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Cast Iron Skillet

by Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit

This is a beautifully coherent ensemble sound, and a little soloing of the stereo mix’s Left, Right, Middle, and Sides components suggests to me that this may be on account of an ‘all in one room’ tracking setup and the resultant blending effects of the spill between all the mics. (After all, who wouldn’t want to use lots of mics when recording at the vintage-microphone Mecca that is Blackbird Studios?) Granted, there does appear to be some long-decay artificial reverb in the mix (perhaps most clearly audible after the fiddle flageolet at 0:16), but this feels like it’s well separated from the dry signals, so is likely responsible more for sustain enhancement than for gluing the core band sound together.

Notice, for instance, how there’s no instrument that doesn’t appear to some degree in both the Left and Right channels – even the gorgeously understated shaker that sneaks in at 1:27. And in the Sides signal you can hear (besides the long-tail reverb) a clear, close vocal ambience that sounds to me like spill from the band mics – it somehow doesn’t feel diffuse or delayed enough to be added reverb, and neither does it have that trace of the chorusey/pitchy side-effects you so often get from dedicated stereo widening effects. The bass is clearly audible in the Sides signal too, although I do wonder in that case whether I can hear a hint of some kind of widener on that – its Sides contribution somehow seems a fraction phasey by comparison with the vocal’s.

Further contributing to the band’s rich sustain is the way the song’s harmonies are all built around ringing upper pedal notes on the tonic and dominant (ie. F# and C#). I always kind of associate this trick with Oasis, because Noel Gallagher was quite a fan, but it’s also a well-worn technique in Americana styles, where it’s especially well suited to alternate guitar tunings where open strings can inherently cater for the requisite pedal notes. Beyond the sonorous texture this approach offers in general, another advantage it affords is that it can add a useful musical tension-release dynamic to otherwise fairly unremarkable chord progressions. You see, the only diatonic chord in which both pedal notes are consonant is the tonic chord of C#, which immediately provides some harmonic momentum for a return to the tonic whenever a non-tonic chord is played. In this particular song, we have three non-tonic chords, for example, all made dissonant by virtue of the pedal notes:

  • the subdominant F# chord, which becomes F#2 on account of the pedal G#;
  • the dominant G# chord, which becomes G#sus on account of the pedal C#;
  • and the submediant D#m chord, which becomes D#m7 on account of the pedal C#.

I’m also intrigued by this song’s alternation of ‘AB’ and ‘AABA’ harmonic structures for the verses and choruses respectively, where ‘A’ is the two-bar progression moving from I to IV (eg. 0:41-0:46), and ‘B’ the two-bar progression moving from iv to VI (eg. 0:47-0:52). It’s quite a subtle thing, but for me the increased frequency of the tonic chord in the choruses does somehow give me a little more of a ‘we’re home’ feeling, if you see what I mean, even though there’s no harmonic difference between verse and chorus for each section’s first two bars. I also wonder whether the longer structural arches of the chorus (eight-bar ‘AABA’ repetitions compared with the verse’s four-bar ‘AB’ repetitions) feed into this impression. I’m not quite sure. Although, just to step back for a moment, isn’t that the whole point of analysing music at all? To grapple with whether measurable musical features might bear some responsibility for less tangible emotional effects? After all, whether or not I ever come to any firm conclusion about this specific case, the fact that I’ve engaged with this thought process means that the next time I feel my own song’s choruses lack some sense of emotional homecoming, I’ll have an extra idea or two about how I might be able to improve the outcome – and not just random ideas, but things that I’ve already earmarked as potentially useful.

Not Strong Enough

by Boygenius

It’s human nature to try to interpret any rhythmic texture in the simplest way, and there are plenty of songs that leverage this instinct to mischieviously wrong-foot the listener. One common trick involves setting up the illusion from the start of the song that the musical downbeat occurs in a certain position, only to reveal later that it’s actually somewhere unexpected. Just because I totally nerded out on The Police and Sting at college, I’ll always associate this trick with them, and you can clearly hear it in action in The Police’s ‘Spirits In The Material World’ and Sting’s ‘Ghost Story’, both of which use strongly syncopated rhythms to create a strong initial impression that the musical downbeat is an eighth-note later than it actually turns out to be later in the song. On the other hand, both Bastille’s 'Pompeii' and Led Zeppelin’s ‘Rock And Roll’ feature introductions that suggest that the downbeat is earlier than it is (by one and three eighth notes respectively).

And my first impression on hearing this Boygenius song was that they’d done a similar trick with their acoustic-guitar intro, because the drums entry in bar seven (0:11) felt like it caused the same rhythmic ‘stumble’ that I associate with situations where a downbeat kick-drum arrives later than I’ve been led to expect. However, on closer inspection, it’s actually a cool kind of ‘double bluff’, because the acoustic guitars aren’t actually lying about the downbeat – what’s really happening is that the drums cleverly syncopate their first couple of bars in such a way that it sounds a lot like their downbeat is an eighth-note late. There are two key elements to the plausibility of this fake-out, for me. Firstly, the opening two little snare sixteenth notes are phrased convincingly like an unstressed last-eight-of-the-bar fill. And, secondly, the kick drum which that snare ‘fill’ leads towards turns out to be the first of seven consecutive off-beat eighth notes before we finally get a downbeat hit at the start of bar nine (0:15) – at which point the downbeat settles down unambiguiously for the remainder of the song.

So powerfully do these two factors combine to undermine the normal stress-patterns of the 4/4 metric grid during those two bars that it feels a bit weird trying to tap your foot through that section. Have a go! play_arrow | get_app And in case you think I’m miscounting, and the downbeat really is moving when the drums arrive, here’s that same section with a whacking great 4/4 click layered over it. (with click): play_arrow | get_app It still sounds odd, though, almost like the track’s falling out of sync with the click briefly during bar seven.

PS. There’s one other fun example of this kind of double bluff that springs to mind: the song ‘Black Shuck’ by The Darkness. At the start of the song a solo guitar riff establishes the real downbeat, but then that interpretation is undermined by heavy drum accents on the 2nd and 4th beats, generating a strong illusion that the downbeat’s actually a beat later. When the full band arrive around 30 seconds in, however, that finally confirms that the guitar had it right all along!

PPS. If you fancy a music-theory deep-dive into these kinds of rhythmic games, check out this cool research paper from Dr. Nicole Biamonte at McGill’s Schulich School of Music: ‘Formal Functions Of Metric Dissonance In Rock Music’. (Nice term, ‘metric dissonance’. Might steal that in future…)