“Maybe the words I say is just another way to pray”

           - Curtis Mayfield
Week 10

Week 10

Seven decades. Seven songs.

Not one but two girl groups, you can never get enough.

1920’s-50’s: “Solar” by J.J. Johnson (1956)

J.J. Johnson was a true jazz survivor, as one of the first trombonists to embrace bebop. It was widely regarded that trombones work best in an orchestral format, essentially keeping them limited to the swing ensembles that ruled the jazz world before bebop crashed the scene. Folks like Johnson decided that trombones could do more than just "fit in" to the new style, they could thrive in it. Over the standard composed by Miles Davis, Johnson's tone fills the pocket that would usually be played by a trumpet. 

The trombone's warmth serves to mollify the head of the track, and Johnson's following solo only helps to keep the affair as smooth as can be. It's a refreshing alternative to the norm, so well executed that it makes one question why trombones were ever considered unsuitable for the style. It's also exciting to hear a young Elvin Jones chugging away at the drums, still a few years away from the earth-shattering force he would become. 

1960's: "Forever" by Pete Drake (1964)

Pete Drake was a Nashville based country musician, who was a coveted backup guitarist and a fairly renowned songwriter. Drake worked with countless country musicians, and contributed to recordings by Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison. Although used to being in the background, Drake did have a significant claim to fame. Combining the effects of the talk box with his pedal steel guitar created sounds that were incredibly uncommon, especially for the mid-60's.  

"Forever" was the hit birthed from his unique process, reaching #25 on the Billboard Hot 100 and eventually selling over a million copies. The talk box/steel guitar combo produces a slinky muted whine that's as wistful as the lyrics being sung. With unaffected vocals gently cooing in the background, it's clear to see why the song had the charm needed to be successful. It's a cool breeze, one that passes by far too quickly.

1970’s: “Take A Look” by Martha and The Vandellas (1970)

They were always on top of the charts, but for quite some time Motown circled the bottom of the list for socially conscious black art. Berry Gordy's apprehension to letting his artists release music with a message has been well documented and tiptoed past in many of his (still well deserved) tributes. However, in a post-Sly Stone pop/R&B landscape, Motown's output slowly crept towards portraying the signs 'o' the time. This transition, which reached its peak in 1971 with What's Going On had a few growing pains, a few of which are evident on "Take A Look".

With notably no Vandellas to be heard, this Martha Reeves solo cut sounds left in the What's Going On demo stage, with well-arranged instrumentals yet not fully refined lyricism. James Jamerson still amazes on bass and the orchestra compliments the exultant piano well. It's incredibly interesting to hear Motown adjust to the loss of ace songwriters like Holland-Dozier-Holland, and position itself as part of the movement to political black art.  

1980’s: “When I’m Gone” by The Jones Girls (1980)

The Jones Girls, made of three sisters from Detroit, were one of those groups that never really made a huge dent in the industry, but their contributions were still important. Singing backup for icons like Aretha Franklin, Teddy Pendergrass, Diana Ross and more, they honed their craft well. In the early 80's they were associated with Gamble & Huff, the legendary Philadelphia songwriting duo. While at Gamble & Huff's label, Philadelphia International Records, The Jones Girls recorded four albums full of hidden gems.

With a bass-driven groove and sparse funk guitar "When I'm Gone" neatly toes the line between being overproduced and too minimal. The drums are rarely intrusive, leaving plenty of space for the soft synth lines and saxophone to work around the bass line. With a lover's loyalty under question, the music almost sounds too lighthearted for the subject matter. It's as if we've already resigned ourselves to the infidelity, and maybe this song is just the first step to moving on.

1990’s: “H2O Proof” by Ras Kass (1998)

"Straight outta Aruba, lampin' with my boo from Bermuda
Lickin' rugers in Cuba, blowin' niggas out the frame
With brass knuckles and a tuba, my new maneuver is scuba
360 degrees of revenge like Montezuma"

Plain and simple, this man can spit. I really have nothing else to say.

2000’s: “This Side of the Blue” by Joanna Newsom (2004)

An absolute dream of a track, Joanna Newsom crafts what seems like a mystical nursery song. However, with Camus references and hints of existentialism embedded in the lyrics, "This Side of the Blue" is clearly more than what it seems. With a soaring slide guitar that seems to grab all attention when played, Newsom calmly delivers her philosophical prose. 

The electric piano bounces in a lazy triplet feel, softly urging the song along. The song ultimately seems to be about the wonder of words, and how're they're constrained but what we can manage to understand, which is far from everything. By the end of the tune Newsom seems to accept that she'll never know it all and finds a comforting peace in that fact. To find peace in a song so soothing seems to be just about all you can do.

2010’s: “Vibrations (Machinedrum Remix)” by Om Unit (2011)

The lurching low end on this track hits and doesn't let up, meticulously produced by Machinedrum. This is IDM in it's purest form, rapid paced dance music that cuts cleanly. There's a great balance between the rhythmic and melodic components of the track, with the harmonies subtly changing throughout the track. As the title is repeated throughout the track at different pitches and speeds it becomes a mantra of sorts.

"Vibrations"' is intense but calming, striking a synergy that all the best pieces of music do. You can approach it as dance music, in which case it will elicit plenty of motion. One could also sit down and let the stuttering vocal chops act as a drone of sorts. Either way the track is an assault on the ears in the best way possible.

Words On Spike Jonze

Words On Spike Jonze

Tom Wilson

Tom Wilson