The Magik of Orchestral Indie Rock

There’s nothing new about the use of orchestral instruments in rock music, but this is particularly lovely. Founded last year, the Magik*Magik Orchestra‘s elegantly stated mission is to “simplify the collaborative process between independent rock musicians and classical artists.” Here they join indie rock artist John Vanderslice in a classroom at the San Francisco Conservatory where founder and Artistic Director Minna Choi recently earned her master’s degree in composition.Read this post

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More on Inversions: Mr. Tambourine Man

I’ve always liked the song “Mr. Tambourine Man”, but I admit that until recently I was mainly familiar with the version by The Byrds. Having finally taken the time to get to know the Bob Dylan version (as heard on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits) in the past year or so, I find it a lot more beautiful and interesting to listen to.Read this post

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Ukeleles and Inversions

There was a cute article in last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle about an apparent new ukelele fad that’s sweeping the nation. It was interesting to me, because I’d been just starting to take notice of the instrument. It just seems to keep cropping up. I noticed only recently, for example, that it’s buried in the texture of a couple of Burt Bacharach songs, (albeit mostly bad ones).

The main reason the ukelele is on my mind at the moment is the now overexposed Israel Kamakawiwo’ole recording of his “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”/”What a Wonderful World” medley, which I listen to a lot with my son. His playing of the instrument is one of many beautiful things about that recording.Read this post

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Fool Killer

Here’s a little-known song by Burt Bacharach that I like a lot. “Fool Killer” follows and elusive, moody chord progression and is pretty sophisticated for a 60’s pop song. The instrumentation displays Bacharach’s usual cleverness and restraint. Vibes and little guitar tremolos combine with the odd chord progression to match the mysterious quality of the lyrics. As always with Bacharach, pay attention to the violins, which (as always with Bacharach) come in for the second verse.

This song was recorded by Gene Pitney for a movie in 1965, but some sort of business mix-up between Burt’s and Gene’s people resulted in the end of the singer’s working relationship with Bacharach and the song was not used for the film.

Here’s the song, accompanied by a weird montage of Gene Pitney album covers. (It’s all I could find. Oh, well.)

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I'm Stealing the Towels

This week it’s Frank Zappa. I was a fan as a kid, long before I knew that he was also a “composer”, and long before I really knew what a composer was. In particular, Just Another Band From L.A. was a staple in our house, thanks to my older brother, and I was the only tween in our neighborhood who could recite and sing “Billy the Mountain” in its entirety.

When I was in college, I encountered 200 Motels for the first time via an obsessed friend. I never got that familiar with it, but some of it made a lasting impression on me. Roger blogged about it a few weeks ago, and I was more recently reminded of it for other reasons.Read this post

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I Keep Forgettin'

Check out the instrumentation in this little 45-second clip.

It’s the Lieber and Stoller song “I Keep Forgettin'”, recorded in the early Sixties by Chuck Jackson. I’m really enjoying the syncopation and the crazy percussion, particularly the little xylophone riff, which if you listen carefully, you’ll notice is actually doubled with piano. Very cool effect.

Chuck Jackson is best known for having recorded the Bacharach songs “Any Day Now” and “I Wake Up Crying”. This song turned up on The Very Best of Chuck Jackson 1961-1967. I like his voice a lot, but after about the fourth or fifth song, this album wears thin. The songs are all too similar to hold my attention, and some of the lyrics are just unbearable.

But, I’m mainly in it for the arrangements.

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Do You Know Guinnevere?

For some reason, I don’t know why, I’ve been on a bit of a 60’s rock kick lately. Generally, I’ve always preferred music from that era over more recent stuff.

In the course of one of those I-haven’t-heard-that-song- in-a-while iTunes purchases, indeed I discovered something new the other day. (New for me, anyway — it’s probably over 30 years old.) I’m talking about the song “Guinnevere” by Crosby, Stills and Nash, which I idly sampled recently while downloading “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, previously the only song of theirs I’d really known.

What a gorgeous song! It seems designed to appeal to me directly. It opens with an almost Sondheim-like chromatic vamp, which turns into a beautiful repeating Dorian-mode figure before the vocals come in. This use of modality is something in common with other music that I like, particularly Reich and early Adams. Do you think David Crosby was sitting around with the score to Ravel’s Mallarm√© Songs, turning pages between bong hits?

Then there’s the vocal writing. It’s your standard CSN three-part homophonic harmony at first, which is lovely as usual. But there’s a nifty mixing trick at the end of each verse. The two higher voices are faded in (muted trumpets if I were orchestrating it), holding D and F# (we’re in E dorian, by the way), and they step down in thirds, crossing the remaining voice who has the melody. Some wonderful dissonances result naturally from this, and it’s a terrific effect.

The melody is particularly expressive. It’s rhythmically complex in that it often avoids landing on the beat, which is something I find myself doing a lot in my own music. This is easy for a solo vocalist to pull off — Sinatra is most famous for it — but hats off to these guys for accomplishing it in three parts.

Here’s an excerpt that illustrates everything I’ve described. Stick with it until the end to hear those descending parallel thirds.

Update: (12/2/08)  See Roger Bourland for a fascinating alternate version of this song, plus a great story.

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Burt Bacharach: A Look Under the Hood

Lately I’ve been listening to this Burt Bacharach compilation I bought several years ago (now that I have a car with a CD player). This three-disc Look Of Love compilation spans from the earliest part of his career in the ’50’s (theme song from The Blob anyone?) up to the mid-Seventies, when he produced some truly cloying and awful stuff (“Living Together, Growing Together” …ugh… deliver me!).

For my taste, Bacharach was in his prime in the Brill Building days of the early Sixties, when he helped to pioneer the use of orchestral instruments in pop music. These songs are really worth studying, as there’s a lot of hidden sophistication buried in them.

It’s been pointed out many times that he was a bit of an odd duck in those days, with the occasional use of changing meters, etc, but for me, what really makes him stand out as a songwriter is a rare contrapuntal depth heard in those early songs. Bacharach studied with the likes of Martinu and Milhaud, and certainly knew what he was doing. Since he did his own arrangements, the vocal lines and instrumental lines interact and inform each other in ways not achieved in most pop music. Melodic lines in the orchestration share equal space with the vocal line, and are in some cases more interesting. In fact, I usually sing along with the countermelodies, but then, I’m pretty weird. (Can you listen to “Walk on By” without singing that staccato “answer” in the trumpet?)

I thought it would be fun to take a little-known song from this compilation, “It’s Love That Really Counts”, as recorded by the Shirelles, and try to explain what I think is so cool about it. Well several things, actually. For one thing, I’m not positive, but I believe the melody is entirely pentatonic. We like that. But, it’s mostly orchestration and counterpoint. The arrangement is in impeccable taste — a lesson in self-restraint. For the first verse it’s just bass, guitar and very sparse percussion (mostly vibraslap!). The piano comes in only to lightly parallel the title line “it’s love that really counts”, and otherwise is left out. He’s consistent about that too: the piano only comes in for that line throughout the song.

As is typical with Burt, violins come in for the second verse, but they don’t do too much — just sustained chords. The next “love that really counts’ refrain is where the arrangement is truly inspired: whereas a typical arrangement would probably have the violins parallel the vocal line with lush chords, Burt has them holding tremolo chords sul ponticello with a dramatic swell.

Now, as the song winds up toward a close, the violins take on a contrapuntal role. The vocal line is relatively bland, but the violins upstage it with a magical leap of a minor 10th. It’s too hard to describe….

Listen to the excerpt:

First, it’s the refrain with the tremolo violins. Then, around “so take me in your arms”, listen to what the violins are doing. Listen a few times.

I haven’t heard Burt’s new album At This Time yet. Perhaps I’ll mention it here if I ever do. I did enjoy his collaboration with Elvis Costello, Painted from Memory, at first, but then I got really sick of it.

Still… can’t get enough of this 60’s stuff.

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