We’re a few weeks in to the new year. It’s usually at time to look back at what was accomplished in the past year and set goals for the coming year. New Year resolutions have always seemed like a losing proposition to me. They often contain lofty and enormous goals that are doomed because they’re not whittled down to manageable pieces. I think this is a good time to ponder the difference between goals that are more ‘physical’ and goals that are ‘creative’. For me, the ‘physical’ type of goals are much easier to attain. Eating better and working out to become healthier. Finishing a improvement project. Tracking your spending to reduce purchasing things you don’t really need. House and property cleanup. A person can push through these types of goals by sheer will. For me, these kinds of goals can be accomplished even if I don’t feel like doing them. I think the difficult part is accomplishing goals that deal with the creative process. You can want to work on your creative projects. You can set the time aside to work on them. You can have a vision of the end result. In the end if your not in a proper frame of mind to work on these goals, none of this helps. Try sitting down with an instrument and say “I’m going to write a song today”. You may get something written, but chances are it’s not going to be something that meets your desired goal. I’ve been experiencing this for the last couple of months. Lots of ideas with a great deal of difficulty in turning them in to reality. So how do you get around this? I believe you have to apply the same principles that you apply to you goals that are not ‘creative’. Put in the time. Expect that some of the time you put in will not produce your desired results. I’ll admit that this advice does not always work. I’ve certainly had trouble following this course lately. But you will eventually revive your creative spark if you just keep trying. Knowing the difficulty involved in creation of music gives me even more respect for the artists we review in the Grapevine. Let’s discuss the songs that caught my ear this month.
First Up: Bonny Light Horseman – ‘Cold Rain And Snow’
The best songs convey a feeling that is able to be translated by the listener. This song certainly has that quality. It flows through both the music and the vocals. Let’s discuss the instruments first. This song is a great example of the importance of the arrangement and production of the song. You have to listen very closely to hear and separate the foundation instruments. You can pick them up the best during the instrumental parts of the song. There’s an acoustic guitar part that the other instruments work around. It may be more than one guitar playing the part to add depth – I can hear some single note guitar lines in the left channel.. The percussion is interesting. I hear the basic beat held down by a snare drum that they’ve given more of a ‘jangle’ to then a ‘pop’. I can pick out a high hat, but if there’s a kick it’s buried pretty deeply. There’s a subdued organ in the background of the right channel. There’s also a bass line following the chord changes. All these parts are mixed at about the same level, acting as the foundation to the parts the band wants to highlight. In this case the highlight is on the beautiful harmony vocals. The vocals are mixed together at a relatively even level and spread across the center of the mix, some in the center and the others placed slightly left and right in the channels. This allows you to hear the vocals as somewhat separate pieces even though they are relatively even in volume. The other important part of the vocals is having the lyrics match the general feeling of the vocal melody. The final piece is the guitar that acts as a counterpoint melody when there are no vocals. I like the decision to make this guitar line electric with some distortion added. It helps put it up front and puts more power in the melody line it’s playing. The great arrangement and vocal harmonies accomplish the goal of any song – make the listener feel something.
Next Up: The Bug Club – ‘Only In Love’
Our second selection of the month shows how simplicity in a song can be the right choice. There’s something relatable to most people when you hear a good garage rock song. I think that part of it is the simplicity. It’s all right there for you. The drumming is simple and straight forward. Snare, kick and cymbals. Not a lot of complicated patterns or fills. It makes a great anchor point to build the rest of the song on. The guitar is a simple strum pattern. This works partly because of the sonics chosen for the guitar sound. Lots of fuzzy distortion on a guitar sound that stays in the crisp top end of the instrument. The bass part is interesting. It’s not given a lot of prominence in the mix. If you listen carefully you can hear the bass part walking around the scale notes of the chord rather than just sitting on the chord’s key note. The vocals maintain the song’s garage based feel. The melody lines are simple and straight forward. There’s not a lot of reverb added to the vocals which makes them easy to hear in the mix and keeps them the focal point of the song. At the :53 mark they go in to the break section of the song. The change in the guitar chord and drumming patterns sets up the last part of the song and keeps it from becoming too simplistic. When they come out of the break change, they go back in to the basic pattern of the song. But the end run of the song feels like they’ve picked up the pace. This is accomplished by keeping the same feel from the beginning of the song but modulating the chords and vocals in to a higher key. At 1:39 the song is short, but for the style and feel of the song the length of time is perfect.
Finally: Alela Diane – ‘Howling Wind’
‘Howling Wind’ is a great lesson on how to build a song using dynamics and arrangement. The song is built around the piano part and the vocals. These two instruments carry through the entire song and provide the basis for it’s lyric story and feel. The song is a comment on how times used to feel compared to the constant anxiety and crisis that are part of our world today. Around these two foundation pieces a variety of other instruments are added to the mix as the song builds. In the beginning before the vocals a harmonica mirrors the coming vocal line. You can also hear a shaker in the deep background adding some steady rhythm. At the 1:20 mark some pedal steel comes in followed by the introduction of drums. By the time the 2:00 mark the song adds guitar and the harmonica makes another appearance. These instruments are added to the edges of the song, being panned more heavily to the left and right channels to keep them from stepping on the main concentration of the song, the piano and vocals. As the song continues more guitar and keyboard pieces are added. This song could be played all the way through with just the piano and vocals. I think the message would still come across powerfully. But the addition of the other instruments gives a feeling of lift to the song. It’s the audio version of climbing to the top of a mountain. You have certain feelings working your way up, but upon reaching the top you look around and feel like the world has been revealed to you. The choices made in slowly adding instrumentation and building dynamics has added extras in texture and emotion that you feel without even realizing it is happening.
Retro: Rare Earth – ‘I Just Want To Celebrate’
This song was released by Rare Earth in 1971. I think a lot of people may recognize the song without remembering the band who recorded it. I’ve always enjoyed the drive and groove of funk rock songs from that era. If bands like Sly and The Family Stone, Parliament/Funkadelic and James Brown don’t make you want to move, your feet are probably cemented to the floor. These are the early songs that made me want to play bass guitar. The drums and bass establish the groove, but the guitar sonics closely imitate 1970’s hard rock. The guitar parts are as much about the beat laid down with the right hand as the notes played with the left hand. You could, in fact, play a pretty decent break in a song like this dead stringing the notes with your left hand and playing a great groove with your right hand and a wah wah pedal (you’ll definitely hear that pedal in this song). Even the vocals are built for the groove. The timing of the vocals are just as important as the melody line. Some highlights are the vocal count in at the beginning, the short and funky guitar solos and the hand percussion you can pick up in the background if you listen closely. You also need to leave some open space in the arrangement. Filling every bit of open space with guitars or keyboards actually waters down the beat and turns a good groove in to mush. If you want to know how to start a great groove, listen to the song at 2:22 where everything drops out except the drums. This is where everything that moves this song along begins.