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Wednesday, Nov 12, 2008

Hearing “P.S. I Love You” brings to mind the faulty stereotypes that I once associated with the Beatles’ early songs. Namely that they were mostly negligible from a technical standpoint and didn’t merit much consideration outside the fact that they belonged to a sacred oeuvre and were sometimes impossible to dislike. You know the glib suggestion that the Beatles were basically the Backstreet Boys of the early 1960s, i.e. a group defined by its hysterical popularity, especially among the female youth? In the past, I subscribed to this narrow nonsense and compounded my error by also not crediting the Beatles, circa 1962-1964, with much more than a lowly boy-band level of musical expertise. I failed to appreciate that, from the start, they were gifted individuals equipped with both a studious knowledge of rock ‘n roll and large-scale ambition.


In listening to “P.S. I Love You”, I once again come across the tempting and convincing appearance of fluff that used to distort my understanding of many Beatles songs. That is, the appearance (but not full existence) of an overly simple tune which matches a lightweight lyric with less-than-inspired sonics. Truth be told, “P.S. I Love You” is far from classic and isn’t even terribly memorable. But it’s a song that exudes a likeable, let’s-try-this spirit and shows how the wheels inside the Beatles’ collective head were constantly in motion.


The B-side to “Love Me Do”, “P.S. I Love You” is a lightly melancholic and evenly paced jangler that finds Paul, the song’s writer, pining for a girl from whom he is separated. Contrary to rumors, Paul has insisted that he did not have his then girlfriend, Dorothy “Dot” Rhone, or another love interest in mind when he composed the lyric. What’s more significant, though, is its specific styling – as a letter – which John claims that Paul modeled after the Shirelles’ 1962 hit “Soldier Boy”. Paul opens with “As I write this letter / Send my love to you / Remember that I’ll always / Be in love with you.” From these lines, one can gather a sense that his expressions of love won’t likely come without a tinge of heartache. The distance implied by the letter, then, is taking its toll. While not boldly innovative by any means, the use of this format at least demonstrates that the Beatles were thinking about different ways in which they could depart from the standard lyric. Writing a letter song may have demanded from Paul a certain kind of calculation that he wouldn’t have applied to, say, “Love Me Do”. It’s a minor but not inconsequential point.


“P.S. I Love You” also witnesses more of John and Paul’s developing methods of vocal interaction. Paul is the song’s lead vocalist and, at various times, John joins him in sustained unison, performs spot harmonies, and also fades in and out of several lines, singing every couple words but not harmonizing (or, at least, I don’t think so. On these parts, their voices don’t link up in a way that would highlight any harmony). This last technique creates a melodic texture that softly layers Paul’s vocal. Again, it’s a means to play around with pop convention and produce a sound that emphasizes its makers’ devotion to craft.


Other details to note… As with the album version of “Love Me Do”, Ringo doesn’t perform the drumwork on “P.S. I Love You”. He plays maracas while session musician Andy White is on percussion, anchoring a thin, mechanical rhythm that doesn’t seem to ever shift course. Also, near the end of the song, Paul lets out an amusingly hammed-up “Ooowwww” and “You know I want you to” which don’t yet sound natural coming from him. It’s easy to imagine the young Macca hoping that he might successfully channel one of his soulful heroes of the era, like Little Richard.


The Beatles, after all, did know their rock ‘n roll. They were creators as well as staunch admirers and students of the art. And even songs like “P.S. I Love You”, which are themselves only middling, can still reveal that fact.


Tagged as: the beatles
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Tuesday, Nov 11, 2008

After seeing a bit of Lukestar’s set on the last night of CMJ, I didn’t feel I gave them a proper chance. If anyone had been doing the amount of CMJ’ing that the PopMatters staff were, I’m sure they would have been in the same boat. But what it boils down to is that Norway’s Lukestar writes rather brilliant pop songs that aren’t meant for a crammed Cake Shop at 1 in the morning. They are meant to be played to wide open air in the Festival grounds or in an old cathedral where their sound can resonate.


“White Shade”, off their latest record Lake Toba, is the perfect example of the potential their sound can reach. Acting on perfect interplay between rhythm and melody, this song should have been the logical progression for the mid-‘90s alternative sounds of the Promise Ring and Sunny Day Real Estate into the new millennium, rather than finding itself rooted in mainstream American culture. Songwriter/Singer Truls Heggero, contrary to popular belief, does not sound like Sigur Ros. Just because he sings in a high register, does not make him anywhere comparable to the Icelandic group, and this is a good thing. His vocals have a more pop sensibility and serve not only as an instrument, but as a vital portion of the song.


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Monday, Nov 10, 2008

When Obama takes office in January of 2009, it will be a half-century since Free Jazz forefather Ornette Coleman dropped the provocatively titled “The Shape of Jazz to Come”. 1959 was a watershed year for jazz music (arguably the greatest single year for jazz in all history–which is saying a LOT). Here’s a taste: Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”, John Coltrane “Giant Steps”, Charles Mingus “Ah Um”. That is like the holy trinity of jazz music; all from the same year. But in the not-so-silent shadows a young, relatively unknown alto saxophonist was poised to fire the musical shot heard ’round the world–a shot that still reverberates today. “Kind of Blue” is correctly celebrated for establishing modal music, and a genuine evolution from bop and post-bop; “Giant Steps” is the apotheosis of the “sheets of sound” that John Coltrane had been practicing and perfecting for a decade; “Ah Um” is an enyclopedic history of jazz music, covering everyone and everything from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington. And each of those albums were immediately embraced, and remain recognized as genuine milestones today.


But “The Shape of Jazz to Come” was incendiary and complicated: it inspired as much resistance as it did inspiration. Some folks (Mingus included) bristled that it was all so much sound and fury, signifying…little. But what Coleman (along with trumpet player Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins–representing as solid a quartet as any that have made music, ever) achieved was, arguably, the most significant advancement since Charlie Parker hit the scene. Of course, Parker was also misunderstood and dismissed when his frenetic, almost incomprehensibly advanced alto saxophone assault began to cause scales to drop from audiences’ eyes–if not their ears. Like any genuine iconoclast of the avant garde, Parker and Coleman were not being new for newness sake; they had to fully grasp and master the idiom before they could transcend it. Tellingly, what was revolutionary and almost confrontational, then, seems rather tame and entirely sensible, now. Of course, it didn’t take 50 years for Coleman to resonate: he not only found his audience, John Coltrane–the all-time heavyweight champion–embraced his compatriot. He endorsed, and, crucially, he imitated. The Book of Revelation that Coltrane’s mid-’60s Impulse recordings comprise did, in many respects, grow directly out of the opening salvo fired by Coleman in ‘59.


Coleman’s compositions are nakedy emotional, unabashedly intense, totally human. Like the best jazz music, all of the instruments are communicating. What they are saying are different things, at different times, to different people. That is the power of this music. It was the soundtrack for a truly unique and momentous time in American history. It remains, more so than ever, the soundtrack of now.


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Friday, Nov 7, 2008
Many Moons - Janelle Monae

I admit that most of the happiness I derive from this video is the visceral pleasure of watching Monae perform.  The Annie Lennox gender bending, the classic dance nods to Michael Jackson and James Brown, and the way she opens her arms in wide swim strokes like everybody should step back so her outsized persona can get through.; it’s completely mesmerizing.  She’s strikingly self-possessed. 


But that’s just the most obvious surface.  The song itself is bold for audaciously shedding anything like a standard pop format: sounding like a Curtis Mayfield opera written for the Uptown String Quartet. It’s riveting and full of tangential suites, where dream-sequence acapella breaks into a list-rap of denigrating terms that one presumes Monae has had directed at her.  The song is existentially searching without being pretentious.  When she challenges the listener with “So when you’re growing down/instead of growing up/tell me are you bold enough to reach for love”, it’s really a gorgeous plea asking people if they can manage to be the best of themselves under the worst circumstances.  My answer:  not so much.  But damn, it’s a great lyric.  The rest of the song explores themes rather than hewing to a chorus; it’s a galaxy of a song with a charismatic center.


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Friday, Oct 31, 2008

For a debut single, especially from a band of wide-eyed and excitable young rock ‘n rollers, “Love Me Do” feels like a curious selection. It’s a decidedly mid-tempo and almost drifting amble that showcases patience far more than promptness. The Beatles don’t achieve any sort of boisterous rush within its running time and clearly didn’t intend to. The lyric, which simplifies the pursuit of love down to a mere request, seems underdeveloped and repetitious even by the standards of early ‘60s pop. As Steve Turner points out in A Hard Day’s Write, the word “love” makes over 20 appearances (it’s noted that Paul began writing this when he was just 16 or 17 years old. Even so….). And the song’s focal point, not to mention its most effective asset, is John’s performance on the harmonica, which provides well-measured texture throughout the chorus and verses, a quirky solo that memorably stands in for what might have been a guitar part, and, of course, the fluttering, blues-thick intro. Evidently the harmonica section helped convince George Martin of “Love Me Do’s” potential as a single. He had originally wanted to release the Fab Four’s cover of “How Do You Do It?” as he would again the next time around before agreeing to “Please Please Me”. It’s a testament to the Beatles’ underlying ingenuity and Martin’s solid pop instincts that they arrived at this oddball-ish tune for the group’s historic entry onto the radio waves. It peaked at #17 on the UK Singles Chart in late 1962.


However, listening to the song in 2008, I’m not certain that it’s among the Beatles’ imperishable classics. On Please Please Me alone, I think “I Saw Her Standing There”, “Twist and Shout”, and the title track belong in the first tier of quality with “Love Me Do” atop the second. Maybe it’s the modern urge for easy climaxes and quick gratification that prevents this inhibited and leisurely paced number from fully satisfying (my ears, anyway). Maybe my sensibilities are more at fault than the song’s casual way about things. Undoubtedly, “Love Me Do” is a charming song with skillful components and passages: the aching unison that Paul and John strike on “Ple-ee-ee-eeease” right before the chorus, Paul’s at times expertly tempered vocal, and the thumpy rhythm that naturally incorporates Ringo’s tambourine hits (Andy White played percussion on the UK album version which I’ve used for my commentary here). But, overall, it seems slightly less than the sum of its parts and lacks the spark to have been fast tracked for the Beatles’ canon. It strikes me as overrated but not unreasonably so.


Tagged as: the beatles
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