Feats of Strength

Remembering Ronnie Spector & the Genius of “Be My Baby”

Last week we mourned the death of the legendary Ronnie Spector, the lead singer of The Ronettes. While Ronnie had more than a few hits over the years, she forever attained immortality with her breakthrough smash “Be My Baby”. It is perhaps the greatest song ever written, a position claimed by one of the foremost authorities on the matter, Brian Wilson.

When the news of Ronnie’s passing first broke, I responded in a way I imagine most people did: putting “Be My Baby” on repeat. The music may be the epitome of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” technique, but the reason why we can listen to this song on endless repeat is mainly due to Ronnie’s impassioned vocals, and her ability to convey all the turbulent emotions of young love in a way that never grows old. Somehow with each listen there’s something new to be found, a new wrinkle or detail to appreciate.

And so it was after a few listens this past weekend, after hundreds over the years, that I was able to once again find something previously hidden to me in the song that added a whole new level of appreciation to the effort in crafting the song. It was a subtle connection between the lyrics and music, a connection so subtle it was probably unintentional.

The song opens with Hal Blaine’s classic drum beat, a pattern so recognizable you’ve heard it copied dozens of times over the years by other artists. You probably don’t even need to see it typed out, you already have it playing in your head:

Boom. BoomBoom. Thwak.

By alternating between the one snare/three snare hits, he creates a push-and-pull that adds tension and variety to the beat. It is not revolutionary by any means, but it gets the job done. However, this past weekend, I realized there was a connection of the one/three pattern in the lyrics as well.

For every kiss you give me [Thwak]

I’ll give you three [Crk Crk Crk]

The lyrics even match the push-and-pull of the music! The two complement each other so well that it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t a planned pairing. Even there’s a good chance it’s merely a coincidence based on a mistake, I’ll forever prefer to think otherwise.

Who knows what treasures the next hundred listens will unearth. But thanks to Ronnie, every single one will be as enjoyable as the first.


Feats of Strength: Tame Impala

Even after several repeated listens, I still have not been able to fully embrace Tame Impala’s latest album, Currents.  With their previous efforts (Lonerism and Innerspeaker), each spin created a new favorite track, which speaks to the depth of each record.  On the other hand, I think of Currents as one brilliant song followed by many decent-to-good tracks.  But goddamn, how great is that one song?

At 7 minutes and 47 seconds, “Let It Happen” is the longest song in the Tame Impala catalog, but not by much; the band regularly traffics in songs that clock in at around five minutes, with a few running a bit longer at six and seven minutes.  So, it is not just the fact that Tame Impala wrote a long song that is impressive, but that they wrote a long song that captivates the listener’s attention in such a way that they could make it the opening track and lead single for their new album.  That takes a special skill.

For about three minutes, “Let It Happen” meshes a smooth bass groove, a glitchy funk guitar lick, and an insistent kick drum to create a chill yet catchy dance number.  Kevin Parker then introduces a descending synth melody, and uses this new hook to seemingly signal that the song is about to fade out.  As one anticipates the fade out, the track appears to skip, with a beat stuck in a repetitive loop.  After a few seconds, the listener realizes this was done on purpose, as Parker throws in a rising string melody as a direct comment on the previous hook.  This new melody is then put into a repetitive loop on its concluding beat, and after processing that beat through a few extra effects, the song returns to the previous descending synth melody once again.  With the second repeating section, it almost as if the two melodies are locked in combat, with the original winning out in the end.  The song then rides this last melody to the end, with a few additional touches.

Perhaps the best part is that once the listener knows what happens at the end of the song, it is possible to pick up on clues that appear in earlier sections.  If one listens to the drums, one can notice that a few of the patterns have slight glitches or slight deviations, with other parts offering more overt clues as the song progresses.  Not only does the song’s catchiness inspire repeated spins, but it rewards careful listening as well.

Feats of Strength: My Morning Jacket

In honor of their show Wednesday night at the Keller Auditorium, we are declaring this to be My Morning Jacket Week.  Today, we take a closer look at one of their greatest songs, “Lay Low”.

My Morning Jacket broke through with the critically-acclaimed album Z, a diverse record that saw the band expand their sound by incorporating numerous diverse influences (including dub and reggae) into their brand of gothic Southern rock.  Not only was it an artistic triumph, it was a commercial success, as it served as an introduction for many to one of the best-kept secrets in indie rock.  I was personally able to convert many of my friends into fans with the help of both Z and the accompanying live album Okonokos, and they have remained devoted to the band to this day as a result.

The centerpiece of the record is the power ballad “Lay Low”, which endures as a highlight of the band’s live show.  The song is broken up into two parts, a tender, but groovy, first half, and an instrumental outro which features a blistering guitar solo from frontman Jim James.  The brilliant solo itself is an obvious draw, a great blend of musicianship and showmanship–it features a beautiful melody that captivates the audience, while also throwing in a handful of flourishes like a series of quick hammer-ons and deep slow bends, that show off some technical chops without drifting into “wankery”, for lack of a better word.

However, it is how James’s solo is incorporated with the rest of the band that makes “Lay Low” such a great song.  Throughout the solo, the other members are complementing James’s work and laying down an excellent foundation, including Carl Broemel’s second guitar counterpoint melody.  The song’s climax is when all five members lock into this wonderful groove, in a moment that still gives me chills to this day.  It is captured perfectly in the video from Okonokos embedded above, when at the 5:05 mark the camera switches to a center-band shot that zooms out until everyone is in view.

It is not just the solo, but the work of the whole band, that created such a masterpiece.

Feats of Strength: Wavves

For the past few years, I have made listening to King of the Beach a part of my Labor Day festivities, as a gesture to commemorate the last dying gasp of summer.  Usually the Wavves album serves as a soundtrack to an actual trip to the beach, but I decided this year to take that trip to the land of those beautiful grey skies only in my mind.  However, the celebration did give me the chance to explore what it is exactly that has spurred my love for this album.

There is a key moment in the title track that opens the album that manages to set the tone for the rest of the album.  It is the kind of throwaway idea that most listeners would gloss over, but every time I hear it I cannot help but crack up precisely because it is so stupid.  After the first chorus (around the :53 mark), the band uses a ridiculous echo effect on the snare drum as the song kicks into the next verse.  Though the band deploys other effects throughout the rest of the song, they do not use that drum effect again, giving the impression that this was some sort of studio joke that the band decided to leave in place, regardless of whether any better takes existed.

That little joke sets the mood for the rest of the album, alerting the listener to not take anything seriously.  Though songs about weed and surfing should already signal to the audience what kind of album it is, this leaves no doubt that King of the Beach is an irreverent romp.  It also shows that even though Nathan Williams was now working in a real studio with money and musicians and everything, the same fun that he had experimenting with lo-fi techniques in his bedroom from the group’s early days would still be a significant part of the band’s sound.

I am certain that this post represents more thought and effort than what into tossing in that silly effect, but sometimes dumb jokes pay off.

Feats of Strength: Spiritualized

In the world of Spiritualized, there is no such thing as subtlety; it seems that every song (and perhaps every lyric) that Jason Pierce writes is a matter of life and death.  Pierce’s subjects usually revolve around personal failings and attempts at redemption, whether it be through drugs, religion, or some other means, and he matches the grand scale of these topics with music that is equal in scope.  Spiritualized albums have become known for their multi-part epics that alternate between a wide variety of disparate genres, accomplished with the aid of a bevy of musicians and vocalists to help create dense layers of instrumentation.  Over the course of a career, the method can seem formulaic, but it can produce some truly glorious results.

Sweet Heart, Sweet Light is bookended by two soaring sing-alongs, “Hey Jane” and “So Long You Pretty Thing”.  The latter is a triumphant reflection of what has transpired over the course of the album, while “Hey Jane” is more of a fiery call-to-arms that helps give the record its initial spark.  Both songs create serious goosebumps in the listener, even though they accomplish this through different means.

Obviously, one of the keys for creating a song that compels an entire audience to sing along is writing a killer melody that both catches the ear and is easily repeated, a skill that Pierce has in spades.  But with “Hey Jane”, Pierce uses a more subtle technique that helps enhance the effect of the jubilant outro.  The majority of the song is built on a straightforward, chugging rhythm that propels the song forward.  As the song builds towards its climax, Pierce introduces a solo guitar that plays a riff that foreshadows the final melody.  This is laid on top of the previous chugging rhythm, and combined with Pierce’s vocals that echo the underlying rhythm, creates a sense of tension that builds with every measure.  The two figures compete against each other, until finally the tension is released with the mantra of “Sweet heart, sweet life; sweetheart, love of my life”, which takes a similar sweeping shape to that of the guitar.  From then on, it is simply a matter of repeating it to your heart’s content, but know that the “victory” is that much sweeter as a result of that initial “struggle”.

Feats of Strength: Tabu and “Be My Baby”

The quality that I appreciate the most about Netflix is the sheer breadth of its library.  As much as I loved spending time at local video stores, poring over their collections, the range of their selections paled in comparison to Netflix.  It is easy to pick up on unexpected gems which slipped under the radar, like I did a few weeks ago with the film Tabu.  While it was appreciated by many cinephiles, unfortunately for the most part the Portuguese movie went unnoticed by filmgoers here in the States.

I highly recommend that you check out Tabu at some point, but I wanted to highlight one of the most powerful scenes in the film and specifically how the careful use of music help contributed to its potency.  The story mainly centers around a long-ago love affair between a married woman and young drummer, set in the backdrop of colonial Mozambique.  Throughout the film, the director peppers in performances of the drummer into the story, splicing in clips of old Phil Spector classics and syncing them up with the actors, and providing an intriguing juxtaposition with the African setting.  The use of these oldies helps contribute to a feeling of nostalgia in the viewer, enhancing the narrative recollections of the drummer of his long-lost love.

The classic song “Be My Baby” has been used several times over the years specifically for evoking those feelings of nostalgia, most memorably in Dirty Dancing, but in this particular scene the director Miguel Gomes is mining the pathos inherent in the music.  In this scene, the couple has decided that it would be best to end the affair, though both are heartbroken by the decision.  We first see the result of the breakup through the eyes of Aurora, as she hears the song playing on the radio; we are then taken to the studio where the song is being performed, with Gian-Luca drumming along.  It is an emotional moment, as neither person can finish the song without crying–and because the scene is so expertly constructed, neither can the viewer.

The use of old Phil Spector songs is one example of the film’s several interesting and sly comments on colonialism.  For example, the version of “Be My Baby” from the climactic scene highlighted above is not the original song from The Ronettes, but a Spanish cover by the group Les Surfs.  Les Surfs were a family act from Madagascar that achieved their greatest fame from covering English hits in different languages, reversing in some ways the earlier scenes of the colonial musicians playing songs in their original form.  The central love story between the Portuguese colonizers ends up being a footnote in the revolution that would soon take place in Mozambique, with the narrator mentioning in passing how the events help spark the initial fighting.   And in fact the title of the film is a direct reference to Murnau’s silent film of the same name which explores colonialism from an earlier perspective.  There are many layers to Tabu, all of which are worth exploring.

Feats of Strength: Radiohead

Nearly twenty years after its initial release, Radiohead’s OK Computer has been endlessly praised and analyzed.  Critics and fans alike have not only pored over every note and probed the meaning of every lyric, but they have also made sure that everyone else knows of their discoveries and efforts.  Not only is this kind of behavior ripe for mockery, but it begs for the album itself to be taken down a peg, with ClickHole delivering perhaps the perfect take with their “oral history” of the album’s creation.

Though discussions about the album have become ubiquitous over the years, and as a result it may have lost its spell on some fans, I still feel an intense personal connection with OK Computer.  Not only do I enjoy revisiting all of my favorite parts that have been more-or-less implanted into my brain after hundreds of spins, but with each listen I am still discovering previously unheard details lurking beneath the surface.  Each member of Radiohead makes several memorable contributions to the album, from the group’s three-headed guitar attack, to Phil Selway’s inventive drum fills and steady beat, to Colin Greenwood’s melodic and thumping bass.  Colin’s basslines are often overlooked, but he usually performs parts that are significant for a song’s success.

“Exit Music (For A Film)” was indeed written for a film, and though the fact that it was inspired by the ending of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet may cause some people to roll their eyes,* the movie ended up inspiring two of Radiohead’s best songs (the other being the menacing and magnificent “Talk Show Host”).  It begins with Thom Yorke alone on his acoustic guitar and singing sweetly to his “Juliet”, with a ghostly artificial choir joining in for the “chorus,” which provides not only a haunting effect but also the slightest touch of bombast.  The song returns to a solo Yorke for the next verse, before Selway’s expertly-produced fill kicks the song into the next gear, as the rest of the band, including Colin’s distorted fuzz bass, joins in for the bridge and outro.

Usually, the bass tone is treated as a set-it-and-forget-it kind of thing by most bands.  Guitarists will trade out guitars for each song to get a specific and precise tone, but many bands just stick the bassist with one bass, and even then the bassist rarely even does anything as simple as adjusting a knob or two to get a different sound; whatever specific sound the group arrived at for their first practice probably will cover the bassist for the rest of his/her career.  So when a bassist does something like stomping on a fuzz box to add some effects to the bassline, it tends to get noticed by most listeners.  However, because the tone can be so distinctive, it is probably best to use an effect like distortion only sparingly so as to not overdose on the sound.

In “Exit Music”, Colin’s use of a distorted bass fits perfectly.  It serves as an excellent counterpart to Ed O’Brien’s ethereal, high-pitched guitar melody, grounding the song by rumbling around in the muck.  Colin also executes a brilliant transition from a straight-ahead chug in his initial part to a big, swinging triplet counter-melody during the song’s explosive climax.  It is a glorious moment that remains mesmerizing to this day.  Colin has used the fuzz bass to great effect in later songs, like the hypnotic riff in “The National Anthem” as well as the delirious “Myxomatosis”, but in my opinion “Exit Music” is still the best use of that specific tone.

*They have been showing Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby on HBO a lot lately, and even though I expected from the previews to see that Baz truly did not understand the novel, it was amazing to see in the forty-five minutes or so that I watched how a director can make so many incredibly poor decisions.  Just everything from the acting, sets, dialogue, etc.–complete trash.

Feats of Strength: Sigur Rós

I remember how when I heard Sigur Rós for the first time, I was astonished that music like this could exist.  The band had constructed a startlingly beautiful and truly unique sound, creating gorgeous, ethereal soundscapes that were complemented by brilliant and memorable melodies.  There was an ethereal and unearthly quality to their songs, and it was difficult to comprehend just how the band was able to craft these songs using standard musical instruments.  This paradox is illustrated perfectly by “Svefn-G-Englar”, my introduction to the band, which sounds as if it was broadcast from under the sea, with its delicate keyboard melody accented by what seems to be the ping of a sonar, as a reverb and feedback-drenched guitar slowly begins to roar until it finally erupts.  And all that is before Jónsi’s vocals kick in–his incredible range along with the fact that he sings mainly in Icelandic helped add to the exotic nature of their music.  It was difficult to comprehend that humans actually created this music.

Over the years, I learned more about the methods the band employed to craft their singular sound, namely Jónsi’s use of a bow on his guitar for certain songs.  Seeing the band live also helped clear up some of the mystery, as sounds that bled together before could now be delineated into distinct guitar, keyboard, bass, and drum parts.  In some sense it was a bit disappointing to confirm that mere mortals were responsible for this music, much like how some of the allure is rubbed off when one finds out the secret behind the magician’s trick.  On the other hand, one can find it inspiring to realize that when it comes to music that magic in fact does not exist.

But just when it seemed that all mysteries were solved, leave it to one of the unsung heroes of the band to figure out a way to surprise listeners.  Georg Holm has been holding down the low end for the band for years with his basslines, but sometimes his contributions can get lost in the mix.  However, his unusual bassline for Hafsól, a track that has evolved from the band’s earliest days, that stands out.  The emphasis is purely on the rhythm, an unusual stuttering pattern that rarely strays from a single note.  It seems the only way to get that precise pattern would be with the use of a pick, but live footage proves otherwise.

In fact, Holm is using a drumstick to create this particular rhythm!  Considering that he is relying on a slight drum roll to create the figure, it is amazing that Holm is able to consistently recreate the same pattern over and over again.  Then again, Holm considers himself a “drummer” and that his role is really “just to try to make the drums sound better.” The use of a drumstick with a stringed instrument is not unheard of, but usually it is for creating only a pure percussive effect and not for anything melodic, with cacophony being the usual goal.  The band deserves a lot of credit for its creativity and its experimentation with tactics like this, and finding different ways to surprise their audience.

Feats of Strength: British Sea Power

The profile of British Sea Power has diminished considerably in recent years, which makes the title of their debut unfortunately prescient.  While there are several things that I love about Open Season and Do You Like Rock Music?, there is still a certain quality about The Decline of British Sea Power that puts it a cut above and helps establish it as one of the great indie rock records of the last decade.  The band found the perfect mixture of idiosyncratic rockers, catchy anthems, and gorgeous ballads, and twelve years later I still find the record as fresh as it was the first time I listened to it.

There are several extraordinary moments worthy of discussion on Decline, from the bizarre “Apologies to Insect Life” to the epic guitar freak-out of “Lately” to the dazzling instrumental “Heavenly Waters” that closes the album.  But there is one particular aspect from the middle section of the album that we want to single out for closer inspection, when the band runs through a string of songs packed with hooks.  Even amid all those great tracks, the propulsive and energetic “Remember Me” stands out and gets stuck in your head for days, and the key is a subtle strategy employed by the drummer Wood.

The immediate element that grabs your attention is the jagged and raucous twin guitar attack from Yan and Noble, a trebly, noisy blast packed with bends that doesn’t bother to stop to catch its breath as it jumps from riff to riff.  Of course, even after multiple deep listens you aren’t going to shake off those prominent leads, but you can pick up on some of the other parts hidden underneath the surface, such as the brilliant drumwork.  Wood does an excellent job from start-to-finish on this song, expertly deploying fills and keeping a rock-solid beat amid all the surrounding chaos.  I can point to his ridiculous snare-rolls or deft cymbal-work, but the element that I love the most is a very simple trick he does to keep up the energy and provide some variety to keep the song from getting stale.  Listen carefully to the verse (around the :47 mark), and pay attention to how Wood shifts his pattern with each lyrical phrase.  The first line is a standard beat, but then it shifts to a double-time beat on the hi-hat for the next phrase; this alternating structure is repeated throughout the song.

It’s a very small detail, but it’s an excellent example of a drummer providing some extra creativity by deviating from the standard approach, yet not doing too much to overshadow the work of the rest of the band.  By switching between the two patterns, Wood provides an extra push-and-pull to the song and establishes an additional forward momentum, driving the song through the verse into the chorus.  There are several other excellent moments in the song, but this is something that I listen for every time I hear the song.

However, if that’s not satisfying enough for you, then take a few minutes to enjoy the tranquil beauty of “Heavenly Waters”.

Feats of Strength: Modest Mouse (Music Edition)

There are many reasons that Modest Mouse became one of the preeminent success stories of the 90’s independent music scene, but the underlying common factor of each explanation is that each element of the band’s sound represented their personal and unique perspective.  The most memorable aspect of the band is perhaps Isaac Brock’s brilliant lyrics, which captured the hearts and minds of thousands by being both poignantly reflective and bitterly sardonic, followed closely by the innovative rhythm section of bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green.  However, one component that has not received proper credit is Isaac’s guitar-playing.   In this edition of Feats of Strength, we’re going to take a look at Isaac’s ability to turn what should be a gimmick into a significant ingredient in Modest Mouse’s trademark sound.

The specific trick we’re referring to is one that most average listeners can spot, even if they are unfamiliar with the particular mechanics of guitar-playing: the bending of a harmonic note.  It is a peculiar technique that Isaac has incorporated into his guitar-playing since the origins of Modest Mouse, as can be heard from the beginning of the opener “Dramamine” of their debut, This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About.*  Since then, the bent harmonic has appeared periodically over the years on multiple songs throughout the band’s catalog.  When the band finally released a new single last month after years of relative silence, the sonic detail from “Lampshades On Fire” that immediately grabbed my attention was the background presence of those trademark harmonic bends.  Once I heard those distinctive wavering chirps, I could confirm that I was in fact listening to a Modest Mouse song.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the technique, here is a quick explanation.  Bending the string is a key component in every guitarist’s arsenal, and the ability of the guitarist to manipulate the pitch in this manner is one of the things that distinguishes the guitar from other instruments (for example, a pianist is unable to mimic this technique and the vibrato employed by wind players does not have the same sweep or range of a guitar bend).  The bend is accomplished by the guitarist holding down the string for a particular note and then pushing the string up or down, in a manner perpendicular to the neck, while continuing to press down on the note.  It’s a simple maneuver that is essential to most guitar playing, most notably for leads.

Modest Mouse’s innovation is their ability to accomplish this same effect with a note that is normally unable to be bent.  On a guitar neck, it’s easy to see most of the possible notes–simply press down on any spot, and a note can be played.  But hidden on the neck is the capacity of the guitar to produce a harmonic overtone.  In conventional terms, by lightly pressing on the string in a certain manner, a guitarist can shoot the pitch up into a higher register than normal.  This may not sound like a big deal, but for instance, harmonics are used as a quick and easy way of making sure the guitar is in tune with itself (whether or not it is actually in tune with anything else is another story).  Sometimes harmonics come up in the course of a song; usually they’re thrown in as a bit of a curveball, since one normally expects pitches that are relatively close to what was just played.  The harmonic notes also have a distinct tone which differs from a normal note, a tone that is more undefined and ethereal, so guitarists often use them if they’re trying to create that kind of atmosphere.

Since in order to achieve the harmonic overtone you need to physically apply only a light touch, it would seem impossible to bend this note.  However, Isaac and the band thought outside the box and came up with a way around this problem, by looking to affect the pitch with the opposite hand.  Normally, the picking hand simply plucks the string, but there are other ways for it to manipulate the pitch.  Isaac used a whammy bar with his picking hand to bend the string from the bridge of the guitar (located near the base of the instrument) instead of the neck, which allows him to create the harmonic bend.  Whammy bars have often been used by guitarists to create a certain type of bent note, namely with large chords or to create a vibrato effect, but they had not been used to specifically bend a harmonic in the way that Isaac envisioned.  Isaac’s method has changed somewhat in recent years, as he’s using a guitar without a whammy bar attachment these days, and so he instead directly manipulates the bridge of the guitar to create the desired effect.

What is remarkable is not the mechanics of the technique, but the ability of the band to organically incorporate the trick into their sound.  Even though Modest Mouse has used the harmonic bend throughout their career, it has never sounded repetitive and they have never been close to driving it into the ground.  Isaac has been able to mine a lot of subtleties from this particular trick, using it to help convey a sense of chaos, as in the furious ending to “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine”, or to create a feeling of weightlessness, as in the main riff to “Interstate 8”,** or the ability to construct the sonic equivalent of pure melancholy, as in the opening to “Gravity Rides Everything”.

It’s an impressive achievement for a band to pioneer such an unusual technique but not be defined solely by that trick.  Even though the harmonic bend is not often a dominant part of their music, one would imagine that for most bands even using it a couple of times would get old after a while.  But the harmonic bend, while distinct on its own, is not far removed from the normal sounds and musical ideas of Modest Mouse.  As a result, it rarely draws attention to itself, and even knowing the mechanics behind the mystery doesn’t take away from its impact and effectiveness.

*I think I covered all the possible ways to convey the fact that this was at the very start of the band.

**Sidenote: Consider that Modest Mouse has a B-Sides and oddities album with Building Nothing Out Of Something that puts most band’s regular output to shame.  They are truly a remarkable band.