the early 60’s and just past its major upheaval in the 1970’s. He was a Mar-Key, an MG, and later a Blues Brother. But Steve Cropper would never allow you to mistake him for anyone else (though occasional Steven Seagal comparisons are warranted). Take “Let Me Come On Home” from 1967.

Otis Redding – Let Me Come On Home

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Featuring the kind of straight-fingered piano plink that makes white-haired RZA scratch his chin, the song manages to be one of those great and rare moments in 60’s soul music where the singer allows himself to get caught up–and ultimately lost–in the band’s sound. You can’t blame Otis, either. The horns are so tight, Booker T. and Al Jackson are in a mind-meld, and whenever Cropper is playing, you hear Otis just back right off. The rumor is that Otis Redding was an incredibly demanding bandleader, and in this case, the band is just too good to sing over.

Cropper’s ability to transition his playing early on from the style of The Ventures, John Barry or Dick Dale, to someone who could later easily play on a Meters or Funkadelic track–all without losing his trademark twang–is also remarkable.

And, he plays on Isaac Hayes’ “Walk On By”

Isaac Hayes – Walk On By

I’m going to say that every other version of this song pisses me off. Even the shortened version of the Hayes song. To really appreciate it, you’ve got to hear it all the way through, allowing for the brutal pauses where every instrument has its say before Mr. Hayes sings his first word — over two minutes into the track. For a songwriter famed up to this point in his career for writing songs with an almost overwhelming sense of urgency (hey, the guy wrote a #1 song about getting off the toilet), I think giving the time to explore words he appreciates with the help of an outstanding backing band can certainly be called a turning point.

Can we go back in time for a moment?

Isaac Hayes wrote over 200 songs with partner Dave Porter in the mid-1960’s at Stax before breaking up the partnership to focus on his solo career. Their tunes were dependably great and a “Hayes/Porter” on a 45 was a stamp of approval. For one thing, they write one hell of an intro (pay attention Mr. Rza):

Charmels – As Long As I’ve Got You

But beyond that, I think they appreciated who they were writing for. As the above song easily proves, these guys could write and arrange some highly refined music for the right artists. But where Sam & Dave were concerned, they hardly wanted to sound refined or anything else. Sam Moore and Dave Prater sang intense, proud and raw music, which needed no stylistic buffers to get their point across. And with songs like “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” or “I Thank You,” Hayes and Porter offer no buffers.

How great then for Hayes, to have the opportunity to explore a highly-refined song, by two highly-refined songwriters (Burt Bacharach and Hal David), written originally for a very classy lady (one Dione Warwick).

Ok, forward in time to mid-1969

Now I guess that around the time Isaac Hayes recorded “Walk On By” for his album Hot Buttered Soul, things were in a bit of upheaval at Stax records. Everyone was still mourning the death of label superstar Otis Redding (and to tell you the truth, I’m still mourning him too), control of the label had been not-too-kindly handed over by label founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton to powerful businessman Al Bell, and the entire Stax back catalog had been sold to Atlantic Records in a distribution deal. So, Al Bell ordered that 27 records and 30 singles come out, all in Mid-1969.

Hot Buttered Soul was not Hayes’ first solo record. Presenting Isaac Hayes had come out in 1968 on Stax at Bell’s urging and had sold poorly. The opening track, “Precious, Precious”, though, had been cut down from a lengthy 18 minutes of tape, and thus begins Hayes’ mature exploration of songs, musicianship, and pushing past the 3-minute boundary of radio-friendly music. This is how Hayes described the process in the liner notes to his 2005 greatest hits album Ultimate Isaac Hayes (Can You Dig It?):

“What it was, was the real me…I mean, OK, the real me had written those other songs [‘Soul Man,’ ‘Hold On I’m Comin’,’ etc.], but they were being written for other people. As for me wanting to express myself as an artist, that’s what Hot Buttered Soul was. Although I was a songwriter, there were some songs that I loved, that really touched me. Came the opportunity, I wanted to record these tunes. I wanted to do them the way that I wanted to do them. I took them apart, dissected them, and put them back together and made them my personal tunes. I took creative license to do that. By doing them my way, it almost made them like totally different songs all over again.”

Hot Buttered Soul has 4 songs. The longest, “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” clocks in at 18 minutes. Of course, the first half of the song features an elaborate spoken backstory. Here is how Hayes explained the song to National Public Radio:

“The rap came out of the necessity to communicate. There’s a local club in Memphis, primarily black, called The Tiki Club. One day there I heard this song by Glen Campbell – ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix.’ I thought, ‘Wow, this song is great, this man must really love this woman.’ I ran down to the studio and told them about the song, and they said ‘yeah, yeah.’ They didn’t feel what I felt, I thought maybe they weren’t getting it. The Bar-Kays were playing the Tiki Club a few days later, so I told them to learn the song and that I would sit in. I told them to keep cycling the first chord, and I started talking, just telling the story about what could have happened to cause this man to leave. Halfway through the song, conversations started to subside, and by the time I finished the song, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

Man, Glen Campbell’s version is beautiful, but the video isn’t what you’d call heavy soul:

Hayes takes this and “Walk On By” and does more than dissect them, he hears them. In the same way Gram Parsons does, when he records William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” with the Byrds, or Dan Penn’s “Dark End Of The Street.” I think that Isaac Hayes is saying that in 1969 there were two sides of the aisle–Black Music and White Music–and if you tried to get someone to hear a song from the other side of the aisle, they would say ‘yeah, yeah’ but they wouldn’t want to do anything with it.

I find it funny that if you google ‘Isaac Hayes, By The Time I Get To Phoenix,’ you’re going to see words like ‘soulful’ and ‘erotic’, and without his name, you don’t get any description of the song at all, just that it’s sung by Glen Campbell and that it’s a #1 hit.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

So, we’re 7 & 1/2 minutes into “Walk On By,” and we know where this thing is going. Isaac has introduced a flute run after each time he and the ladies say “walk on” at around 6:30.  That run gets picked up by the rest of the brass and a few strings at 7:30, just as Hayes bows out. The brass fades out by about 8:20 and the strings fully take over. Fully, I should say, with the exception of that guitar player. Steve Cropper is so insistent that his sound come out alongside the strings that they start to fade in and out. Then, incredibly, they bow out entirely at about 9:12, just as Booker T lays it all on the table. It’s as if they’re saying “This is not the Love Unlimited Orchestra, We’re BOOKER T. & THE MG’s!” It’s 11:10 and Al Jackson Jr. is flipping the fuck out! Cropper is playing all sorts of bizarre angular chops and the band is totally together. The 70’s, Gamble and Huff, and all sorts of fluffy R&B shit may be right around the corner, but for a couple of minutes at the end of an impossibly long and perfect song, the Stax house band reigns, and the bandleader is wise enough to get out of their way.

Songs That Explode

I particularly like songs that, you know, do stuff. Sequentially, the thing about doing stuff is that one goes from doing nothing to doing something. Causally, the tension of not doing stuff often propels one into doing stuff. But if we were talking about absolute opposites, doing nothing would just be nothing and doing something would be everything.

In musical composition, faced with the extremes of doing nothing and doing everything, either extreme is impossible and unlistenable. But it’s nevertheless a compelling model to work with and one that contains all sorts of exciting possibilites. So the creative problem is closer to reconciling doing just enough with doing as much as you can justify. This edging of extremes inwards requires the building of untenable tension towards an overwhelmingly cathartic and ultimately exhausting mass; one must explore each extreme until it self-destructs towards its opposite. In the achievement of these ends, we occasionally have an addition to a catalog of paced and thrilling pieces, chaste and hedonistic hemispheres that detonate upon contact: we have songs that explode.

I wanted to have a playlist all ready for this post but couldn’t think of enough tracks that fit the bill off the top of my head. Instead, I’ll contribute what comes to mind when it does and folks can throw the new additions into an iTunes playlist or something. It’s kind of hard to sequence this type of song anyway. If anyone has ideas, please comment with your nominations and we can develop a list together. Until then, here’s the track that inspired the effort…

The Twilight Sad‘s self-titled first EP contained their incredibly wonderful first splash “That Summer, At Home I Had Become the Invisible Boy”. Of all of their songs to this point, none challenge that track’s supremacy but the EP’s opener. “But When She Left, Gone Was The Glow” starts out with the quiet sounds of calm breathing: an air organ, the lilting Scottish bedroom voice. But once you’ve settled into the pregnant mood, the drums hit with quick warning shots, the guitar squeals like a loose engine belt, and the band opens the floodgates. It’s like that cliche stealth-to-action breaking point in crime movies: the entire police squad is positioned in the hallways and stairwells of a sketchy-ass apartment building, the delegated trumpeter knocks on the door and yells “Police”, they kick down the door, and all hell breaks loose. When I listen to this track I’m so pumped from the beginning, waiting for that moment, that when it actually occurs, I actually have a visceral reaction like a writhing sensation in flux with the roaring waves of guitar. The effect is ecstatic and transcendent and would never occur if the gesture were anything but perfectly executed.

The Twilight Sad – But When She Left, Gone Was The Glow

Fore & Aft: Drinking Songs

Fore & Aft is a new series dedicated to exploring the ways hit songs influence other hit songs, for better or for worse.

In my household, one of the more polarizing songs from last year was the Jamie Foxx/T-Pain collabo “Blame It On The Alcohol”, a little ditty celebrating drunkenness as an excuse to do something you might not normally do in the club when you’re hanging out with Jamie Foxx and T-Pain, namely, sex them. The first time I heard it was on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno during a commercial break from Late Night with David Letterman. I don’t even know why Jamie Foxx was on the program. He didn’t really have anything to promote and he didn’t perform. He just talked about this song they’ve been testing out in the clubs. You know, market research. At the end of the interview, the band and Jamie Foxx stumbled into an awkward, sputtering, impromptu performance that faded into a commercial. Not very compelling. It took several weeks for me to come upon the real recording. When I did, I was pleasantly surprised; my better half threatened me bodily harm if I did not stop playing it. First of all, the chord progression (1-7?) is somewhat unusual in R&B and the intro teaser is not something I think I’ve ever heard before. And the crisp production is very well-considered and arranged. But the charming goofiness of the top-shelf rhymes coupled with the catchy-as-hell “a-a-a-a-a-alcohol” hook is what makes this song. For all the auto-tuning ridiculousness T-Pain is responsible for, he made something here I can get behind.

Jamie Foxx and T-Pain – Blame It On The Alcohol

In recent weeks/months, we’ve been witnessing the rise of Trey Songz, second fiddle to occasional partner and insta-celebrity Drake. He’s shown plenty of promise with their song “Successful” which strikes a strong chord with me for its minimal, grave production and it’s earnest, yearning sentiment. It’s one of the most original R&B hits I’ve heard in a while. One the other hand, the most recent Trey Songz hit, “Say Ahh” takes from “Blame It On The Alcohol” a wee bit. From the gate, it’s copping the theme, which wasn’t exactly new to begin with. But notice how it instantly jumps to the chorus before the verse, something Foxx/Pain only previewed. The end goal is the same for both: skip straight to the hook. The most obvious borrowing in the vocals is the a-a-a-a-alliteration Trey uses as a background for the hook “Let me hear you say ahhh!”. While the title walks the thin line between medical/dental irony and sexual suggestion, there isn’t anything overtly turn-offish, as was also the case with “Blame It On The Alcohol”. And the track holds its own from a songwriting perspective, so “Say Ahh” doesn’t sound anything like the other musically, which is the fortunate break that saves this song and keeps it so listenable.

Trey Songz – Say Ahh

VERDICT: To be honest, there’s nothing explicitly “rip-off” about the track. And that’s great. That’s what this series is hopefully going to be about more often than not. There’s nothing wrong with being influenced, nothing wrong with building on developments. Between pioneers and epochs of change, we need people who can reliably stay the course and keep us entertained. And that’s as happily Trey Songz as anybody else.

Warzone

I’ve recently reunited with my record collection after three years living without it. On the one hand, the mass of vinyl has caused some difficulties in living space organization with all the other things I’m reclaiming from storage. But it’s pretty awesome having them back. I remember growing up with my Dad’s large home-made modular shelving full of records. The first music I ever owned myself was a record: LL Cool J’s Bigger And Deffer. In many ways I prefer the crisp sound quality of CDs these days. But I often love the tone of vinyl and nothing beats the interactive factor for listening or dj-ing. The whole movement from CD to mp3 has records back in vogue these days and there’s something very satisfying about holding 180-gram vinyl in your hands. Go with the mp3 for ease and immediacy; vinyl makes music really special.

Among the records I have only in vinyl format is this single from Pete Rock‘s Soul Survivor II featuring Dead Prez on vocal duties. Nasty. Rugged. Ill. Dead Prez on a club track spitting hedonism in the midst of warzone-like social conditions? Hectic. I first read about it when it was released on Turntable Lab and every sentence in the review jokingly concluded with the phrase “in the club”. One section gets stuck in my head all day after I listen to it: “I don’t even bring ID to the club / Why they need to know my government name in the club? / I ain’t got no paper for the bar in the club / Already got drunk before I came in the club.” The production is ridiculously hype switching from half- to double-time throughout and is an incredible example of efficient sample selection. The guitar/keyboard line, tambourine, and strings are used perfectly by a master. By the end of the track, the “what is Dead Prez doing in the club?” factor is mostly resolved as ironic, but deadly serious, commentary. “Why the fuck I came in the club?” Well, probably because you hoped to wild out on banging tracks like this.

No luck on the mp3 for me. But here’s the YouTube version…

Big Digits – Return to Cocoon Lagoon (Initials B.R. Remix)

Big Digits - Return to Cocoon Lagoon (Initials B.R. Remix)

House Appropriations

Suit by Nudie

Why does our music culture tend to be in love with its own reflection? Is there any song that’s going to be left alone without reinterpretation? Not that I mind this. Just an observation. Hip hop, sampling and the never-ending remix pop into one’s mind first. 51 versions of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, answer songs, and live covers made to sound like samples often cause me to stand up and take notice. And Irreverent folkie covers, collage mashups, and jazz vocalist “interpretations” are all well and good. But the songs I like the best are those that manage to eak out the very knowability of a tune as an entity, by taking it’s fame and doing something altogether different–dare I say disrespectful–with it. As such, I have begun to keep a log of those songs which manage to snatch the essence of the things.

Day One: Pierre Menard, Author of the Sweetheart

The seminal country album by the Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo is dominated by the earnest, plaintive presence of singer Gram Parsons, who stayed with the band for this one album before moving on to greener pastures. Here’s an account from The Adios Lounge of how that all went down:

The Byrds played South Africa in July without Gram Parsons, who decided that shooting smack with Keith Richards was better than playing segregated Johannesburg, so he essentially fired himself. While GP’s political motives were undoubtedly more expedient than heartfelt, to his credit he flew the coop on a tour that was, by all accounts, “Custer-esque.” Back on home turf … and without the motivating force behind their just-released album, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo … Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman recruited Clarence White into The Byrds, then fired drummer, Kevin Kelley, and replaced him with … Gene Parsons. Hillman then reconciled with Gram, left The Byrds, and formed the Flying Burrito Brothers. GP and Hillman then asked White and Gene Parsons (no relation) to join the Burritos, but the new Byrds, upon deeper reflection, decided to remain new Byrds. Are you getting all this?!?!

Well. So. Anyways the music. The album, while it somehow manages to feel very cohesive, has songs from all over the place. There’s a tongue-in-cheek Louvin Brothers cover, two Dylan covers (including one where Roger McGuinn screws up the lyrics, only to get called on it by Dylan in a later version of the song), a Merle Haggard tune, a traditional, an amazing William Bell cover, and Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.”

Then there are the Parsons originals. I think a lot of folks go right for the jugular and get all weepie over his sentimental ballad, “Hickory Wind,” and so did I. That is, until I heard a Parsons-only vocal version of the tune that follows it on the album, “One Hundred Years From Now.”

The Byrds – One Hundred Years from Now (Rehearsal)

This tune is an amazing, angst-ridden diatribe against what people called, in 1968 terms, “the establishment”. While Parsons desires–with a certain amount of disdain–that people look beyond the day-to-day in order to see what really matters, he does tend to blame the powers that be for keeping him from his gal:

One hundred from this day
Will the people still feel this way
Still say the things that they’re saying right now.
Everyone said I’d hurt you
They said that I’d desert you
If I go away
You know I’m gonna get back somehow.

Well, in the Summer of 2008, Dr. Dog Singer Toby Leaman takes a different approach:

Dr. Dog – 100 Years

What’s so amazing about this song is its attempt not merely to channel the the spirit of The Byrds tune, but rather to use the same simple lyric and surround it with all things that we now tend to associate with country- and folk-rock or the 1960’s: lush harmonies, tack piano, rock drums, and well, Gram Parsons. But where GP tries to reassure his lover and tell her that it’ll all balance out in the end, Leaman takes responsibility for the space between them, and rather seems to be offering a promise to himself:

When I look back on what I done
‘Bout a hundred years from now
I’m gonna cry myself to sleep at night
If somebody shows me how.
And when I get off Tennybrook Farm
‘Bout a hundred years from now,
I’m gonna marry you out of common sense
And get out from behind this plough.

Perhaps these two songs have nothing to do with one another. Leaman may have never heard of Gram Parsons or Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Parsons may be his unknown hero, known by his deeds and accomplishments rather than his name. Where the passage of time has a more literal meaning to a frustrated lover in 1968, to a lonesome ploughman, 100 years is just the space between now and the end of the workday.

This Tornado Loves You, Neko

When sifting through the millions of songs we’re barraged with in any given day, week, month, year, there are plenty that are worthless wastes of time. There are some that deserve loathing. There are inoffensive others, enjoyable many, and likable some. And no matter your background or criteria, there are a few that you love. But if you are a songwriter, there is a select catalog of songs that you wish you had written. Not songs that are band opuses, beasts of arrangement and democracy. I’m talking about compositions broken down to their essentials, things perhaps bolstered by great arrangements but not necessarily so. In my collection of songs that I wish I had written, there are two acts that continually raise the bar I set my songwriting toward, continually develop perfect compositions of depth, beauty, and catchiness. The first of those has just released a new album, and the first song on that album is perhaps for me the newest epitome of this class of song.

Neko Case’s “This Tornado Loves You” exemplifies so many of my songwriting ideals that it’s left me fairly incapable of processing the rest of the album (although the first single, “People Gotta Lot Of Nerve” is actually another in this class). Without sacrificing hooks or pop accessibility, it’s a sprawling, wandering composition with more bridges than verses and choruses (or, perhaps, multiple verses and choruses) but that never strays from a few carefully picked chords. A continuous reordering of these chords creates a masterpiece that is as familiar as it is evolving, and with the two out-of-key chords sprinkled in for good measure, we are tossed from the evolving familiarity briefly and frequently by disturbing moments of unsettling shift. Her lyrics specialize the techniques to brilliant, poetic effect. As a tornado having power over everything but her love, she sings the compositional sway exactly as you would imagine a massive funnel barreling forward, swinging unexpectedly, calming, roaring, destructive, revelatory. Just take her first verse for evidence. “My love, I am the speed of sound. I left them motherless, fatherless, their souls dangling inside out of their mouths. But it’s never enough. I want you.” It is beauty explored in the macabre, or, as goes a phrase in a subsequent song–a phrase as descriptive of her music as it is of her subject matter–“the Sistine Chapel painted with a Gatling gun.”

I think this song is pure genius refined and replicated for the masses. And how lucky to have it. But I gush too much. Without further ado, make up your own mind. Hopefully I haven’t ruined it for you.

Neko Case – This Tornado Loves You

And, for the record, three others from the Neko Case songbook that I hold near-equally dear:

Neko Case – People Got A Lotta Nerve
Neko Case – Margaret Vs. Pauline
Neko Case – Star Witness