The Purple Chords: Marshall Crenshaw, “This Is Easy” (1987)

jelly beans

Marshall Crenshaw’s “This Is Easy” is about a moment in a relationship where feelings are very mixed and charged. The standout musical moments in the song, Crenshaw-sweet, remind me of purple jelly beans.

I can’t say what actually goes into a purple jelly bean — I’ve looked it up, and there’s not one answer — but when I was a kid with a handful of jelly beans I always saved the purple one for last, celebrating its flavor as specially lush. Don’t ask me to justify this. It’s an autobiographically sourced, self-curated analogy.

In the song, the feelings are part romantic optimism, part trepidation:

Yes I see we’re moving on 
Over unfamiliar ground 
Wait a minute look around 
This is easy
Yes I see we’re moving on
Maybe trouble’s all we’ll find 
But compared to what’s behind 
Aw, this is easy 
And there were nights when we knew the sunshine 
Would never ever reappear 
It’s not a good time all the time 
Baby let’s grab hold while it’s here

So there’s purple bravado in the lush major-seventh and (even more so) major-ninth chords that are laid in (like C major ninth at 1:43 and 1:53, 2:49 and 2:59) to make us feel mixed-but-sweet or sweet-but-mixed feelings.

The big moment both dramatically and harmonically is “falling through empty air” where we come to an E major ninth (2:03, 3:09) — a very lush chord, all the more striking because E is the home chord for the key and it’s the resolution of the chorus, our main destination. The outro then is lush alternation between E major ninth and C major seventh.

To examine basic lushness, which I’m defining as “complex fullness that’s still sweetly harmonious,” construct a major ninth chord on a piano. If you do it in C you can use all white keys. Start with C, E, G for the basic C-major chord, then add B, the major seventh, and D, the ninth.

c major 9

You’ve now used more than half of all the notes in the C major scale. As a result, you’re sounding lush, having gently added a G chord (the G-B-D) on top of the C chord; you’re also getting closer to the point where you’d sound all jammed up instead of sweet. If you went on to add the F (C 11th) and the A (C 13th), thus dropping an F chord (F-A-C) in there with the G and C, you’d have filled in the entire scale, and the main effect would be profound uncertainty — whose chord is this anyway?

Crenshaw’s E major ninth is on the complexity spectrum right where you can enjoy it, still easy (enough) to read in a pop way, but teasing you with the threat of more complexity (where will the extra notes stop? where will the relationship go?).

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Inventor of Styles: Jorma Kaukonen on Baxter’s (1967)

kaukonen 1967

Kaukonen at the Monterey Pop Festival, June 1967

Jorma Kaukonen, the lead guitarist for Jefferson Airplane, developed not one but three original lead guitar styles in the Airplane’s prime recording period of 1966-1968, one for each great album: the reverby Surrealistic Pillow, epitomized by the relentlessly note-bending solo at the end of “Somebody to Love”; the noise-infested, eloquently scrambled work of After Bathing at Baxter’s; and the almost painfully sharpened wah-wah voice of Crown of Creation. In the Pillow to Crown sequence his creativity is astounding. His own explanation for this is that he really didn’t know how to play rock lead — he came into the Airplane with only the most basic vocabulary, not quite like Eric Clapton coming into Cream — and he had to figure out from this generic base what would work for Airplane music, even as other elements of that music were being freshly forged.

The most striking of these achievements for me, the outstanding cause for Hooks celebration, is the playing on Baxter’s. To get some historical sense of how this arose let’s listen to a progression of samples.

On the first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off (August 1966), Kaukonen plays wholly unsurprising licks on a blues scale (the emphasized notes being the 1st, flat third, fifth, and flat seventh), as though he had played with a similar band the night before. But this is just a negative description; positively, he’s filling in a piece of a good, incipiently interesting band sound.

“Let Me In” solo, part 1

On Surrealistic Pillow (February 1967), which is one of the landmark albums in the great 1966-1967 event of synthesizing the warm melancholy of British folk harmony with the sneer of blues-rock, that great event is heard in Kaukonen’s leads in a subtle emphasis on notes that aren’t the stars of the blues scale, like the second or sixth (these are sometimes called “Dorian mode” notes), or the fourth or seventh notes positioned differently so as to summon their folk-harmonic qualities. This had already started happening at the end of his “Let Me In” solo, suddenly sounding more Buffalo Springfield:

“Let Me In” solo, part 2

But on Pillow it’s more integrated:

“3/5 Of A Mile In Ten Seconds” solo

On Baxter’s (November 1967), he is working with the same notes but ordering and placing them differently so that the phrases sound unfamiliar. And he is bending notes in every possible unexpected way. And sometimes putting an “acid” edge on them by playing them a little sharp. It comes out sounding like this:

“Martha” solo

“Wild Tyme” solo

“Won’t You Try” solo

And this incisive little bit at the end of the album:

“Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon” end

Kaukonen must have done a lot of experimental noodling to find such ideas. But what we hear is not noodling: the triumph of his Baxter’s style is that he was able to deploy so many unusual phrases that are so cogent in a rock context, really driving and stinging and memorable. These are true hot licks — but who else has ever played them?

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Logical Investigations: Everything Everything, “Fortune 500” (2015)

truth table

In Aristotelian logic, you can get a result this way:

If p, then q  (suppose it’s true that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”)
p (there’s smoke)
Therefore q  (there’s fire)

or this way:

If p, then q  (suppose it’s true that “fire always makes smoke”)
Not-q  (there’s no smoke)
Therefore not-p (there’s no fire)

The first way is called modus ponens, the second modus tollens. In a certain kind of great song lyric, a savory irony can be achieved by riding these rails of logic. Here’s an example in “Time the Avenger” by The Pretenders:

Nobody’s perfect
Not even the perfect stranger

The implicit “p implies q” is “A perfect stranger must be a perfect person,” strangers being in every case persons. But line 1 says there’s no perfect person. Therefore the people whom we regard as perfect strangers are not really perfect (and maybe, underneath the wordplay, the point is that they’re not really strangers either — after all, they’re imperfect like we are). The idea of “perfect” has been shaken and stirred with a modus tollens-based irony.

For modus ponens, here is an exhibit B:

Amidst the early violent imagery in “Fortune 500” by Everything Everything, a modus ponens-based irony flashes out in the third line, which could be a motto for all the doomy songs in the world:

I’m at the gates, I’m climbing over the wall
To trepan the Queen and burn the dogs in the hall
A trail of destruction, but at least it’s a trail

“Trail” (p) implies ability to find one’s way (q); thus “trail of destruction,” a case of p, implies ability to find one’s way, q, despite chaos and loss, so despair flips to hope (but only sarcastically?).

 

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Outro #5: What is tuning in?

radio 1

Thesis #1: the most important thing you have done in your music listening career, besides turning out for concerts and turning on your devices, is tuning in.

Music does many catchy things to ingratiate itself. But there’s the Paradox of Ingratiation: a piece of music that is 100% agreeable, requiring no adjustment to enjoy it, actually prevents you from performing the act of tuning into it. It slides by, and you’ll never think of it as essential.

What do you do to tune in?

(Of course, you have always already tuned in to a certain general musical stylization, a certain set of tropes: rock, hip hop, country, etc. Now your attention turns to more particular things, embraceables . . .)

You might instantly catch what is thrown your way in depth (as it feels to you). “Deep greens and blues / Are the colors I choose,” yes! I thought.[1]

You might resonate increasingly with nuances that determine the rich quality of the whole experience, as in “getting” a groove.[2]

You might be examining how something that sounded questionably, possibly, occasionally promising (like the early Grateful Dead) fulfills its promise. Or you might only be curious initially, and then surprised by delight.

You might be immediately delighted but also hooked by a problem to solve. Is that a male or female singer of “I Can See Clearly Now”? What kind of rock drummer is Spencer Dryden? How can Bill Payne’s unfunky synthesizer voice work so well in the live version of “Fat Man In The Bathtub”? Would this be one of your desert island tracks?

As tuning in succeeds, you value the specificity of each thing you discover you like. Each tuning in establishes another radio station on an expanding dial. Your communication channels reach out in many directions in a brilliantly talkative universe.

You value the particular knowing of the good thing, like knowing that friend of yours with his quirky sense of humor. Indeed, your friend might be a little problematic, a little rough or uneven, so that you have to know how to take him — and likewise you might get satisfaction from figuring out how to take this music, for best results. Maybe you have to meet it halfway. Maybe it’s on the verge of too harsh or too bland and you have to tug it in the right direction.

The implicit theme through much of this is that you are capable of this discernment and problem-solving, you are the one who hosts this resonance; further, you are one of the ones with this capability and this function — you belong to the fellowship of the tunes.

Is there a peril here of tuning in so thoroughly that your musical favorites become sure commodities, old familiars, cognitive easy chairs? Might the curious tuner-in become the complacent enjoyer, the stolid friend of same-enjoyers?  Thesis #2: that won’t happen to the true tuner-in.

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[1] James Taylor, “Sweet Baby James” (1970).

[2] Tiger C. Roholt, Groove. A Phenomenology of Rhythmic Nuance (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

 

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Little Things: Linda Ronstadt, “You’re No Good” (1974)

squares overlapping

I had it planned: the last post before my exit (Outro #5, still coming) was to be on Little Feat, returning to the first band featured on this site. But while I was in the neighborhood of 1974 I dawdled and came upon Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel. And that album hook-snagged me over and over.

In the true perverse Hooks spirit, I want to honor the most massively good track on this elegantly produced album by focusing on the tiniest thing about it. Or things, because they form a series. Here come the Little Things: the handclaps that start at 2:47.

Ronstadt’s part of the song is over at 2:27–exactly where Dee Dee Warwick’s original ends in 1963–but the band keeps going with a coda. There’s a simple pattern on the drums where the closed hi-hat notes are a joy to hear, if you can hear them. The other parts (bass, guitar, electric piano) don’t get in the way. All unwary, you’re being sensitized for an accented addition where only unaccented hi-hat notes are supposed to go. A violin note approaching from far away makes you think a real string part is going to fill the arrangement out, and indeed it will, but: tiny ambush! The capstone on the arrangement is not the strings at all but modest little handclaps on the off-beats, the “ands”: [1] AND [2] AND [3] AND [4] AND, the effect being ” -up  -up  -up  -up.” As though a separated wing of your marching band, actually the wing you yourself are now in (because of course you have joined in the clapping), has come back interleaving with the main body in a rigorously complementary yet never assimilated extra pattern of beats that chop upward as opposed to stomping down.[1]

It’s an extra to which I am fiercely attached. The claps are just strong enough to impose a viable alternate beat over the already-established beat, like laying one grill over another for a regular overlap. Thus you’re structurally guaranteed a choice of beat. Moreover, if you’ve been won over to the clapping part you are proud of your ability to stand off from the original beat. You’re cooler than you were.

Although Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good” is officially a 1974 release, on youtube you can see a Midnight Special performance of December 21, 1973, where her band includes Richie Hayward of Little Feat on drums and Skunk Baxter of Steely Dan on congas. The handclaps aren’t heard there or on any of the available youtubes until 1996 in a performance at the White House–a very satisfying return.

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[1] I may be tapping into an intercultural politics in making this choice of rhythmic order. “Hornbostel [suggested controversially] in 1928 that, to the African, the upward movement of the hand in beating out a rhythm is the real ‘downbeat’, while the dropping of the hand, to make the actual sound, is the upbeat; or, in more general terms, that Africans associate downward motions with upbeats, and upward motions with downbeats: exactly the opposite of the European system. ‘Downward’ in fact includes a whole group of bodily movements: the downward motion of the drummer’s hand, handclapping, lowering of feet, and bringing the shoulders forward–all actions that African and Afro-American people like to perform on the off-beat. The whole process is a collapsing downward and inward of the body . . . It is in fact fairly easy for Europeans to acquire a feeling for these motions . . . For whatever reason, this way of operating is extremely natural to the African: even tiny children clap on the off-beat”–Peter van der Merwe, Origins of the Popular Style (Oxford U., 1989), p. 33.

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Giving Us a Hard Time: Little Feat, “Fat Man In The Bathtub” (1973)

Twisted clock

OK, I mean this in a male sexual way: our hero in “Fat Man In The Bathtub,” Spotcheck Billy, is having a HARD TIME getting sex with Juanita. Thus we don’t experience the song as proceeding “in its own good time”; instead, it gives us a kind of hard time.

The hook that interests me is in how Billy’s discourse is arranged in musical time. How do you make the flow of the song frustrating for the audience without denying them the pleasure of rhythm?

We must consider how Little Feat is using their new asset (new on their Dixie Chicken album, heard to advantage on the song “Dixie Chicken” also) of New Orleans or “second-line” time. It’s a marvelously flexible polyrhythmic framework that builds on the two-bar pattern BUMP-bum-bum-BUM-bum-bum-BUM-bum | bum-bum-BUMP  BUMP:

1………..2……….3……….4……….       1………..2……….3………4……..
X…..x…..x…..X…..x…..x…..X…..x…..   x…..x…..X………..X……………….

Using eighth-notes as our units (marked by x), the pattern can be described by the number of eighth-notes between accents: 3-3-2 | 2-2-4.

Since the pattern is overlaid on measures of 4/4 (4 beats, 4 quarter-notes, 8 eighth-notes), we get two different feels in the package. In the first measure, the 3-3-2 is in tension with the 2-2-2-2 of regular four-beat time; in the second measure, the 2-2-4 is in tension with the first measure, from which it differs, and with its own background 2-2-2-2 by its abrupt early ending. Once you get the rhythm going you can invoke any of the reference patterns at any point; it’s easy to keep things interesting.

Now, what does “Fat Man” do? We start off in lucid New Orleans time, and the refrain melody (first heard in a purely instrumental version) fits smoothly.

Here it is with the words.

(Juan – )
X    x    x    X    x    x    X    x    |   x    x    X    x    X    x    x    x    |
i…..-….ta…………………………………………my….sweet…Juan -…..

X    x    x    X    x    x    X    x    |   x    x    X    X    X    x    x    x   |
i……..-…….ta………………………………..what are………..you……..

[note the tussle between “what” and “are” over whether that measure is going to be in the measure 1 or measure 2 mold]

X    x    x    X    x    x    X    x    |   x    x    X    x    X    x    x    x   |
up……..to…………………………………………………..my…..Juan -……

X    x    x    X    x    x    X    x    |   x    x    X    x    X    x    x    x   |
i  –  ta…………………………………………………………………………………

But “Fat Man” wants to tell us that Spotcheck Billy is balked, his time tied up, obstructed, jerked around. Thus when the verse arrives the New Orleans pattern is suddenly shut off and you’re asked to imagine a default 4/4 with emphasis shifting back and forth between where you would expect it (like on the 1 of the second measure of each line–“Bill,” “knees,” “hey,” “right”) and where you wouldn’t (like on the 2 of the first measure and the 3 and 4 of the second). It’s a spastic stones-in-my-passway effect.

Measure 1…………………………………..Measure 2…………………………………
1……………2*…………3…………4…………1*………..2………….3………..4…………..
X……………x…………x…………x…………X…………x…………x…………x…………..
……………Spot – check………………….Bil – ly….got……down……..on his…

X……………x…………x…………x…………X…………x…………X…………X…………..
…………..hands……………..and……….knees………………….he……..said……..

X……………x…………x…………x…………X…………x…………x…………x…………..
………….. “Hey………………….ma-ma, hey……… let me check…..your……

X……………x…………x…………x…………X…………x…………x…………x…………..
……………..oil…………………..all………right?”………………She…….said

X……………x…………x…………x…………X…………x…………x…………x…………..
…………… “No……………………………….no…………………..hon-ey………………..

X……………x…………x…………x…………
……………..not………to…-…night.

Look down the chart and you’ll see there’s always action on 2* in Measure 1 and on 1* and 3 (and usually 4) in Measure 2. (Note that accents do not fall on that 2* and 1* in the New Orleans rhythm.) It’s actually a very regular, shapely flow–in fact, it’s close to a New Orleans phrasing that’s just been shifted over to start on 2, if you look at it like this:

[x   x ]  X    x    x    X    x    x    X    x    x    x    X    x    X    x
……….”Hey………..ma  –  ma, hey…..let me check…your……

Yet that empty space or holdup in Measure 1 and the misfit with the originally set New Orleans time makes it feel chronically interrupted.

After this part the supple New Orleans pattern returns to push Billy forward:

(Come back)
X……x…….x…..X…..x…..x….X….x…|..x….x…..X……x……X……x……
Monday………………………………………………………………..come back

X……x…….x…..X…..x…..x….X….x…|..x….x…..X……x……X……x……
…………….Tues –  …………………………..day……………………………and

X……x…….x…..X…..x…..x….X….x…|..x….x…..X……x……X……x……
then I……………………………might” ……………………………………………….

Compare the profoundly different flow of one of those songs that’s meant as a blast of male sexual confidence, “Hot Blooded” (Foreigner, 1978):

(Well, I’m)
1…………2…………3………….4………….1………….2………….3………….4………….
………….hot……blooded……………check it…and see……………………………
1…………2…………3………….4………….1………….2………….3………….4………….
……I….got…a….fe – ver…of…a….hundred and three………………………..

Rhythmically this is all about stomping in 4/4 and being on the beat as expected, or swaggering over two beats with a strong triplet (“have in mind,” “you ought – a”).

(You don’t have to)
1……………..2…………….3……………..4……………..1……………..2……………..3……………..4……………..
read……….my mind………………………………………………………………….to know……..what I

1……………..2…………….3……………..4……………..1……………..2……………..3……………..4……………..
have…..in……mind……………………………………………………..Hon – ey……you….ought….-a……

1……………..2…………….3……………..4……………..1……………..2……………..3……………..4……………..
know…………………………………………………………………………………………………………..Now you

1……………..2…………….3……………..4……………..1……………..2……………..3……………..4…………….
move……….so………….fine……………………………………………………………………………..let me

1……………..2…………….3……………..4……………..1……………..2……………..3……………..4…………….
lay…..it……on….the…line

True, there is a delay of emphasis with the chorus lines (“hot,” “got”) starting on the 2-beat, which invites comparison with the “Fat Man” lines that start on the 2, but in “Hot Blooded” you wouldn’t call this a balky hesitation; it’s more in the nature of loading up and firing. The male is sure of success. Good for him!

Meanwhile, Spotcheck Billy is clinging to his second-line hope. It sounds like it will keep him going till Monday or Tuesday.

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In Our Own Good Time: Little Feat, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Doctor” (1974)

Mickey Mouse one man band

Something you could say generally about phrasing is that it expresses an ownership of time: good players and singers proceed in their own good time and aren’t merely hustled along by the programmed “good time” of the song’s beat that everyone counts on. They won’t be held back and they won’t be rushed.

Perhaps they want to put their own good time into a clear shape, making us wait with them for a whole measure. But then it’s no longer a “phrasing” effect, it’s a structural modification of the verse or chorus.[1]

That’s what happens in “Rock ‘N’ Roll Doctor” at 0:47, 2:17, and 2:25. Chugging along for an extra measure just for the hell of it is a change of song structure so obvious, so gettable, that we want to let it count as our own take-a-break prerogative. It’s a full-service rest stop in the middle of the song highway. It’s Everyman’s ownership of time.

Once the unmistakable extra measure has sent its message, you can appreciate that “Rock ‘N’ Roll Doctor” is shot through with smaller intervals for gathering yourself, cleared-out beats at :08, :11, :22, :39, :45, :53, 1:19 and so on. Typically, Little Feat is colluding with the audience on showing the song who’s boss.

Yet the song itself (and this seems a contradiction) never loses a smidgen of forward progress, for the band keeps it absolutely taut. I love watching Richie Hayward’s drumming in live performance, lest I forget how wound-up the song is:

 

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[1] It’s so common in blues songs that it can register as part of the structure rather than a modification.

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