The Drop and The Lift: Mitch Easter, “1 1/2 Way Street” (2007) and Pearl Jam, “Brain Of J” (1998)

[I know, I said I would stop posting, but I was bowled over again last week by two favorite tracks and fell off the wagon. What can I do? It’s love. This time it’s another case of loving Adventures in Displacement.]

There’s what sets your toe to tapping or your hips to swinging, but then there’s what suddenly relocates your whole body and gives you visionary help living in your new state.

For the greatest effect, you have to be set up to expect something different from what you get. The way Mitch Easter’s “1 ½ Way Street” is going, you expect to start the chorus with a IV or V chord on the first beat of the first measure, preparatory to dropping back to I in the second measure. Or (but this is less likely) the chorus might start with a IIIb or VIIb.

In the event, which comes at 0:38 in this clip, it will be both a IIIb and VIIb.

“1 1/2 Way Street”

What happens is that the move to the first chorus chord is launched one and a half beats early with a chick-chick on a IIIb (the song is in F sharp, so IIIb is an A) and then the strong, ringing new chord is struck on the four-and, that is, still a half-beat ahead of the one you were waiting on, knocking you off balance . . . but you’re instantly caught and held one step below the tonic on this VIIb (an E) intriguingly flavored by an A note from the IIIb, which gives you a rich feeling like plopping down on some darkly beautiful satin-covered bean bag instead of the usual beige vinyl chair. Surprising but simple and pure.[1]

I love the Wild West expression “He got the drop on you,” yet I’ve never known why having your gun out first means having a “drop.” There could be a clue to an answer in my experience of “1 ½ Way Street,” since I feel sure that in some important way Mitch Easter got the drop on me. He started pulling out his hook early but sneakily (on beat 3-and—compare how much less sneaky it would be to start it on beat 3), chopped me with it early (on beat 4-and), and dropped me down to a lower place so that I have to spend energy climbing back up—this feels like my task for that whole first chorus measure, as I gradually recover from the drop—and my effort winds the song tighter. I’ve been cunningly commandeered.

And there’s more sneakiness still. Mitch misdirected me at the very beginning of the track (listen again) with a pattern of chick-chick-chick-CHORD that’s a chick longer than the hook at 0:38.  He was making sure that when the time came I’d be slower to the draw than him.

In contrast with Mitch Easter’s drop, Pearl Jam’s “Brain of J” hoists me up on its shoulders with a fabulous unexpected lift from B, the home key established by the song’s ferocious main riff, to C in the chorus (at 0:22 in the clip), and the energy it enlists from me is that of wondering what in the world I’m going to do up here on this raised platform with its different view of everything.

“Brain Of J”

As with the fabulous drop, this is not just a replacement of one expected chord by another that you could quickly get used to; it’s an always intriguing (and, in the lyric, anxiety-generating) new place to be. Raising the key just a half-step is highly unusual, and the melody repeatedly going up to the high falsetto Bb, which again is weirdly one half-step off from our baseline B, helps to make this whole section feel like it’s in a different dimension. Your time there is precious because there’s no guarantee you can stay.

Just twelve notes are crowded together in the musical scale. There’s barely room for a composer to turn around in. Yet we keep discovering how even the shortest steps in the scale—like F sharp to E, or B to C—can become momentous journeys.


[1] The rhythm part of this hook might be named “I can’t hide” because we can all remember hearing it at that point in “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” But the Beatle chords rise instead of drop. What’s a good old classic example of going to a lower chord in this pattern?


About Steve Smith

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

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