How He Got Me On His Side: Chris Whitley, “Living With The Law” (1991)

lariat
You may have a lifelong attachment to someone whose music you’ve loved from the moment, I mean the very moment, you started listening.  I’m attached like that to Chris Whitley.  What did he do, right there at the start, to get me on his side?

I see it clearly now in the first eight measures of the first song on his first album, before he sings.

“Living With The Law” start

What gets me is not so much a sound (though sound is important) as a composing, the implications of a song structure.  First we hear unusual percussion, brushes dropping in from somewhere to whack the snare, oblique, disguising beat 1 of measure 1—propulsive enough, as it turns out, but making me wonder what it might ripen into later on. And there’s a droney guitar playing a pentatonic melody, like a hillbilly dulcimer part but electric, hinting it could become heavy, similarly intriguing.  But then—here is the Hook—there are two chord changes, D up to A and A down to G, that tell us something great about how the song is being composed.

The three lines below are
Melody
Chord
Beat (4 per measure)

(First four measures)
…….F#F#E.D.B.A.B.D…………………………….F#F#E.D.E.F#A…………………
D………………………………………………………………………………………….….A…….
1……2……3……4.…..1……2……3……4……1.…..2……3……4……1……2……3……4…..

This is an elegant demonstration of certain basic principles of listener conquest.

1.  Make ‘em wait a beat before you start your main gesture (here, in the melody).

2.  Make the time-scheme of the main gesture a markedly distinct yet compatible companion with the time-scheme of the groove.  Give ‘em a feeling of layers, of movable tectonic plates.

3. Make ‘em wait (but not too long) for an expected chord change.  Here, the melody goes up to A right on beat 1 of the fourth measure, when it’s time for a chord change to something like A—but we must wait two more beats of sweet tension before the A chord arrives, now either chiming in with our anticipation of it or—our choice!—unsettling our acceptance of the extended D chord.

(Continued)

…….A…F#E..D..B..D………………………………..F#F#E.D.B.A.B.D…………….
A……………………….G…………………….….D…………………………………………..
1……2……3……4.…..1……2……3……4.…..1……2……3……4……1……2……3……4…..

4. Tweak ‘em again with the sweet tension, that is, make ‘em wait past where the next chord change would have come, in measure 5, until measure 6.  And then—

5. Go to the G chord on beat 1.  Because of that one delay of the A chord, the return to more normal timing is now a pleasant surprise.

This song is a law to itself, yet a law we can follow.  Funny that it’s about crime.

Other winning first moments?  (See Comment)

Advertisements

About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Ways of Starting and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How He Got Me On His Side: Chris Whitley, “Living With The Law” (1991)

  1. Richard Grant says:

    Thanks! I’ve never listened to a Chris Whitley album, but it looks like that will have to change.

    Dr. John’s first song, first album, “Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya” is definitely one of my favorite winning first moments. There’s a little slide intro that yields to his first utterances to the public, “They call me…Doctah Jhawn…”. It still sends shivers up my spine. He was only twentysomething but sounds, somehow, more ancient than ever.

  2. Pingback: Welcome to my blog! | All Things Chris Whitley

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s