guitar solos

Feats of Strength: Low

Yesterday we ran a piece in which, among other (legitimate complaints), we knocked a band for being “repetitive.”  But we want to make it clear that “repetition” itself is not necessarily a problem in music, and in fact in many instances can help enhance a song.  For example, repetition can help create a rising tension in a song, as the listener patiently awaits any change that would signify a resolution to the chord progression or drum pattern to which they can finally experience some relief.  With “All My Friends”, LCD Soundsystem accomplished this by expertly employing a simple progression of two chords and a relentless drumbeat to keep the listener’s attention over its seven minute running time.

Low also uses repetition in their song “Nothing But Heart”, a highlight from their stellar album C’mon, but in a manner that differs slightly from the traditional purpose outlined above.  Musically speaking, Low uses a single descending progression repeated several times over the course of the song, but uses this as a foundation on which they can layer on top several other instruments and melodies and musical ideas.  That sounds similar to what most other bands do, but the added wrinkle is that Low also does this through repetition in their lyrics.  The entire song is only four lines, with the last line repeated endlessly.

I would be your king,

but you wanna be free.

Confusion and art–

I’m nothing but heart.

As the listener realizes that the band is not going to deviate from this pattern and instead have fallen into a sort of endless loop or repeating this last line, the phrase “I’m nothing but heart” begins to take on different meanings.  It at first appears to be a sort of mantra, but as the repetition continues without fail, the phrase begins to take on different tones.  The band plays this up with their vocal performance, embellishing it with different dynamics and points of emphasis.  As a result, the band is able to convey several different meanings from the same phrase–over the course of the song, it appears to be hopeful, conciliatory, regretful, bitter, even defiant.  Though the band sings the line over thirty times, one can sense that with each utterance that Low intended the listener to feel a different emotion each time.  It’s an extremely powerful performance.

Oh, and it allows the band to really rock out with some gorgeously jagged guitar solos over the top of it as well.

Time vs. Money: A Debate

With the recent release of their latest (and most likely final) album, The Endless River, now is the perfect time to do an article on Pink Floyd.  And since we’re unlikely to review a post-Roger Waters album featuring re-worked leftovers from The Division Bell, even if it was done as a tribute to Rick Wright,* we decided to write up a discussion we’ve had among friends for years, and settle a debate once and for all.  What is the best track from The Dark Side of the Moon: “Time” or “Money”?

vs.

Now, I am sure that there are those of you out there that will claim that neither of these songs are the best tracks from that album, and to that I simply say not only is that irrelevant, it is factually incorrect.  And I am sure that there are those who will say that Wish You Were Here is the superior Floyd album, and even though you would be correct, that’s neither here nor there.  We’re simply going to break down these two tracks (and only these two tracks) using “advanced metrics” to finally arrive to a conclusion that has eluded musicologists for decades.

Does the song feature an unnecessarily long intro?: Yes for both.  While “Money” quickly settles into its memorable groove, “Time” meanders for a bit with an ominous prelude that bears little in common with the rest of the song.  However, that intro does allow Nick Mason to play a drum part that is for once not the part of a beginner, so for his sake, we’ll give the nod to time.  Advantage: “Time”

Does the song feature annoying sound effects that are ridiculously literal interpretations of the title?: Again, Yes for both.  But the cash register noises from “Money” are less irritating than the flurry of alarm clocks and bells that kick off “Time”, the latter of which can provide all sorts of confusion when the song is only in the background.  Besides, M.I.A. proved the musicality of the cash register.  Advantage: “Money”

Are there any notable technical musical feats?:  Or to put it another way, is there anything in the song that music theory nerds would go crazy about while everyone else just nods politely?  And the answer is yes, for “Money”.  That song is an excellent introduction to teach people about odd time signatures, since it is written in 7/4.  People can clap along to the beat while nodding along with the groove, and then the nerd can point out that each measure contains seven beats.  There’s no similar music lesson with “Time”, ironically enough. Advantage: “Money”

Does the song feature the greatest guest backup vocalist performance of all time?: No, to either.  That honor goes to “The Great Gig In The Sky”, the song that bridges our two contenders. Advantage: Neither

Which song has the better “best line”?: “Money” does have one of the few lines with profanity that classic rock radio stations  don’t even bother to bleep with “Don’t give me that do goody-good bullshit”, but “Time” has the eloquent phrase “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.”  It’s that kind of self-deprecating attitude that makes one almost forgive the terrible acts of the British Empire. Advantage: “Time”

Which song has the better guitar solo?: While “Money” has a pretty rockin’ solo, the better display of David Gilmour’s technical dexterity and melodic sensibility are the myriad of leads from “Time”.  “Money” gets additional demerits because the solo section is in the much easier 4/4 instead of 7/4 like the rest of the song.  Advantage: “Time”

WINNER: “Time”.  If we tally up the scores, “Time” wins in a 3-2 decision, but even then it should never been in doubt–because Time IS Money, you can add all the winning points for “Money” into the “Time” column (it’s kind of like the square-rectangle relationship).

*This was not said as a slight against the band, just that we are probably unable to offer any opinion beyond “do we like it or not”, so it’s not really worth additional exploration on our part.

Essential Classics: Television – Marquee Moon

It is October, so that means it is time to analyze and celebrate one of the great Halloween albums of all-time: Television’s Marquee Moon.  Many of you are probably confused by that particular claim, but don’t worry, we’ll get back to it and explain ourselves in a bit.  There is no argument however that Marquee Moon is one of the greatest guitar-rock albums of all-time, but in addition to that distinction, it can also be argued that the album is capable of bending the rules of time and space itself.  How else could a band that was on the vanguard of the Punk movement have created the seminal Post-Punk masterpiece with their debut album?  It is a conundrum that should puzzle both music historians and physicists alike.

My first experience with the band Television was back in high school, during my initial forays into exploring the origins of punk rock.  I read several articles and books that discussed Television’s history and their influence on the New York punk scene as one of the original CBGB’s bands, and I quickly set out to track down copies of their first two records.  (Let us all take some time to acknowledge the fact that I approached punk rock in the nerdiest manner possible: research.)  There was one specific aspect of Television’s music which each piece emphasized that captured my attention, and that was the band’s masterful guitar-playing.  Being a budding guitarist myself, it was clear that it was vitally important for me to listen to these albums to help develop my own skills.  As a child of the 90’s though, I was completely unprepared to process Television’s approach to the guitar: a heavy emphasis on the treble strings (and no power chords), intricate but decidedly unflashy solos, and little-to-no distortion (at least of the kind with which I was familiar).  It all seemed so alien to me, and considering the portrait of the band that made up Marquee Moon‘s cover art, this may not have been a bad guess.

Most puzzling of all to my adolescent mind was how this pleasant if slightly bizarre album could be considered “punk” (it was a hopeless endeavor at that time to begin to comprehend what the hell “post-punk” could be, beyond the most literal definition, so that was not a pressing concern at the time).  But after several repeated listens and a gradual appreciation of the context in which the band flourished, I came to understand that even if there seemed to be little connection to The Ramones on the surface, they were both made up from the same basic DNA and were a reaction to the same movements in music.  The musical parts of “Friction” may have been much more complex than “Blitzkrieg Bop”, but one could easily see that both songs were stripped down to the barest elements in contrast to the bloat of prog or disco.

Television proved that “punk” didn’t have to mean “easy,” as each member of the group was an expert on his instrument.  The twin-guitar attack of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd has been universally lauded, and rightly so, but their other two bandmates should be given their proper due as well.  Fred Smith crafted some amazingly beautiful bass lines, shifting between providing an impeccable rhythmic foundation and creating innovative counter-melodies, and Billy Ficca was a genius behind the kit, anchoring the songs with intricate rhythms and delicate textures, effortlessly shifting between different patterns and providing the perfect accents to each musical phrase.  As for Verlaine and Lloyd, it should be apparent how they inspired generations of guitar players, from the early post-punk of bands like Wire to contemporary indie rock bands like The Strokes.  They were a perfect tandem that fed off each other beautifully, alternating between unique chord choices and lyrical solos, interspersed with bits of brilliant one-off figures and licks.

The centerpiece of the album is the title track, an epic monster clocking in at over 10 minutes (Fun Fact: on the original vinyl edition, the song faded out before it hit ten minutes, but the CD version keeps the original recording intact and includes the full version, while still listing the vinyl running time of 9:58).  Its intro of dueling guitar riffs (Lloyd providing the double-stop alarm-type bit, Verlaine the countering quick swirl) is instantly memorable, but also merely a hint of what is in store.  The verses give way to an instrumental pre-chorus that shifts the song into something much more rhapsodic and cinematic with its winding guitar lines, followed by a chorus that gradually increases the tension with its ever-escalating chord changes.  Lloyd’s guitar solo after the second chorus is a master class in terms of both beauty and efficiency, with its mirroring of the melodic structure of the chorus accompanied by some gorgeous personal flourishes.  But it is the second, much longer solo by Verlaine and its accompanying full-band instrumental section that is the real show-stopper–the solo provides a brilliant example of how an improvised, meandering take can help ratchet up the tension, and the constantly-ascending full-band breakdown pushes the song to its limits.  Lloyd eventually joins in, and the two guitars overlap into similar winding lines, until the whole band suddenly becomes a single cohesive unit as they dramatically repeat in unison a series of sixteen eighth notes.  As the band makes its way up the scale, cracks begin to form in the union, as the drums begin to approach a frenzy and the bass peels off with some additional flourishes, gliding up and down the neck.  But together the band pushes the melody to the very top, culminating in a gorgeous explosion as the summit is reached, with little guitar twinkles helping add to the effect.

Even to the untrained ear, it is clear that from the music alone “Marquee Moon” is a special song, but now consider the instrumentals in conjunction with the intriguing and mysterious lyrics.  “I remember how the darkness doubled; I recall, lightning struck itself.  I was listening to the rain; I was hearing something else.”  The imagery of those first two lines captures a wonderful sense of dread, first with the description of an ever-enveloping darkness, followed by the contrast of the light cutting across the dark.  The lines also baffle the listener as well, as he/she contemplates the physical possibilities of how lightning can strike itself.  The next two lines help set up the listener for an uneasy scene, as things may not be what they seem: amid the rainstorm lurks an unknown…something.   It’s the perfect opening for a horror story!  The other verses support this interpretation, first with the meeting with the strange man down at the tracks, whose seemingly perceptive advice of don’t succumb to either the highs or lows of life taking on a darker edge when placed in context with the rest of the song, followed by the scene in the third verse of the Cadillac pulling from out of the graveyard, grabbing the narrator, driving back in, and throwing the narrator into the graveyard.  Spooky stuff.  After this scene is the long instrumental section, which can be interpreted as the narrator’s journey through the graveyard, with the culminating unison riff being the aural equivalent of the Big Reveal in a horror movie of the Monster or the Terror.  The song ends with a repeat of the first verse, which could indicate either that time has looped back on itself (much like how a “post-punk” classic can also be created at the beginning of the punk movement), or that underneath what seems like a restoration of what’s normal lurks a dark undercurrent.

Long story short, I am ready to declare that the narrator has become a zombie.

It is clear then that “Marquee Moon” is a perfect Halloween song, but what about the rest of the album?  The song is not only the centerpiece of the album in terms of track placement, but it also serves as a showcase to a lot of the musical ideas that are the connective tissue of the record.  The double-stop guitar figure is given a slight variation in the very next song, “Elevation”, for example, and “See No Evil” is the title of the opener, which makes the horror themes even more apparent!  It is also simply difficult to disconnect the song from the rest of the album, as each song flows beautifully into the next.  Television also provides wonderful bits of dark humor throughout Marquee Moon, perhaps best exemplified by the song “Venus”.  I was hoping that because of the lines “Then Richie, Richie said: ‘Hey man, let’s dress up like cops.  Think of what we could do!” the song would find a place somewhere in a movie that came out this summer, but that didn’t turn out to be the case.  Instead we will have to strike out on our own to consider the subtle beauty of the explanation that “I fell right into the arms of Venus de Milo” (a line that took far too many listens for me to realize the irony inherent in the claim), instead of having it soundtrack a scene of crazy hijinks.

Marquee Moon is simply an exquisite and dazzling album through and through, with each of its eight songs a classic in its own right.  Perhaps the greatest example of the beauty of the record is the underrated closer, “Torn Curtain”.  The ballad is filled lyrically with melodrama and over-the-top emotion, but is balanced by a delicate and nuanced restrained musical accompaniment, before the two components become intertwined with a triumphant final guitar solo that provides the perfect conclusion to the album.

But the album is more than just brilliant guitar compositions; as I mentioned before, there are plenty of fantastic bass lines and stunning drum parts throughout the entirety of Marquee Moon.  So listen to the album a few times to get a feel for the beauty and majesty of the guitar, spin it a few more times to pick up on the intricacies of the rhythm section, and then repeat it again a few more hundred times–because even though the album is nearly forty years old, it will never get old.

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.

Built to Spill, Live at the Crystal Ballroom

In some ways, Built to Spill is an odd choice to be a part of a festival put on by a beer company.  A Built to Spill show is not intended for the casual music fan who’s out on the town looking for a fun night out with the music as mere background to other items on the agenda. The band’s focus is not on spectacle, but on recreating dense, complex works of Guitar As Art for a devoted and appreciative audience in as professional a manner as possible.  Even fans can find themselves lost as the group delves deep into an extensive catalog of originals and various covers.  In other words, there would be no shilling for corporate sponsors, or mentions of alcoholic beverages; Doug Martsch would punctuate a song with a simple “Thanks”.

Though technically a part of the Project Pabst festivities, it is best to think of Saturday night’s show as a stand-alone gig–the chance to see one of the great indie rock bands for over two decades in a locale that while not home, is close to it, for the low price of only $25.  As weekend entertainment options go, it was probably the best bang you could get for your buck, and that’s before taking into account the quality of the actual performance.  With a setlist that danced all around their extensive career and a lineup in which the new parts are now seemingly fully assimilated, the band ended up performing their finest show that I’ve seen in years.

Doug Martsch and co. remembering to carry the zero

Doug Martsch and co. remembering to carry the zero

It’s not a bad idea to start things off with one of the greatest album openers of all-time, and the band obliged with a furious rendition of You In Reverse‘s epic “Goin’ Against Your Mind” in all its solo-filled glory.  The band then dipped into the early years with two cuts from There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, “In the Morning” and “Stab”.  A riveting performance of “Liar” followed, complete with the trademark Doug Martsch head-swivel, as well as a rousing version of “Sidewalk” which got the crowd bouncing.

The middle of the set featured my first encounter with “They Got Away”, a reggae-inspired song that the band had released a few years back on a single that I didn’t even know existed; I had been anticipating new material as the group had been working on a follow-up to There Is No Enemy for some time, but instead I had to settle for a song that ended up being just “new-to-me”.  Speaking of that album, a personal highlight was the gorgeous ballad “Life’s a Dream”, whose climax really sizzled live.  I’m still hoping to catch a live performance of the devastating “Things Fall Apart”, though.

Built to Spill jamming with the opener's cover of "Psycho Killer"

Built to Spill jamming with the opener’s cover of “Psycho Killer”

The last time I caught Built to Spill it was at an intimate show at the Doug Fir where the group was incorporating a new drummer and bass player.  The guitarists were all predictably great, but the rhythm section was hesitant and looked rather bored; part of this could be attributed to a setlist that consisted of seemingly easier songs so as to gradually incorporate the new members.  However, there was no such caution with the material at Saturday’s show, and the two new guys sounded as if they had been a part of the group for years.

The show ended with slow-building classics “I Would Hurt A Fly” and “Time Trap”, and though we were warned the latter would be the last song of the evening, we were thrilled when it unexpectedly merged into old favorite “Car”.  It had been nearly a decade since I saw that song live, and goddamn did it feel good to hear it again.  That said, hopefully it won’t be another decade before I see it again.

Covered: “Cortez the Killer”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original.  If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

Zuma is one of my favorite Neil Young albums, but there is one track that stands out clearly from the rest and is the major reason why most people have this record in their collections: “Cortez the Killer”.  Even my mother, who is only a casual music fan and not really familiar with Young’s work, was compelled to remark about the song when she heard it for the first time, saying “that was beautiful.”  The song is known for its epic guitar solos, but unlike the vast majority of songs with the same claim, the tempo never gets above an ambling pace.  For over seven minutes, the audience is enraptured by gorgeous guitar lines that snake and wrap around the listener’s ears.  It’s an amazing feat.

Over the years, a lot of people who enjoy proving how smart they are, have taken aim at the lyrics and dismissed the song because of the historical inaccuracies.  True, to say “and war was never known” about the Aztecs, out of all the indigenous peoples of the Americas, is pretty ridiculous.  However, the song came out at a time when historians were beginning to teach a revised version of the interaction between European settlers and Native Americans, and if Neil Young swung the narrative too far in the other direction, it’s understandable.  However, consider that just saying “Cortez, Cortez…what a killer” was enough to apparently get this song banned in Spain during the 70’s, and that part was true.  In the end, I’d just say to those critics to get over themselves and enjoy the true beauty of the song, and let the guitars wash over you.

You know how I mentioned above how it was “an amazing feat” for Neil Young and Crazy Horse to keep the listener’s attention for over seven minutes simply by the beauty of the guitar solos?  Think how impressive it would be to do the same thing, except for twenty minutes.  That’s what Built to Spill was able to accomplish, as recorded on their Live album.

Over the years, Built to Spill has been known to play several covers and do an outstanding job on each of them, ranging from classic rock staple “Don’t Fear the Reaper” to M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes”.  I remember seeing a particularly impressive version of The Smith’s “How Soon Is Now?”, with the band able to perfectly nail that distinctive effect for the guitar.  But there may not have been a finer cover than their version of “Cortez”, which still amazes me to this day.  Doug Martsch is a fair match for Neil Young’s distinctive whine, and that’s without even an attempt at imitation; Martsch’s vocals also carry an additional fragility or vulnerability, which helps bring out the beauty of the song even more.

The astonishing thing about their cover is that at no point when listening does it ever feel like “this is a twenty minute song”; it sounds like it takes roughly around the same time as the original, even when you’re listening to several rounds of solos at the end.  And man, those solos…each separate round is able to offer new variations on the well-known melody without sounding repetitive, and able to galvanize the listener without showboating or grandstanding.  The solos keep building and building, and then reach a glorious climax, before slowly receding into the ether, because you have to take some time to calm yourself after witnessing such beauty.  It’s also way tougher to do than just fading out like the original did, though to be fair, that was apparently due to a lack of tape.

The point is, if you have nothing to do for the next half hour, listen to these two versions.  You can thank me later.