Jesse Jarnow

Archive for May, 2004

“the reason” – hoobastank

#5 this week, #8 last week, 11 weeks on the chart

There’s definitely something afoot here. Well, maybe not definitely, but I do find it a mite interesting that the #5 slot, both this week and last, has been occupied by an honest-to-“Bob” guitar-driven band playing a song with fairly normal/innocuous verse/chorus/verse songs. Last week, it was Maroon5, who slipped down to #7 this week. This time, it’s Hoobastank (whose name I remembered from a walk with my friend Paul around lower Manhattan, repeatedly reading their name on construction site wall posters, and collapsing into hysterics at our exaggerated elongated pronunciation of “Whooooooo-bah”).

When I was driving around Los Angeles last month, I was flipping through the radio stations on my aunt’s car, and found some station playing one of the cuts from The Postal Service album. The station announcements informed me breathlessly that I was listening to “The Indie” (or some variation thereof) the same way Z1000 in New York used to brag about being “the alternative station” (or some variation thereof). The Indie, as I read later, was just another ClearChannel station. The intro to Hoobastank’s “The Reason” kind of reminds me of that feeling — a half-second rush of excitement that maybe something cool has triumphed, followed by a muted acceptance that the reality is actually very different.

“The Reason” begins with a repeated piano note. It is joined, at three seconds in, by a cool modern sounding beat. At six seconds, an icily spider-like guitar figure is uncoiled. Both very cool. At 12 seconds come a sorta cheesy bassline. It doesn’t feel wrong, exactly, ’cause it still seems like a cool song could be made out of those elements. Then, at 14 seconds, things veer off horribly. The vocal melody comes in and, like The Indie, “The Reason” turns out to be just another mid-tempo love ballad. In fact, it hit a peak that is uncannily similar to Clay Aiken’s “Solitaire” (and achieved with a power metal-sorta build) when they get to the first, dramatic “and the reason is yoooooooooooooooou” (after that, it’s more like metal).

By the end of the song, when all of the elements have been cycled into the ground, it’s almost embarrassing for me to admit that I was even fooled by them during the song’s intro. All the pop trappings are added – synthesizer, strings, even giant “Disarm”-style bells – and it loses whatever it was that was interesting about it during its opening seconds.

“this love” – maroon5

#5 this week, #5 last week, 15 weeks on the chart

In the upper reaches of the chart, like a team 15 games ahead of the nearest competition at All-Star Break, Usher is doing battle with himself (“Burn” and “Yeah,” flip-flopped between the first and third spots this week). It’s boring in some ways but insistently enthralling others. Meanwhile, a few slots down, there’s a surprise in store — one that I’m still not sure if I understand correctly. If their AMG entry is to be believed, Maroon5 is an actual rock band (they’ve got, y’know guitars) from New York, recording for a genuinely independent label (Octotone). It seems like a Spin Doctors story, since their album, Songs About Jane, came out in 2002. But wherever they came from, here they are.

“This Love” really does crossbreed indie and pop-circa-2004. Atop a decidedly hip-hop beat are stabbing guitars and a singer who sounds (to my ears) uncannily like Woody Ranere from Lake Trout. In fact, come to think of it, the whole package sounds like Lake Trout during the verses (kinda minimalist jungle rhythms with an assured dry melody). When they hit the chorus, Maroon5 is definitely pop — albeit made with a weird fusion of hip-hop/reggae/ska-punk (ie. those indie guitar stabs sped to stuttered upbeats and threaded with a syncopated vocal line). And if they didn’t make the point with the chorus, the all-soul bridge emphatically drives it home: they are all of these things.

But, ultimately, the switch between the verse and the eventual bridge is drastic. The mood in the verses is decidedly cool — a narrator in fine, even refined, control of himself. The chorus’s switch to sexy pop-mode works. The singer is still playing high status (“her heart is breaking in front of me”), or trying to, but then comes that bridge, where the singer breaks down to pleading (“I’ll fix these broken things, repair your broken wings, and make sure everything’s alright…”) and reveals in his inner softy who’s happy to, say, listen to Enya if it makes his girlfriend happy. It’s a cool little trick of musical narrative.

It’s also kind of a depressing song, a break-up song or maybe a make-up-in-resignation song. There haven’t been many of those, at least while I’ve been watching the charts, and I wonder what that means in relation to the national psyche (or maybe just in relation to the psyche of the Independent Promoters and other keepers of the gated playlists). And just in time for summer, too, huh? I gotta admit, I’m confused on that level, however well the song is written (and, as the song cycles for its eighth play on iTunes, I’ve come to admit that it’s quite clever). No shit? Does this turn in mood have anything to do with a turn in current events? The UFOs’ arrival over Mexico? That’s probably a stupid assumption to make. The only thing to do, I suppose, is to keep watching the skies.

“naughty girl” – beyoncé

#4 this week, #4 last week, 8 weeks on the chart

Been a while. Almost a month, folks. (Say, are there folks? Drop me a line if there are. I never bothered to install a counter on this thing.) In the time I was gone, it doesn’t look the top three have shifted at all, so I guess I didn’t as much as I feared. At number four this week, same as last, is what somebody recently called the “single of the summer” — Beyoncé’s “Naughty Girl.” I can definitely see that happening. The song doesn’t feel like an event or a defining/epic musical destination. The way some songs are meant to hit you big, some are meant to not so much hit you as slide around you. “Naughty Girl” is one of those. It’s really undramatic. It’s kind of just a groove that I can easily imagine in the background of summer weather — a cool contemporary groove, at that.

It’s definitely the center of the song. The tune begins with (and is based around) a repeating funk guitar riff. It’s like the guitar figure is the alpha male and everything else that comes into the mix must fix itself relative to that part. And they do — which is precisely what maintains the ear’s interest throughout. The first sample is just a Zeppelin-like quasi-Egyptian string thang, which begins at the beginning of the pattern. A wash leads to Beyoncé’s intro vocal, soaring over the changes, then different Egyptian string parts, which disappear intermittently (and not predictably) during the verse. The first cool trick comes when Beyoncé’s voice suddenly doubles one of the rising exotica samples and finds itself then doubling the main funk riff. I like the effect — two figures that were once laid atop one another (string sample and the funk riff) are now laid back-to-back linearly. I’m not sure if there’s term for that or not, but it’s satisfying to me as a listener — it makes the pre-chorus of the song feel inevitable, which then feeds to the title chorus which feels like a release from everything that’s come before.

The chorus, though, doesn’t feel dramatic. There’s a slight rise in the melody to let you know that it’s the chorus, but it doesn’t soar or anything. It barely moves — which is why it feels like a summertime song. It’s not aggressive about making you wanna dance. If you’re dripping in the heat fanning yourself with a newspaper, the song still feels right. On the other hand, I can imagine the song having a pleasantly sultry impact on the dance floor. In fact, the song feels like a dizzying heatwave where one must beat it or be beaten. The song capitalizes on that feeling in a sexy, confident way.