Tag Archives: John Mayer

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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This week in NYC

What follows is why I’m earnestly glad that social media exists. Here’s what happened last week in New York City.

1. John Mayer started tweeting again in the last month, which is really not a big deal, except when it’s regarding him recording music. And in the last week, he had a lot to say about recording music. He first tweeted that the John Mayer Trio would be reuniting to perform on Late Night With Seth Meyers, as well as hitting the studio to record an LP with some “legendary guests.” The first JM3 record was released in 2005, and their last release could be considered 2008 if you count the set they played for JM’s Annual Holiday Revue concert in ’07, the entirety of which eventually got released as Where The Light Is: Live In Los Angeles in 2008. We haven’t heard legitimately new music from JM3 in 6 years.

So the mere fact that they’re recording a new LP is nearly the biggest news to that could possibly rock my musical world (second only to the release of you’know’who’s forever-in-limbo third album). Then JM tweets that the Trio will be joined in the studio by living legend Chick Corea. Are you kidding me?! This is monumental news. Add to it they’ve also got Miles Davis-approved trumpeter Wallace Roney in the sessions as well. JM also posts some photos up of Pino, Chick, Steve, and Wallace all clearly enjoying the results of their musical collaboration.

On top of that, he posted two videos on Instagram of Chick playing a gig with fellow jazz legends Ron Carter and Roy Haynes at the Blue Note, a jazz club with some notoriety. Very cool, but not particularly significant, until…

2. James Poyser, keys player for The Roots and the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (he’s the guy who plays Thank-You Notes), posted a picture of him chatting with Chick Corea (see below). Only then did I put it together that Late Night With Seth Meyers tapes in 30 Rock, as does the Tonight Show, and the Blue Note is a venue in New York, and JM3 was doing Late Night this week. Also, James Poyser is one of the four-founding members of the Soulquarians, which is always worth stating, even if it doesn’t necessarily tie to anything else.

poyser

3. Back to JM, his Twitter account led me to the Twitter account of Chick Corea, on which were posted several pictures of the actual recording session in which he took part with JM3.

It was at the Electric Lady Studios in New York City, a historical recording studio where countless landmark artists have recorded, including:

  • Jimi Hendrix (the original creator/founder of the studio)
  • The Roots
  • Chic
  • Led Zeppelin
  • The White Stripes
  • Diana Ross
  • Stevie Wonder
  • Erykah Badu
  • Common
  • D’Angelo

And that’s a short list of artists who have recorded at this studio. Insane.

4. Finally, D’Angelo’s sound engineer Russ Elevado (who has now replied to me via Twitter 3 times. That’s right, a Grammy-winning artist has tweeted me 3 separate times. This is my 15 minutes.) retweeted a picture posted by drummer Chris Dave of the same Blue Note gig JM was at. Except in his picture, Savion Glover was on stage.

Legends….roy hanes.. savion glover…ron carter…amazing

A post shared by chris drumhedz (@chrisdaddydave) on

This has suddenly become the craziest gig ever. Dave also posted a picture of him with Chick, Steve and Pino, right around this time. Which is awesome and notable, mainly because of this last bombshell: Chris Dave has contributed a great deal of the drum work on D’Angelo’s new album. You’ve got a guy in a band with JM taking a picture with a guy in D’Angelo’s band, plus an extra guy who is playing for both JM and D’. Then throw in a jazz legend to boot.

All of this culminated with JM3’s first performance on TV in over 5 years on Late Night With Seth Meyers, where they were joined by Chick Corea, Wallace Roney, and former Weather Report percussionist Manolo Badrena. They did a cover of J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight” which featured fantastic solos by Wallace, Chick, and JM.

It was a very groovy performance, and it was a good reminder that as far as career choices go, JM could play/record exclusively with older, established musicians, and all of his output would be fantastic. He doesn’t need to guest on Frank Ocean’s album to stay relevant (although when he does, it’s awesome). He just needs to keep creating awesome, powerful music, which is a rare commodity nowadays.

What I love about all of this is how interconnected music is. Being a musician is being in a big club, and a bunch of clubmembers who might not normally interact came into each other’s orbits this week, and I can only hope strong connections were made (i.e. a D’Angelo/JM collaboration would be the pinnacle of all my musical hopes and dreams). Here’s hoping we get a full on jazz record from JM3 soon.

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Sweeping Declarations: The Aftermath or 2013 In Music: A Review

It is with an overwhelmingly heavy heart that I must report: my Sweeping Declaration made in March of 2013 did not come true.

Let’s rewind and take a look back at it:

This Year Will Be The Best Year Of Music That I Live To See.

On paper, you’d think I was dead on. The number of good artists to release new music this year? Unparalleled. In fact, higher than any year I’ve been alive and conscious of popular music. That’s why I thought my Declaration was nearly fool-proof. Unfortunately, just because an artist I like releases a new album doesn’t mean it’s going to be a 5-star affair. Let’s first take a look at the albums I listened to this last year:

  • Night Beds – Country Sleep
  • Jim James – Regions Of Light And Sound Of God
  • Madeleine Peyroux – The Blue Room
  • Eric Clapton – Old Sock
  • Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience Part 1
  • Josh Rouse – The Happiness Waltz
  • The Strokes – Comedown Machine
  • Fitz & The Tantrums – More Than Just A Dream
  • She & Him – Volume 3
  • Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
  • Jamie Cullum – Momentum
  • Booker T. Jones – Sound The Alarm
  • Jay Z – Magna Carta… Holy Grail
  • Sara Bareilles – The Blessed Unrest
  • Robert Randolph & The Family Band – Lickity Split
  • Mayer Hawthorne – Where Does This Door Go
  • Buddy Guy – Rhythm & Blues
  • The Civil Wars – The Civil Wars
  • Valerie June – Pushin’ Against A Stone
  • Tedeschi Trucks Band – Made Up Mind
  • John Mayer – Paradise Valley
  • Derek Webb – I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You
  • Jack Johnson – From Here To Now To You
  • Elvis Costello & The Roots – Wise Up Ghost
  • Haim – Days Are Gone
  • Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience Part 2
  • Amos Lee – Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song
  • Teitur – Story Music
  • Brett Dennen – Smoke And Mirrors
  • Arcade Fire – Reflektor

If you look at the left side of that list, it’s pretty impressive to think this many awesome artists all released new music. It’s what they released that rendered my Sweeping Declaration false. Let me explain with more lists:

Top 5 Favorite Albums of 2013:

  • Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience Part 1
  • Haim – Days Are Gone
  • John Mayer – Paradise Valley
  • Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
  • Amos Lee – Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song

Top 5 Album Let-Downs of 2013:

  • Jamie Cullum – Momentum
  • Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience Part 2
  • John Mayer – Paradise Valley
  • Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
  • Tedeschi Trucks Band – Made Up Mind

These lists are weird one after another, especially because two albums appear on each. But this is the essence of what made this a weird year of music for me. Some of my favorite artists released music, really good music, but not stunning music. Let’s look at a few examples.

JM’s Paradise Valley is really a great album. Smooth sounds, a nice country/western vibe, nothing too difficult or inaccessible. Just nice tunes about love and summertime. But honestly, this felt like gussied-up outtakes from the Born And Raised sessions. Born And Raised came out hardly a year ago, and it was a perfect example of how JM has managed to continually evolve musically for over 10 years now. But with Paradise Valley (and again, I really loved the album), there wasn’t that same sense of musical growth that JM’s managed to pull off with every single new studio album he’s released. As a consumer, it left me happy we had new JM, but a bit hollow.

Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories is maybe the most disappointing, as they had the biggest build-up and their album was plagued by the same sorts of issues they’ve had in the past. However, it’s still an awesome album. Nobody can make a electronic song like Daft Punk. With the help of Nile Rodgers, they created some of my favorite tunes of the year. The album was just so 50/50 to me. Each song was either a solid gold hit or something I skipped (with the exception of the 3:21-4:11 segment in the middle of “Touch”).

And then Justin Timberlake wowed us all with two album releases. I’ve read that his return to music was due to a contractual obligation, and if that’s the reason for two albums, then I get it. But musically? Part 2 was the most unnecessary album of the year. Especially because of how powerful Part 1 was. Part 1 was a sonic safari through the minds of JT and Timbaland, and it was better than 100% of today’s pop music. Part 2 was overkill, with a few good songs but nearly all of them too long. Did we really need the last track and hidden track? The former was like a leftover from the *NSYNC days and the latter was the fluffiest bit of mush he’s made since the Justified ballads. Again, had JT just stuck with Part 1 and called it The 20/20 Experience, it would’ve been perfect. Part 2 was just excessive.

But truly, even if all of these artists had released their best albums all in the same year, there is still one event that needed to have occurred for me to fully qualify my Sweeping Declaration as true. Whatever year D’Angelo decides to release his third album, the follow-up to 2000’s Voodoo, will be the best year of music I’ll most likely ever live to see.

Rumors have been flying about this album for nearly a decade, but since January of 2012, the rumors have turned into something more than just industry ephemera. D started playing shows again, both in Europe and the States, Questlove began promising the album was close to finished, and Russell Elevado (sound engineer on Voodoo and the follow-up) started tweeted that the album was completely mastered and ready to be released. He’s even mentioned spring/summer of 2014 as a release date.

Frankly, I’ll believe it when I’m holding the album in my hands. 2013 was pretty good as far as music goes, but without a doubt, the year of D’s return will be better.

Here’s my Best of 2013 Playlist:

  1. “Ramona” – Night Beds
  2. “Wild Child” – Brett Dennen
  3. “Waitin’ On The Day” – John Mayer
  4. “Out Of My League” – Fitz & The Tantrums
  5. “Back Seat Lover” – Mayer Hawthorne
  6. “Let The Groove Get In” – Justin Timberlake
  7. “Somewhere In America” – Jay Z
  8. “Fragments Of Time” – Daft Punk
  9. “Don’t Save Me” – Haim
  10. “Our Love” – Josh Rouse
  11. “Reflektor” – Arcade Fire
  12. “Indonesia” – Amos Lee
  13. “Take Me Out (Of Myself)” – Jamie Cullum
  14. “Manhattan” – Sara Bareilles

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Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 6

1. “Us Against The World” – Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto

I listened to this tune for about a minute and a half and couldn’t think of a thing to say. It’s a really pretty song, as most Coldplay songs are, and I think that’s the problem. Since they released X&Y in 2005, they’ve seemed to work on perfecting their very specific sound. Viva La Vida was the last album I feel was a stretch for them. And this isn’t meant to rip Coldplay apart, they could release 10 albums of “their” musical sound and I’d love each one. I just don’t know how much evolution the band has left, based strictly on the evidence from Mylo Xyloto. It’s a great album, but it’s no different thematically or musically from the last few. This particular song highlights that pretty well. A really nice acoustic guitar strum, layered with ephemeral, reverbed and echoed electric guitar riffs. Don’t get me wrong, this is a gorgeous song. It’s inspiring. It’s just not a stretch for Coldplay.

2. “Call Me The Breeze” – John Mayer, Paradise Valley

One of the very newest additions to my Top 1000, as this album just came out four days ago. I’ll do my best to focus on the song itself rather than the entire album, about which I have a lot of thoughts. Confession time, I had zero clue when I first saw the track list of Paradise Valley that this was a cover. It was only after looking at liner notes that I saw this was originally a J.J. Cale tune. Which was an interesting connection to make, because when I first heard this song, I immediately thought of anything Eric Clapton has done past the year 2001. This is a smooth little number that meanders along at a nice little clip, and JM’s guitar tone is seriously a carbon copy of recent Clapton. Again, this isn’t bad, it’s just nearing a bit too close to derivative for me. For my money, JM has a dicey track record when it comes to covers:

  • Hendrix’s “Bold As Love” – A
  • Cream’s “Crossroads” – C-
  • Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” – A+
  • Police’s “Message In A Bottle” – B-
  • Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman” – A

Throw this song on that list and I give it a B. It’s a nice song, pretty fun, good for a few listens, but it’s just so easy to not realize it is on until after it ends and you realize there is silence or another song started. There’s no reason I’d listen to this one twice in a row.

3. “Alma-Ville” – Vince Guaraldi Trio, Jazz Impressions Of Black Orpheus

Good grief! This is as close to a Charlie Brown song as we’ll probably get on this list. Vince Guaraldi is the genius behind all of the music of the Charlie Brown cartoons from the ’60s, and therefore is the genius behind the sound of my every single Christmas season. This is one of his explicitly non-Charlie Brown themed albums, and it’s by far my favorite. Guaraldi had this style of piano playing that was so very unique. That’s why you can hear when a Charlie Brown cartoon is on. His style was so distinctive, and it permeates all the music he released. This album is full of rhythms that change ever so slightly, song sections that highlight drum brushes and hi-hats, bouncy upright bass (imagine Pigpen playing it), and Guaraldi’s own wandering riffs. I feel like to play his music well, you’d have to look kind of dopey. Just loose and silly and behind the beat a tad. That’s what this song feels like to me, just a tad dopey. Not caring what section comes next or how to nail the transition. It keeps it very light and colorful.

4. “Reptile” – Eric Clapton, Reptile

This is the opening track off of my favorite Clapton record. I’m not sure why, but my ear tends to gravitate toward smoother, fully-produced music. I love studio-recorded music that’s been tweaked and engineered and mastered well. This album is the second in a phase-change in Clapton’s career. Pilgrim started this move towards blues-based pop songs with slick production, and this album perfected it. This song is a beautiful instrumental, and the tone of Clapton’s electric is what I wish I could always make my guitar sound like. It overlays a very bossa nova rhythm section, with brushes and some pretty awesome rhythmic finger picked acoustic guitar. For any aspiring lead guitarists, this tune is also a fantastic exercise. I learned the entire lead guitar part note for note, and it was a great lesson in how to construct an awesome solo, how to incorporate great blues licks in a non-blues style, and simply how to get your fingers to move fast. Clapton’s entire lead part on this song is an exercise in understated soloing. He creates a memorable lead line without overtaking or monopolizing the entire song, which is awesome. Clapton’s versatility shines so brightly here.

5. “Doc Pomus” – Ben Folds & Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue

Another fascinating tune off of BF and Hornby’s collaborative album. What’s interesting is that Lonely Avenue was written in the style of the men BF sings about in this song, and that title is even an homage to one of the biggest hits they wrote. Doc Pomus was a songwriter in the ’50s and ’60s, writing songs for a host of popular artists including Ray Charles, Elvis Presley & and Dr. John. He often collaborated with Mort Shuman; Shuman providing music while Doc Pomus would write the lyrics (how BF and Hornby created this album). Doc Pomus was stricken with polio as a child and was in crutches or a wheelchair for his whole life. This song describes a bit of his life, where he spent his time, celebrities with whom he rubbed elbows, and the normal/crazy folk he came in contact with and who provided inspiration for his songs. This song almost becomes a sort of statement on songwriting as a therapeutic output. The second verse/last tag is a reference to how Doc Pomus described himself later in life:

And he could never be one of those happy cripples / the kind that smile and tell you life’s OK / He was mad as hell, frightened and bitter / He found a way to make his isolation pay

It’s also a very musically Ben Folds song. One of the great things about BF’s music is that it all sounds very Ben Folds without sounding overly derivative or incestuous. He doesn’t ever really need to shoot for far outside his wheelhouse because he’s got such an eclectic songwriting style that allows for a wide range of sounds and styles. This song is a great example of the Ben Folds sound in the post 2005 world.

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Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 3

1. “Love Gun” Feat. Lauren Bennett – Cee Lo Green, The Lady Killer

This is one of my lesser played tracks off of Cee Lo’s genius 2010 solo album, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad tune. It’s probably got a much higher skip count than it should. What’s tough about an album as solid as The Lady Killer is that it’s easy for strong tracks to fall through the cracks while one is obsessed with the four or five truly stand out tracks.

This one starts with the cocking and shooting of the eponymous “love gun” and it sounds like Cee Lo’s audition for a James Bond theme. The guitar sounds lifted directly from a Bond movie’s opening credits, and the orchestral strings sound like they’d be accompanied by stylized “BANG!”s and “POW!”s, a la the old Batman TV show. Cee Lo’s got this fantastic way of nailing down very specific genre sounds with his music, and this whole tune is a perfect example of that. It’s also maybe the most thematic tune on the whole album (The Lady Killer…love gun…). It might not be immediately catchy like “Wildflower” or “Cry Baby” so it’s easy to skip, but it’s a fun, albeit slow, song.

2. “I Love N.Y.E.” – Badly Drawn Boy, About A Boy

This is an instrumental from the soundtrack to the movie adaptation of Nick Hornby’s book, “About A Boy.” Good book, and surprisingly even better movie. About a self-centered rich guy whose life runs into that of a socially outcast boy with a depressed single mother. The whole soundtrack is awesome too, Badly Drawn Boy’s got very unique sounds that lend themselves well to the feel of the movie. I believe this particular song plays during the scene where Will first meets Rachel and is completely floored by her. The musical theme of the song is carried through much of the soundtrack, but it’s teased out most thoroughly on this track, and it is a very simple melody over achingly beautiful chords. Add some strings and you’ve got a tear-inducing instrumental piece that I’ve loved since I first heard it.

3. “In Repair” – John Mayer, Continuum

This is a great JM tune, an anthem about coming back to the land of the living after a particularly bad break up or other such depressing life event. I don’t think I’ve heard him do this one at any of the shows I’ve seen, but I’ve heard several live versions of the tune, and boy does it have room to open up and be a pretty kick-ass show closer. Even on the album, JM’s got an extended chorus that he just riffs on, so multiply that by 100 and you’ve got the live version. In this very cool documentary video of the writing and recording of this song, it was done in one afternoon and as soon as he found that weird reverbed, delayed pedal tone that made his guitar sound like an organ, the rest of the song came quickly after. What I love about that video is that it completely breaks down how this song was put together from the very first seed of the idea to the end product. You hear JM find the pedal combo that gets that organ sound, you see Charlie Hunter (guitarist featured on D’Angelo’s Voodoo) come up with the transition to the bridge completely on the fly on his 8-string guitar. You can even hear lyrics that were eventually scrapped once JM got the lyrical theme hammered down, but you can hear him sing the lyrics before he’s got the final melody in place. The most impressive thing is how he rips the actual guitar solo you hear on the finished product not 6 hours since the song was born. Watching that documentary gave me a completely new respect for a song that I originally kind of shrugged off. This tune is a great example of what happens when great musicians get together and get inspired.

4. “No Pause” – Girl Talk, Feed The Animals

I’ve been afraid of getting a Girl Talk song since I started the Shuffle Lessons series. But it was bound to happen, so let’s get into it. The song starts with Missy Elliott’s “Work It” and it really blasts off at 0:18 with Nu Shooz’s “I Can’t Wait” providing the backdrop over the chorus of “Work It.” It then transitions into Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without A Pause” over Heart’s “Magic Man.” We then jump over a short interlude of mixed songs and get into “Shake That” by Eminem Feat. Nate Dogg over Yael Naim’s “New Soul.”

As with every Girl Talk song, this is an insanely complicated mash-up of tunes new and old. Obviously I did not list every single sample that Girl Talk used for this particular track, but the easiest ones to hear are covered. In terms of lyrics, the “Rebel Without A Pause x Magic Man” is an awesome mash-up, but musically I like the “Work It x I Can’t Wait” portion, as the musical foundation from Nu Shooz elevates Missy Elliott’s original song. The end of this track kind of tailspins for me and seems to jar my ears with the transition from Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” lyric into the bouncy jingle of “New Soul.” It’s just not the smoothest transition and my ear doesn’t like it.

5. “Captain Jim’s Drunken Dream” – James Taylor, In The Pocket

This is a fantastically sad song about an alcoholic old boat captain who has forsaken his love of the sea for the safety of the mainland and can’t get over his regret. This is one of those killer JT tracks that I serendipitously stumbled upon because it is the song after “Woman’s Gotta Have It” on the album, and every few months or so I go on a tear of listening to that song because it is awesome. But letting the iPod play on after that one ends led me to this tune and the melody is what kept me from skipping back. JT’s got this great skill of mixing lyrical melodies so well with the rhythm of his tunes; they just live so harmoniously together. His line that begins “All I need is the sea and the sky…” is not only a heartbreaking lyric, but the way his melody jumps in time with the rhythm sounds so good.

And yikes, talk about a terribly sad song. Why did Captain Jim leave the sea? He doesn’t get into that, which is a great move for the song. Sadness that comes from feeling like you’ve got untapped potential is common, but even worse is the sadness that comes from having what you loved and being the reason you don’t have it anymore. Captain Jim is completely cognizant of the position he’s placed himself in, that he’s looked at like a crazy person and that he’s lost his mind in The Bottle, but the memories of where he belonged, where he fit and where he found purpose is such a downer. Captain Jim is the case for better never to have loved at all than to have loved and lost, because he loved and lost and he’s continually paying that price through depression, alcoholism and social ostracism.

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Pop Culture Q&A, Vol. 1: What albums have you loved the longest?

This post was inspired by (read: ripped off from) The AV Club, a website that discusses and reviews pop culture/media (if you aren’t on their stuff, they have loads of great reads on new and old media, I highly recommend it). They have a regular feature called Pop Culture Q&A, where they throw a question out and have staff and readers discuss. I’m going to take my favorite Q&A’s and answer them in long form here. So my first Q&A I’m choosing is this:

  • What album(s) have you loved the longest?

I had one album that leaped into my head right away, and as I let this question simmer in my brain, it might result in other posts answering it again. But for now, we’ll start with John Mayer’s Room For Squares. I got a hold of this album at exactly the right time, and I feel as though I was exactly the demographic/listener JM was trying to reach with his debut record (although, in terms of reaching an audience, isn’t it the desired output of most pop culture products that every audience member who embraces the work will think it was created for just them?). I was 15 or 16 when I first started listening to this album, and I think Your Body Is A Wonderland was just on the radio. JM was really starting to gain some major traction in recognition, he was landing singles on chick flick soundtracks, No Such Thing had already been a pretty big hit and YBIAW was going to bust the floodgates open.

But when I first heard the album in its entirety, I heard something I hadn’t heard elsewhere: perfectly crafted pop songs with just a hint of a bluesy thread throughout, with lyrics I didn’t have to work to interpret. These were songs that were immediately accessible; lyrically, nearly every song had at least a line or two (usually more) that I felt I had lived, and musically, I couldn’t pin it down at the time, but something sounded different about JM’s music. It was very poppy but it felt somehow better than the rest of the acoustic singer-songwriters around the same time. So not only was there a familiarity to it, the mysterious element of an unfamiliar sound allowed me to look at it with some unknown reverence (as backward as this may seem, I’d attribute Room For Squares for completely blasting my musical worldview wide open, with my musical knowledge/tastes growing exponentially after this album).

Lyrically, JM doesn’t leave much to the imagination, and my hormonal 16-year-old brain connected so much to that sort of unambiguous lyricism. I didn’t want to interpret, I wanted someone to put my feelings into words I understood. My Stupid Mouth sums up this idea better than any other song. “My stupid mouth has got me in trouble, I said too much again to a date over dinner yesterday…” Has a 16-year-old boy ever existed that hasn’t felt like this? He paints word pictures that at the time I thought were revolutionary, “I played a quick game of chess with the salt and pepper shakers.” In my defense, I was young. I didn’t know lots of music. I listen to this now and while the nostalgia keeps me interested in it, but boy oh boy is this album lyrically heavy-handed. Yes, there are moments of subtletly that point toward his eventual evolution as a lyricist and songwriter, but for the most part, it gets laid on pretty thick throughout this whole thing. But that’s what I needed to hear in the middle of high school. I didn’t know who I was, what I liked, who I liked, what I wanted to become. In your 20s, your life is jam-packed full of unknowns, much more so than your teens, but in your teens, you’re beginning to just start to realize that the unknowns even exist, and as you age, they seem to pile on at an exponential rate. So this lyrical heavy-handedness, getting slapped in the face by the message or the metaphor, I spoke to me. I needed it and this album delivered it.

Musically, Room For Squares gave me something I hadn’t heard so distilled before. It was pure pop, simple acoustic hooks that played well on the radio and would get the maximum number of ears interested. But the more I listened to it, the more I heard a weird element I hadn’t heard elsewhere, at least in pop music. The foundation of City Love, for example, is certainly no 12-bar blues, but it had this rootsy quality to it that sounded hidden by its overly produced pop feel. It took months of listening to this album for me to start to aurally strip away the production values and hear the music underneath. City Love has a fantastic blues foundation, both in the lead and rhythm guitar parts. Neon has some of the most intricate acoustic skill I had ever heard. JM was able to turn his guitar into not only a melody producer but also a rhythmic base (this skill only continued to evolve as his music grew up). 3×5 was such a musically layered song that months would go by and I’d all of a sudden hear a new electric guitar track I hadn’t before. And again, the production is heavy-handed; listening to it now, it’s a pretty cheesy record. But it was the perfect introduction to what I would eventually get into; it so gently and perfectly led me down roads into new kinds of music I hadn’t heard before.

My Stupid Mouth took me to Paul Simon’s Hearts And Bones. 83 took me to The Police’s Synchronicity. Following JM further took me to Clapton’s Pilgrim, SRV’s Texas Flood, Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love, D’Angelo’s Voodoo,  Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, Ben Folds’ Whatever And Ever Amen, Martin Sexton’s Black Sheep, Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A., Common’s Be, Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever, and each of these albums led me to five new albums themselves, and so on. It’s safe to say that JM’s acoustic-pop debut was the gateway drug that got me out of acoustic-pop and into the wildly diverse universe of music from previous generations.

I listen to this album now and can recognize it for what it is, while still enjoying the nostalgia of being in high school. It’s certainly not perfect (“bubble gum tongue…”) but it has moments that could hardly be improved, even 12 years on (3×5). So thanks to JM for writing this one. I’ll probably be listening to it forever.

-Jon

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Shuffle Lessons, Volume 2

The only note I want to make before I launch into this set of songs is I’m shuffling my Top 1000. Rather than my whole library, I’ve chosen to shuffle just the Top 1000 playlist because I’ll have loads more to say about any of these songs rather than say, “A Horse With No Name” by America. That said, here we go.

1. Take Your Time Feat. Corinne Bailey Rae – Al Green

I believe this is the very first song I ever heard off of Al Green’s Lay It Down, way back in the spring of ’08. I was in Spain and this tune had leaked a few months in advance and I remember thinking, “Whoa. He might have a massive, modern classic on his hands.” That was correct. The whole album is just the densest, richest, lushest music he’s ever made. It’s absolutely as good as his prime albums from the early ‘70s, but with a whole new layer of depth, thanks to master producers ?uestlove and James Poyser. But enough about the album. This tune is just a sweet love song about slowing things down. Corinne Bailey Rae guests on this song, and she adds just a great voice alongside Mr. Green’s. He does his little talk-ish ad-libs and she sings a more straightforward part, but when they combine during the chorus it’s just a fantastic blend that sits perfectly on top of the rest of the tune. And talk about a lesson on incorporating string arrangements into your song. Yowza, the strings float this tune along like a leaf on a crick. There is nothing here that needs to go any faster.

2. The Only One I Know Feat. Robbie Williams – Mark Ronson

This one is one of the more forgettable tracks off of Mark Ronson’s Version, his album of (mostly) covers with guest artists. This particular track is a cover of a song by the UK band The Charlatans, a band I know nothing about. As I’ve never heard the original before, this is the definitive version of this song for me, which means I lose out on any artistic critique due to its nature as a cover song. Most of this album consists of covers out of left field, spun with Ronson’s trademark “‘60s soul with a modern twist” sound. Lots of great horns, addictive rhythms, etc., but while this tune has most of those elements, it just falls flat. The featured artist here is Robbie Williams, another UK singer I know nothing about. He adds little to the song that makes me want to keep playing it. And most often, this tune gets a skip from me.

3. The Cave – Mumford & Sons

I don’t think I’d heard banjo played in such a grand, majestic way before I heard Mumford & Sons, and specifically this song. I was a little behind on the Mumford train, heard them (and this song) for the first time when they played with Bob Dylan and the Avett Brothers at the 2011 Grammy Awards. The performance was great for a lot of reasons, but this was the song they played, and it made an impression on me. These guys are great. The biggest criticism I’ve read of their album Sigh No More is that it’s lots of the same, which I get, but what they do, they do so well. What’s the problem with having an album that stylistically sounds very similar when that style is awesome? This song especially just has the best hook in the world. Best I’ve heard with a banjo anyway. This album helped me recognize a completely original and unseen (by me) part of folk music. Up until this song I had heard folk as primarily a quiet genre. This song blew that misconception out of the water. Yeah, folk can be quiet and beautiful, or it can be raucous and beautiful. One could almost label this song folk-rauc.

4. Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois – Sufjan Stevens

Keeping in mind the goal of writing succinctly for these Shuffle Lessons, it is unfortunate that iTunes landed on a song by Sufjan Stevens. Sufjan has an incredibly literary form of songwriting that feels at home among Emerson or Thoreau. One could easily write a seminary dissertation on his Seven Swans album. This tune, the Side 1 Track 1 of Illinois, is a perfect example. Clocking in at just over 2 minutes, the song captures the fear and wonder of those involved in an alleged UFO sighting in Highland, Illinois in 2000. If you doubt, listen to the song again. He uses the word “revenant” not four words in. Are you kidding me? What a songwriter. Listen to all of 10 seconds of any Sufjan song and you know the guy is a deeply talented artist. He can write (“John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” is a profoundly dark and beautiful song about the innate horror of our fallen human nature) and he can play. I don’t know how he seems to write music that seems so unheard of. Like when I first heard this song (even more so this whole album), it was like I was hearing a new genre for the first time. Or seven new genres for the first time. He just combines instruments and time signatures and melodies and song structures in such unique ways and creates something wholly his own. This song is just perfect though. Haunting, short, mysterious, affecting, and perplexing. Much like a UFO sighting?…

5. Quiet – John Mayer

This was one of the first JM songs I ever heard, more than 10 years ago. Holy cow that is a long time. But this is originally the kind of music that originally hooked me, super simple guitar yet incredibly melodic, and lyrics that encapsulate feelings I hadn’t heard communicated so well in song before. This song is a perfect example of what a great songwriter JM is, even from the get-go. This whole song is about the Sunday Night Blues, which I had always felt but never really heard discussed in real life. Like Sunday nights always just felt off to me. I felt extra lonely or weird or sad or unmotivated on Sunday nights. It just felt like the world was cold and had nothing to offer that made me feel alive and happy. Kind of the same thing as the feeling I got on Christmas night. But then I heard this song, and I heard this feeling being sung. And played. Like exactly. He paints perfect word pictures here that explain exactly how I was feeling but couldn’t say. “3:02 / the space in this room / has turned on me / all my fears / have cornered me here / me and my TV screen.” He completely captured the Sunday night angst that so many 15-25 year olds (and probably others) feel. He played this song in Iowa City in 2003, and he introduced it by saying, “Sunday nights cannot be trusted.” Feel free to hold whatever opinion about the guy as a person, but damned if he can’t write.

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