Outro #6: The Burr

burr

What is the line that keeps you from ever getting comfortable?

How can we sleep when our beds are burning?
Midnight Oil, 1987

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Plain: Sloan, “Underwhelmed” (1992)

In popular song, as in old-fashioned poetry, we expect a tight rhyme scheme. It seems to come naturally with the almost inescapable line/stanza form of verses and choruses. And so there can be a significant surprise, an unexpected intrigue, even a mad liberation when a song disregards this structure and just presses on talking about what it wants to talk about.

There should be a literary term for this counter-to-expectation style of speaking, but I don’t know of one. I’ll just call it “plain.’

When I recite this rhymeless e e cummings poem, “Buffalo Bill’s” — which happens to be the only poem I know by heart — I relish its deceptively regular conversational flow:

Buffalo Bill’s defunct
who used to ride a watersmooth-silver stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
Jesus
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death[1]

The emphasis that would be the bump of the meter or the chime of the rhyme now becomes the natural force of the sentence and the word. Just think how it would weaken the “Mister Death” ending to set it up with, say, “he took his last breath.”

Sloan’s “Underwhelmed” starts with six nonrhyming lines on a single chord, making it perfectly clear that we’re in an exceptional plain mode.  Then short chord cycles are used with I, a lush bIII with notes of IV, bVII, and IV as the undercarriage for the singer’s high-schooly discourse on his tense love of someone cool:

She was underwhelmed, if that’s a word
I know it’s not, ’cause I looked it up
That’s one of those skills that I learned in my school

I was overwhelmed, and I’m sure of that one
’cause I learned it back in grade school
When I was young

She said, “You is funny”
I said, “You are funny”
She said, “Thank you”
and I said, “Nevermind”
She rolled her eyes
Her beautiful eyes

Since the singer has been overwhelmed and can only tell us artlessly what happened, the lyrical touch he adds, “her beautiful eyes,” is endearing.

The point is not the grammar
It’s the feeling
That is certainly in my heart
But not in hers
But not in hers
But not in hers
But not in hers
But not in hers

We were talkin’ about people that eat meat
I felt like an ass ’cause I was one
She said, “It’s okay, ” but I felt like
I just ate my young

Hmm. The singer isn’t so artless, we begin to see. He’s getting his licks in. We confront his cleverness directly because there’s no scheme-cleverness of rhyming to massage his words.

She is obviously a person with a cause
I told her that I don’t smoke or drink
She told me to loosen up on her way to the L.C.*
     [*Liquor Commission, i.e. liquor store in Canada]
She skips her classes and gets good grades
I go to my courses rain or shine
She’s passin’ her classes while I attend mine
While I attend mine
While I attend mine
While I attend mine
While I attend

She wrote out a story about her life
I think it included something about me
I’m not sure of that but I’m sure of one thing
Her spelling’s atrocious

She told me to read between the lines
And tell her exactly what I got out of it
I told her affection had two F’s
Especially when you’re dealing with me

I usually notice all the little things
One time I was proud of it, she says it’s annoying
She cursed me up and down and rolled her R’s, her beautiful R’s

She says I’m caught up in triviality
All I really want to know is what she thinks of me
I think my love for her makes me miss the point
I miss the point, I miss the point
I miss the point, I miss the point
I miss the point, I miss the point
I miss the point, Hey mister

The advantages of plain lyrics are so great, why does anyone rhyme?[2]

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[1] Here’s what it’s supposed to look like:

buffalo bill's

[2] It’s been pointed out to me that the song does rhyme – “shine”/”mine,” and arguably “one/young” and “triviality/me” – which surprises me greatly, so free from rhyme do I feel here.

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The Forgetting Hook: The American Breed, “Bend Me, Shape Me” (1967)

tunnel 3

Rummaging again in the treasure chest of 1967, in the “Nuggets” compartment, I find part of the charm of the radio hit “Bend Me, Shape Me” in the verse and chorus being in different keys, making the song a series of fresh starts. And there’s an unusual device in the middle that makes for an extra fresh start.

Chords of verse part A, key of C:[1]
C…………………….Eb……….F…………..Bb[2]
You are all the woman I need and baby you
know it (know it) (know it) (know it)
You can make this beggar a king, a clown or a
poet (poet) (poet) (poet)

Verse part B:
Am…………………………………G
I’ll give you all that I …….. own

F……………………………………Am
You’ve got me standing in line, out in the

Dm………………………………….E*  [*now we’re entering the key of A, where E is the 5th]
cold, pay me some ……….. mind!

Chords of chorus, key of A:
A…………….D……………G…………….A
Bend me, shape me, anyway you want me
Long as you love me, it’s all right
Bend me, shape me, anyway you want me

A…………………D……………G*  [*later it will be relevant that G is the 5th in the key of C]
You’ve got the power to turn on the light

[Drums:]
x xxx xxx xxx xx | x xxx xxx xxx xx

The two-measure drum break at 1:35 is unusually long, long enough to forget what key the verse ought to return in. It’s like traveling through a tunnel long enough that you forget what the weather is like outside. You’re already feeling destabilized because the chorus was in a different key from the verse, and now your point of reference has been taken out of your active musical memory. What’s coming? Well, it’s the verse in C again, but it sounds like a magical combination of a renewal of the song in progress and the start of a brand new song.

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[1] C (or close to it) is what we hear, but it’s well-known that the recording of this song was speeded up, so they’re probably playing it in B.

[2] This I – bIII – IV – bVII chord progression supports my argument concerning the main pop event of 1967.

 

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Candor and the Bridge: Frank Black & the Catholics, “Bullet” (2001)

“Take ’em to the bridge!” is James Brown’s hip direction to his band to start playing the twelve- or sixteen-bar section that contrasts with the main riff of “Sex Machine.” It’s an archetype of showmanship and pop candor. Compounding the candor, demolishing the song’s equivalent of the fourth wall, Brown calls his fellow front man by name: “Bobby, I think I’ll take ’em to the bridge.” Now “the bridge” sounds like the next point of interest on our tour.

“Bullet” by Frank Black and the Catholics does this kind of thing too. It signals its candid intent with some opening studio chatter: “I like that,” says Frank. “I saw how you do that, Scott.”

Frank then sings obscurely about an apocalyptic revolution in a minor key:

Excuse me now, I’ve got a call
I’ll take this call from Valhalla
Please tell my friends from outer space
You are my son, you’ll take my place
And if the revolution comes
I’ve got some good friends there
Take my place, after all, you are my son
You take the moon, I’ll take the sun
And by the way, if the revolution comes
Please take my rifles and take my guns
A single bullet loaded in each one

At 1:47 the band shifts unexpectedly from C-sharp minor to C-sharp major. It’s the bridge! But the minor-to-major change has no motivation in the music, so we’re a little slow to realize what’s happened; just as we start wondering about it, we’re candidly informed:

And if you don’t like my melody
I’ll sing it in a major key
I’ll sing it very happily

which fills in the major-key motivation in an interruption of the dark thoughts about revolution and death. Then:

But if everybody is all aboard

(now at 2:05 we’re back to the C-sharp minor pattern)

Let’s take it back to that minor chord

Does candor like this forge a deeper connection with the audience on the level of understanding the song structure and the song event? Is it for a laugh? Is it showing off? Yes, I’d say, yes, yes.

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Creepiest Love Tropes #3, “Our love”: The Beach Boys, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (1966)

our love

When we talk about certain topics, something has already gone wrong. Time, for instance: if you have to refer to it (“Goodness! the time!”) you must have fallen out of the flow of getting things done. So too if you refer to “our love.” Oh, baby! Where did our love go?

Suppose the emphasis is on our love being great, being strong, being here to stay. Why have you shifted gears from simply loving me to admiring a love that supposedly we share or we’re encompassed by? What is this love that’s “ours”?

It could be the grand passion, the transcendence of normal behavior by lovers for whom nothing counts but each other, yet not the genuine phenomenon of that; instead it’s some guy’s claim that “our love” masterfully exists, which has the purpose of controlling something that he can’t properly control (the other’s loving) or of justifying something that he couldn’t justify otherwise (hooking up, running off).

Another take on “our love” is therapeutic. Someone may see a relationship as needing examination and adjustment. But love is felt and enacted from feeling, not tinkered with. (Not to say that the mechanics of a relationship can’t be helped by psychological examination and adjustment.)

Why do I react so negatively to the notion of “our love”? Because I’m living with a spouse, whom I love, and I know that what’s “ours” is the house, the car, the laundry, and above all, in another amazing sense, the kids.

I’ll give an “our love” singer my blessing if the point is to glory in the prospect of a shared life, in the same spirit as the Beach Boys in “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” And I’ll go ahead and give this Hooks star to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” in spite of its overproduction and the ridiculous first line of its bridge, for being so articulate about what lovers intend to share without once invoking “our love.”

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Jumbled: Amazing Rhythm Aces, “Hit The Nail On The Head” (1975)

cartoon hammer

I recently recommended the Amazing Rhythm Aces’ album Stacked Deck to a female acquaintance who, alas! was not nearly as charmed with it as I am. Could the problem partly be here, in “Hit The Nail On The Head”?

Saw you last night
Sitting alone at the bar
Came back this evening
Just to find out who you are
‘Cause baby, you hit the nail right on the head

I can tell you’re from down South
The way you say “you-all”
You look at me over your shoulder
Just like Lauren Bacall
Oh baby, you hit the nail right on the head

Well I like the way you chug that beer
And I just love the way you hold [‘er down?]
You think you could manage
To just stagger over here
And we could find a place where
There’s not so many people around?

Come over here, baby
Let’s dance and I can sing
Wrap yourself around me
Just like a yo-yo string

Come on with me baby
Come on back up to my place
I got something up there, darlin’
Will wipe that smile right off your face
You hit the nail right on the head

The curls in your hair
Cut me like a knife
Sometime later on, baby
You’re gonna have to tell me 
The story of your life
You hit the nail right on the head

I love being in that Rhythm Aces place, half-spoofing, half-homaging the great corny forms of American music — Nashville country, bluegrass, honky-tonk, gospel blues, swamp rock, and whatever genre “Hit The Nail” is in.[1] If you have a problem with one of their songs you may have a problem with a tradition.

The nail that “Hit The Nail” hits for me is the jumbling of thoughts and phrases that we find in our limited minds in any interesting situation. Here’s a guy on the prowl, not very smart or sober, and the trite compliment

The curls in your hair cut me like a knife

leads right into his serious pickup line,

You’re gonna have to tell me the story of your life

If you look over the verses of the song, the whole thing is a big jumble. What holds it together, besides tipsy lust, is the refrain “You hit the nail right on the head” spoken by an obviously poor judge of tools and targets.

It occurs to me that this is what the verse structure of songs is very good for: allowing all kinds of material to get dumped into a stream of thought without discrimination. In a verse, say anything: the audience will figure out what to make of it, along with whatever else you said. Unless they don’t. It’s okay. The chorus is probably what they’ll remember anyway.

Maybe I’m giving a pass to a lot of poorly written songs. But I want to give this song a star for descriptive accuracy and another star for being funny.

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[1] I can imagine Aces and their fans writing in to say, “What do you mean, ‘spoofing’?” This is what pumps the adrenaline in Hooks writing.

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The Octave that Reaches: Roy Orbison,”Blue Bayou”(1963)

men on ledge

We talk about singers reaching high notes. Why is that of any particular interest? Is singing high just a random talent, like whistling?

Perhaps there’s more to it. Physically a higher-frequency wave is a more energetic wave, other things being equal; there are more oscillations in every time interval. Given that musical pitch is determined by frequency, one could argue that a higher pitch is an inherently more impressive sound, other things being equal. (Of course, someone over there is rumbling impressively on bass, making up in amplitude and raggedy texture what the low notes lack in frequency.)

In “Blue Bayou,” Roy Orbison goes way up for the chorus melody. Merely as a big climb in pitch this would get our attention. His vocal cords are vibrating like mad. But it’s significant that we experience the ascent as an octave.

The song is in F. The low notes he has used in the verse are all in the range from C to F, starting on middle C and bumping occasionally against the ceiling of the F (“got,”                   “-some”).

blue bayou sheet music 1

In the chorus, he suddenly starts on the octave-higher F (“I’m going back”) and moves from there down to high C and back.

blue bayou sheet music 2

The high F is where he passionately declares that thing that was on his mind while he murmured unhappily on and below the lower F. In some amazing way he is in the same place in Blue Bayou that he is in his blue study. By singing the higher F he throws the switch and instantly finds that his world is that world, the golden place that cannot be possessed again and yet is possessed.

And he takes us with him. The meaning of going up an octave, landing precisely on F, is that you get all your equipment and your whole party onto that next ledge.

Besides the spatial illusion of ledges there’s a gender illusion of going up from male-speak to female-speak — males and females, as we know, living mainly on different pitch-ledges. Ah, the fluidity! The freedom of the crooner!

I love Linda Ronstadt’s cover of “Blue Bayou,” but I can’t hear the personal fluidity of Roy Orbison in it; I hear a powerhouse Ronstadt performance. Since she’s a resident of the higher frequencies anyway, the passion of longing for Blue Bayou has to be expressed all in amplitude . . . until her extraordinary last note.

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