High Notes

Arts & Entertainment, High Notes

Play With Fire by The Rolling Stones

by Ron Powers For this month’s Flashback article, I hope to spark your interest in “Play With Fire” by The Rolling Stones. “Play With Fire” offers a uniquely dark feeling that is both beautiful and eerie. The lyrics focus on the singer’s relationship with a high-society girl who is leading an oblivious and self-centered lifestyle. It was recorded late at night in Los Angeles at the RCA Studios with Phil Spector. The song was originally released in 1965 as the B-side to the song “The Last Time”, and later included on the American release of their 1965 album Out of Our Heads. “Play With Fire” begins with Keith Richards performing finger-picked acoustic guitar. The music is enchantingly smooth and pulls the ear in with an intriguing and uncommon feeling. After a few bars, the guitar is accompanied by Jagger’s mellow and spooky vocal melody. We hear the lyrics, “Well you’ve got your diamonds / And you’ve got your pretty clothes / And the chauffeur drives your car / You let everybody know”. The minimal instrumentation of this song allows for the detail and micro-emotion of each element to shine through clearly. I particularly enjoy the vocals and the sound of the echo chamber effect used on them. As the first chorus is introduced, a lovely harpsichord melody is added to the instrumentation. This deepens the feeling established in the verse and adds a touch of sarcasm to the music given the harpsichord’s association with the upper-crust types the lyrics critique. The simple words, “But don’t play with me / Cause you’re playing with fire” are performed with a top-line melody that conveys a quiet fortitude that is somehow inspiring and chilling all at once. Tambourine strikes which resound with open-room reverb also adds a touch of rhythm to the music…

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Arts & Entertainment, High Notes

A Christmas Gift from Phil Spector

By Ron Powers Now that the holiday season is in full swing, I thought I’d write a little about one of my favorite albums played this time of year. A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector was released in 1963 and peaked at No. 13 on Billboard magazine’s special, year-end, weekly Christmas Albums sales chart. The album features 13 tracks, 9 of which have become classics played on heavy rotation each year on holiday radio and in just about every shopping center. Composed of songs performed by artists like The Ronettes, The Crystals, and Darlene Love, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector is easily one of the best holiday albums ever created. Year after year it continues to stand the test of time and is enjoyed by millions of people young and old. I’ll be discussing a few of my favorite songs from the album here. The eleventh track on Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector is called “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and it’s my favorite off the album. I love this song’s anticipatory intro music with its violin trills, rich bells chiming, horns blazing, and bass guitar notes dancing around. The intro rises in energy until Darlene Love and her backup singers burst into an expansive verse singing the lines, “(Christmas) The snow’s coming down / (Christmas) I’m watching it fall / (Christmas) Lots of people around / (Christmas) Baby please come home”. There is such a depth of feeling in Darlene Love’s vocal performance and that feeling blends with the music to create a song that isn’t merely a nice holiday tune. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” stands among some of the greatest music created in the 1960s. For “Sleigh Ride”, the fifth track on the album, The Ronettes and Phil Spector begin…

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Arts & Entertainment, High Notes

Fresh by Devo

By Ron Powers In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’d like to start this month’s article by saying I’m very thankful for my family. This year has had its share of ups and downs but my family has been there through it all. I’m also thankful for musicians and the music they make. Speaking of music, this month’s Flashback article features a song that pop culture missed out on. Akron, Ohio new wave band Devo released “Fresh” in April of 2010 as the lead single for their ninth studio album, Something For Everybody. “Fresh” is easily on par with the band’s more widely recognized music. In fact, it’s arguably superior to much of the band’s earlier work. “Fresh” has a tight locked-in feel complete with balanced guitars, snappy drums, and plucked synth bass. The production has a blend of zipping fuzz, smoothness, and polish. The first three measures of “Fresh” feature the band striking their instruments in unison. The notes convey an ominous and powerful feeling culminating with the sound of a thunderstorm as the third note rings out. The crash symbols mix well with the sound of the rain and thunder as a gentle synth riser leads into the head-bobbing intro music. Every instrument contributes to the appeal of this song, from the bouncing bass line and charging drums to the cool and catchy guitar lead line. For the first verse, the instrumentation is reduced to mostly drums and bass with sparse lead guitar. We hear the lyrics, “Something in the air / Is telling me to go there / So I’ll follow my nose / Go wherever it goes”. Singer Mark Mothersbaugh adds plenty of space between each line of the verse creating a dip in energy and contrast for the coming pre-chorus. The words are delivered with an…

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Arts & Entertainment, High Notes

Alchemy of Earth by David Campbell and Pauline Frechette

By Ron Powers Alchemy of Earth begins with Pauline Frechette’s “Spring Awakening”. I was taken away by this song’s delicate progressions. It unfolds like the blooming of a flower and expresses a deep and meaningful feeling. This song is a good example of music communicating something words cannot. The light and airy feeling of “Spring Awakening” seamlessly melts into the album’s second song (“Summer Skies”). As you might expect from the title, this song has more warmth to it. As I was listening an image of sunset came to mind. It expresses all the beauty of a sky full of expansive clouds painted with glowing pink, orange, and purple light as a summer’s day comes to an end. For the album’s third track Frechette continues with her seasonal theme, delivering “Liquid Moon”. This song is one of my favorites by Frechette. It makes you feel like you’re stepping out into nature when you listen to it. “Liquid Moon” also appears on an EP by Pauline called A Winter’s Tale. For Frechette’s fourth and final installment of seasonal gems, we’re treated to the exquisite and vigorous “Ice Storm”. This song has a dark and enchanting power pulsating through it. From its mysterious and meandering melody lines to its thundering brass section. “Ice Storm” is a piece of music that keeps your attention from beginning to end. Legendary composer David Campbell keeps things moving with the album’s fifth track, “19th Century Entanglements”. The bustling energy of this song pulls you in and gets your blood pumping without warning. I was particularly struck by the depth of prowess that this song exudes. Every note rings with the weight and authority of a man who has mastered his craft. Campbell continues his entangled journey with the beautifully eerie “20th Century Entanglements”. The emotion of…

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Arts & Entertainment, High Notes

“Move It” by Chuck Berry

By Ron Powers For this month’s Flashback article I’d like to shine a light on an unrecognized gem by the inventor of rock and roll himself. In 1979 Chuck Berry released “Move It”, the first track off his nineteenth studio album (Rockit). In spite of no chart success, and little critical recognition, “Move It” has all the appeal of hits like “Maybellene” and “Johnny B. Good”. The song has a ruthlessly catchy melody and a backbeat that gets your head bobbing straight away. Yes, “Move It” holds up with the best of them and remains one of my favorites by the legendary rock and roll pioneer. The song begins with one of Berry’s signature guitar licks and then blasts off into the verse with a full band arrangement. We hear a scat rhythm from the guitar while the bass bops along with the drums and the piano sprinkles boogie woogie magic all over the mix. The lyrics of the first verse describe a fifty-five Ford broken down on the side of a highway with traffic piled up and a police officer upset about it. Like many of Berry’s songs, the lyrics used employ classic rock and roll imagery that combines with the music to create a flavor as classic as McDonald’s hamburgers. Rather than a fixed melody and lyrics for the chorus, Chuck relies on the groove to hold the listener’s attention. This is probably why we hardly notice that the chorus does not obey the songwriting convention of repeating melody patterns. Instead, Chuck delivers a different melody variation during each of the three chorus sections of “Move It”. Although the words “move it” are repeated, the melody and lead guitar parts change each time. You would expect this to cause attention to wane, but for this particular song, it’s…

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Arts & Entertainment, High Notes

Lonely Road by Paul McCartney

by Ron Powers This month I’m bringing you the first of a series of articles I’m doing called “Flashback”. In this series, I’ll discuss some of the lesser-known work by the biggest names in music. First on the list is a song called “Lonely Road” by Paul McCartney. “Lonely Road” is the first track off McCartney’s 2001 album “Driving Rain”. It mixes mid-tempo rock-n-roll with a spooky vocal melody to create a sophisticated and cool feeling that is both energetic and relaxed. “Lonely Road” didn’t get much recognition upon its release, but it remains one of my favorite songs by the legendary Beatle and I’m happy to have a chance to share it with you here. The song begins with a round stumbling bass line followed by a mix of drawn-out electric guitar notes and chords played through a high-quality tube amp. We also hear faint acoustic guitar chords mixing with tambourine and kick drum to create an intriguing rhythm that supports the topline nicely. With a cool and laidback melody, McCartney delivers the simple but relatable lines “I tried to get over you / I tried to find something new / but all I could ever do / was fill / my time / with thoughts / of you”. As the verse progresses organ chords are added along with a snare drum and other percussive elements. At the tail end of the verse, Paul delivers “Chuck Berry style” octave bends that create a classically cool feeling leading into the chorus. McCartney’s guitar work is particularly remarkable during the chorus of “Lonely Road”. The rhythm is interesting and unpredictable: One second we hear swooping notes that ring out for a full measure and the next thing you know Paul is attacking the strings with vigorous strumming. A second guitar is…

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Arts & Entertainment, High Notes

“Wait 4” by “Kygo, a”

By Ron Powers I’ve been following the artist known as “Kygo, a” for several years now. Not only am I struck by the high quality of her artistic expression, but “Kygo, a” seems to be expanding the creative boundaries of music itself with each new release. Her latest single “Wait 4” is a spectacular example of the boundary-expanding quality of her music. “Kygo, a” appears to be generating a new genre of music melding classical orchestration and EDM rhythmic elements that tap into our primal urge to move and dance. There’s a sophisticated intelligence in the music and yet at the same time, there’s something very approachable and instinctual running through every note. “Wait 4” begins with the smooth thump of a kick drum tuned to the key of the song along with a focused and slightly ambient synth sound. As the song gears up we hear double note staccato horn blasts mixed with 007 like string trills. Next, “Kygo, a” establishes a groove that is composed of quarter notes from the string section and a pleasant melody delivered by a mixture of synth sounds. This mixture of synth sounds generates a completely original sonic value with a plucking effect that sounds fresh and original. For the next movement of the song, things pick up further when some classic synthesizer sounds are introduced. These synthesizers deliver a quick-paced melody and mix well with the energy-packed hi-hat rhythm and somewhat mysterious-sounding xylophone notes. We also hear a bumping bass line bopping around this section. I had the pleasure of listening to this song on a “Bang & Olufsen” sound system and it’s absolutely jaw-dropping how much power “Kygo, a” has packed into the bass frequencies of “Wait 4”. If you have access to high-quality speakers, please listen to “Wait 4” on…

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Stranger Days by Skegss

By Ron Powers Mother’s Day is just around the corner, spring has sprung, flowers have bloomed, and great music is being created. This time of year brings so much new life with it and I recently found some of that life in a happy ballad called “Stranger Days” by Australian Indie rockers Skegss. This song offers the perfect amount of emotion and inspiration without sounding cheesy. Skegss delivers a clean yet tough sound with garage-rock imperfection that allows the soul of the song to shine through. No time is wasted in getting straight to the verse of “Stranger Days”. The first thing we hear is a shuffle rhythm and chord progression performed with a clean electric guitar and acoustic guitar. These two elements combine to create a smooth yet bracing texture for the melancholy yet sunny feeling topline. Singer Ben Reed delivers the relatable lines, “Stranger days will keep on comin’ / My brain’s changed but it’s still runnin’ / I get fazed and in the end it’s nothin’”. Next Skegss shifts from the airy open textures of the verse to a tight and thumping pre-chorus. Here we have a simple arrangement of palm-muted guitar chords with bass guitar following the chord roots with an eighth note rhythm. Drummer Jonny Lani completes the musical arrangement with a simple beat that mixes with the bass to create a head-bobbing groove with just the right amount of tension. Despite the high contrast between the verse and pre-chorus musical arrangements, the vocal melody maintains the emotional flow and shifts seamlessly between sections allowing for a dynamic experience without jolting the listener. As the pre-chorus draws to a close singer Ben Reed delivers the line “and may your dreams never die”. The last syllable of this line is sustained and carried on into the…

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Piano Jam 5 (Ode to Kygo) by GH Hat

By Ron Powers The word enigma is defined as “a person or thing that is mysterious, puzzling, or difficult to understand”. It’s also an accurate description of an artist I’ve been fascinated with since he first hit the music scene back in 2016. G.H. Hat is a multi-genre producer, remixer, composer, and performer. Over the years, he has strung together one of the most interesting and unpredictable bodies of work I’ve ever seen. He’s charted on Billboard multiple times for his pop/dance club/EDM music. He’s remixed and released a Gobsmacking 290 classical compositions. Additionally, his EDM instrumentals have had a huge impact, and he’s essentially forged a new musical genre with his enthralling series of piano jams. As other reviewers have noted “G.H. Hat’s creative process has evolved into one of the most highly regarded sounds on the market” and “The way he utilizes the benefits of modern production software puts his skill on par with that of a classical composer”. I recently was granted access to an advanced copy of GH Hat’s latest installment in his piano-jams series. The song is called “Piano Jam 5 (Ode to Kygo)” and I’m excited to share my thoughts with you about it here. “Piano Jam 5” is an instrumental that begins with a single kick drum and crash cymbal accompanied by a reversed piano chord that swells into a solitary bass line. The bass line delivers a tough and steady feeling while dashes of lead guitar and pick slides are sprinkled in. As one writer accurately put it while referring to G.H. Hat’s music, “It’s almost impossible to listen … and not feel energized after”. Additionally, we hear a descending piano melody that shimmers and mingles with the bass and guitar. G.H. then picks up the pace by adding percussive synth notes…

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Won’t Stand Down by Muse

By Ron Powers UK rock band Muse is back with a heavyweight gem called “Won’t Stand Down”. The song delivers the band’s Radiohead-meets-Metallica signature sound and explodes with defiant punk rock lyrics delivered with operatic and inspiring melodies. It’s the sort of song you listen to while lifting weights or when you need to get pumped up for a ray gun fight in space. Muse mixes elements of metal, classical, and theatrical rock to create a sound that is unlike any band before them. In a music scene that is producing an extraordinary meager amount of good rock-n-roll, Muse stands as a stronghold for the rock gods to be channeled through. Let’s hope it inspires some young hearts to carry the torch into the future. “Won’t’ Stand Down” sets the stage with a brief ambient pad sound along with a plucked string melody that has a touch of spookiness to it. This is quickly followed by a sonic hammer composed of blown-out guitar, bass, and kick drum that makes you feel like electricity is pulsing in your head. Between these heavy blasts of sound, we hear a slow and steady beat decorated with clean and icy guitar chords. For the first verse singer, Matt Bellamy delivers the empowering lines… “I never believed that I would concede / And let someone trample on me / You strung me along, / I thought I was strong / But you were just gaslighting me / I’ve opened my eyes and counted the lies / And now it is clearer to me / You are just a user and an abuser / Living vicariously”. After the first verse, most of the music drops out leaving a biting guitar riff with a touch of flanger effect witch swoops into a head-bobbing breakdown. It’s easy to…

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