Three Tear-Jerkers, and How to Do It Yourself!

Massenet wrote a bunch of operas, and he liked leitmotifs a lot, so much so that his fans say he out-Wagnered Wagner.  Despite all this hard work in long forms, his most famous (and beloved) composition is this pretty intermezzo from Thaïs:

There’s a melodic moment at about 0:45 in that video, and I recommend you try it for yourself:

  1. Establish the tonic major chord.
  2. Let the melody footle about a bit, in a rising fashion, until it hits the fifth degree of the scale.
  3. Drop an octave. You’re still on the fifth degree, but an octave lower.
  4. Go up a tone, to the sixth degree of the scale, and shift the chord underneath to the subdominant.

In Massenet’s case (D major, two sharps), it looks like this:

If I’m right to recommend this little melodic trick, there should be other examples from other composers who have tugged the heartstrings by this method, and raked in the cash. Ladies and gentlemen, Roger Whittaker’s The Last Farewell (1971, although it didn’t chart until 1975). Whittaker does it around the 0:32 mark, and even more clearly at 0:53

Furthermore, Stephen Sondheim’s only bona fide chart hit, as performed by Judy Collins, also happened in the Spring of 1975.  The two composers composed independently, but the hits occurred at the same time.  Mere coincidence?  The instrumental intro does the trick at 0:26, and the vocal version is at 0:54

Now that I see the timings on these videos, I have one more recommendation:

        5.  Do it early in the tune.  The end of bar 3 seems to be the sweet spot.


Ten Sondheim Tunes I Can Hum. With Ease.

He turns eighty tomorrow, so there’ll be some quoting of favourite lyrics, and some brows furrowing over – you know – that comparative lack of commercial success, those unhummable tunes.

Here, then, in the order I thought of them, are ten Sondheim melodies I love, and have always found memorable. In fact, I think only the terminally cloth-eared would have difficulty with these.

1. There Is No Other Way from Pacific Overtures

From around 5:45

The bird sings, the wind sighs,
The air stirs, the bird shies.
A storm approaches.

2. Finishing the Hat from Sunday In the Park With George

From around 1:05, “And how you’re always turning back too late from the grass or the stick …”

3. Johanna (Quartet) from Sweeney Todd

1:54 “Goodbye, Johanna, you’re gone and yet you’re mine …”

4. The Ballad of Booth from Assassins

“How the country is not what it was, where there’s blood in the clover …”

5. No, Mary-Ann

Say it’s all pink, say it’s all gray
That’s too easy to think and too easy to say …

Designed as a parody of overly popular showtunes, for a film version of William Goldman’s The Thing Of It Is, which never eventuated.  So catchy.

6. Johanna from Sweeney Todd

Just the whole damn thing.

7. The Right Girl from Follies

Hey, Margie, I’m back, babe.
Come help me unpack, babe.
Hey, Margie, hey, bright girl,
I’m home.

8. I Remember from Evening Primrose

2:20 “But as years go by, they’re a sort of haze …”
The prettiest song ever written for someone hiding out in a department store.

9. All Things Bright and Beautiful, cut from Follies

The song was cut but the melody served, thanks to Michael Bennett, as underscoring for the show’s opening.

10. Salon at The Claridge #2, from the score of Stavisky

Mmmm, that’s good pastiche.

I could, if you like, come up with another ten, starting with Not a Day Goes ByYour Eyes Are BlueSo Many People

Sequences Are Schmaltzy

Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies has opened on the West End, and the reviews have been mixed. To summarise:

None of the Critics Like

  • The book of the show
  • Glenn Slater’s lyrics

Some of the Critics Like

  • Lloyd Webber’s tunes
  • The set

All of the Critics Like

  • The half-woman, half-skeleton thing that pushes a trolley

And there’s been a little brouhaha over Lloyd Webber’s borrowing of his title tune. Not from himself, which is well-known – the melody started life in The Beautiful Game as:

It was later trotted out, with a Puccini arrangement and a different (but no better) lyric, as the first song from the Phantom sequel:

Then it was sent back for a slightly less disastrous lyric and some semi-formal work attire:

But the brouhaha has been over this – fans of Adolph Deutsch’s score for Billy Wilder’s The Apartment were quick to notice the similarity in the opening phrases:

Borrowings aside, I don’t think anyone has yet pointed out the obvious:  Sequences Are Schmaltzy. If you like your first four notes, and decide to repeat their pattern exactly, only a bit higher, you’ve taken your first unbrave steps toward schmaltz.

Adolph Deutsch wrote a schmaltzy, throbbing love theme, and he wrote it for a film that is decidedly neither. Clever Adolph.

Lloyd Webber wrote a schmaltzy, throbbing love theme for a schmaltzy, throbbing show. Lazy Andrew.

Underrated Song: Photographs (Me In Love With You)

Alec Wilder wrote a highly opinionated book, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950. Gosh, it’s a good book.  He has the chutzpah to criticise Rodgers, Berlin, Kern – all of the greats – whenever he feels they’re not at their best.  Pfft, you might say – who’s Alec Wilder, apart from the writer of that lovely 1942 jazz standard I’ll Be Around?

Alec Wilder is the co-writer of this song, to a lyric by Fran Landesman.  Pfft, you might say – who’s Fran Landesman, apart from the co-writer of that lovely 1955 jazz standard Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most?

If you want a few laughs
Old photographs
Are fun to rummage through

Here’s our house in the snow
So long ago
And me in love with you.

Please, cabaret singers, start doing this one.  A tiny, modest little song, and it makes me ache with envy. Amongst other things.

The APRA Song of the Year, Part 6

These are the Number One singles from last year’s ARIA chart by Australian acts [insert tired protestation here about how commercial popularity is no guarantee of artistic worth].

Why the Number Ones, and not, say, the Number Eights?  Easy:  I can’t find a list of songs that peaked at Number Eight, but I can easily find a list of Number Ones.

Burn – Jessica Mauboy.  Credited writers: Mich Hansen, Taj Jackson, Jonas Jeberg
Sounds like someone wants to be hit by Chris Brown 1.3

Like it Like That – Guy Sebastian.  Credited writers: Guy Sebastian, David Ryan Harris, Sean Hurley
Difficult to listen to this as purely a song, given that it’s become so damn ubiquitous, but it’s actually about something, it develops its initial idea, and then it runs out of tricks after about two minutes 3.75

This is Who I Am – Vanessa Amorosi.  Credited writers: Vanessa Amorosi, Robin Mortensen Lynch, Niklas “Nikey” Olovson
All that “I like me” pyschobabble from the ’70s is really biting us in the arse now 1.5

Now even if I could figure out if all these writers are members of APRA, there’s no way I could learn where they lived for most of last year, and only they and APRA know what percentage of the songwriting credit goes to whom.  So let’s be charitable and assume they’re all eligible.

And I must say, commercial popularity really is no guarantee of artistic worth.

The APRA Song of the Year, Part 5

36 songs later, here they are in descending order.  As songs.  I didn’t pay attention to the video, the tastiness of the beats, or how cute anyone is.  The scores are from the Vanda-Young scale, explained here.

Blood (The Middle East) “a jar of two cent coins that are no good no more” is a fine, fine image.  This needs to be covered by someone with clearer diction, and a less enthusiastic producer 6

Cement (Washington) Bloody good idea for a song, and well executed 5.5

The Good News (Philadelphia Grand Jury) Catchy plus originality.  Bravo 5.2

The Darkest Side (The Middle East) Pretty, overwritten, self-regarding folk, with lots of good, specific imagery at the start.  I appreciate any song that mentions Panadol 4.5

Broken Leg (Bluejuice) If you’re going to use anthem-rock cliches, it is best to use all of them.  Damn catchy 4.4

Ramona Was a Waitress (Paul Dempsey) Earnest. So very earnest. Good chorus 4.3

Vanilla (British India) Some good imagery for one of those bleed-just-to-know-you’re-alive anthems 4.1

And the Boys (Angus and Julia Stone) 3.9

One Way Road (John Butler Trio) Not the first artist to preach revolution while working for the Warner Music Group 3.8

The Waitress Song (Seth Sentry) This topic is done, people.  Leave it be 3.7

Brother (Little Birdy) “Show me your soul and I’ll show you mine” is the line that should be inscribed on indie’s tombstone 3.7

All of the Dreamers (Powderfinger) 3.6

Thump (Bertie Blackman) 3.5

All I Want (Sarah Blasko) Enough material for a good verse, stretched out to the length of a whole song 3.45

Pictures (Illy) Best line: “good mates and stamps in a passport” 3.4

Science of Fear (The Temper Trap) Bonus points for trying to be about something interesting 3.4

Getting Wise (Yves Klein Blue) 3.3

Chase That Feeling (Hilltop Hoods) Decent musing on a very, very, very worn topic 3.2

Love Lost (The Temper Trap) Gets better as it goes along 3.15

Foreign Land (Eskimo Joe) 3.1

Coin Laundry (Lisa Mitchell) Quirk 101 3

We Won’t Run (Sarah Blasko) After the first verse, the others are made of prose forcing itself upon the melody 2.9

Byrds of Prey (Bertie Blackman) Uncomfortably reminiscent of goth girl poetry, set to music 2.85

You’ve Changed (Sia) 2.8

Parles Vous Francais? (Art vs Science) Fun novelty track, and barely a song. If Australia could enter Eurovision, this would be worth submitting 2.7

Shooting Stars (Bag Raiders) 2.6

All I Know (Karnivool) The kind of flavourless angst that Americans love 2.5

Still Standing (Hilltop Hoods) Standard hip-hop self-aggrandisement, with an occasional Aussie accent 2.45

Fader (The Temper Trap) After a good opening, the Cliche-o-meter gets a workout 2.4

Buttons (CSS Remix) (Sia) Repetition worthy of Terry Riley 2.4

Friend In the Field (Art vs Science) 2.2

Set Fire to the Hive (Karnivool) The sort of boy-anger you can only develop by struggling to survive in a First World democracy 2.1  

New Moon Rising (Wolfmother) A song made up entirely of bits from other people’s songs 2

She’s a Genius (Jet) And I thought Wolfmother sounded generic 1.7

Sometimes (Miami Horror) Maybe, but not with me 1.4

Remember Me (Tame Impala) was a cover, so it’s not eligible.  Good cover, though.  And of course FOTC are a New Zealand act, but just in case they’ve been “principally domiciled” in Oz, Too Many Dicks (On the Dance Floor) 2.9, Hurt Feelings 3.1, Carol Brown 4.45 

The APRA Song of the Year, Part 3

I do have a vague plan:

1. Award-winning songs from last year.
2. Releases by artists who typically win these sorts of things.
3. The Oz acts in the Triple J Hottest 100.
4. Last year’s chart hits by Aussies.
5. Songs I’ve heard in my own travels, had recommended to me by friends, colleagues etc, that don’t fall into any of the above categories.

So, in the spirit of Number 5, I went into 666 ABC yesterday, and asked around, “What was the best new Australian song you heard last year?” I asked people whose listening taste is far cooler than mine, by the way, and they all said things like, “Oh, well, I don’t really listen that much any more”, and “I haven’t caught up with Triple J for a while …” and then, “I really liked Clare Bowditch’s last single.”  Thus:

I’ve read some of the civilised internet discourse surrounding this song, and most of it boils down to “I don’t like Clare’s new sound” and “Clare is hot”.  So let’s focus on the song.

I like the whack-whack-whack hand claps, and the hiccupy pop-into-head-voice backing vocals (complete with a melodic quotation from Dido’s Thank You).  I like the Annie Lennox multitracking, but once again I ask, what year is it?  Whack-whack-whack.

I also like that this song has a bridge.  It’s a fairly clever major key spin-off from the melody of the verses, which is nice.

The lyrics I can make out (I use the method of listening as hard as I can) aren’t spectacular.  The problem with a word like “children” is that it’s not an emotive word.  “Boy” is emotive.  “My daughter Ella” is emotive.  “Children” is an agitprop word, and when you combine that with phrases like “take these children by the hand” and “pen is mightier than the sword”, the song gets preachy.  Also, great songwriting doesn’t use clichés; great songwriting invents new ones.

I’m still trying to figure out exactly what the words to the chorus are (that over-busy production), and they’re not helped by the emphasis on weak syllables: “Ev-e-ry DAY, we are figh-TING …”. It seems to involve “a cabal”, or “hooning in cars” – I’m not sure – but it’s repeated, and repeated a lot. Some choruses can survive repeating over and over, but they’ll have different phrasing each time, or words that gain in meaning. This one begs have its changes rung, just once.

I’m putting Start of War slightly above My Delirium, mainly because of the craft of the bridge.  This one scores a 4.2 on the Vanda-Young scale.

The APRA Song of the Year, Part 2

Another big winner at last year’s ARIA awards was Ladyhawke, who won Breakthrough Artist Album and Single.  So I should probably become familiar with My Delirium:

Hey, Ladyhawke might like my post!  Because she’s waiting by the phone, and nobody waits by a phone anymore!  Seriously, what year is it?  I guess all that talk of her ’80s retro-ness isn’t just publicity guff.

I quite like this song, I really do.  I like that the melody isn’t the same as the guitar riff – instead the two work against one another, and that takes a songwriter’s touch.  I like that the chorus goes up a notch from the verses.  I like that the verses aren’t melodically dull, in order to give the chorus a helping hand.

The lyrics, especially in the verses, are a little bland.  No real concrete images in “room”, “watch”, “world”, “eat” and “sleep”.  And it really needs a bridge:  the breakdown before the riff comes back into the final choruses is fun, but a truly butt-kicking bridge could have made the thing special.

OK, this exercise requires a scoring scale, and I will invent one.  It’s called the Vanda-Young Scale, and it goes like this:

10  A spectacular song, on a universal subject, that will still hit you on all fronts in fifty years.  Everything works together, and the whole is mystically greater than the sum of the parts.  A really, really good song.  Friday On My Mind good.

7-9  An inspired effort, ambitious and unusual, solid professionalism spiced with a pinch of genius.  Not flawless, but a memorable experience.  An Evie experience.

5-7  It sticks with you, no argument.  Maybe you’ll love it, if it’s playing at just the right time.  Everything’s well-crafted and in capable hands.  Love Is In the Air, and you’re Yesterday’s Hero.

3-5  A song by someone who knows what they’re doing, but not on their best day.  Quality album filler, or an OK single.  Around the Show No Mercy or My Little Angel mark.

1-3  Glimmers of talent, but a misfire.

0  Three minutes that would have been better spent in silence.

Based on this system, I’m scoring my two contenders thus far: 

Walking On a Dream – 1.5

My Delirium – 4

The APRA Song of the Year

Every year the little invitation from APRA arrives, asking me to vote for the Song of the Year, and every year I can’t bring myself to do it.  I have the usual qualms about boiling art down to rankings and prizes, but my reason is simpler: I haven’t heard enough of the nominated songs.  Maybe I’m not alone, and that’s why in 2006 Ben Lee’s Catch My Disease won.  I mean, really.

Still, I can’t whinge if I don’t vote, can I?  So that’s why I’m happy that this year is a little different. Check what the invitation says this year:

… this year we are changing the process slightly. From Monday 15 February we want you to log on to the website and tell us your favourite Song of 2009 … Over the coming month we will compile your preferences and in mid March announce a short list of 20 songs. From this, members will then be asked to vote for the APRA Song of the Year.

Hot damn!  I mean, there’s no way that a song I like could make the short list, could it?  Still, I can do my bit by nominating a really good song: something where the words are crafted and the melody’s fresh, and the two work together to create something ineffably songish.

And I won’t be swayed by great production – although I love great production – because it says “Song” of the year, not “Track” of the year.

Alright, where to start?  Well, how about with last November’s winner of the ARIA for Single of the Year?  Some statistics:

2004:  ARIA single goes to Jet’s Are You Gonna Be My Girl, and 2005 APRA song goes to Missy Higgins’s Scar, but Jet were nominated for Look What You’ve Done.

2005:  ARIA single goes to Ben Lee’s Catch My Disease, and 2006 APRA song goes to Ben Lee’s Catch My Disease.

2006:  ARIA single goes to Eskimo Joe’s Black Fingernails, Red Wine, and 2007 APRA song goes to Augie March’s One Crowded Hour, but Black Fingernails, Red Wine was nominated.

2007:  ARIA single goes to Silverchair’s Straight Lines, and 2008 APRA song goes to Silverchair’s Straight Lines.

2008:  ARIA single goes to Gabriella Cilmi’s Sweet About Me, and 2009 APRA song goes to The Living End’s White NoiseSweet About Me was not nominated.

Given those odds, I’d be silly not to listen to 2009’s ARIA Single of the Year, wouldn’t I?  Well, it was Empire of the Sun’s Walking on a Dream.  Time to put on the headphones, clear my mind and check it out here.

Snore.  I can imagine this serving its purpose at 3am, with the one you want shallow relations with nearby, but as a song,  this is lazy and dull, and I’m buggered if I’m wasting my vote on it.

Alternatives gratefully considered.

Two Earlier Posts, Reconsidered

I posted last year, about songwriters who use songwriting itself as an image in their songs.  I realise now, upon closer listening, that far too many of them of them are doing it, and it’s a very tired approach indeed.

Some further examples:

Peter Allen – Tenterfield Saddler
George Harrison – This Song
Bruce Springsteen – Dancing In the Dark
David Byrne and Brian Eno – Strange Overtones (“This groove is out of fashion / These beats are 20 years old”)
Three Dog Night – Just an Old Fashioned Love Song (written by Paul Williams!)

The earliest example I can think of is in Ira Gershwin’s showy lyric for I Can’t Get Started, first sung by Bob Hope in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936:

You’re so supreme,
Lyrics I write of you,
Scheme just for the sight of you …

I also listed some examples of male singers presenting a tune, and then repeating it up the octave.  I made a precise distinction, though, between sucky and awesome.  Some more (good) examples I missed:

Cat Stevens – Father to Son (How did I miss this one?  It’s practically Patient Zero)
U2 – With or Without You
Paul McCartney – Ballroom Dancing

Again, the pratice is not so special.  Sigh. 

I just heard it in the Jonas Brothers theme “Keep it Real”, and there it is quite clearly neither sucky nor awesome, but rather somewhere along the awesuck continuum.