Friday, July 10, 2009

Simple Songs Say So Much

I’ve often been impressed, and at times frustrated, by artists with the ability to get so much out of something so basic. Namely, creating a full song complete with verse-chorus-verse action, a definite beginning, middle and end, and tons to make you listen closely…only to realize that the song is made up of just three chords. Not only is this a testament to the wonder and magic of music, but to the ability of any musician who can conjure a flowing, dynamic song from just four, three, even two chords repeated over and over again. And it’s proof that you don’t have to be all over the place with your chord structures (Mr. Bowie) to write a complex and in depth piece of music (though knowing all those funky chords sure is impressive).

As I said, in some ways this frustrates me. First off and naturally, as a somewhat musician myself, I’m constantly scratching my head at folks who can just pick up a guitar, rattle off G, C & D (the chord holy trinity of rock n roll) and pull out an instant melody so unique and perfect that you’d have thought they’d spent hours working on it. My friend Steev has that power -- and he uses it quite well I might add.

But another frustration is what to me seems like a lack of originality and/or just plain laziness. Plus, also as a somewhat musician, it just seems boring. The Cranberries are a prime example. Pick up any of their albums and a good 75-90% of the songs are just 2-4 chords jangled out ad nauseum. If I were the rhythm guitarist in that band I’d die of ennui, especially since, from the live clips I’ve seen, Dolores O’ takes the majority of the solos. Often in my youth, when I still listened to them quite a bit, I would complain how she’d seem to just bash out four chords, wail on something she was angry about and expect the boys to keep up. But, you know, if it works for you (and they’ve sold millions) and you can still pull out some good songs (which they have plenty of), why not? This is not a post about the Cranberries though, so I will not let it linger.

Really, sometimes you just don’t need anything more. If you’ve got the melody and the lyrics and it only takes three or four chords to support them…have at it! Here are a few bands/songs who have done just that.

U2 – With or Without You, # of chords: 4 –Even when I was a massive anti-anything-after-Unforgettable Fire U2 fan, this song always held a special place in my heart. Why? Because it rules. The key here is the build up, from that well known, relaxed drum pattern, to the simple yet penetrating bass line and then the Edge’s whining, sustained guitar before Bono gives it to you straight in the gut, “See the stone set in your eyes….” By the time it’s all said and done, the tempo hasn’t changed but the intensity is brimming to the point of boiling over and just at the right moment, the pot is removed from the stove and everything settles down again; meanwhile you’re wiping a tear from your eye and that bass line hasn’t changed once. Genius, pure and simple.

Galaxie 500 – Tugboat, # of chords: 2 – Galaxie 500 is one of those bands that for years I’d heard of but never really heard and when I finally did I was like, “You dope, you’ve SO been missing out.” I could have used these guys when I was twenty-something, ‘cos their simple, relaxed, melody-driven songs are the stuff of indie rock legend; so elegant, so seamless, they often come close to collapsing under the weight of their own melancholy. Tugboat is one of those lazy janglers that sneaks up on you, starting off quietly, seemingly innocently, and before you know it, you’re caught in a whirlpool of drum rolls, cymbal crashes and screeching guitars, and then the wave that grabbed you sets you back on shore -- shaken, stirred, but ready for another ride.

Mojave 3 – Love Songs on the Radio, # of chords: 4 – When I was 23 I must have listened to Mojave 3’s debut album about 5000 times, and this song kicks off that delicate masterpiece. Cinnamon sweet, the flour to this track is the flowing lap steel and the icing is Rachel Goswell’s lilting vocals, taking you to places you always wanted to go, but never knew the way. Laid back but on target, this is music for a waking dream, walking through tender moments, stolen kisses in darkened corridors, a sigh before falling asleep. Please do not operate heavy machinery while listening.

Joy Division – Transmission, # of chords: 2 – In a word: authority. When I was a huge (no, HUGE) JD fan and reading every little scrap I could about them, this was the song that seemed to stand out most to folks (well, before LWTUA), especially in a live setting. When they were finished playing, audience members were often too stunned to do anything but stand in awe of the avalanche of sound that darn near took them out of their shoes. There’s just something about this 2-note bass line that drills straight into you, and when the rest of the band kicks in, you just need to hold on for the duration. By the time you’ve hit the final chorus of DANCE, DANCE, DANCE, DANCE, DANCE TO THE RADIO, if you’re not up on your feet doing something, it’s only because you’re too overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of this song to do more than keep breathing.

James – Sometimes, # of chords: 3 – I remember the first time I heard this song was in the car, pulling into a Mexican restaurant and it was one of the few times I’ve completely stopped everything I was doing until I could hear the entire song. “Wow,” is what I said when the DJ came back on, “wow.” This song is sort of a rant, but in a very poetic way, not expressing anger or distress, but calling out a feeling, a sensation, “Sometimes when I look deep in your eyes, I swear I can see your soul.” And really, that says it all right there.


Joshua T. said...

You should've told us about Lester Piggott as well! One of my fave James songs of all time for sure..."Sometimes (Lester Piggott)" Fantastically simple and perfect.

Bill said...

You forgot to mention the best two chord (three with the E at the very end) song ever - The Modern Lovers "Roadrunner". The Beatles "Tomorrow Never Knows" is just one long G with sound effects on top of it.