Uninformed observations about unrelated pieces of music

Of all the things I like to write about in spite of knowing nothing about them, music is one of my favorites.

Lately, I’ve been boring members of my family by making them listen to the opening of Leon Russell’s “I Put a Spell on You” from his eponymous album (the one before the Shelter People one). No, not a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins cover. Totally different song.

It has one of those “you are in the studio” false starts at the beginning. Actually, two or three of them. I’ve always thought those things were a little obnoxious, because they seem to play on fans thinking it’s cool to hear their rock ‘n’ roll heroes being informal, making mistakes, and it seems self-conscious, as in “We know y’all will enjoying feeling like you’re rubbing shoulders with wonderful us in the studio, so we’ll throw you a bone.”

Or maybe I read too much into it.

Anyway, I like this one because of what Leon does with it. There’s one false start. Then another. Then he, and a guitarist, play a sort of winding, downward pattern. And then suddenly, Leon does that thing where you run your finger down the keys in one long flow, from right to left (what’s that called?), and then the rollicking song actually begins.

It feels, to me, like the musical version of jump-starting a car with manual transmission by letting it roll down the hill and letting out the clutch with the gearshift in first. If you’ve ever done that (I’ve had to do it a couple of times with my Ford Ranger), see if listening to this kind of feels that way to you.

Or maybe I’m just crazy.

Here’s the other musical thing I wanted to bring up. This is probably a question for Phillip Bush, like when I asked why awesome songs such as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” are so awesome. What musical tricks make the endorphins flow?

I’m thinking that about the theme song to “Orange is the New Black,” which we’ve touched on here previously.

The magic seems to occur in two places. One is when Regina Spektor gets to the line, “And you’ve… got… ti-i-IME!” What is she doing there? It’s unusual, and very appealing. The other cool part is the bridge (I think), where she shifts gears and goes:

Think of all the roads.
Think of all their crossings…

Anyway, it’s very appealing, whatever she’s doing. I wish I could put it into words. But if I could, I guess we wouldn’t need music, which would be a shame…

20 thoughts on “Uninformed observations about unrelated pieces of music

  1. Norm Ivey

    On the Leon Russell thing–I get what you’re talking about. It’s so low-energy, and then it roars to life. I like it. Tightrope is my favorite from Russell.

    I also like You’ve Got Time. Why don’t more TV shows have themes songs worth listening to–like M*A*S*H and The Big Bang Theory?

    Fiona Apple’s Hot Knife has something like that going on as well–it feels good, but I can’t explain why. Maybe it’s the Row, Row, Row Your Boat canon thing that she does with it. And the video is fun to watch. She sings it like she means it.

  2. CJ Watson

    I think the greatest rock and roll song is The Weight by The Band. Everyone knows it, everyone loves it. Its one of those songs like Hallelujah that is pleasant in that unexplainable way. I like that the lyrics are somewhat nonsensical, hard to figure out.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Aside from enjoying the lyrics, that’s my favorite part because, on a good day, I can sort of sound like Rick Danko singing it. My voice has similar qualities. I can’t quite manage to sound like Levon Helm, try as I might…

        Anyway, when my band gets together, and we cover that (it’s on the playlist), I’ll just be singing the whole thing like Rick Danko. Just so you know…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Speaking of my band — the one I’ve been seriously thinking about putting together ever since 1971, and will get to eventually, once I’ve taken care of important things such coming up with a cool name for it — there’s something I may have neglected to mention.

          Once, in the summer of 1971, the band actually got together for a rehearsal, over at a friend’s house on Hickam AFB. Just one rehearsal.

          The cool part was that, for just that one day, Burl Burlingame was in the band. He came along, and brought his briefcase full of harmonicas. He was one of those talking knowledgeably about this and that progression, and other things I didn’t understand. I didn’t play an instrument. I was the front man.

          One or two other times, a couple of us gathered at a piano and tried to write a song or two. We came up with one and a half.

          The complete one was called “Grilled Beaver Blues.” Yeah, I know. But the name was inspired by something a friend and I saw wandering through the empty streets of Honolulu very late one night. It was an actual business called “The Beaver Grill.” It was a sign. We had to write the song.

          Then there was another number, in the style of the Beach Boys, called “35 Makalapa Drive.” It would go, “Thirty-five, thirty-five Makalapa Drive, oh thirty-FIVE, thirty-five Makalapa Drive…” Well, I can hear it, even if you can’t. It was inspired by what I THOUGHT was this one girl’s address. It was pointed out to me later than while she lived in Makalapa Heights (a senior naval officer housing area), she didn’t actually live on Makalapa DRIVE. But hey, I wasn’t going to let that stand in the way of rock-n-roll history.

          Or maybe I did. Since we never finished the song, or even tried to perform it…

  3. Phillip

    running fingers along the keys=glissando

    I’m not sure about the first thing you liked in the OITNB song, except that the phrase kind of ends with a “going up” gesture which is pretty cool. But the appeal of the bridge is clear: the drums drop out, and the 4-to-the-bar driving nature of the song transforms more to a 2-to-the-bar feel, plus she changes very much the timbre of her voice for that section.

    That kind of simple but effective halving of the pulse always reminds me of things I’ve seen in film, where you’re looking down at the ground from an aerial shot, zooming over the landscape, and then suddenly you pass over a cliff and the ground (now much farther away from you, suddenly) seems to pass more slowly past your eye even though you (in the airplane with the camera) are not actually going any slower. You feel suddenly weightless. That seems to me to be the visual parallel in perception to the auditory one.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      That reminds me of something I’m saving for an adventure movie, when I make it.

      First I should mention a weird association I have. There are certain books that are inextricably linked in my mind with certain albums, and vice versa — because those are the books I was reading when I first heard those albums, and listened to them over and over the way I did with albums when I was young (and sort of do today with music I’ve recently discovered, although not so much with “albums”).

      Some almost kinda work together. Such as James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” album and Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. No, really, it works.

      Some would seem like very jarring juxtapositions — such as the Beatle’s “Abbey Road” and Leon Uris’ Battle Cry, which tells you that’s what I was reading in October of 1969, because I went out and bought the album immediately when it was released.

      Anyway, my point is, I’m reading about these Marines on Guadalcanal, and on other jungle-covered Pacific Islands. So that image is in mind, as I’m listening to George, John and Paul all playing lead guitar at the end of “The End,” and it builds, and builds, and then suddenly — the music stops. And there’s this echoing pause until the choirboy voices start with “And, in the End, the love you take…”

      So, one of these days, when I make a movie, there’s going to be this guy running through a jungle, pursued by danger as the guitars build, and then suddenly, as the guitars stop, he runs right off a cliff, and the pause in the music occurs while he’s weightless, falling, and the “And in the end…” comes in as he plunges into a deep, cool pool of water at the bottom…

      The music demands such a scene…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        OK, I feel stupid. I just went back and listened to it.

        When the guitars suddenly end, the “pause” that follows isn’t a silence. It’s punctuated by one meager chord played repeatedly — dink-dink-dink-dink-dink-dink-dink-dink — on a piano, up in the high keys.

        That actually accentuates the feeling of being suspended in air…

  4. Phillip

    actually, listening to it again, at :23 the pulse actually goes 1-to-the-bar rather than 2, it’s really a “quartering” of the pulse, even more effective.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Maybe the thing I like about “And you’ve got time” is related to that. The music doesn’t slow down, but her recitation of the lyrics does. Before that, she’s rattling out words, then she slows way down, although the accompaniment does not.

      I thought, though, there was something different going on with the notes. Like a shift to a different, unusual key. But that’s just me in my ignorance…

  5. Burl Burlingame

    Yes, glissando.

    Music is so closely hooked to the pleasure centers of our brains that it often appears indistinguishable from magic. The structure and performance tweaks play into that.

    You know that when a song is recorded there are two very separate copyrights — one for writing, one for performance.

    On pop songs particularly, listen for the inevitable “modulation,” which generally occurs after the bridge. The band shifts half a key higher.

  6. Kathryn Fenner

    After reading PB’s comments, I think the Community theme has that up ending phrase thing going on, too. Miles Hoffman on the radio just explained that “cadence” is derived from a Latin word meaning “falling” which is how church music traditionally ended. When a phrase resolves up, it confounds our expectations in a pleasant way.

  7. Doug T

    Leon Russell? “Back to the Island”. Helped my new marriage get off to a rousing start if you know what I mean….along with B side of Marshall Tucker’s “A New Life” album.

  8. Rich Sims

    Leon Russell’s main 1970 album “Leon Russell” absolutely blew me away back then. Not only was he the coolest looking guy I had ever seen from that blue album cover but his writing, piano playing and all the famous musicians contributing were top notch.
    I’m trying to find the lyrics to one of his songs on that album, “I Put a Spell on You” and all the lyrics I see are the Screemin’ Jay Hawkins ones. Does anyone have Leon’s lyrics as they are different than Hawkins. Listening to the album track I miss too many words to get it all.

    Any help would be a Win. Thanks much.
    [email protected]

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