Friday, May 27, 2011

Cass Elliot - "It's Getting Better" (1969)

Love how this is put together. The verse is twenty bars long and goes through seventeen chords, with a total of six lines of poetry. Twenty and six, of course, don't make for "square" structures the way that a number like eight or sixteen does. Here, line one and line two are each four bars, perfectly squared, but then line three is only two bars. Its rhyming line, line four, extends that so the last note falls on the downbeat of a third bar. Then there's a rest through the remainder of the third bar plus an additional fourth. That squares things off somewhat, but you've still got the irregularity of lines three and four adding up to six bars total. Same thing happens with lines five and six.

The extension that happens in line four creates a sort of ellipsis where things still need to move in order to resolve, but the lyrics here (as well as the seeming attempts to make this song fairly normal as a structure) are already dictating that we are nearing the closing. Songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil keep the flow of chords going, but use a classic I-vi-IV-V-I progression in order to quickly bring things to an end. Dropping this standard harmonic sequence all by itself at the end of the verse definitely seems unusual, but the sweetness of these chords really amplifies the sweetness already established earlier in the verse.

The flow of chords in this song continues through the chorus, a second verse and chorus, and then into the bridge, where we get derivations of chord progressions heard already, first sounding like an instrumental passage but then metamorphosing into a vocal bridge. Here, the I-vi-IV-V-I progression is used once again to bring things to a close, and claimed even more so than it was the first time.

To claim such a thing, of course, is bubblegum.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas - "Honey Chile" (1967)

This song may have provided more than a bit of a template for bubblegum soul of the later '60s/early '70s. Around the same tempo as "Want Ads" or "Band of Gold" and maybe no wonder that the Jackson Five covered it on their third album.

Construction of this song is so great. You've got these short, four-bar verses with three rhyming lines and then the title words used as a punctuation. Starts off with two of the verses followed by, strangely enough, a bridge already at 0:30.

When the third verse comes in at 0:40, the melody is already elevated into a higher register. You can't push too much, though, so here's where the song does its most brilliant thing. Instead of having two more of the short verses here, there's only one, and then we finally move to the chorus (which temporarily levels the energy out a little bit).

Of course, 0:50 is not a point where you'd normally be talking about "finally" getting to the chorus, but this song has already had a bridge. And by cutting the verses short here (one instead of two), they put that chorus in just the right place.

Topping this off, though, is the fact that the eight-bar chorus is split up into two four-bar sections, each with three lines and then the title words used as punctuation just like in the verses. Wow.

After this, it repeats the whole thing with new words through the two verses, the bridge, and the abbreviated single verse, then plows through the chorus again, after which Reeves finally gets to take a break at 2:06.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Jefferson Airplane - "Young Girl Sunday Blues" (1967)

Sometimes bands go to lengths that are heroic and sometimes you don't even notice it. This song has that kind of greatness and subtlety.

Verses one and two are a regular sixteen bars with eight lines of poetry, but only lines two and four rhyme. Instead of rhyming with line six, line eight leaves off on a sort of ellipsis that then leads into the refrain ("Young girl Sunday blues/And all her sorrow"). There are only three chords, but the melody is beautifully constructed without any kind of regularity at all, lines ranging anywhere from five to thirteen syllables in length. This is surely impressive in itself, but the Airplane arranged the whole thing for two-part harmony.

The two verses heard at the beginning make for some compositional heft right away, but then there's a beautiful, modulating passage that leads the way back for verse number three, now pitched up a whole tone. With the higher key, the energy of the song is continuing to build, but then they let it come down ("Let yourself wander free and easy") with a reprise of the chord structure from the instrumental passage now used as a bridge, Balin and Kantner STILL singing in harmony and allowing the energy of this great thing to build one last time to the end.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Sherbet - "Summer Love" (1975)

This song is structurally beautiful and has a very unique way of drifting between two key centers, C and Eb. It starts off with a refrain over an alternation of C major, C major with a suspended fourth, and the same C major with the suspended fourth and an added flat seventh (all over a C pedal bass). After a few repetitions of this, the harmony breaks away to an Eb major seventh chord. This is then followed by Bb major, which turns out to be the dominant chord in our secondary key of Eb.

We move back then to Eb major as the tonic chord to start the verse. (This time, it's not a major seventh chord, though, as though its identity as the tonic is being grounded, whereas its tonal orientation was more ambiguous when the chord was heard just before.) Without any sense of where we might be heading, though, the chord that follows is D minor. Quickly, this is used as a ii chord, there's a ii-V-I progression, and the transition back to the home key of C is accomplished right in the middle of the second line of the verse! Very unusual.

The verse continues in C major for a bit, but then shifts to a second section that starts on an F major chord. F, of course, is the IV chord in C major, but there's a sudden shift from diatonic to blues pentatonic melodicism, and the harmonic direction from here is once again uncertain. Amazingly, the F chord turns out to be a secondary dominant (V/V) in the song's other key center of Eb, with the chords then moving from F to Ab (IV) and then Eb (I).

The Eb, however, moves once again to D minor with a repeat of the melody heard at the beginning of the verse. When we first heard that melody, of course, it sounded like an antecedent line within the lyrical structure (naturally, given that it was the first line of the verse). Here, however, it sounds like a consequent line, following after and completing the phrase begun in the two lines just before it. There's even a drum fill, as though we are reaching the end of the section.

Instead, however, that line is used just as it was the first time, as the first line of what is now the second verse, and a very unique liaison linking the two verses together is accomplished.

Amazingly, not only for a big pop smash (a number one hit in the group's home country of Australia) but for a song that genuinely sounds like a big pop smash, this song has no chorus, just repeats of that refrain in C from the beginning. The way these verses are put together, though, it doesn't need one.