Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 14

1. “Maybe” – N*E*R*D, Fly Or Die

This was probably the second song I fell in love with on N*E*R*D’s sophomore album. Fly Or Die is absolutely one of my favorite records of all time (it currently sits ranked within the Top 25) and that was mainly due to the ear-catching weirdness of the first single “She Wants To Move.” I purchased the album on impulse (probably the best impulse record purchase I’ve ever made) and after the sheer confusion of what I was hearing wore off, I kept coming back to “Maybe.”

This tune immediately sucked me in. “Love was the egg…see?” Spoken by Pharrell before the song actually begins, this is a perfect example of so many elements on this record, both spoken and musical, that were way over my head. There’s no real explanation of what this means, but I loved the weirdness.

Throw in the militaristic drumline (that’s Questlove on drums, he’s in the music video sporting a mohawk) and I was hooked. “Maybe” is a really great example of how well the songs on Fly Or Die are built. Piece by piece, with so much hidden, waiting to be discovered on further listens. But “Maybe” is a really straightforward song, where you can hear the pieces being added. The uber-catchy piano riff, guest musician Lenny Kravitz’s bendy guitar lick, the bass subtly added underneath.

I have to hand it to Kravitz, he does some pretty awesome guitar instrumentation here. The solo licks all over this song play so well off the crunchy power chords in the chorus. And actually, listening to the song now, I’m realizing that one part of the chorus that I used to think was the guitar lick is actually Pharrell’s ethereal background vocals. They sound shockingly like a guitar effect. So cool.

And then, after a verse-chorus (2x) structure (I’m also just hearing the weird video game sound effect that quietly comes in at 1:54 in the second pre-chorus), the band blows into the sexiest sounding bridge this side of a Prince song. Right at 2:30, the chords change from minor to major with some major augmentation thrown in, creating a very suspended sound. Good interplay between instruments here too.

And then back to the verse for a few bars before closing in the bridge. This is just such an unearthly sounding song. I guess that’s appropriate for the lyrics, which again, are way over my head. Stuff about love and eggs? I don’t get it Pharrell, but I don’t care, because you created a song that ensured I wasn’t going to give this album two listens and give up on it. A real masterpiece of prog-pop weirdness.

2. “These Walls” – Tedeschi Trucks Band, Revelator

This is a mellow cut from the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s stunning debut album. While I absolutely love this album, this is one lesser known tracks to me. It broke into my Top 1000 mainly due to the rotation I had been giving to the whole record and hadn’t really focused on this particular song.

It’s a sweet one though. Very soft instrumentation, soft drum brushes, no hard rocking guitar, just lots of electric slide work provided by Derek Trucks, and an almost Oriental sounding acoustic slide providing the intro and coloring the song throughout.

This is a very melancholy song. The music is so soft and unassuming that I feel like it could be the music behind the montage scene of a romantic movie when the leads have split and are pondering where their relationship is headed. Pensive looks out the window, walking in chilly autumn weather on a busy New York street, etc.

In reality, the lyrical content of the song is sadder and more reality based. This is a song sung by a woman who’s been abandoned by her man and she’s left to make ends meet while trying to leave her past with him behind. Tedeschi imbues the voice of the song with so much feeling and while I don’t relate to the content, I feel like I understand the difficulty and sadness of this woman’s day to day experience. Tedeschi’s voice helps you understand. She has so much restrained power and soul in her voice. This is a song that illustrates perfectly why Tedeschi’s voice makes this entire record.

3. “Sara Smile” – Hall & Oates, Daryl Hall & John Oates

It’s always funny to me when a song like this one shuffles up because had I been asked whether “Sara Smile” was in my Top 1000 Most Played Songs in my iTunes library, I would’ve said no. I like Hall & Oates as much as the next guy; in fact, probably a little more than the next guy (their second album Abandoned Luncheonette is the subject of an upcoming blog post). I’ve given all of their core albums quite a few more listens past just the singles. But often, artists like Hall & Oates are remembered for their hits because their hits are fantastic.

This song is no exception. While it doesn’t have an immediately catchy hook like “Rich Girl” or “You Make My Dreams Come True,” “Sara Smile” could be considered H&O’s breakout hit, as it was their first single that broke the Billboard Top 10.

Daryl Hall handles the main vocal, but the harmonies in the chorus are a great example of what these two guys could do together. “Sara Smile” is the perfect example of why H&O are often labeled “blue eyed soul.” Soul music done by white artists. This whole song is so R&B heavy; there is a very good chance if you’d never heard of H&O before and heard this song, you’d assume it was a black group singing it. The soft, atmospheric feel of the music and the interplay of vocals in the chorus make this feel like a cut straight off an O’Jays record or Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. This might not be Hall & Oates at their catchiest, but it’s definitely their grooviest.

4. “Bigger Than My Body” – John Mayer, Heavier Things

It’s crazy to think that this song takes me back more than a third of my life span. “Bigger Than My Body” was the first single released from John Mayer’s sophomore album, Heavier Things. By the summer of 2003, when this album’s release was announced (it came out September 9th of that year, great birthday present for me), I had completely devoured his first album because I had found an artist who spoke more directly to me than anybody I’d ever heard before. This was also right when I was really starting to gain a foothold into what I liked musically aside from DC Talk and Dave Matthews Band and I’d venture so far as to say that this was the first momentous album release of my musical lifetime. The first one that made a real, significant impact. I loved his debut album, Room For Squares, and kept pinching myself to think that I was about to get more music from this guy.

And I’m glad this was the first song I heard from the album, because it prepared me for the stylistic changes JM was undergoing. He was still a pop artist to the core, but he was slowly starting to integrate a wider range of genres into his music. “Come Back To Bed” is a straight blues-burner and “Daughters,” although released on the album as a sappy acoustic ballad, started as a slow blues jam that he co-opted back into its original form just a few years after this with the John Mayer Trio. He also started playing with electronic effects, not in any way that would actually scare off listeners and fans, as is evidenced by “Bigger Than My Body.” The intro line alone is just a effects-heavy electric guitar and he was able to easily replicate this sound live, but when my 15 year old ears heard it, I thought it was a universe away from what he’d brought us on Room For Squares.

Listening to it now, it’s almost quaint. If I heard a song like this now, at almost 30, I’d probably give it short shrift, but I get completely why it spoke to me. This is an inspirational tune, dealing with the feeling that you’ve got so much more inside of yourself than what you’ve been able to let loose. It’s about untapped potential, and what kind of teenager feels like they’re able to completely and accurately communicate their identity to the world? I was an easy mark for this song and it hit the bullseye.

Does this song hold up? I’m not as moved by it as I used to be, and I’d say my primary motivation in listening to this one would be nostalgia. As I said before, a little quaint, just a tad kitschy, but damn if JM doesn’t know how to write an effectively mesmerizing chorus. This guy is a guitar-driven hook machine, and the fact that this chorus sounds as good as it did 12 years ago is the proof.

5. “Tonight You Belong To Me” – The Bird And The Bee, One Too Many Hearts EP

“You know, while you were playing that just now, I had the craziest fantasy. That I could rise up, and float, right down the end of this coronet, right through here, through these valves, right along this tube, and come right up against your lips, and give you a kiss.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Well I didn’t want to get spit on me.”

This song is a little ditty from 1926, but you might know it best if you’ve seen the 1979 Steve Martin movie The Jerk. In the scene, Martin and his lady love, played by Bernadette Peters, walk along the beach at night, serenading each other with this tune. It’s a very sweet scene.

If you’ve never heard The Bird And The Bee, let this song be a brief introduction to the gorgeous vocals of Inara George and the bubbly pop art musical tableau of producer Greg Kurstin. This duo has been making music as The Bird And The Bee for almost 10 years now, and this tune is a decent representation of their sound.

There is something so special about their music. It’s so dreamlike; very atmospheric and ethereal. The instrumentation is so very electronic, done on synthesizers and keyboards and effects-heavy machines, but they manage to create the most organic sound from all of these machines. On top of that, Inara George’s voice has the softest and sweetest timbre I’ve almost ever heard. Her voice is breathy without being obnoxious. She sounds like a backing track on Pet Sounds.

If you like this tune, there is a huge chance you’ll like the rest of their stuff, because this is certainly not their best. Certainly, the sweetness of this song is perfectly suited to the blend of The Bird And The Bee. But George’s vocals are best when they are just purely hers with no blending male harmonies. And there is more shimmering in this tune than normal. Kurstin’s orchestrations might consist of many of these same instruments and machines, but his arrangements are often more unique than this. Some are more complex, some are less, but there is less to dig into in this tune than on their records.

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