Monday, November 12, 2007

Best use of [blank] in a song

Lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, drums: This has become the de facto standard for rock and roll band instrumentation. Is there some unwritten rule about this? If a band shows up at the bar for a gig and one of the members is carrying, say, a banjo or a saxophone, are they barred at the door? Bouncer says “We didn’t hire no bluegrass band and don’t allow no jazz, neither.”

To encourage them (yeah, like they read this blog), here are just a few examples of atypical instruments or sounds in some songs I like. Additional nominations are encouraged.

Best use of a banjo: Bob Dylan in "High Water" on his 2001 Love and Theft CD. That song is excellent for many reasons, and the banjo is a nice bluegrass reference. Honorable mention to Jim White in his song "Handcuffed to a Fence in Mississippi" on the 2001 No Such Place. Favorite lyrics from that song:

My Trans Am is missing
My Trans Am is missing
I guess no more kissing
the girl who loves my car

Best use of a siren: Joni Mitchell in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" from the 1991 CD Night Ride Home. If a siren can be subtle, it is on this tune, adding to the foreboding tone. Makes me shudder. Honorable mention to John Hiatt for "Tennessee Plates" on the 1998 release Slow Turning. Clever phrase from that song:

We crossed the Mississippi like an oil slick fire.

Best use of a cricket chirp: Joni Mitchell again, for "Night Ride Home" on the CD of the same name. Story is that the recording engineer leaned out a window of the building that housed the studio, sampled the cricket chirp, then put it on a loop behind the song. Nature's own tambourine.

Other stuff: The jazz combo Oregon used an udu drum to great effect in "Vessel" on the 1979 record Roots in the Sky. That’s appropriate because the udu is a clay vessel slightly modified to become a unique instrument. The flamenco group Ojos de Brujo uses a staggering array of percussion instruments up to and including the kind of turntable (for ‘scratching’) found in hip hop music. My favorite is the cajon. That's a picture of a cajon, also known as a box drum, at the top of this post.

I try not to miss the annual recital of the St. Olaf College percussion ensemble, in part because I'm a washed up former percussionist but really because it is always an enjoyable musical experience. Under the direction of David Hagedorn, the ensemble's next recital is Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 8:15PM in Urness Recital Hall.

I want a cajon drum for Christmas.


Rob Hardy said...

What is "pop" music? I don't understand these categories. I would say that the best use of steel drum and recorder in a pop song is in "Jogging Gorgeous Summer" from the Islands CD "Return to the Sea," but iTunes tells me that Islands is "alternative," not "pop."

Rob Hardy said...

The banjo, by the way, is often used to beautiful effect in covers of pop songs; for example, Alison Krauss's cover of The Beatles' "I Will" and Dolly Parton's cover of Collective Soul's "Shine."

Jim H. said...


I've always chafed at these categories, too. For purposes of this blog entry, let's say 'pop' is whatever gets play on KS95.

Thanks for the nominations!

Rob Hardy said...

Well, I'm at a big disadvantage, then, since I've never in my life listened to KS95!

Jim H. said...

OK, this whole 'pop' thing isn't working. I don't listen to that station either, but it's on one of the car's presets becsause my oldest son did in high sch school. It represents the archetype (so I hear) of the commercial 'top 40' type station. I'm guessing they've never heard of Jim White and the only Joni Mitchell tune they've ever played is Big Yellow Taxi.

I should have made this simpler. Something like: "Most of the music I listen to doesn't have banjos, but here are a couple of tunes where it works well." Etc.


Jim H. said...

So I re-wrote the post to remove refernces to pop music. Now the entire revised text appears as a caption to the photo of the box drum. This is due almost entirely to my ignorance of HTML. Maybe I'm just grumpy, but I don't think I should have to learn a whole new language just to publish on line a few pithy observations or half-baked crap.

At least in this revision, Urness Recital Hall isn't called Rectal Hall as it was in the original!

Jim H. said...

fixed. i think.

Rob Hardy said...

Best Use of the Name of a Midwestern State:

1. The Pretenders, "My City Was Gone" (Ohio)
2. Dar Williams, "Iowa"
3. Neil Young, "Ohio"

You've created a monster here, grumpy man!