Thursday, August 12, 2010

Song of the Week: Counting Crows "Recovering the Satellites"

Song of the Week's back!

SOW took July off to focus on competitive surfing, which it does every summer.  It got a radical sunburn, a gnarly jellyfish sting, a yellow ribbon, and a year of free rentals from Blockbuster.  It also found love with SI's "Hot Links" feature, but the Hot Links eventually broke its heart.  I'll be honest: it affected the surfing.

Still, good summer, Song of the Week!

Now back to work.

(Quick housekeeping note: the Blog's picked up many new readers over the summer.  For those newbies, a few points:

1) Song of the Week is a weekly feature--usually Thursdays--in which I pick a song and write about it.  Simple enough?  Sometimes it's a songwriting element I admire; sometimes it's a particular memory I've attached to the song; sometimes there's a performance I think is remarkable.  Anything that makes the song noteworthy to a musician or lovable to the casual listener is worth talking about.

2) At the end of every month, I do a "Mailbag" blog in which I answer reader email.  The emails are mostly about music, but anything goes.  If you'd like to be in a future Mailbag, just email with a question!  I promise I read every email and always appreciate you writing.)

I heard an old favorite song recently and noticed something new: musical onomatopoeia.  What-what-what?  Read on...

Song of the Week: Counting Crows, "Recovering the Satellites"

Onomatopoeia occurs when a word is formed from the sound it describes.  For example, bees "buzz."  Poets often use this to make the aural world of a poem match its visual world.  Similarly, musicians use instruments to make the sound that the lyric's discussing.  And here's our example:

The Counting Crows "Recovering the Satellites" is a long and complicated lyric, but here's the short version: there's a girl, there are dreams, there are problems, and satellite/space imagery is used to help tell the story.  So, at the song's outset, the main sound is the rhythm guitar playing the opening chords.  But in the background (0:04), another guitar creates a pulsing, high-pitched effect.  It sounds like an oddly melodic hiccup, a recurring blip of feedback on our song's radar.  It sounds exactly like a homing beacon on--you guessed it--a satellite.

Hence, musical onomatopoeia.  (Yep, I'm tired of typing that.)

One of my favorite things about music is hearing something new in a song you've heard hundreds of times before.  How did I miss this "satellite" at the song's beginning the first thousand listens?  Now I can't not hear it.  One of the reasons I missed it so many times is because it's executed well; that beacon sound supports the song rather than overwhelming it.  It's a background piece, an added layer, but not in the spotlight.  Done wrong, musical onomatopoeia can sound cloying or hokey.  Done right, it's another way to let the song's sonic landscape support its lyrics. 

A few more favorite examples:

A sneaky one: Radiohead, "Airbag"
The song's cacophonous transitions and metallic, clashing drum sounds imitate a recurring car crash.

An overt one: Avett Brothers, "Kick Drum Heart"
The kick drum pounds in isolation after every refrain ("my heart like a kick drum") to support the singer's excitement.

An explicit one: Pearl Jam, "Given To Fly"
Mike McCready tells us how they build the song like a wave set to break at just the right moment (the first line of the chorus: "a wave came crashing...").  That gorgeous, watery guitar tone only heightens the effect.  (Sidebar: this clip is taken from Single Video Theory, which is a classic in-studio band documentary.  Even if you're not a Pearl Jam fan, it's well worth watching.  One of the best, most honest glances at how songs are actually written and how an album's actually made.)

And a personal favorite: Buddy Holly, "I Fought the Law"
Not satisfied with creating the perfect three-minute rock song and (arguably) punk's greatest precursor, Holly works six emphatic drum hits into the line, "robbing people with a......six gun."  Just to show off.  (The link goes to a live Clash cover, but they're true to the original on this.  It happens around 1:08.)

So what are some more examples?  What are some of your favorites?  Hit up the comments and let me know!

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