Saturday, October 8, 2011

Songwriting Spank Material - "The Luckiest"

I had a conversation once with my old boss, Brandon Bond, about Ben Folds.  A fellow songwriter in his own right (and a good one), Brandon and I would often discuss the craft.  That day, we were trying to figure out exactly why we liked Ben Folds.  We both agreed it wasn’t the lyrics because, frankly, his lyrics aren’t that good.  Now, before you Ben Folds fanatics (of which I am one) get out your pitchforks and come knocking on my apartment door to dispense your angry mob justice, I invite you to re-read the title of my blog.  It says, “Songwriting Spank Material,” and this episode is about Ben Folds.  Truly I’m not trying to suggest Ben Folds is a horrible lyricist.  I actually think he is a good lyricist…just not a great lyricist.  He doesn’t, and probably never will, hold court with Dylan, Cohen, Simon, or anyone else who is a master at crafting quality lyrics.  Brandon and I also agreed that, while Folds’ piano playing is among some of the best in the business, it wasn’t his musicianship alone that we liked.  We just couldn’t figure it out.  As our conversation came to an end, Brandon eventually hit the nail on the head and figured out why Ben Folds is a great songwriter, summing it up nicely if you asked me.  I’ll get to that in a minute.

You might think, after reading all these Spank Material segments, I think good lyrics are the only thing that makes for good songwriting, and you’d be partially correct.  I do think good lyrics and good songwriting are synonymous.  In my own work, lyrics are the thing I take the most pride in.  When I listen to songs, lyrics are the first thing I hear.  The songwriters I revere, for the most part, are quality lyricists.  I LOVE LYRICS…but I don’t think you necessarily need to be a great lyricist to be a great songwriter.  For example (and I’m probably going to get destroyed for this because it borders on blasphemy), in my opinion Lennon/McCartney were not great lyricists.  THEY WERE GOOD!  NOT GREAT!  GOOD NOT GREAT!  PLEASE GOD DON’T STRIKE ME DOWN!  Seriously though, while I don’t think Lennon/McCartney were great lyricists, I do think they were great songwriters.  This is because they supported their lyrics with excellent musical arrangements, stellar lead vocals and vocal harmonies, and they really knew how to utilize a hook (especially McCartney).  Ben Folds is similar to the Beatles in this respect.  His arrangements are amazing, utilizing every bit of his immense musical and production talents.  His vocals are always beautiful, and he has one of the best falsettos in the business.  And finally, he baits his fair share of hooks in so many of his songs.  After being compared to the Beatles in this way, it’s easy to see why Ben Folds is a great songwriter, but I really think there is one more level to his songwriter that makes him great, and it’s the nail that Brandon Bond hit on the head.

Back to my conversation with Brandon.  We were standing there.  We were getting ready to wrap up our discussion of Ben Folds, and we hadn’t figured out why exactly we liked him so much.  There was something we couldn’t quite put our finger on.  Then Brandon says, “You know why I like him?  He can make a bad lyric sound good.”  I stood there, thinking for a minute, and decided this was Ben Folds’ genius.  Indeed, Brandon was right.  Ben Folds has a tremendous knack for taking lyrics that really aren’t that great and selling them to us like they’re an ointment that will cure all of our ills.  Lines like, “…and check out the reflections in my eyes […],” “You were not the same after that,” and “I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, it’s time” would fail in anyone else’s hands, but when Ben Folds sings these lines you feel like you’re hearing some of the best lines ever conjured.  With him, it’s all about his delivery, his phrasing, the way he accentuates the syllables with the percussion of the piano, softens them when they need to be soften, blows us away with them when the moment is right.  He anticipates the mood of the song better than anyone, and we are taken there with him.  Ben Folds is a used car salesman, and we buy the car from him every time, and this is why he is a great songwriter.  Brandon Bond was right.

For my Spank Material tonight, I go with a pretty obvious choice, if you’re a Folds fanatic.  I could have gone with any of the following and picked a great one – “Annie Waits,” "Gone," “Still FightingIt,” “Zak and Sara,” “Not The Same,” “The Ascent of Stan,” “Army,” “Philosophy,” or “Jesusland.”  The one I went with his a sentimental favorite, as I’m sure it is for a lot of people.  Anyone who has a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife, and knows this song says the same thing – “This is our song.”  I love this song because it is painfully honest, and I respect that about songs.  I love it because Folds doesn’t try to do too much vocally.  He keeps it pure and sweet.  But mostly, like I said in the previous blog, I am a sucker for songs that feature a piano that meanders.  Here is “The Luckiest” by Ben Folds.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Songwriting Spank Material - "Home Motel"

It’s been quite some time since my last post.  A lot has been going on.  I moved to a new state, started law school, and these days studying seems to be the way of life.  I have very little time to myself to draw, do music, or even write…but I feel like I need to anyway.  Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of music, revisiting old favorites, discovering some new things.  As such, I have decided to post some new Songwriting Spank Material segments, as I’ve always found them to be short, so they shouldn’t distract me too much from my studies.  So, here’s my first of what I hope are many to come.

It might seem like this edition of Songwriting Spank Material comes with some degree of bias on my part.  Several of my friends and family know about my connection to Willie Nelson.  In 1999, I was asked to perform with Willie at a fundraiser at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.  I was just learning to walk as a songwriter, and the prospect of not only meeting, but getting to perform with someone like Willie Nelson was tremendously exciting for me (on a related note, I also got to meet Carole King during this time, which was also tremendously exciting for me).  What people don’t know is that I was also excited to meet Willie Nelson because his image – red hair, beard, bandana – and music had been a fixture in my life since I was very young.  My father was an avid Willie Nelson fan and had every album, and when we still had a record player that worked, my father would listen to those LP’s all the time.  Willie’s trademark nasally tone, his distinctive guitar licks, and everything else about his music would be synonymous with the early parts of my life.  It wasn’t just that I was getting to meet someone who I respected as a songwriter…I was getting to meet the person attached to a voice from my past.

Despite meeting him, and performing with him, I still contend that Willie Nelson is one of the best songwriters of all time, and certainly near the top of songwriters in the Country genre.  What I’ve always loved about Willie is his nostalgia for the old standards.  Over the past few years, I have also developed an affinity for the standards, and the songwriters that wrote them, people like Hoagy Carmichael (who will be part of a future Spank Material segment), Harold Arlen, and Ted Koehler.  This is not only apparent in his album Stardust which is nothing but Willie doing covers of some of these old standards, but it’s also apparent in all of his songs.  They all follow the same formula that these old standards followed – a hook, simple lyrics that have complex syntax, a straight forward melody.  This is probably why Willie’s songs (more them him) have enjoyed so much commercial success.  I also admire Willie because he really took the idea of the concept album to another level with albums like Phases and Stages and the very famous (and awesome) Red Headed Stranger.

So what song did I choose to feature?  Well, with Willie Nelson there is  grocery list to choose from.  I could’ve gone with – “Crazy,” “Night Life,”“Hello, Walls,” “On The Road Again,” “You Were Always On My Mind” (which I almost went with), or a whole host of others, but the one I chose for this segment is one that a lot of you probably aren’t familiar with – “Home Motel.”

This song, I think, follows that “old standard” formula I talked about earlier.  It has an incredible (though perhaps kind of cheesy) hook, this line that ends each verse, “Home Motel on Lost Love Avenue.”  The production value of the song is outstanding (produced by Daniel Lanois who also produced The Joshua Tree – U2 and Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind which won the Grammy in 1997 – Bob Dylan).  Willie’s voice is really great with the slight echo and reverb going on.  Above all though, it has a piano part that kind of meanders and harkens back to something from the Stephen Foster songbook, something from another time in the history of music in this country, but still familiar to me somehow.  And as you will find out from forthcoming posts, I am a sucker for songs with a meandering piano.  Enjoy.