Archive for November, 2009

The Beatles’ most underrated songs

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

I know, the Beatles are so famous that there’s no such thing as an underrated song of theirs. But I actually wasn’t familiar with a lot of their early oeuvre until recently, and even on their well-known albums there are a few sleepers that don’t get the props they deserve. Here’s my list of underrated Beatles songs, one per album:

Please Please Me: “There’s a Place“. From the harmonica riff that sits unapologetically on a major seventh to the irregular phrase lengths to John’s characteristic ornaments in the lower harmony part to the lack of resolution at the end of the verse, this is a much more interesting song than you’d expect this early in the Beatles’ career.

With the Beatles: “Little Child“. Utterly conventional (though the middle eight is a middle six) and utterly charming. You can’t imagine those “I’m so sad and lonely” harmonies sung without a grins on their faces.

A Hard Day’s Night: “You Can’t Do That“. Shows what you can do with the twelve-bar blues. I love the sweatiness of this song, for lack of a better word. That quarter-note cowbell making the song ratchet along one powerful beat at a time instead of flowing smoothly; John’s hoarse reach for his high notes (e.g., “that boy again”); Ringo slightly rushing his reentrance after the stop-time in the refrain; the opening up of new harmonic territory with the V/vi -> vi (“gree-een”) in the bridge — it’s all great.

Beatles for Sale: “I’ll Follow the Sun“. This has been dismissed as being too glib, but it’s too perfect for that. The first line of the verse is a beautiful example of the musical device known as a sequence (listen to how the first eight notes form four ascending pairs). Paul sure could write a melody.

Help!: “The Night Before“. Another song I somehow missed for years. Again, nothing groundbreaking, just perfectly executed. The vi -> iv chord sequence (“Now today I find”) is particularly nice. “Makes me want to cry” is a typical great Paul high sung note. And such a tasty restrained guitar solo.

Rubber Soul: “Think For Yourself“. One of my favorite songwriting techniques: weird verses, perfect choruses (think “Senses Working Overtime” or “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”). The chords (it takes a while to even identify the key) and phrase rhythm in the verses are really interesting, and I liked the chorus enough to base a song (“Think It Through”) on it. And I haven’t even mentioned the fuzz bass (both the tone and Paul’s awesome part) — they must have known it was great because it’s mixed so high.

Revolver: “Love You To“. Now we’re getting to the point where every song is so well known that it’s even harder to pick underrated songs. But here’s an Indian-themed song from George that doesn’t outstay its welcome, and also really attempts to be authentic in some way rather than just using cool timbres (I’m looking at you, “Norwegian Wood”).

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: “Good Morning Good Morning“. What a superbly weird song. The verses can’t stay in the same meter for more than one measure at a time, but not in a “Look at me, I’m so weird” way; they’re just following the lyrics naturally without inserting extra beats to make everything come out to 4/4. Then the chorus just bounces between I and IV but swings into triplets. And the arrangement! You can barely hear the guitar over the horns, and Paul (I presume) rips off a great solo (pretty much stolen from “Taxman”, but we’ll ignore that). When my wife heard it for the first time, she said “This totally sounds like a Loud Family song”, and she’s right.

Magical Mystery Tour: “Baby You’re a Rich Man“. Another example of what you can do with just a couple of chords. They sit on G for so long that you’re convinced it’s the tonic, then finally relax both harmonically (into C, proving G to be the dominant) and melodically (the musical sigh of “What do you want to be”) in a great moment that has always influenced me. The chorus monomaniacally sits on one note before opening up into practically the only two syllables of harmony in the whole song (“too”), and the two chords dominating the tune are finally leavened with a little chromaticism (“you keep all your money”). And what made them think they could get away with that wheedling clavioline nose-fluting its way through the whole song? Criminally underrated, and the song that originally inspired me to make this list.

The Beatles: “I’m So Tired“. I was going to choose “Sexy Sadie” but I think it’s too well known, so I picked the other song with the I-VII-IV-V chord sequence. It’s awesomely lugubrious, and even the passionate chorus sounds like its boots are stuck in the mud. And at 2:03, it knows when to quit.

Abbey Road: “You Never Give Me Your Money“. Well, every song on this album is well known, but I think this one could stand even more recognition. Kicking off the side 2 medley, it’s basically a medley itself, and I can assure you that it’s hard to write a medley that doesn’t sound like just a bunch of unrelated pieces stitched to each other. Bouncing from style to style, it somehow hangs together. More than anything else on Abbey Road, this song makes mourn for the subsequent Beatles albums that never happened.

Let It Be: “Dig A Pony“. Endearingly random (the phrase rhythm in the verses is especially fun), with a killer swung unison riff that makes the song. It deserved a better context than this.

Your turn! What was I crazy for including, and what was I crazy for leaving out?

Daniel Abraham: An Autumn War

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

This is book three of the Long Price fantasy tetralogy (I reviewed the first two here), and as much as I liked the first two, this is the best one yet. The stakes have risen even higher (as you might guess from the title) but the real interest lies not in the titular war but in the characters involved in it, in a Shakespearean way. In fact, the one place where my interest flagged was in the third quarter, where most of the war occurs; the first half is fascinating as it sets up the situation, and the denouement is great, but in order to get from point A to point B Abraham needs to do a fair amount of letting the setup play out, which made me a bit impatient. In general Abraham is pretty good at moving things along fairly swiftly, though, which is a regrettably rare thing to see in a fantasy novelist.

Although the book is pretty much standalone, the continuing character development really builds on what’s been set up in the earlier books in the series in a very compelling way. It’s clear that he had the whole thing planned out well, so I’m looking forward to the finale very much. Highly recommended, though if you’re considering starting it be aware that the last book is still only in hardcover for now.

Ian MacDonald: Revolution in the Head

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

Revolution in the Head is one of the most highly regarded critical books about the Beatles, and the Beatles have been in my mind a lot recently, having just written a game about them. My main interest regarding the Beatles is in their music itself, and in that respect the finest books that I have found are Walter Everett’s two volumes of The Beatles As Musicians, which do an amazing job of chronicling the Beatles’ musical journey from a technical perspective. Revolution in the Head occupies a middle ground between musical analysis and biography, chronologically treating each song in turn but looking at them more for their context in the Beatles’ history (and the cultural history of the 60s) than as straight musical analysis.

And it’s very interesting; despite a few caveats, I learned a lot, and MacDonald has many perceptive things to say. For one thing, partially because my knowledge of the Beatles’ history has largely been through relatively sanitized tellings such as The Beatles Anthology, it was not clear to me just how huge a role drugs played in the Beatles’ creative output. From speed to marijuana to LSD to heroin, the story of the Beatles’ music is largely (and somewhat depressingly) the story of the drugs they were taking. MacDonald also has a lot of thought-provoking things to say about the individual person-to-person relationships within the Beatles and the effect they had on their music.

Minuses: Well, MacDonald is a man of strong opinions, so you have to take care to mentally prepend “In my opinion” to many sentences, since he didn’t bother; if you don’t, you’re going to spend a lot of time rolling your eyes that could be put to better use. When this takes the form of dismissing certain Beatles songs that he doesn’t like, this isn’t so hard to do; when he dismisses all music written after 1970, it’s a little harder to take. But as long as you don’t take him overly seriously, his opinions are quite interesting.

There are probably more interesting biographies of the Beatles, since this book accomplishes its biographical functions mostly in passing; and for straight-up musical analysis, the Everett books have a lot more to say. But there’s a lot of good stuff here, and even if you don’t agree with all of it, it will at least make you reconsider a lot of your opinions, and whether you end up keeping them or changing them, thinking about them again can’t be a bad thing.

Robert Charles Wilson: Spin

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

This got great reviews when it came out in 2005 and won the Hugo Award that year, but I didn’t get around to reading it until now. It’s a science fiction novel with the premise (slight spoiler, but you find this out really early on) that the Earth has suddenly been encased in some sort of field that makes time go a hundred million times slower than the rest of the universe. I could start mentioning the implications, but that would be a spoiler — half the fun of the book is trying to predict them.

My wife (who had read it earlier) asked if I considered this “hard sf”. I don’t, really; although the book is largely about exploring what follows from a science premise, it doesn’t get into many technical details, and it’s just as much about the effect of the situation on the characters as it is about the situation itself. And I thought the character stuff was pretty well handled, with the exception of the main character and narrator, who tends to remain somewhat of a cipher. I think that’s a common problem; the author doesn’t want to risk turning readers off too much with whatever decisions he or she makes for the narrator, so that person ends up becoming a little boring or hard to read.

As often happens with genre novels, the plot ends up with a lot of action that is not easy for me to follow totally. This gear shift can sometimes make me like the last quarter of a book a lot less than the first three-quarters, but Wilson partially gets around that by breaking up that quarter and sprinkling it throughout the book as flash-forwards. I’m not sure it was really necessary from a structural standpoint (the plot would work fine told linearly), but it did help keep my eyes from glazing over at the end.

And the end is fine — not awesome but not disappointing. It turns out to be the first of three books, although I don’t know if that was the plan at the time it was written. Unfortunately, the second one has gotten fairly negative reviews, at least compared to the first, so I’m going to wait to see how the third is received before I decide whether to continue the series.

Jeff Smith: Bone

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

Bone is a 55-issue long comic book recently collected into a single omnibus volume. It’s a weird hybrid between funny-animal cartoon (there’s lots of slapstick, and one of the protagonists bears a marked resemblance to Goofy) and epic fantasy (saving the world from the forces of Evil).

The comic is pretty widely revered, and one reason is probably that it blends those two genres. But to me the blending felt artificial, and I was never really sure exactly what sort of work it was. For example, the good guys are frequently hunted by “rat creatures”, monsters that serve the bad guys. These encounters are portrayed as high-tension life-or-death situations —but then when they occur, half the time they’re played for laughs as the rat creatures act “hilariously” stupidly. (I had a similar problem with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, where I never got the feeling that any of the characters ever really believed they were in real danger.) Often I like this sort of blending of high and low — I’m a Pynchon fan, after all — but somehow it didn’t really coalesce for me in this work.

I should point out that it is drawn exceptionally well and there is a lot of pleasure to be derived just from admiring that aspect of it. And from reading reviews, I’m clearly in the minority in my lukewarm attitude.