Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 7

You can find the previous Shuffle Lessons volumes here.

1. “You Can Call Me Al” – Paul Simon, Graceland

If anyone ever needed justification for Paul Simon winning the first ever Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, the phrase “roly poly little bat-faced girl” should be enough. Paul Simon’s got this frenetic lyrical style, where his songs begin to border almost on spoken word versus actual songs that are sung. It’s amazing how he fits a legitimate short story’s worth of content into a four and a half minute tune, but he pulls it off without breaking a sweat. I’ve never really understood what this song is about, but if I’m being honest, most of Paul Simon’s songs kind of fit that bill for me. This is one of Paul Simon’s most popular solo songs, and for good reason; it’s a fantastic song. Graceland marked a return to the critical spotlight he had been out of for a few years, and there are some strong flavors of international music throughout the whole album. He explores those musical themes even more on his next album, but for my money, the international influences are used to best effect on this album, and a great example is this song. Nothing in your face, just a subtle feeling and an odd background vocal here or there. And in terms of the music, look out for the sickest bass lick in reverse at 3:43.

2. “Gold Watch” – Lupe Fiasco, The Cool

I loved Lupe’s first two albums, because they were full of beats like this one. The entire beat is founded around this female voice saying “oh, give the drummer some, yeah…” and it’s chopped every so slightly, so when it’s put on top of a simple drum rhythm it creates a very unique rhythmic sound. It’s a really simple beat but if simple is done well, it creates some of my very favorite hip hop tracks. The linked video is not the exact song on the album, but it does incorporate the sample material really well and shows you where exactly it came from. Lyrically, Lupe uses the verses to essentially list every odd, non-mainstream, obscure cultural thing he’s into. Fashion, manga, international cultures, old school video games, music, etc. He’s calling out the 95% of hip hop culture that celebrates the same material objects; essentially tearing down the material idols (the eponymous “gold watch”) that have been constructed by hip hop culture of the last decade. It’s not too many shades away from identifying himself with black nerd culture and demonstrating how stereotypes are very often broken when you really begin to learn about a person.

3. “Pray” – Jay Z, American Gangster

This wasn’t one of first favorites off of this album, but its stock rises with repeat listens. Lyrically, you’ve got a pretty straightforward song where Jay Z discusses the two sides of the drug dealing culture. Who’s to blame for the society that pushed him into drug dealing, and was he even pushed into it to begin with? Should he be remorseful about his life’s success when he feels he was forced into it by the hand he was dealt? Ultimately, regardless of his success, he’s admitting that he falls back onto faith when he’s threatened. The beat here is good, but certainly not an attention-grabber. Again, it took me a fair amount of listens to begin to appreciate and enjoy this track much more than the first time I heard it.

4. “Postcards From Far Away” – Coldplay, Prospket’s March

Total time of this track: 48 seconds. A filler instrumental piece on this EP, released from Viva La Vida sessions. It’s a very beautiful solo piano piece, sounding like something from a Jane Austen book. It makes me wonder how many of these Chris Martin comes up with during any given writing session. I would assume most of his songs start as a seed of an idea, something very much like this ditty, then blossoms into a fully-fledged song with the help of the rest of the band. But since we only get around 12 songs on a Coldplay record, what the heck happens to the rest of those song seeds? Makes you think what these little things might’ve become.

5. “Charity Case” – Gnarls Barkely, The Odd Couple

Cee Lo and Danger Mouse! It’s sad to think what a fitting album title this was. It was almost foreboding; the world hasn’t heard new Gnarls Barkley in nearly five and a half years. This is the opening track to their absolutely brilliant sophomore album (love the opening projector sound). These two guys were able to create sonic landscapes unlike anything we were hearing in 2005-2009. They incorporated a bevy of styles, fashions, and rhythms into their music and the end result was just so special. I don’t imagine Cee Lo doing too much in the way of instrumentation, but that could be a naive perspective. He seems to have a very conductor-like way about him, orchestrating the grand spectacle that are his performances. What’s interesting is that Danger Mouse, especially within the parameters of Gnarls Barkley, seemed to have the controlling hand in the music, producing everything according to his very particular, eclectic style, aside from the singing. I’m curious if these two worked well during recording, as they both seem to have a pretty Alpha Creator persona towards their music. Whatever the case, they made fantastic music together, and this is, hands down, one of my favorite songs off of The Odd Couple. The track builds on itself very quickly, and you can hear so many parts blend right away. The James Bond vibrato guitar (Cee Lo must love that), the bass that just glides over the soft rhythm of the drums and the quickly paced hi-hats. Throw in some hand claps and some vocal percussive work by Cee Lo and it’s the perfect way to open a solid gold record.

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