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Thursday, Sep 18, 2008

John Lennon was famously battling a cold during the recording session for Please Please Me. While the illness wasn’t major, even a pedestrian cough might have derailed his vocal efforts. Not so in this case. Instead, John’s at times hoarse and untamed delivery proved a fitting complement to the energy of the Beatles’ musical backdrops.


“Twist and Shout”, of course, is the most memorable instance of this. But even on the emotive mid-paced ballad “Anna (Go to Him)”, which was recorded before the effects of his cold were so strikingly evident, the dash of roughness in John’s voice seems to add enlivening texture. Written by Arthur Alexander, a country-soul artist of the ‘60s and ‘70s, “Anna” centers on a relationship that is failing because the girl (Anna) has found someone whose love for her surpasses that of her current man’s. The spurned boyfriend ultimately declares his willingness to part from Anna (not the typical reaction of a lover in a pop song) but not before he lays bare his imperishable love for her (much better). The lyric is thick with desperation: “But every girl I’ve ever had / Breaks my heart and leave me sad / What am I / What am I supposed to do”. In the original version, Alexander sings in a clipped fashion, which lends his rendering an almost matter-of-fact quality. John, conversely, stretches out and emphasizes more notes to arouse greater conviction from them. Especially on the segment between the standard verses (sampled above), his less-than-silky delivery injects the song with an aching passion that might not have come through so stirringly if not for the illness. Pain seems to dwell in the husky edges of John’s voice.

Overall, the Beatles’ version is an improvement on its source. The original features a jangling piano line at the lead which gives off too much playfulness for a song about inner conflict. George’s guitar-work is a better match: less spry and excitable but still tuneful. It combines with Ringo’s offbeat percussion and Paul’s stingy bass to construct a groove that, light and limber, doesn’t get in the way of John’s bruised vocal.


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Saturday, Sep 13, 2008

Coming off the lively snap of “I Saw Her Standing There”, a song with a melodramatic title like “Misery” seems almost bound to be a non-starter. And, to a certain extent, that’s true of “Misery”. It’s a pained account of love lost that heavily wallows in neediness and self-pity (“The world is treating me ba-a-ad / Misery”). Based on his lyrics, John Lennon is positively inconsolable. Oh that his dearest would undo the hurt. Though certainly not always the case, cheerless and rather dull subject matter of this kind can have a deflating effect on a song and, as follows, the listening experience.


Even so, “Misery” is a more compelling number than its drab lyric might indicate. First, there’s the backstory. As it turns out, John and Paul did not write “Misery” for the Beatles themselves. It was originally intended for a young British pop star named Helen Shapiro who was in need of potential country/western material for a future release. Shapiro, however, never recorded the song (although another British artist, Kenny Lynch, later would). Eventually, when George Martin was compiling tracks for Please Please Me, he had the Beatles record, effectively, their entire backlog of songs, one of which was “Misery”. 


Side note: I’d be curious to know to what degree John and Paul consciously designed “Misery” as a song for a female performer and how the initial version and the Beatles’ own rendition may have diverged.


Within the song itself, the Beatles made several interesting decisions concerning its mechanics and structure. What stands out most is the song’s moderately crisp pace. Though “Misery” is nothing if not a bummer tune, the Beatles don’t match that feel with a plodding, despondent tempo. After the slow intro, they proceed into a steady gallop, with Ringo’s bouncy percussion as the dominant presence. Throughout, the three guitarists don’t really assert themselves but the pace remains active enough to prevent “Misery” from becoming a total mire of melancholy.


The verse/chorus pattern is also of note. “Misery’s” running time is a brief 1:50, which might reasonably suggest inadequate room for a fleshed-out structure to the song. But that’s misleading. The chorus consists of just one word, “misery”, and, furthermore, the Beatles opted to not include a guitar solo, both of which open up space. To fill that void in a not so predictable manner, John and Paul wrote two modulated verses (only slight variations of each other) to accompany the normal verses. The back-and-forth switch between normal and modulated gives the song a somewhat dynamic flow and hints at the Beatles’ desire, even at their start, to be more than paint-by-numbers songwriters who also happened to be infectious entertainers. They aspired to be serious craftsmen (though, admittedly, “Misery” is a humble offering).


The song’s single best moment, however, arrives at the 1:35 mark. It’s when John lets loose one of the most pitch-perfect and almost comically wounded moans (“oww-o-ow”) that you’ll ever hear in pop music. Few bands could prompt such pleasure with just two seconds of discardable vocal filler.


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Tuesday, Sep 9, 2008

After recently hearing for the first time the manic Beatles song “It Won’t Be Long”, I realized that I needed to absorb their entire catalogue and write about it. So this is my attempt at it, beginning with the start of Please Please Me and ending at the conclusion of Let It Be. Wish me luck.


+ + +


It’s only appropriate that the opening song of the Beatles’ debut album Please Please Me starts with an iconic moment. Paul McCartney’s lively count-in (“one, two, three, fahhh”) puts “I Saw Her Standing There” energetically into motion, and what follows are two-plus minutes of joyous pop electricity. Several of the touchstones of early-period Beatles are at work: jaunty riffs, unison vocals, high-pitched “woohs”, and, most delightfully, hand claps (all of which reappear with frenzied effect on the album closer, the untouchable “Twist and Shout”). 


The songcraft is economized and straightforward, if not a bit underdeveloped. Paul’s bass line (which evidently came from a Chuck Berry song) tugs and struts along, and blends with John’s rhythm guitar rather seamlessly. Ringo offers a simple-sounding percussive shuffle while George’s guitar work, especially his erratic solo, reveals a burgeoning talent that still isn’t sure how to creatively occupy all its designated space. Combined, it’s the sound of a spirited young band that wants to tweak and refine the templates of rock ‘n’ roll into something distinctly its own.


Lyrically, Paul projects an innocence that isn’t surprising of early ‘60s pop. This was a period when, in song anyway, a mere exchange of glances could spawn love. As Paul sings, “Well she looked at me/ And I, I could see/ That before too long/ I’d fall in love with her”. How carefree and seemingly puritan. He even vows that this squeeze will be his one and only. Yet examine those lines once more. If you’re swooning over someone after only looking at him or her, the draw is purely physical. And I must confess that my instinctive response to the song’s introductory lines “Well she was just 17 / You know what I mean” is “No, Paul, I’m not quite sure what you mean”. It’s uncertain how cryptic and suggestive he’s aiming to be. So perhaps Paul was smuggling touches of sexuality into what seems like a sweet, if hasty, courtship. It’s also possible that the lines simply work as efficient pop couplets and are not intentionally fraught with matters between-the-sheets.


So the subtle intrigue of the lyric is amusing. But the rousing rock ‘n’ roll sounds are clearly the magnetic attraction of “I Saw Her Standing There”.


Tagged as: the beatles
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Sunday, Jul 20, 2008
Track eight...

Testify


I find it disappointing that a lot of reviews from other publications have called this out as one of the album’s weaker tracks, like Nas’ whole purpose here was to condemn his suburban white fans for not truly supporting his cause. In my review of the album, I called Untitled Nas’ Blood on the Tracks. I didn’t mean that so much in terms of concept but in terms of career context. If we talk in terms of concept though, “Testify” is this album’s “Idiot Wind”. It’s the frustrated, mournful breakdown of an artist in the midst of an emotionally complex situation.


Tagged as: nas, untitled
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Wednesday, Jul 16, 2008
Tracks six and seven...

America


The production here comes from Stargate, the Nowegian duo who laid the track for Beyonce’s “Irreplacable”. Dark, slow synthesizer chords that occasionally break into quick, clubby stutters with partially vocoded female vocals over a break-beat give this an emotionally detached, Euro-poppy feel. The song’s mood and Nas’ delivery are reminiscent of one his greatest-ever songs: “You’re the Man” off 2001’s Stillmatic.


“You’re the Man” was Nas’ mournful appeal for fans to wake up and recognize he was still the same Illmatic emcee at a time when his artistic relevance was being seriously questioned. “America” is a similar plea for citizens to break out of the mystique of our nation’s concept and recognize that things are not right; we are not past the fight for civil rights and we cannot remain prosperous forever. Both songs contain the seamless blend of poetry and prose that has always been Nas’ strongest asset as an emcee. His words induce chills whether or not you pay attention to what he is actually saying. In that respect, “America” is the most Illmatic-esque song on Untitled. America’s ambassador to the Queensbridge housing projects has grown into a worldwide representative of the African American experience with the same eloquence.


Nas’ lyrics here mostly deal with various hypocrisies present in popular opinion. He addresses the notion that hip-hop culture is destructive to society: “If all I saw was gangsters / Coming up as a youngster / Pussy and money the only language I clung ta / Claim ta, unrolled myself up to become one / Ain’t ya happy I chose rap?” and later, “Who give you the latest dances, trends, and fashion? / But when it comes to residuals, they look past us / Woven into the fabric, they can’t stand us / Even in white tee’s, blue jeans, and red bandanas.” He claims, “We in chronic need of a second look of the law books / And the whole race dichotomy / Too many rappers, athletes, and actors / But not enough niggas in NASA.” Some of his most powerful lines come in the third verse when he talks about the plight of women since our nation’s inception: “Took a knife, split a woman naval / Took her premature baby / Let her man see you rape her / If I could travel to the 1700’s / I’d push a wheelbarrow full of dynamite / Through your covenant / Love to sit in on the Senate / And tell the whole government / Y’all don’t treat women fair / She read about herself in the bible / Believing she the reason sin is here / You played her, with an apron / Like bring me my dinner, dear / She the nigger here.” The dark song end with Nas disturbingly pondering, “How far are we really from third-world savagery / When the empire fall, imagine how crazy that’ll be.”


“America” is the most poetic song on Untitled. It is a strong testimonial on the theme of oppression which, like the rest of the album, despite implication, never explicitly names the oppressors. This adds to Nas’ recurring notion that people of all colors and creeds have endured periods in which they were, figuratively speaking, “niggers”.


Sly Fox


Following a song that attempts to break the cocoon of popular thought comes this scathing examination Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and its ownership of FOX News, which has become the largest symbol of the American propaganda-machine (unless you’re a neo-conservative, which would make it the Huffington Post).


stic.man from Dead Prez provides a hard-thumping beat with heavily distorted hard-rock guitars to set the mood for Nas’ angry response to Bill O’Reilly’s bullshit campaign to have him taken off the list of performers for the “welcome back” concert to begin the first post-massacre semester at Virginia Tech.


O’Reilly based his entire argument around the song “Shoot ‘Em Up”, an out-of-context line from “Made You Look” and the fact that Nas had once been convicted on a gun-charge with no examination of the circumstances that led to it. He tried to portray Nas as some violent gangsta rapper who was just going to taunt a bunch of terrorized kids. He even went as far as to call for the firing of the university’s president. “Shoot ‘Em Up” was on Nastradamus, an album that was a consequence of the incredible, original version of I Am… being virtually the first major album to be leaked online in 1998. Corporate interests behind Nas’ music, not knowing how to handle such a situation, scrapped most of the album and forced him to record a bunch of commercial songs like “Shoot ‘Em Up” (violence sells) to compensate with two albums instead of one; the result was the uneven, official version of I Am… and the mostly bad Nastradamus. The line from “Made You Look” was a metaphor (who could expect FOX News to understand metaphor?). Finally, though I don’t know the specifics behind Nas’ gun charge, I know he is a successful man in a world filled with jealousy, living in a violent city; I would hope he has some protection.


Nas takes News Corp – which also owns MySpace – to task for enabling child predators and “monopolizing news / Your views / And the channel you choose.” He implies that their influence has spread across other networks in the best few bars of the song: “I watch CBS / And I See B.S. / Tryin’ to track us down with GPS / Make a nigga wanna invest in PBS.” He also calls FOX out for the hypocrisy in their condemnation of hip-hop in light of the violence in Hollywood and in shady foreign policy: “They say I’m all about murder-murder and kill-kill / But what about Grindhouse and Kill Bill? / What about Cheney and Halliburton? / The backdoor deals on oil fields / How’s Nas the most violent person?” Nas was smart to construct “Sly Fox” as an indictment on the entire machine behind FOX News instead of perpetuating a personal beef with one of its talking heads; Bill-O himself only gets a single shout out: “O’Reilly? Oh really?”.


With hip-hop’s status as a politically progressive art form, it’s a relief to see an artist putting real effort and research into attacking what might be the largest threat to liberal politics in America.


+ Parts: one, two, three


Tagged as: nas, untitled
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