You can find the previous Shuffle Lessons posts here.
1. “Wait Until Tomorrow” – John Mayer Trio, Try!
JM3 was the product of JM’s musically-rebellious career phase. Radio made him a pop star with “Wonderland” and against his wishes, further boxed him in with the release of “Daughters.” In response, he grew his hair out and started this power trio with Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan. As a JM fan since around 2002, this was an insanely exciting part of his career where I learned a great deal about his musical influences. For example, I knew he was a Hendrix fan before this, but his covers of Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow” and “Bold As Love” were concert staples during the JM3 tour and really reinforced how nuanced his Hendrix fandom was. This particular song was a fantastic choice for a cover, and it fit perfectly into his goal of breaking boundaries and finding out how far he could take his new-found musical freedom. “Wait Until Tomorrow” was a song where Hendrix highlighted his rhythm guitar skills, and that’s exactly why JM chose it. In this cover, JM has the chance to stretch some rhythm playing muscles during the extremely complex verses (while he’s singing to boot) and then blast through an intense solo at the end. If you listen to his guitar during the verses, it is all over the place. It’s not just some simple I-V chords underneath the words. His hands are making the most of that guitar neck, and he’s keeping the guitar singing it’s own melody alongside his voice. This cover is a fantastic example of how good the JM3 was for JM’s career. With the JM3, JM had nobody to hide behind. It’s like taking your guitar amp’s reverb knob down to zero; you’re left with just your naked guitar tone and you hear every single mistake you make and it helps you improve. Trial by fire. Playing with the JM3, he had nothing to stand behind other than his own guitar chops. You can hear it in this song completely. The solo itself is a masterful mix of a blistering lead guitar solo while still holding to the rhythm section of the melody, keeping the song moving and keeping the listener conscious to where they’re at in the song.
2. “Princess Of China” – Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto
I’d argue this as my favorite song off of Mylo Xyloto. Coldplay swung for the musically-experimental fences and parked one in the “hits” section. When I first read Rihanna was featured on the album, I was extremely dubious, but I shouldn’t have been. I’m not sure why this song works so well for me, but it’s got this futuristic blend of musical styles that’s rooted in an incredibly gorgeous soundscape. In my review of this album, I remember describing it as having a decidedly “steampunk” sound, or something to that effect, and I think this song was the one that really conjured that image in my head. There’s feedback, there’s tinny sound patches, all on top of this stainless steel, factory-like beat. I see robot workers sweating grease and oil as I listen to this. I doubt it’s what Coldplay was shooting for (lyrically, this seems to be a relationship song), but whatever this song is, it’s something that has real beauty behind its mechanics. The coda (“cause you really hurt me…”) is classic Coldplay, finding a chord progression designed to crush human emotions.
3. “Up In Flames” – Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto
Two songs off the same album? A Shuffle Lessons first. Unfortunately, most of what I wrote about the tune “Us Against The World” is perfectly applicable to this song. One of the weaknesses of Mylo Xyloto as an album is that there were a few songs like this that seemed like fraternal song twins, but bordering dangerously close to identical. One big difference between these two songs is this one is slow, methodical and sparse in its production, with a lot less going on than “Us Against The World.” When Coldplay keep their songs simple, with no instrument overload, they manage to create this musical ecosystem unlike any other artist, and this song is just a really nice example of that. This song is pretty heavily rooted in simple piano chords and the metronome-like drum beat. Lots of reverb, but without lots of instruments to fill up that reverb space, it creates this gorgeous transitory white space. All instruments drop out just before the 2:00 mark and the listener is left with literally just musical ephemera. It’s breathtaking. And as if it wasn’t enough, the last chorus finally hits this emotional release with the addition of a beautiful guitar riff. It’s an extremely simple guitar tone, very straightforward but adding so much depth to the overall mix of sounds. These sorts of musical climaxes are why I will never stop listening to Coldplay. At least their old stuff.
4. “Spanish Joint” – D’Angelo, Spanish Joint
The story of this song is smooth groove, the depth of which I know I will never fully understand. There’s too much going on here, too many influences and genres and vocal layers and instrumental layers that most likely, there are probably only like three people that truly understand how much this song represents and encapsulates. I don’t know enough about Afrobeat musical culture to get from where this song is really born. What I do know is that given a focused listen, you can find new elements every time. For some reason, the percussion is standing out to me more than normal. Actually, more than ever, because I didn’t really ever notice it before. Aside from the beautiful salsa beat laid down by Questlove, there are some intense congas going on behind it. Technically, this song is a stand out on Voodoo, I just wish I could explain why. I do know that guitar virtuoso Charlie Hunter is laying down the guitar parts on this one, both rhythm and bass simultaneously on a custom eight-string guitar/bass combo instrument. Insane. Even in the intro, the way Hunter pulls off such a clear sound from both bass and guitar parts at the same time is miraculous. The quality of the recording is due in large part to Russell Elevado, the sound engineer during the Voodoo sessions. For Hunter’s weird guitar/bass combo, Elevado tied the separate pickups for those two parts into distinct outputs so while there is a slight blend, you can still hear the parts so uniquely in the recording. Phenomenal work. And like other songs off of Voodoo, you can hear like 32 vocal layers on this one. This entire record feels so vibrant and real, like it’s a first take recording. There isn’t a moment on all of Voodoo where I feel differently; a perfect example of that feeling is at 4:42 on this tune, when you can hear D’Angelo tell the band they’re going back to the chorus during the last instrumental breakdown. It feels organic, like we’re listening in not on a final product but rather something being created in real time. Makes for a fascinatingly groovy listen.
5. “Life In Technicolor ii” – Coldplay, Prospekt’s March
Seriously, three Coldplay songs out of five randomly chosen? My iPod must love them. This song alone is almost worth the purchase price of this culled-from-Viva La Vida-sessions EP. It’s basically just the intro from Viva La Vida but morphed into an actual song with lyrics and a chorus. And while I think I like the instrumental better as it fits so well with the theme and feeling of Viva La Vida, this is a very rousing number that makes your heart feel big. Listening to this extended song after devouring Viva La Vida for the five months in between these releases was interesting because it made me wonder why they chose the shorter instrumental to intro Viva La Vida and didn’t just turn it into the full-blown song that’s on this EP. I think lyrically they had used the “Now my feet / won’t touch / the ground” concept more than once, especially as it’s the title of another song off of this EP. I’m glad they chose the slightly more restrained version for the full album, but this tune is a pretty cool look into their song-selection process.