Thursday, December 10, 2009

5 Things a song should never be able to get away with...

...Featuring "Norman 3" by Teenage Fanclub 

 It's easy to point to highly experimental music as the most original because all of the boundary stretching elements tend to be up front and centre and impossible to ignore.  It's sometimes even more interesting though, when bands can take standard pop composition structures and bend more subtle norms, yet still have it all work.  Teenage Fanclub are masters at bending really basic pop songs in a way that's not generally offensive to anyone's ears, yet cannot naturally reside on mainstream radio.  I'm speaking probably more specifically about they're first few albums that tended to be rooted more in gentle distortion with bits of noise and feedback, vs. their more recent output that has gone the route of Byrds based jingle jangle songs.  It's all brilliant, but in the car today I was struck by how certain bands would never be able to pull off some of the stuff the Fannies do on "Norman 3" from 1993's Thirteen.

1.  Perfect Fuzz
I play guitar, just not very well.  I do recall the challenge of finding the perfect blend of sounds one can generate with even the most basic combination of guitar pick-up and amplifier features.  Twiddling knobs ad nauseum to hopefully arrive at some utopian blend of distortion and reverb.  Teenage Fanclub always seemed like someone had built their equipment with a factory setting of warm guitar fuzz that no other band was allowed to have.  "Norman 3" is text book.  A band should not be able to seamlessly make a song that sounds like equal parts Husker Du and Hollies.  Sure the production makes certain the guitars aren't mixed completely up front and centre, but to use the same chords as any other song in a vibe that's disarming yet poignant at the same time is a neat trick.

2.  Mismatched Leads
The other guitar element that Teenage Fanclub picked up, in fairness, to some extent from Big Star and Dinosaur Jr., is throwing what should be otherwise obnoxious guitar lead fills over those warm chords.  Plus as the song builds to finality the leads just keep growing without ever screaming or becoming intrusive.  Another nice trick that's easy to ignore, but all the more compelling in how it's not at all disruptive to Norm's sweet vocals.  Neil Young would be proud to hear so much twangish soloing  with so few notes and minimal fret work.

3.  Vocals that Wobble
Celine Dion is supposed to hit every note perfectly.  That's the gig for the divaesque chanteuse who's bread and butter is vocal gymnastics and drawing applause for singing about nothing, loudly.  In the era of "Norman 3" people who were listening didn't care if you you sang the words perfectly so long as you meant those words.  This track has more emphasis on the lead vocals than other Fanclub songs with strong three part harmony, which means Norman Blake's vulnerability and sincerity is very much on display for 4:37.  It's not that he misses any notes or sings out of key.  To the contrary, his voice is quite pretty and reminiscent of a young Peter Frampton in spots.  It's just not over produced or affected with contrived effects.  This is what you sound like when you sing in the car, only you probably do actually suck as a singer.

4.  I'm In Love With You
How you sing about love is perhaps the most slippery craft for songwriters of all eras and genres.  It's particularly dangerous when you decide to do something foolish like coming right out less than subtley and proclaming, "Yeah.  I'm in love with you.  I'm in love with you.  And I know that it's you".  The famous John Lennon quote is "Just say what it is, simple English, make it rhyme and put a backbeat on it, and express yourself as simply [and] straightforwardly as possible.”  Amazingly, many a singer has either deliberately or accidentally tried to follow those words of wisdom with disastrous results (I promise to stop taking shots at Celine Dion, at least for the balance of this blog entry.  It's just good sport.).  To the similar point of Blake's vocal delivery, what should play as schmaltzy and embarassing works in the most endearing way because I really believe he's in love with this chick.  If you don't, let me offer point 5.

5.  Should I Repeat That?
Hip-hop and electronic music is built in many cases around repetitive hooks or beats.  The differentiation comes with cool rhymes, stylings or sounds thrown over that repetitive song core.  A standard guitar pop type song should be simple but for that reason tends not to work if the artist isn't breaking up or distinguishing thoughts and messages.  So what Teenage Fanclub should never conceivably be able to get away with is playing the same hook underneath the "Yeah.  I'm in love with you.  I'm in love with you, and I know that it's you" vocal for the last three minutes of a four minute song.  Maybe my blinders are so firmly set with this band that someone else might suggest it's repetitive to the point of ridiculous.  I just like to think that "alternative" can mean more than weird sounds and gratuitous feedback, but instead taking a very conventional sound and breaking rules for how a band 's suppose to deliver those sounds.