Wednesday, November 30, 2011

4. “Protect Ya Neck”

Wu-Tang Clan: "Protect Ya Neck"/"After The Laughter Comes Tears" (Wu-Tang 12", 1992) and later on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (Loud/RCA, 1993); composed by Robert Diggs, Jason Hunter, Lamont Hawkins, Clifford Smith, Corey Woods, Dennis Coles, Russell Jones, and Gary Grice

Hip-hop is now twice as old as it was when this record came out, but its innovation still stands like Monk’s transmutation of “Just You, Just Me” into “Evidence” (or Webern’s “Five Movements,” for that matter). No one before or since has conceptualized a voice and beats matrix like Robert Diggs (RZA) did it here, with uncannily perfect pitch. A shuffling sampled backbeat with three spaced out (in every sense) single-note keyboard figures spanning two octaves illuminate a shifting set of dissonant fourths that refuse to resolve. (I just taught myself to play this on the piano. It held up.) The Wu acquired its initial notoriety in part because it could foreground (here) eight wholly distinct MCs (with their respective aesthetic peaks spread over two decades - and counting, in some cases). But the intrinsic tension of RZA’s sound world could have easily contextualized twice as many and just gotten tastier like a roux gets when the fat suspension is just right. Not even P-Funk could embody multitudes like this. And GZA’s line about “money getting stuck to the gum under the table” is the single best précis of dealing with record companies since Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Workin’ For MCA.”

Note: 25 secular essays (each one exactly 200 words long) about 25 songs, to appear one per day during Advent (or so) from Nov. 27 through Dec. 21.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

3. “Joy Inside My Tears”

Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life (Tamla, 1976);
composed by Stevie Wonder

Innervisions is awfully close to a perfect album, but if Stevie Wonder really did peak in the ‘70s, I still could not tell you exactly where. Or why. But his voice draws the lines for me. Before it phlegmed up in the ‘80s (like Merle Haggard’s in the ‘70s) it was expressive like no other in American music and his songwriting more than paced it. Fulfillingness’ First Finale reaches so far in so many counterintuitive directions that it is still probably underrated (you might reach in a lot of directions yourself if you had recently survived a log crashing through your windshield on the freeway). Songs was strikingly different, insofar as its erratic long tracks took the most obvious implications of Wonder’s prior excursions and extruded them into endless refrains, jazzy guest soloists, shouted historical litanies and baby noises. But if not for that, he would not have come up with this unassuming masterpiece: a six-and-a-half minute adagio hymn over chromatic synth chords underlining one of Wonder’s most astonishing vocal extravaganzas, brimming with as much ambiguity and doubt as the wild devotion and uncanny alacrity that only come with (face it) knowing the gods love you.

Note: 25 secular essays (each one exactly 200 words long) about 25 songs, to appear one per day during Advent (or so) from Nov. 27 through Dec. 21.

Monday, November 28, 2011

2. “Paranoid”

Black Sabbath: Paranoid (Warner Bros., 1970);
composed by Terry Butler, Tony Iommi, John Osbourne, and Bill Ward

This track demonstrates how some performers ultimately epitomize themselves through a sharp and dramatic formal departure. Black Sabbath’s music was characteristically slow (not to say drug-impaired) conveying an undeniable grandeur through VERY SIMPLE guitar figures cranked through an overdriven signal processor (Mr. Fuzztone to you) without the encumbrance of, for example, Jimmy Page’s knack for orchestrating Led Zeppelin’s defining group-wide distortions of scale as well as his own guitar sound. Thus Zeppelin defined “heavy metal” despite being wholly unlike anyone else in that putative category. Thus, comparatively (and before I had any inkling of Ozzy Osbourne’s genuine comedic gifts), I thought Sabbath might be the most dimwitted rock band ever, and “Geezer” Butler’s lyrics have never suggested otherwise. But “Paranoid” does, because it is more dance music than heavy metal. The rhythm section clomps along no more adroitly than it does on “War Pigs,” but Tony Iommi’s guitar figures are built not just for speed, but for acceleration. The actual tempo never varies but one’s ability to take in the sonic information seems to expand exponentially over the two and three quarter minutes, as does the song itself. Sabbath never actually accelerates -- (why should they?) -- but you do.

Note: 25 secular essays (each one exactly 200 words long) about 25 songs, to appear one per day during Advent (or so) from Nov. 27 through Dec. 21.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

1. “Don’t Smoke In Bed”

Peggy Lee: Rendezvous With Peggy Lee (Capitol, 1948) and Is That All There Is? (Capitol, 1969); Julie London: Around Midnight (Liberty, 1960); composed by Willard Robison, Dave Barbour and Peggy Lee

If Willard Robison really did write this song, rather than (as is rumored) Peggy Lee solely, then it might well stand as the only significant tune that the composer of “Old Folks” ever wrote specifically about sex. Peggy Lee is best known for it, anyway, and the knowingness of both her 1947 and 1969 versions (latter on Is That All There Is? – oh, perfect) is even more bracing than its subject: fondly kissing off an underperforming husband. In both versions, Lee’s persona wraps around the pseudo-apologia as if walking out was easier than picking up the dry cleaning, just as necessary, and, frankly, no more regrettable. Because she knows you knew it was coming, even if He did not. But the most affecting version for me is Julie London’s. Not half the singer Lee was, and encumbered by titles (and themes) like Nice Girls Don’t Stay For Breakfast, nonetheless her husky sexiness made her sound too unmistakably vulnerable to be as mercenary as she pretended to be. In fact, her 1960 version makes the kiss-off sound more like “Gloomy Sunday.” Melodramatic, maybe. But even though you might have “seen it coming,” you feel no assurance that she did.

Note: 25 secular essays (each one exactly 200 words long) about 25 songs, appearing one per day during Advent (or so) from Nov. 27 through Dec. 21.