April 28, 2004 (link)
Since mentioning it in a chat with S., I've been trying to analyze this chord sequence from Pink Floyd's "Great Gig in the Sky":
Gm7/D | Bbm/Db | F#7 | Bm
This sequence comes at the end of the "loud part", and takes us out of the jam section in G minor, back to the B minor tonality that starts the song (though both here, and at the beginning of the song, we only get a single B minor chord before immediately heading for G minor / B-flat major). It's a pretty unusual set of chords, and I remember feeling pretty proud of myself when I first parsed it out, back in 1991 or so, listening on headphones to Morgan's CD of Dark Side of the Moon.
So the question is, why does this set of chords work? I already alluded to the fact that, in terms of key structure, "Great Gig" is a weird song from the get-go -- it starts out in B minor, but doesn't do anything to affirm that key, and uses a tritone jump that ought to be jarring, but somehow isn't:
Bm | F (lydian) | Bb | F/A | Gm | C7 (etc.)
I still haven't figured out why that works; Rick Wright's use of a Lydian chord there seems counterintuitive, yet I suspect that may play a big part in why it works.
But anyway, getting back to the first example, I think part of what's going on there is that the F#7 chord is both the V of i in B minor, and also a "German" augmented sixth chord in the key of Bb minor (enharmonically spelled as Gb-Bb-Db-E, where the E is an alteration of Eb). In other words, the progression could have headed for Bb minor instead, like so:
Gm7/D | Bbm/Db | "F#7" (= Gb7) | F7 | Bbm
But by going for B minor, the "F#7" chord functions as an augmented sixth chord -- or, if you prefer, an Eb minor seventh chord (iv in Bb minor) in first inversion, with the tonic raised 1/2 step. (Figuring out how to describe augmented sixth chords can be a tricky business; the Piston harmony book, which is the one I studied in college, changed its mind between editions and now calls them V of V, which makes some sense.) Also, you could argue that putting the Bb minor chord in first inversion hints at a dominant relationship to the F#7 chord -- in other words, that Bbm/Db is "almost" a C#7 chord, or V of V in B minor.
All that makes sense, and using an augmented sixth chord to modulate up a half-step (here, Bb minor to B minor) is a very common progression. But what about the first two chords, going from G minor to Bb minor -- how does that work, and in particular, why is Bb minor an effective passing chord? It's not that the key relationship is that remote; particularly if you replace the Bb minor chord with a Db major chord, you've got a progression (Gm | Db) that's found in lots of places (especially film scores). And yet I don't think that kind of Debussy-like thing is going on here -- I actually think the relationship is more functional than that, but I can't quite pinpoint what it is. I guess you could call it a I-III progression using modal mixture -- i.e. instead of B-flat major, you switch to B-flat minor -- but that doesn't feel like a completely satisfying explanation, though it may be the right one.
Current music: Nucleus - Snakehips Etcetera
April 24, 2004 (link)
By the way, searching for "OOPS" + "out of phase", I found this link, which is kind of a neat idea: I wonder if it works?
I've talked before about the "karaoke" feature in Panic Software's excellent MP3 player, Audion. To recap, it takes a stereo recording, inverts the phase of one channel, and mixes them both down to mono; the result is that anything in the center of the mix (i.e. whatever the two channels have in common) is cancelled out, and since the stuff that's in the middle is often vocals, a lot of the time you end up with a sort of "karaoke mix" of the song in question. (I've talked about the physics of that before.)
Hardcore fans of a particular band will often make and distribute out-of-phase stereo mixes (or OOPS) of the band's albums; it seems like Beatles fans are particularly fond of this. If the effect were always just karaoke, it wouldn't be that exciting, but sometimes you wind up removing other sounds or instruments, or otherwise shifting the soundstage/balance around radically -- both of which can be an interesting way of hearing parts that normally would get buried in the mix.
As you can see from the Beatles links above, lots of famous bands/albums have been mined for the OOPS effect -- I've seen OOPS lists for the Beach Boys, Abba, Pink Floyd, and so on -- so for most of those, if there's anything really cool that happens, someone probably already knows about it. (Certainly the bootleg makers do: dishonest ones will often put these OOPS mixes out on CD, claiming that they're rare outtakes, when in reality anyone can create these mixes from scratch at home.)
But for those of us who count some not-very-famous bands/albums among the music we love, odds are that we stand a good chance of finding something new (i.e. undocumented) by trying these techniques out -- which, if you're into treasure hunts, makes it more fun. Of course, a lot of the time you won't come up with much except a thin, crummy-sounding mono mix that sounds like it's been put through the World's Cheapest Flanger. ("Thin" because, since bass is usually panned to the center, it's typically the first thing to go.) Once in a while, though, you discover something pretty cool.
So last night, I sat down with a few CDs I know pretty well, put them through "Audion karaoke", and had some interesting results. Since I'd just seen Amanset and Pinback in concert, I started out with them:
- The American Analog Set:
- Promise of Love:
The neat one here is "Hard to Find", which loses the lead vocal, bass, and most of the keyboards, but retains the high falsetto vocals, which come through very clearly. I still can't figure out what the first line of the second verse is, though.
- The Fun of Watching Fireworks:
Most songs lose something, typically the bass. Of the more interesting ones, "Gone to Earth" loses the bass and keyboards, leaving the vocals (which are super-clear), guitar, and some percussion. The bass and keyboards also disappear completely on "Dim Stars (The Boy in My Arms)".
- From Our Living Room to Yours:
Except for when the guitar comes in, "Blue Chaise" is practically nothing but drums! Same with "Where Have All the Good Boys Gone" and "White House" -- it's just drums and guitar, with some quiet vocals on the latter. "Two Way Diamond II" is just keyboards and drums, which is kind of neat inasmuch as the Farfisa-through-a-Space-Echo on that track is one of the greatest sounds ever. "Don't Wake Me" is mostly guitar and drums too.
- Pinback - (self-titled):
This is pretty remarkable -- anyone who digs this album has got to hear these mixes. The results are very clear and clean, and reveal all kinds of interesting stuff. On "Tripoli", the drums disappear completely, opening up a lot of room in the mix and making it a lot easier to hear the instrumental layering. The effect on "Chaos Engine" is a sort of anti-karaoke -- everything drops way down except for the vocals, leaving them way upfront. "Loro" comes out like "Tripoli", with nothing but vocals and the upper bass part, plus a few stray sounds (and piano at the end); if you'd never heard the original, you'd probably never guess this was an OOPS mix -- it's quite clear and there's not even a hint of the missing parts. "Crutch" loses about half of its parts: the intro is basically all Zach's bass, most of Rob Crow's vocals disappear completely, and the drums and low synth disappear too. And "Rousseau" is wild -- just bass, sound effects, and vocals, all of which (plus the organ at the end) come through super-clearly: if you didn't know the words to this song, you will after hearing this mix. It's also really easy to hear the Three Mile Pilot connection in this one -- with different overdubs, Zach's parts could easily be something off Chief Assassin to the Sinister.
- Ciphered Mix 6.1
I tried most of the tracks from this Waldo CD; most weren't too exciting, but there were a few surprises, the biggest of which was Chappie's "Welcoming Morning": most of the parts disappear completely, and what's left gives a fascinating insight into the production of the song -- an underlying, analog-sounding synth part that would normally be buried in the mix becomes super-clear (which is nice because it's a really nice part!). So do all kinds of backing vocal parts, including a couple male countermelodies that I've never noticed before. Another interesting one is "Ahla El Leyali", which ends up with hardly anything but the string parts.
"Tripoli" is also on this mix CD, and normally I wouldn't mention it except for the fact that, while I do own the Pinback CD now, when I made this Waldo disc I didn't, so I took "Tripoli" from an MP3. The MP3 conversion sounds clean when you listen to it normally, but in OOPS mode, you can really hear the lossy compression -- there's a swishy/flanged sound on Rob Crow's vocals that isn't there when I OOPS the official CD. "Welcoming Morning" and "Ahla El Leyali" were also taken from MP3, and are even worse; you can definitely hear MP3 chirpies when you put the Chappie song out-of-phase, and when you do it to "Ahla El Leyali", there's massive artifacting -- it sounds like it was recorded underwater! It strikes me that phase-inversion might be a useful way to test whether something was once an MP3, though you'd probably have to be able to compare it to an original to be sure.
It can be a wild feeling to hear things in a song that you've never heard before -- all the more so when it's a song you've listened to dozens of times, and feel like you know it backwards and forwards! Another one I did a while ago was Bonobo's "The Shark", a track from the Hi Fidelity Lounge Vol. 4 compilation; the beats on the original are too loud (especially the hi-hat), but they disappear completely on the out-of-phase version -- would that there were a way to average the two.
By the way, the Amanset/Pinback show was very good (together with El Guapo, whom I also enjoyed). I was particularly impressed with Zach's bass playing: I didn't realize that he was playing so many of the polyphonic lines on songs like "Tripoli" on his instrument in real time! On "Crutch" he pulls out a cool technique where he frets the high notes with the index finger of his right hand while using his other three fingers to strum: pretty slick. Plus it's really tough to have an original bass sound in this day and age, and the fact that he's got such an instantly recognizable style is very impressive.
If you know who wrote the song that gave this site its name, and you know what one of my favorite books is, then you'll know why I enjoyed discovering this connection, taken from p. 465 of the paperback edition of Watership Down:
As the wind freshened from the south, the red and yellow beech leaves rasped together with a brittle sound, harsher than the fluid rustle of earlier days. It was a time of quiet departures, of the sifting away of all that was not staunch against winter.
Unfortunately, the album in question isn't one of my favorites by him, but it's still pretty cool to know where those titles came from. (I wonder if he actually read the book and meant it as an homage, or if he just grabbed a copy that happened to be handy when he needed to think of song titles?) So far, I haven't found "A Pale Smile" or "Visible Thoughts" in there, though, and they may well come from elsewhere; alas, Amazon doesn't offer a searchable text.
Current music: Charalambides - Hand Held Live CDR
April 21, 2004 (link)
Here's some of the cool stuff in question. Those of you who remember my "Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Potassium" write-up (I'm looking at you, JDB) might appreciate this email I got recently:
Surfing around for weird music and song poems, I came across the name Lolla Mont Gue, author of a song ("Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Potassium") you wrote about some time ago (Dec. 2002). As it so happens, I met Ms. Mont Gue a few times and I can give you a little background info (if you want). Essentially she was a housewife (when I met her she lived in Crawford, Nebraska, the absolute ass end of nowhere) who wrote and self-published songs as a hobby.
I first met her in the early 70's when I was around 12 years old thru my mother. In the summer, my mother was a travelling commercial artist who painted decorations on store windows as a kind of publicity for county fairs, rodeos and the like. Local clubs (womens clubs and kid groups like 4H) sold the paintings for a commission. First my brother and then I would travel with her, helping (and hindering) her in various ways.
Anyway, in Crawford, Ms. Mont Gue was in charge of selling the window paintings for a few years and she and my mother hit it off and even after Ms. Mont Gue was retired, my mother made a point of visiting her each year when she was in Crawford (usually for about two days). I remember visiting her a few times but don't remember many specifics. By the time I met her she was a widow (her husband had been a doctor I believe) in her 60's with an adult child or two who lived some distance away. I had the impression that she was something of a local celebrity and she lived in a big, empty, sad, dark house and I think she never got over the death of her daughter, a semi-classical singer who died of a stomach ailment on the road in the 50's.
Over the years, she would play songs for us and she gave me and my brother copies of some of her song poems (records and sheet music). I might have some of them in storage, but I no longer live in the US and I kind of doubt if they're still around, too bad. I remember the song titles more than the songs - "Friends", "I'm a Maker of Dreams" and "Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Potassium" are the titles I remember. I can even still remember the melody of "Friends" (the lyrics aren't so funny or memorable, being mostly a list of names "and Jack and Sue and Bill and Ruth ..." but the melody always stuck in my head.) At the time, I had no idea how the records were made and thought it was strange that the two sides had different singers.
One year we found out that she had been moved to a nursing home and we visited her there each year until the year she died. The last year or two she was pretty out of it and I'm not sure if she really could place my mother, but was very happy to have any company. My mother called her a member of her 'fan club' (she had a member or two in almost all the towns she visited). These were ambitious, creative women without much outlet (before feminism) who looked up to and envied my mother's travelling, artistic outlet (probably more than she did) and the fact that on the road, she was her own boss (but was married with kids so was a safe role model).
So that's what I know about the author.
And a later postscript:
If my memory is accurate, Ms. Mont Gue died in the late seventies, but I'm really at a loss for the exact year (and it might have been into the 80's). I really have no idea how seriously she took her song writing or how clearly she understood the song poem business or her place in it (i.e.: cash cow). I prefer to think she had no (or only small) illusions and just liked having the physical versions of her songs, an indulgence she could apparently afford.
One more note, one year she gave us copies of her (self-published) memoirs,
more a pamphlet than a book, but I don't remember many details.
It's a pretty cool feeling to learn something about the person behind the song -- before this email, Lolla Mont Gue was just a name (albeit an intriguing name) to me, whereas now, I feel like I have some sense of who she was, and what her song may have meant to her. Big thanks to Michael for sharing this story!
Some cool stuff to report, but I can't post it right this second. I did think of one more visual image, though:
- The Dead Kennedys - "At My Job": If you've ever played the video game Golden Axe, you probably remember the short, dwarf-like Viking guy with the green outfit, aka Gilius Thunderhead. Well, for whatever reason, the chorus of "At My Job" ("I'm working at my job/I'm so happy") makes me imagine a chorus line of Gilius Thunderheads, not quite dancing but not quite not dancing -- moving in a sort of circular motion that's all in the torso and not really in the hips -- and done in a detailed, low-frame-rate, hand-drawn animation style.
(You want me to explain it? I can't, really, except that the song always sounded somehow "Viking" to me.)
Current music: (none)
April 3, 2004 (link)
Listening (yet again) to Abbey Road the other day, I was struck by how the "Love you, love you" vocals on "The End" conjured up a very specific image for me: a small, homely, mixed-gender choir, made up of people whose dress suggests pre-modern poverty (i.e. peasants, early pioneers), and who somehow seem out of place in a way that almost, but not quite, makes me wince. (Compare the first song in Disney's Beauty and the Beast.) I feel like there's another Beatles song that makes me imagine much the same thing, but I can only think of "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" and I don't think that's it. (I don't think it's "Wild Honey Pie" either, though it might be; "Gimme Some Lovin'" by the Spencer Davis Group also comes to mind.)
That got me thinking about all the visual images I used to get as a kid when listening to certain songs. Some of the images made no particular sense, or didn't really seem all that connected to the song. A few of the ones I can remember:
- The Doors - "Touch Me": I always liked this song -- even before I actively got into music, I think I was generally keen on unpredictable and unusual harmonies. But whenever I heard the horn motto from "Touch Me" (doot-doot-doo, doo-doot-doo, doo-doo, or Ab-Ab-Bb-Ab-C-Bb-Ab-Bb if you prefer), I would get a visual of a horn section, led by a red-faced, chubby trumpet player with his cheeks puffed out like Dizzy Gillespie, standing at stage right and bobbing up and down in unison by bending and straightening their knees. For some reason, this image rubbed me the wrong way (in much the same way that the Beatles one did).
- Pink Floyd - "Breathe": Back in sixth grade or so, I remember the first time I put my dad's LP of Dark Side of the Moon on, I said to myself, "Oh, that's what that song is!" I had been carrying the opening chords around in my head, but had never known what they went with, and might've even fancied that I'd written them myself. Whenever I would play the music in my head, I would imagine flying over a computer-animated landscape, a greenish grid covered with hills and valleys. The sky might've been orange- or lime-colored -- I don't remember any reds, blues, or purples -- and the overall feeling was somewhere between Tron and "Rutti", if you know what I mean.
- Pink Floyd - "Great Gig in the Sky": A heavyset black gospel singer who accidentally sat on a cigarette. (Another sixth grade image -- took me a few years to get past that one.)
- Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton - "Islands in the Stream": Something a bit like this symbol, but with long, rubbery arms and a hollow, somewhat rectangular-shaped center; it would rotate back and forth in time with the music.
- The Fixx - "One Thing Leads to Another": Same thing as "Islands in the Stream"! Don't ask me why, though.
- The Who - violin solo from "Baba O'Reilly": I've talked about this before. Sometimes, I just don't understand my mind.
- Squeeze - "Wrong Side of the Moon": The singer of the song is a man wearing a very small, yellow-white hat with a flat top and a narrow brim. He's dressed in a red-and-white striped shirt and is wearing suspenders, and he may be holding a cane. His nose and chin are a bit bulbous and blotchy, and he has something of the look of a Bill Plympton character, but his jaw is very mobile, to the point of resembling a skull's jaw (rather like that creepy picture of Joe Lieberman I linked a while back). He might be an auctioneer, or the ringmaster at a small circus.
- "Jungle Hunt" for the Atari 2600 - "Final Boss Music": This is the most bizarre association of all, and I have no idea how or why my 6th-grade mind came up with it. Unfortunately, detailing said association would be a bit embarrassing -- so, for the moment at least, I think I'm going to plead the 5th. I will say, however, that it had nothing to do with the video game, which I'd played once or twice and then forgotten about -- such that when I did play the game again, I said to myself, "Holy crap, that's where that came from?"
(I've also talked here about a few PBS bits that I found creepy as a child -- the dripping-flower-with-Vivaldi on Sesame Street, the Dr. Who title theme, and so forth -- though that's not really the same thing.)
Current music: Jess Roden - "Trouble in the Mind"
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