Sunday, May 24, 2009

"I Just Want to Love U (Give it to me)" / Jay-Z / The Dynasty

It's hard to believe this song is almost ten years old, isn't it? I'm not a huge Hova (that's what the kids call him...or used to call him; I can't keep up any more) fan, but I do have a couple of CDs, and that's not including the "Grey Album", the (unauthorized) project by Athens' own Danger Mouse mixing his "Black Album" with the Beatles' "White Album" , which I am probably obligated to own as a music blogger.

Two great tastes that taste great together

If you remember anything about rap back in the late 90's, it was all about gloss, bling, and ridiculous excess. It was the heyday of Puff Daddy and he churned out hit after hit based on old 80's pop tunes. The record industry was as strong as it has ever been (and will ever be, in my opinion), there was lots of money to be made, and by God, the hip hop artists of the era were celebrating it.

"I Just Want to Love You" is a pretty good example of the type of music and lyrics we were getting at the time. The Neptunes were the hot producers at the moment (and they were pretty good back then), and Pharrel Williams has the best part of the song - the falsetto chorus that calls back old-school funk songs and is also a lyrical shoutout to someone who hadn't been heard form in years at the time - Rick James

Jay Z, in a typical act of rap artist modesty, calls himself "The greatest rapper alive". I'm not willing to go that far (give me Rakim, Q-Tip, or Chuck D), but the dude's good. I think with him, it's more a "sum of the parts" situation. I can't put my finger on any one thing that makes him stand out, but he does lots of little things really well. I think the best thing about his rapping is his phrasing. He doesn't strictly go line to line, verse to verse in the same rhythm. He mixes his delivery up really well which keeps any of his songs from getting monotonous and keeps you listening and interested. For an example of what I'm getting at here, check the "It's - about -to- go-down" delivery about a minute into the song. All the hallmarks of "bling" music are there - Cristal champagne, Prada, Gucci, Remi Martin, "cheddar", weed, ecstasy, Belvedere, and the like. Hell, even Atlanta's infamous Cheetah is name checked.

Lyrically in this song, and I know you may not believe this, but Jay Z seems to have many, many women after him. He warns these ladies that they must be sexualy proficient to spend time with him, but be warned! Although he has lots and lots (and lots) of money, he's NOT willing to spend it on you.

I kid with this, obviously it's not a weighty message of social commentary like "Fight the Power", but I've always felt it's unfair to hold rap songs to standards like that. Shit, 90% of rock music is about chasing tail and getting fucked up, but no one is calling out Van Halen for not having an uplifting, responsible message. Plus, you have to have chuckle at a couplet like this :
Yeah, save the narrative you savin it for marriage
Let's keep it real ma you savin it for cabbage

Embedding is forbidden! So, click here if you'd like to watch the video. It's a party!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

"In The Light" / Led Zeppelin / Physical Graffiti

For previous Zeppelin musings, check here. As a general rule, I don't repeat artists that appear unless they are one of my biggies. Zeppelin is, for sure.

This song is one of my favorites on Physical Graffiti , which is a double album that takes the genre-expanding possibilities hinted at in Led Zeppelin III (my personal favorite, by the way) and delivers, bigtime. From classic Zeppelin cock-rock to lengthy blues romps, roots bluegrass, and beautiful instrumental ballads, Physical Graffiti has it all.

"In The Light" was the first song on side two of the Physical Graffiti tape (date myself? Nah), and I have very specific memories of listening to this "tape" over and over at a friend's house in high school, his bedroom filled with green light from a Kroger party lightbulb, probably finishing up some marathon role-playing game. So, believe it or not, those are good, comforting memories.

This song has a very long intro, which features Page producing an eerie sound by using a violin bow on an acoustic guitar to act as the bass. It also features an instrument relatively new to the Zeppelin sound up until then - the keybord. Also new was the total turn from the blues-based formula for which Zeppelin had become famous. You can hear the Middle Eastern influence creeping into the song right from the start, a style with which Jimmy Page would become more and more fascinated with until he finally unleashed it in the astonishing No Quarter album years after Zeppelin's demise.

Nigel Tufnel - an obvious influene on Page's style
(Interesting, also, that this song follows "Kashmir" on the album, considered by some the quintessential Led Zeppelin song and itself a tune with stong lyrical and musical roots in the Middle East.)

Plant and Page come in with the first lyrics at 1:44, hauntingly harmonized and heavily reverbed. Then at 2:45, another keyboard kicks in, a monstrous descending riff backed by John Bonham's first appearance in the song. They settle into a nice groove here for a while, then suddenly at 4:11, literally halfway through, there is a thirdkeyboard break followed by Page's wonderful ascending riff at 4:25 (contrasting nicely with the earlier descending scale). Stylistically, it's a whole new song here, and, reflective of the title and lyrics, brings the listener "In the light", highlighted by a change from a minor to a major key. Do you see how they manipulated you there? Don't you love it, though? It's brilliant stuff and the kind of mature songwriting these guys never get credit for.

Then, five minutes in, we suddenly go back to Kashmir, as it were - the strange, droning sound that began the song. They lock into that bluesy groove again, then hit the descending riff immediately followed by the ascending guitar. That riff and Page tracking some solo work over it takes us home, this time leaving us "In The Light" (and if we don't get it, I've always liked the way Plant sings "Light, light, light...In the Light" at the end of the song.)

Think about it: in the five years since their debut, which was essentially heavy covers of blues standards, Zeppelin had grown as artists to produce a song and album like this. It's a phenomenal growth curve for a band in such a short amount of time, and explains why every generation for decades now has come to revere Zeppelin and claim them as their own.

Note: I couldn't find a YouTube video of the song. Apparently Led Zeppelin is very protective of their image as such. I'm sure anyone bothering to read this already has a coy of "In the Light" you could cue up, but if you don't, you can download the song below. I've also included a pretty cool alternate take of the song I did find. Obviously, my notes above are about the studio recording.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

"We Hold On" / Rush / Snakes & Arrows

Well, here I am back from a long sabbatical. And what a way to come back - the moment some of you have dreaded is finally upon us. After 80 posts here, I've finally landed on a Rush song. You'd think having 176 songs of theirs on my itunes (plus owing them the title of the blog) would have made them come up a bit sooner, but maybe it's appropiate that they lead my blogging comeback, especially with this song.

I really don't know how to offer up any context about this band. You either love them or you hate them, and I'm not going to change anyone's mind; God knows I've tried. Over the years I've had to defend myself from attacks by haters, even going in the closet about them, but that time seems to have passed. Against all odds, Rush has become, if not loved, grudgingly respected by the rock world. It's safe to say that when you get slobbery wet kisses from the likes of the Judd Apatow crew The Colbert Report, it's OK to break out the T shirt again
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Rush is Here
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The first time I really stated getting into them was back in 1986. I would spend most weekends with some other buddies at Trey Watson's house, eating, wasting time, listening to music, all the monotonous stuff kids do before they are able to drive. He put on Rush's best-known classic Moving Pictures, and once I heard Geddy Lee's voice hit the high note on "...what you say" in "Tom Sawyer", I was enthralled. After that, I began buying their tapes at KMart in the $4.99 rack and loved them all - Hemispheres, Fly By Night, Rush, A Farewell to Kings. Permanent Waves (still my favorite of theirs) was the first CD I ever bought after I got my first CD player in 1989.

I caught up to the bands back catalogue pretty quickly in time for their first release as a new fan, 1989's Presto. On my eighteenth birthday, May 1st, 1990, I saw them in concert for the first time, pretty much cementing their all-time #1 status with me.

I can't really describe why I like the band the way I do. Rush fans are pretty much known for being obsessive about the band, exalting them to near-deity status. I think being a musician helps, as they are very much a band loved by other band / guitar geeks. For me, a big part is Neil Peart's lyrics. He gets lots of shit for pretentious navel-gazing and has a bad rap for writing Dungeons and Dragons nonsense he can't seem to shake (Rush hasn't written lengthy narrative songs in years), but I like the fact that this band addresses the spectrum of human existence and human interaction - not just love.

Now having praised Peart's lyrics, I have to admit this particular song doesn't come off without a couple of missteps. "Hold On" is the final song off of their most recent album, Snakes & Arrows. It's the best album they have done in twenty years, in my opinion, maybe even more. They have really stripped down their sound these days, sounding much more organic and comfortable. "We Hold On" is a classic Rush album closer, as they are known among fans as some of the strongest tracks on their albums over the years.

It begins with a slow build - Geddy's voice over Alex Lifeson's arpeggios and a simple beat from Peart. The music is low to highlight the first verse:
How many times
Do we tire of all the little battles
Threaten to call it quits
Tempted to cut and run
How many times
Do we weather out the stormy evenings
Long to slam the front door
Drive away into the setting sun

Then at :39, the song takes off - kicking up the tempo and introducing Lifeson's little riff (really, if you follow this band, Alex Lifeson is the clear star of this album). Unfortunately, as previous mentioned, I find one line in the chorus a little painful:
Keep going on till dawn

(Ouch. Really, Neil, you're better than that.)
How many times must another line be drawn?
We could be down and gone
But we hold on

Yeah, the second line in the chorus saves it - I love the determination behind it. The second verse is even better:
How many times
do we chaff against the repetition
Straining against the faith
Measured out in coffee breaks
How many times
Do we swallow our ambition
Long to give up the same old way
Find another road to take

See, here's why I love this band. That couplet - "Straining against the faith / Measured out in coffee breaks" is a clear allusion to a line in T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

This adds another layer to the song's meaning. It's not merely about longevity, it's about putting your foot down (not "drawing another line" as the song puts it), and as Prufrock does in the famous poem, breaking out of a mundane, everyday existence.

There are, literally, hundreds of these types of intricacies to Preart's lyrics .I can listen to a song I've heard thousands of times before and sometimes I will suddenly figure out a lyric I've puzzed over or never payed attention to. It's a band that rewards careful listening, and I appreciate that they respect themselves and their audience that way.

The song carries on through a short bridge then back to the chorus at which point they are locked in instrumentally. (In particular, listen so Peart's stops, starts, off-beats, rolls, and the like at the end of the bridge - 3:12 to 3:17. There's a reason "The Professor" might be the most famous rock drummer....ever). The only thing that bothers me about this song is the tempo. If is was just a hair faster, it would be a new Rush classic. As it is, it's still great for a bunch of dudes pushing sixty, thirty years into their career.

There. That wasn't so unbearable, was it? Now listen to the song. It's not going to kill ya.