Thursday, June 03, 2010

Song of the Week: Black Crowes, "Sunday Buttermilk Waltz"

When I post about songwriting, I usually focus on the lyrics, the music, and how the two work in tandem to create something magical. Lyrics are one of the first things I listen for; great lyrics can make a song resonate even when the music doesn't. Strong lyrics can say anything, however simply or abstractly, and speak straight to our heart.

But some songs don't need them.

Song of the Week: Black Crowes, "Sunday Buttermilk Waltz"

(***Editor's Note: With Lala's demise, I'm struggling to find free streaming versions of all these songs. I've linked to the iTunes sample by default. If you find one, let me know!)

Steps to enjoying "Sunday Buttermilk Waltz":
1) Find some great headphones.
2) Hit play whilst wearing these headphones in public.
3) Walk in the sun with nowhere to go.
4) Maybe get some lemonade.

Or, just hit play. It's a terrific composition: melodic, memorable, bouncy, creating and relieving tension at every turn. Through headphones, each instrumental layer has its own voice; they build and echo off each-other, harmonics calling and responding, melodies topped with counter-melodies topped with counter-melodies. The result is kind of musical impressionism: it creates a picture that looks one way close-up, and another way from a distance.

It achieves what any pop-strumental should: the song wordlessly communicates a feeling that anyone would recognize. The title, "Sunday Buttermilk Waltz," doesn't narrate action so much as paint a picture to match the song's aural imagery. You want to describe what this song sounds like in three words or less? Sunday buttermilk waltz. Perfect.

This tune got me thinking about other instrumental works by pop artists. They don't happen often; when they do, they usually give the album an added thematic dimension, or provide a wider sonic landscape, or give the listener a break in the action, or all of the above. They give us something to think about, or to thoughtlessly enjoy.

Some more of my favorite pop-strumentals are listed below. Interestingly, many are the title track for their album--musical prologues that set the scene for all subsequent songs. Many either begin the album, close it, or are the centerpiece. They either set the scene, provide some ending credits, or mark an important transition. What are some of your favorites?

A few more favorites:
Beach Boys, "Let's Go Away For a While"
Outkast, "Intro" (for Speakerboxxx)
Uncle Tupelo, "Sandusky"
Josh Ritter, "Edge of the World"
My Morning Jacket, "[Data Track] or Bonus Track"
Pearl Jam, "[Untitled] or [Red Bar]"
Pink Floyd, "Any Color You Like" (take your pick from this album, really)
R.E.M., "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1"
Radiohead, "Kid A"
Smashing Pumpkins, "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness"
Tom Waits, "Closing Time"
The Who, "Underture"

And, of course, the king of all pop-strumentals, the one-time #1 hit:
Booker T. and the MGs "Green Onions"

What are your favorite instrumentals? What have I left out? Let me hear it!

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