Do you know what fascinates me about music? Sure, it’s part of us all, one of those things that makes us all human, like the visual arts, like movement, like eating and drinking. But what fascinates me most about music and causes me to focus like a laser on a new artist or new sound, is just that…the newness of it. Leonard Bernstein wrote a book that I read years ago called “The Infinite Variety of Music” in which the point was made that yes, music is truly infinite. Where a creative artist could draw a line, use a color or blend textures in a way that had never, I repeat, never been done before, so could I or anyone else, compose a melody or invent a sound that has never been duplicated in the long history of time. This is an incredible concept to absorb, is it not, that you or I could sit down and compose something absolutely original. Yet this is true and is happening every day.
I was challenged some months ago by a dear friend, an aficionado and former professional critic of classical music, about unique sounds in popular music. He argued that the symphony and other classical forms, with many more and varied sounds, take you on a much deeper and richer musical journey going from the beginning to the end, encompassing many emotions and impressions along the way, for example from a harsh dissonant beginning to a gentle melodic second movement or from a rhythmic and pulsating movement, to a relaxing and somnolent finale. He’s right, my friend, for classical composers from Bach to Glass, from Adams to Zelenka, have indeed provided us with an “infinite variety” of music that induces and fosters an equally varied range of feeling and emotion. I have always loved classical music and have always been deeply affected by it. Listening to almost anything by Mozart brings tears of joy to my eyes and the the music of so many other composers gives me the chills, makes me swoon, want to get up and move or my heart to pound. And some classical music can banish all my worries and relax me completely. But in my opinion, popular music, and by this I mean multiple forms of “non-classical” music, can do much the same thing but song by song, artist by artist and genre by genre.
Sit back if you will and listen to Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs or Reno and Smiley. When I first heard bluegrass music as a child in the 1950’s on Don Larkin’s “Hometown Frolic” on WAAT from Newark, New Jersey, I was electrified by a sound that I had never heard before but which stirred something very deep and basic inside me through not only the chord progressions but through the instrumentation and the harmony of the vocals. To this day I am excited and stirred by bluegrass, not only the traditional sounds but also by more modern bluegrass artists like Rhonda Vincent, Peter Rowan and Trampled by Turtles. This music is tied together not only by the common use of guitar, banjo, base and mandolin and fiddle but by the plaintive country themes in the songs, sometimes a bit maudlin but still sufficient to tug at my heartstrings and stir basic feelings of love and loss, God and religion, field and farm, family and fellowship.
A specific type of bluegrass music that thrills my heart and soul is bluegrass gospel that features tight harmonies and touching hymns. Many are performed a cappella without the typical bluegrass instrumentation. Early Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs features some great songs of this type but the very best are the flawless harmonies of Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver.
Today, in listening to music, discovering new artists, following up on a new artist written about in Rolling Stone, or discovering an older artist with whom I was not acquainted, I am amazed at the variety of music, of voices, of instruments and their unique blend that stirs my soul, makes my heart pound, brings tears to my eyes, then settles into a special niche in my musical brain, right along side those first encounters with bluegrass when I was a child.
The sounds of the ’50’s will always be very meaningful to me, bringing back certain people, places and times, and those feelings of dizzy adolescent love and confusion and s blur of voices, ducktails and crinolines. The frenetic voice and piano of Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly“”, the simple and basic rock and roll sound of Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day”, Fats Domino’s piano and Herb Hardesty’s saxophone in “Blue Monday”, the Teddybears’ “To Know Him is to Love Him”, Bill Justice’s “Raunchy” and Danny and the Juniors’”At the Hop”, along with hundred’s of others, all propel me backward in time very rapidly.
So many popular songs are forever part of our culture because of the special sound or the melody that has lodged itself permanently in our musical brains. Many come to mind immediately. The Beatles’ “Yesterday” is such an iconic melody, as is the old Dean Martin song “Memories Are Made of This” with the rhythmic refrain of the Easy Riders in the background. Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” is another that we all instantly recognize. Of course, classical music has perhaps provided even more iconic melodies. The familiar beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is one such iconic sound, instantly recognizable, as is the tune “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” (or Baa Baa Black Sheep or Alphabet Song if you wish), actually the French folk tune “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman”. Another is the Bridal Chorus from Wagner’s “Lohengrin”, known the world over as “Here Comes the Bride”. And the last section of the William Tell Overture, plus some parts of Liszt’s “Les Preludes” will forever remind me of the childhood experience of listening to “The Lone Ranger” on the radio.
When I am especially taken with a particular sound or combination of sounds I am always aware of the possibility that the record producer might be just as responsible for it as the artist. It is the producers, with their keen creative ears who along with performer(s) choose the instrumentation, mix the sounds, blend the voices, and determine the dominance of certain sounds or harmonies. Pop music has always been full of legendary and iconic producers. Dave Bartholomew was as responsible for the distinctive New Orleans sound of Fats Domino as the Fat Man himself. Sam Philips correctly determined what accompaniment worked best in early Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash recordings. Phil Spector wrote the song and determined the arrangement for the aforementioned Teddybears’ “To Know Him is to Love Him”, as well as his trademark “wall of sound” for his “girl groups” The Crystals and The Ronettes. Spector was also responsible for John Lennon’s “Imagine” and the Righteous Brothers’ huge hits “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” and “Unchained Melody”.
Other notables are Rick Rubin, responsible for much of the distinctive sound of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Dixie Chicks and Johnny Cash’s late work and of course T Bone Burnett, who not only worked with musicians such as Natalie Merchant, Alison Krause and Robert Plant, Diana Krall, the BoDeans and the Wallflowers, but also produced some memorable soundtracks for such movies as “Crazy Heart” and “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou”. Through the success of his movie work, Burnett was also responsible for a resurgence of the popularity of bluegrass and folk music.
Some additional producers who deserve mention are Daniel Lanois for his work with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson; Jimmy Miller, responsible for the unbelievable sounds of the Rolling Stones – I mean, who but a clever producer would have included the magnificent choral introduction and concluding crescendo in what I think is their best song ever – “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”? I have always appreciated Leonard Cohen’s albums which seemed to be so well produced (except “Death of a Ladies’ Man” disastrously produced by Phil Spector) and supported by such perfect accompaniment, including Cohen’s staple sweet female voices, produced mostly by John Lissauer, Roscoe Beck, Sharon Robinson, himself, and most recently by Patrick Leonard. And finally, performer, writer and producer Jack White, whose production of Grammy winning “Van Lear Rose” revived and rewrote Loretta Lyn’s career with fresh country sounds accompanying her marvelous familiar voice.
The aforementioned esteemed friend and accomplished music critic asserts that non-classical music affects emotions and feelings because of the dominance of meaningful lyrics. This is true to a degree. I am deeply affected by poetic and sensitive lyrics and realize that yes, often the remarkable sounds in pop music expressively frame the lyrics and maximize their effect, as he noted. But I disagree with his contention of the “prominence of lyrics” and insist that quite often, lyrics are rendered powerless and reduced to insignificance when enveloped in an exceptional sound.
While idly surfing around on iTunes I discovered “schlager musik” and, despite The Guardian labeling it “Germany’s most embarrassing musical genre”, have found this music quite enjoyable. The infectious rhythms and melodies from artists like Helene Fischer and from the foremost schlager music exemplar, (and coincidentally the most popular German artist of all time) Andrea Berg, really tend to grab me. A perfect example of Berg’s appeal can be seen on a video of her singing “Du hast mich 1000 mal belogen” both to and with one of her typically huge, devoted and enthusiastic audiences. And since I can’t easily understand the words, it’s got to be the distinctive “schlager” sound that embraces and excites me.
A special personal category of pop music for me are songs I have heard while traveling. And in these instances it was always the sound, not the lyrics, that made the indelible impression. On our first trip to Germany to visit my brother Robert and his family, we sat in a sidewalk cafe on the Hauptstrasse in Heidelberg, quaffing some tasty German beer and heard an enchanting song. Inquiring of some friendly natives at the next table, I was told it was Nena singing “Wunder Geschehen”. Soon I had bought the CD containing this song and it never fails to recall that special event in our lives.
On our first trip to Ireland while touring in our rental car, struggling to drive on the left side and avoid colliding with the huge tour buses and lorries that we met on the narrow hedgerow-lined roads, we heard a lovely song on the radio. Thank God the station announced the artist and the song which we quickly wrote down. Then when in Dublin we stopped in a record store and bought the CD – “No Mermaid” by Sinead Lohan. The magical song we had heard was the title song. Another song associated with a special time and place we first heard at a resort in Malindi, Kenya, right on the Indian Ocean, at which we stayed after a marvelous safari in a huge game park much further inland. At the resort the same tape of African songs was always playing over (and over) the speakers at the pool and in the dining room (even on Christmas Day, I might add!), one of which was especially memorable. The catchy tune, musical arrangement and harmony, once I found the song on iTunes and made it part of my library, has never failed to bring back memories of that special time in Africa – “Kilimanjaro” by the Safari Sound Band.
Another of the marvelous things about music is an irresistible urge to share. So if you wish to join me, plug your headphones or earbuds into your computer, or connect your computer with your amp and speakers, hit the hyperlink (thank you, YouTube) and enjoy some marvelous examples of distinctive and unique pop sounds, chosen from among hundreds of my favorites, that I hope will fascinate and enchant you as much as they have me.
Alan Parsons Project “Prime Time” – easy listening, soft rock, a very relaxing listen.
Amanda Lear “Follow Me” – mysterious disco music with Lear’s androgynous voice, from “Dallas Buyer’s Club” bar scene
Ane Brun “She Belongs to Me” – One of the most haunting Dylan covers I’ve ever heard.
The Be Good Tanyas “Nobody Cares for Me” – I can’t believe this mix of voices and instrumental sounds – so beautiful.
Beck “Your Cheatin’ Heart” – the most sublime rendition of this Hank Williams classic I have ever heard.
Bonnie Prince Billy “I am Goodbye” – great song by alternative country artist Will Oldham.
Callaghan “Love Me for Awhile” – One of the most lovely, enchanting love songs I have ever heard. Don’t know what happened to Callaghan, no recent recordings.
Camera Obscura “Keep It Clean” – Scottish band with such a clean, subdued, melodic sound…and such lovely instrumentation.
Cat Power “Empty Shell” – song made lovely by Chan Marshall’s distinctive airy, breathy voice and echoing voice accompaniment.
Chastity Brown “After You” – remarkable sound from this Minneapolis artist.
Chitlin Fooks “If One Day” – unique American country sound by this band from Belgium.
Chris Smither “Never Needed It More” – extraordinary music by old Cambridge, Massachusetts folk artist.
Cindy D’lequez-Sage “The Moon’s Lament” – from the soundtrack of “The Lovely Bones” – no one knows who this “google proof” artist is, (maybe Brian Eno?) but the androgynous voice is as haunting and mysterious as the instrumentation.
Cowboy Junkies “Misguided Angel” – one of the best by this Canadian group.
Dion “Born to be with You” – Yes, the same Dion who did “Runaround Sue” but a beautiful and different sound for the old Chordettes classic, and produced by none other than Phil Spector, but this time with a “curtain”, not a “wall” of sound.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros “Man on Fire” – great assembly of rowdy instrumentalists and vocalists.
Eric von Schmidt – “Stick to Rum” – alternative sound from another old Cambridge, Massachusetts folkie.
Felice Brothers “Whiskey in my Whiskey” – interesting sound from a band that got its start playing in NYC subway stations.
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals “Ah Mary” – great band from Vermont.
James McMurtry “See the Elephant” – one of renowned author Larry’s son’s many great songs.
Jay Farrar “Barstow” – One of consummate musician/arranger Farrar’s best.
Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter “Drinking with Strangers”– What a voice, what instrumentation, harmonies, arrangement!
Jim Boyd & Sherman Alexie “Reservation Blues” – Boyd is by far the best Native American artist I know.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore “Headed for a Fall” – fabulous production and a truly unique voice.
Justin Townes Earle “Harlem River Blues” – superb and memorable in every way.
Kate and Anna McGarrigle “Baltimore Fire” – phenomenal music by the McGarrigles including Kate’s husband Loudon Wainwright III and children, singers Rufus and Martha.
Katie Malua “Red Balloons” – sweet voice, lovely arrangement and beautiful song.
Low – “Back Home Again” – sweet, slow and magical version of the John Denver classic.
The Low Anthem “Keep on the Sunny Side” – Gorgeous version of Carter Family classic, with trumpets even!
Mark Lanegan “Strange Religion” – also strange song, strange arrangement and strange voice.
Mazzy Star “Blue Light” – Dreamy soft guitars and organ and soft lovely voice of vocalist Hope Sandoval will relax you completely.
My Morning Jacket “Lead Me Father” – Very interesting blend of voices for this apparent demo.
Moby “Dream About Me” – featuring lush voiced vocalist Laura Dawn.
Monica Tornell “When I Paint My Masterpiece” – strange, singular voice of Swedish artist on this Dylan staple.
OMC “Right On” – from the New Zealand group, recited lyrics and immortal refrain “When we were young we just had fun…” Trumpets too.
Phosphorescent “I am a Full Grown Man” – unique instrumentation and percussion (are those beer bottles?) by Matthew Houck and his group.
Pink Mountaintops “Plastic Man You’re the Devil” – very distinctive sound.
Ray LaMontagne “Gone Away from Me” – nice blend of brass sounds in this lovely song.
Robert Plant and Alison Krause – “Please Read the Letter” – sublime arrangement by producer T Bone Burnett for these two remarkable talents.
Susan Werner – “(Why Is Your) Heaven So Small” – superb arrangement of sounds and voices by singer-songwriter Werner.
Terry Allen “Gimme a Ride to Heaven Boy” – great song and sound by Texas artist and singer/songwriter.
Tres Chicas “Heartbeat” – memorable song by this group of sweet-voiced ladies.
Valerie June “Tennessee Time” – very different sound from June and accompanists.
Walela “When It Comes” – glorious voices of Rita Coolidge, sister Priscilla and Laura Satterfield, Priscilla’s daughter.
The War on Drugs “Lost in the Dream” – distinctive tremelo guitars, haunting voice.
The Waterboys – “Killing My Heart” – unique voice of lead singer Mike Scott of this British Isles group, never heard a guitar sound quite like this either.
Wazimbo “Nwahulwana” – Incredibly powerful voice