Friday, May 8, 2015

Song #529 of 9999 - Sealed With a Kiss by Brian Hyland

Song #529 of 9999

Title: Sealed With a Kiss

Artist: Brian Hyland
Year: 1962
Sealed With a Kiss

By 1962, the days of teen idol bubblegum pop stars like Brian Hyland were numbered. The tsunami that was the Beatles was brewing in the Atlantic Ocean and by 1964, this rather dark and dull age of pop would be washed away forever. 

But that doesn't mean there aren't a few gems to uncover amongst the wreckage. "Sealed With a Kiss" didn't reach the platinum status of Hyland's 1960 novelty hit "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," but it hit #3 on the charts in both America and the UK while simultaneously featuring some sweet harmonica playing from the spectacularly named Blackie Shackner.

I enjoyed uncovering the harmony at the root of this minor key hit. Although it's a pretty straight-forward progression, there is a particularly clever use of the subdominant (iv), especially coming out of the bridge. Let's have a look.

(Though we gotta say good-)
Bbm(iv)            Fm(i)   
bye      for the | summer        |
Bbm(iv)    Eb(VII)      Ab(III)        F(V/iv)
Darling I promise you | this      I'll send you all my | 
Bbm(iv)    Eb(VII)      C(V)     Fm(i)
love            every | day in a letter |
Bbm(iv)    Eb(VII)         Fm(i)
           Sealed with a | kiss.

As you can see, each line of the verse begins on the subdominant (iv), although they take different paths, with the two inner lines straying further from the tonic f minor (i). This isn't really all that unusual—the iv-VII-i is perhaps a folkier substitute for ii-V-i so often seen in jazz and classical music. But what I really like is the moment that occurs following the bridge.

     Bb(IV)         Fm(i)
I'll see you in the sunlight
     Bb(IV)         Fm(i)
I'll hear your voice everywhere
     Bb(IV)         Fm(i)
I'll run to tenderly hold you
     G(V/V)              C(V)                             Bbm(iv)
But darling you won't be there. I don't want to say good | bye

First, notice the borrowed Bb Major chord (IV), which comes from the parallel F Major. A simple yet elegant contrast to the original iv-i progression of the verse. On the final line of the bridge, we hear a secondary dominant (the dominant of the dominant) G Major which proceeds to the dominant C. At this point, we would expect a cadence on the tonic f minor (i). But, because of the way the verse is structured, we return not on the tonic but on the subdominant (Bbm--highlighted) in what theorists describe as a "deceptive cadence."

Maybe this is no big deal but I found it to be a nice moment in a cleverly crafted piece of pop. Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Songs #527 & 528 - It's TWOsday, Part TWO! (aka Wednesday)

Song #527 of 9999                                         Song #528 of 9999

Title: Are You Lonesome Tonight?                
Title: Are You Lonesome Tonight?
Artist: Elvis Presley                                        Artist: Vaughn de Leath
Year: 1961                                                     Year: 1927
Album: N/A - single release only                   
Album: N/A - single release only


Yesterday, I offered an glimpse of how music was frequently repurposed in the early days of rock and roll and today I'm back with another fine example.

By 1961, Elvis Presley could have sung the phonebook and hit the top of the charts. But manager Colonel Tom Parker and Presley's record company were aiming to do more than just crank out hit after hit. They were cultivating an icon by carefully curating the songs Elvis would release to his adoring public. It tooks months of discussions before "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" was deemed worthy of Elvis's evolving style but just weeks for it to cement itself as Elvis's 15th consecutive #1 single.

I find the first 75 seconds of Elvis's melancholy rendition to be right on target. It's sad, contemplative, sensitive, maybe even moving. And then comes the spoken word and it reads almost as parody. Am I just too jaded? Did this really work fifty years ago? I guess it's worth noting that Elvis had just returned from Germany, having been honorably discharged from the army, and I suppose it makes sense that songs like these could temper the loneliness felt by military families separated by thousands of miles. Not something we think about much in the days of the internet. Anyway...

Interestingly, Vaughn de Leath uses some spoken word herself on her very successful 1927 release. This version reveals how much was excised from the original song, written by Lou Handman and Roy Turk in 1926. We have a typical Tin Pan Alley introduction preceding the refrain that becomes the basis of Presley's hit. This introduction returns (is it actually a verse?) prior to the second refrain (chorus?), where de Leath rolls out her own more matter-of-fact spoken word section. De Leath's version went to #4 on the charts, but I find the earlier Charles Hart version (also from 1927) with its out-of-tune orchestra more charming. Here it is for your (bonus) enjoyment:

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Songs #525 & 526 - It's TWOsday!

Song #525 of 9999                                          Song #526 of 9999

Title: Beyond the Sea                                      Title: La Mer
Artist: Bobby Darin                                         Artist: Charles Trenet
Year: 1960                                                       Year: 1946
Album: That's All                                            Album: N/A - single release only


Bobby Darin's 1960 hit "Beyond the Sea" has such a nostalgic sound you almost can't listen to it without imagining a cheesy movie montage of a couple getting to know each other by walking the dog, eating ice cream in the park, buying each other the same anniversary present, and sitting side by side on a bench in the moonlight. And no wonder! The song started out with a nostalgia head start, having been co-opted from Frenchman Charles Tenet's equally, if not more, popular 1946 hit "La Mer"! Did I know this already? I don't know—I can't remember. Did you? What I do know is your classier movie montage will opt for the (probably cheaper) French version.

They're both fine, if not overly sentimental. I like Trenet's version more for its breezy seaside phrasing and mostly understated arrangement. When Trenet does go overboard, it's because his passion de l'amour cannot be contained! Bobby Darin's version, with new lyrics by Jack Lawrence, seems calculated by comparison and Darin let's the band run wild while he presumably grabs a sandwich from the studio commissary. (All those drum breaks...ugh.) Still, it's a good example of how music was repurposed during this time period—Elvis had a hit that same year with "It's Now or Never," adapting the 1898 Neapolitan aria "O Sole Mio"—and just one of many many reasons why The Beatles would soon be taking over America.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Now What?

Back when I started this blog on October 31, 2011, I just posted random songs I wanted to share and/or talk about. The posts weren't all that long (the first one weighs in at just under 200 words—more recent posts are closer to 500) and some of them didn't even have anything to do with music theory! (The horror...)

Then on January 1, 2012, I decided to give the blog some shape by devoting a week to a specific year, beginning with 1960 and progressing to the present. The idea was that by December 31, 2012, I would have covered 1960-2012 (i.e. the present).

Well, I didn't reach 2012 until April of 2014 and then I promptly took a YEAR off from writing. But now, here I am in 2015 and I've worked my way through all those years, devoting a week to each. Along the way, I had to make some tough choices and many songs were left in the bag.

Now I'm trying to decide what to do next. Some people have suggested theme weeks and I think that's a great idea but requires a certain amount of planning. I'm worried I will stall the blog while trying to come up with good ideas. So I think I'm going to take a one-song-per-year pass through the decades again, catching some of the songs I missed, while simultaneously working on some "theme weeks" for the future. That will keep me going for another year, at least. It's possible I may even interrupt the flow of the timeline posts for a theme week. We shall see.

Someone asked me if I take requests. Sure! I'm game. The only caveat is if I really don't like the song, I may reject it. But send them my way and I'll see what I can do.

The blog should resume soon with a song from 1960.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Song #524 of 9999 - Shake It Off by Taylor Swift

Song #524 of 9999

Title: Shake It Off

Artist: Taylor Swift
Year: 2014
Album: 1989

First, an admission. I don't really know Taylor Swift's entire catalog or history or much of anything about her. So, if you're a big fan, you may find my comments and, especially my generalizations, to be off-base. I'll try not to do that! Second, you should know that I like Taylor Swift, at least what I've heard, which is often just bits and pieces. I've said before that I just barely exist on the periphery of pop culture. I know it's there—I just don't pay much attention to it. Usually, when I write about a current pop song in this space, I am hearing it for the first time in its entirety. I know, it seems impossible, but it's true.

For example, I didn't know this little cheerleader section existed in the middle of "Shake it Off." Like, why is that there? It adds nothing to the song except time (although it does set up that nice little vocal run into the high note at 2:43) and interferes with what I think is a superb example of what you can achieve with three simple chords and some imagination. 

I also thought this album was going to be more 80s-influenced. I get it, she was born in 1989. And she was supposedly influenced by the music from that period while writing this song, but the fact that she uses so many current (and soon to be retired) phrases like "haters gonna hate" and "this sick beat" tells me she's not very interested in this music having much longevity. Which is fine but unexpected.

But I digress! As I mentioned earlier, this song has three chords: Am C G (ii IV I). That's it. You can play it now. You just learned it. It also has a killer beat and clocks in at 160bpm so you're going to bop around to it whether you like it or not—it's in your DNA. That's just science. 

But back to the harmony. Once again, my friends the major 7th and major 9th show up in a modern pop song. Can you believe this? Check out the verse. The entirely pentatonic melody lands on a B each of the first two times it's sung, the first time creating a 9th against the Am and the second time a major 7th against the C. It only becomes consonant at the end of the verse when sung over the tonic G Major. Maybe this happened all the time for the last 50 years and I'm just noticing, but I don't think so.

I really like Swift's voice in this upper register. Maybe she's hung out there before (remember what I said at the outset!) but I don't think I've ever heard her in this range. Lyric quibbles aside, I think this is a great song and anyone who doesn't like it is, well, you know....haters gonna hate.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Song #523 of 9999 - Wrong Club by The Ting Tings

Song #523 of 9999

Title: Wrong Club

Artist: The Ting Tings
Year: 2014
Album: Super Critical

Don't think about it; just dance.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Song #522 of 9999 - Habits by Tove Lo

Song #522 of 9999

Title: Habits

Artist: Tove Lo
Year: 2014
Album: Queen of the Clouds

The blog was off on Tuesday so I didn't get to engage my usual TWOsday connecting device and feature two songs. I realized later I missed a chance. After writing yesterday's post about "Boom Clap" by Charli XCX, I remembered my mid-2014 obsession was another downtempo dance number by relative newcomer Tove Lo. This Swedish artist was also brought to me by NPR (probably Ken Tucker) and damn, I could not get enough of this hook for about a month.

The first time I heard "Habits," I was kind of put off by the opening verses, which are a little too graphic in their description of the protagonist's junkie lifestyle (I get home/I got the munchies/Binge on all my Twinkies/Throw up in the tub/Then I go to sleep). The tub! That's where she eats!!

But when that hook arrives, all is forgiven.

You're gone and I gotta stay 
High all the time
To keep you off my mind
Ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh 

Damn, that's clever. And I would have been fine with that hook plus the little vocal siren at the end, but Lo (is this a last name?—I have no idea) introduces a new melody for the third quarter of the chorus that just ramps it all up a notch.

Spend my days locked in a haze

Trying to forget you babe
I fall back down

I remember talking to my colleague about this song and we both just drooled over the minor mediant (iii) chord in the middle of that passage. But as it turns out, the whole song has the same progression (I-iii-V), so why did we hear something special in that moment? I think it's because Lo sings a Bb (Trying to forget you babe) that rubs against the D minor triad (iii) and that dissonance (coupled with a sweet spot in her voice) increases the sense of longing already inherent in the chorus.

And listen, in case you were worried about Tove, her next single let us know once and for all she's "Not on Drugs." Okay? So stop worrying.