guitar solo

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.

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The Airing of Grievances: Guns N’ Roses – “November Rain”

My first exposure to Guns N’ Roses* (and let’s be honest, “exposure” is the correct term to use when discussing GNR) was the music video for “November Rain”.  Originally, I only saw bits and pieces of the video from the various countdowns and clip shows that made up a large portion of MTV’s programming of the mid-90’s, though interspersed in that footage may have been their performance that one time when Elton John joined them for some reason.  Sure, there’s a strong likelihood that I probably saw a movie trailer that was backed by the strains of “Welcome to the Jungle”, but it never registered with me, so my first association with Guns N’ Roses wasn’t that they were dangerous hard-rockers, but overwrought balladeers.  I say that with the kindest intent possible, because as ridiculous as everything associated with “November Rain” is, I will admit that as a piece of music it still holds up–its movements are well-constructed, it actually generates some passion in the listener, and Slash’s guitar solos are damn good.

But man, that music video…

The saddest moment of my childhood was not when I found out the truth about Santa Claus, but when I realized that nobody could hear Slash’s epic guitar solo outside that church in the desert.  Of course I realize no one would actually hear it because there’s no audience out there in the desert, but it’s the fact that Slash’s guitar isn’t plugged into anything that rammed the message home.  And considering the noise from the helicopter swooping all around to capture that iconic scene, I doubt Slash could even hear himself as he poured his heart out into that solo.  NOBODY CAN HEAR HIS PAIN TRANSMITTED THROUGH THE PURE MAJESTY OF MUSIC!

That said, Slash’s “silence” definitely isn’t the only problem with the video–only Axl Rose could come up with a music video with a budget over a million dollars that runs for over nine minutes and have a narrative that leaves the audience confused as to what exactly happened, and not in a good way.  We can allow that the band uses a good portion of the video to show the fabulous orchestra that they hired for the song, flute and all, and we’re willing to accept the fact that for the sake of narrative this was a romance built to last since the bride-to-be could hang out and smoke cigarettes at a dive bar with the rest of the band (easily one of the strongest foundations a couple can have for their relationship).  We can even appreciate Stephanie Seymour’s wonderfully tacky wedding dress and the subtle nods to the various personalities of the other band members, like the fact that Slash forgot where he put the wedding ring but good thing Duff McKagan is there to save the day.  Still, everybody wants to know 1) Why the hell did that guy dive right into the wedding cake? and 2) What the hell happened to Stephanie Seymour?**  That’s what happens when you cram two acts of the narrative into the last 45 seconds of a video.  You end up asking questions like “Does Stephanie Seymour melt in the rain because she’s a witch?” and “Did these fuckers just pull the ‘this was all a dream’ trick?”

It’s easy to see that this video was the clearest example of the various symptoms that would plague the band for the rest of their career, and was but a microcosm of the ridiculous excess that would plague the enduring debacle that was Chinese Democracy.  Still, this song and video is a definite highlight when this time of year comes along, no matter how ridiculous and nonsensical the entire enterprise is.

Story Time: About ten years ago, when I was on break from college, I was hanging out at my friend’s house, and joining us was his girlfriend at the time.  She was a massive Guns N’ Roses  fan, and was extremely excited to see the video playing on my friend’s TV.  I took the opportunity to mention my various grievances with the video, namely the fact NOBODY CAN HEAR SLASH’S AMAZING GUITAR SOLO and the small fact that the entire video makes absolutely no sense.  This besmirchment of the good name of Guns N’ Roses was too much for her to handle, so she threatened me with eviction from the premises if I said anything else (note: if you recall, this was in fact not her home, but my friend’s).  So I shut up for a good two minutes, before I air-drummed one of those slow fills and sang “Bum Ba-da-dum Bum!”  Despite the fact that I was showing my appreciation for the music emanating from the television speakers, this was TOO MUCH for the woman, and I was yelled at until I left the house.

I don’t think I ever saw her again, and my friend broke up with her not long after this incident.  That’s how you end a story, Axl.

*It bugs the hell out of me that they write their name with the apostrophe after the ‘N’, but what are you going to do?

**Let’s take a second to acknowledge how well Stephanie Seymour has held up over the years as opposed to the trainwreck that Axl became.  Well done, Mrs. Seymour.

Feats of Strength: Television

Last week, we took an in-depth look at Television’s brilliant debut album, Marquee Moon.  As one would expect, we spent a fair amount of time discussing the brilliance of the instrumentals on the album, noting the excellent work of each member of the band beyond the usual praise for the dazzling and intricate guitar.  For this edition of Feats of Strength, we’re going to be cliche and examine the band’s excellent guitar-playing, but do so for a song that is often overlooked: the album closer “Torn Curtain”.

We briefly mentioned “Torn Curtain” in our previous feature, but it’s definitely worthy of further examination.  There is a wonderful dichotomy between the restraint shown by the careful and deliberately paced music and the emotional and expressive lyrics, which are filled with various declarations and descriptions that sound like something out of a soap opera.  Consider the memorable chorus, with a reflective and cathartic Tom Verlaine mourning the passing of time with the other members emphasizing the words “years” and “tears”, while accompanied by straight-forward rhythm section that accentuates each beat, with a delicate piano twinkling over the top.  Fred Smith anchors the song with a sturdy bassline, with the occasional rhythmic flourish–pay particular attention to his sixteenth-note pickups in the second verse for example–while also providing some necessary counter-melody.  Billy Ficca also delves deep into his bag of tricks to loads the song with countless little drum fills and ornaments, beginning from his rolls in the beginning that change pitch with added pressure, to various accents using his ride cymbal to a keen use of his kick drum to accent certain beats.

Though there are stellar contributions all around, it’s Tom Verlaine’s solo guitar that stands out, especially his epic finale.  Throughout the song, he and Richard Lloyd trade riffs as they build on a simple minor key progression, relying on elliptical licks and strategically-placed open strings to subtly color the chord changes.  Verlaine has a nifty little solo that does a good job bridging the second and third chorus, but its true greatness is the fact that it foreshadows a second, more gorgeous solo after the third chorus.  Initially, it seems like the song will end after the third chorus, but Tom gradually begins to improvise around the lead lick introduced in the third chorus.  He steadily picks up steam as he incrementally makes his way up the neck.  As Verlaine works his way up the scale, he ratchets up the tension both by spending more time on each step and by increasing both the number and sweep of each bend.  The listener keeps waiting for the natural resolution of the solo, but Verlaine keeps delaying his march to the summit, until he finally hits the peak on a last gasp series of bends (6:20-6:23).   But right when he gets to the top, Tom abruptly breaks the tension by creating the illusion that his string has snapped, suddenly dropping to the bottom of the neck with a jarring riff using his bass strings.

It’s a stunning moment, and the result is a unique tone that’s instantly memorable; whenever I think of this song, this is the part that I think of instantly.  And despite this “drawback”, as the song fades away, Verlaine valiantly tries to make his way up the neck again.  When looked at in its entirety, it is then easy to see the guitar solo as a metaphorical depiction of persevering through various obstacles, even when one falls down the mountain, mirroring many of the themes of the lyric.  The solo also should serve as a lesson for aspiring musicians, as it’s proof that it’s not necessarily the notes, since the solo revolves around a fairly basic scale, but the rhythm and the touch that are most important.  That’s where a musician truly conveys his emotion; a decent melody is nice, and can result in a reaction from the listener, but without the right rhythm or touch, they will never make a true connection with the audience.

Feats of Strength: Wilco

We were excited to wake up this morning to the news that Wilco had announced that they are releasing the box set retrospective Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014 on November 17th to mark the band’s twentieth anniversary.  Not only were we thrilled about the news itself, but we were glad to see that we had an even better reason to feature Wilco in our Feats of Strength series.  This time, we’re taking a closer look at one of their greatest songs, “At Least That’s What You Said”.

My first encounter with Wilco was during the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot era, when they became a cause célèbre after they were dropped by their record label for making a difficult album, a decision which backfired for Reprise when YHF became a huge critical hit and brought the band their widest audience yet.  However, after downloading a copy and listening to it a few times, I was unimpressed; that’s what happens when you read too many breathless music periodicals that tag the band with labels like “The American Radiohead”.  Expectations were simply too high, and I just ignored everything Wilco for the next few years.  A few years later, while I was back home from college for winter break, I was perusing the aisles of my local favorite record shop, when I was suddenly captivated by the strains of a blistering guitar solo coming out the store’s speakers.  I stopped picking through the albums for a moment and stood there, waiting for the song to finish, before walking over to the owner to ask who had just played this magnificent solo.  “Hey man, I just threw on Wilco’s new album.  Have you heard it yet?”  I was stunned, and immediately (1) reversed my opinion about the band and (2) went and found a copy of A Ghost Is Born and added it to my stack for the day.

The song is split into two halves: a tender piano ballad that gives a glimpse at a moment of potential reconciliation for partners in a painful/abusive relationship and an epic instrumental section let by an ever-building guitar solo.  The two parts are delineated by an electric guitar that cuts in right at the two-minute mark, which introduces the major thematic melody, followed by the band joining in on a series of repetitive quarter-note hits.  The guitar then switches back to the dominant melody, and the instrumental section begins in earnest, and the true fireworks of the guitar solo begins.  It’s at this point that the guitar begins to go off the rails in a bit of barely-contained chaos: at first, the guitar pauses every few measures to go back to repeat different variations of the melodic theme, but then it breaks free from this artificial constraint to let loose some aural pyrotechnics, before one final frantic return to the melody, before slowly dying away with a careful, pulsating tremolo bar dive, as the piano creeps back in.  Many listeners have noted the similarities to Neil Young, especially from the Crazy Horse era, and in many instances the guitar captures both a similar tone and style to Young.  One can hear echoes of the winding melodies of “Cowgirl In The Sand” and the rich reverb of the lead guitar of “Like A Hurricane” (note specifically the section at about 4:15 in the song), and the focus on microtones and other near-notes in the solo also is a callback to Young’s signature technique. The notes individually don’t all make sense, but when constructed as a whole, you certainly feel all the possible emotion that the guitarist is attempting to wring out.

What is perhaps most notable about this is the fact that the guitarist in question is Jeff Tweedy.  Even though he has been one of the few constants in Wilco throughout its history, Tweedy never really got the credit as a pure musician as he deserves.  In the early years, he was always compared to his musical partners (Jay Bennett in the early years of Wilco, Jay Farrar from the Uncle Tupelo years), and with the lineup that was hired to tour A Ghost Is Born, he had quite the set of ringers helping him out, including the amazing Nels Cline on guitar (just take a listen to “Impossible Germany” and you will immediately have a deep appreciation for the man’s amazing talent).  But it’s Jeff Tweedy who handled all the lead guitar in the studio for Ghost, and he’s never really received his proper due for his work throughout that album; his work on “At Least That’s What You Said” alone should place him on those periodic “Best Guitarists” lists that run every six months or so, but a lot of writers seem to forget who was behind the six string on that one.

The element that makes the solo work is not the technical mastery (though the incredible skill involved should definitely be acknowledged and admired), but Tweedy’s ability to imbue each note with an incredible amount of emotion, each pitched in a way so as to complement the story that he’s trying to tell.  He’s compared the instrumental half to an anxiety attack, and within the context of the song, the metaphor makes sense.  The slow build-up, the gradual unraveling, the repetition of the same phrase–they all mirror a spiraling out of control, though fortunately a calm is restored by the end of the song.  It’s an impeccably crafted solo in all aspects, and yes, it really rips live.