Tag Archives: 5/4 time

Bad Times Good – Crowded House

A couple of weeks ago, Crowded House released a new album, Dreamers Are Waiting, the band’s first since 2010’s Intriguer. Basic tracks were recorded in LA before the pandemic started, with the rest being finished remotely last year during the pandemic.* The album features a new line-up of the band: founding members Neil Finn and Nick Seymour (vocals/guitar and bass/vocals respectively), along with Finn’s sons Liam and Elroy (guitar/vocals/drums, and drums/vocals/guitar/keyboards) and producer Mitchell Froom (keyboards).

Neil Finn is, of course, the band’s main songwriter, but this record is notably collaborative, with only six songs being credited solely to him. Liam Finn has one sole writing credit, and the other five feature the band members writing in various combinations. With Tim Finn also co-writing one of the songs, it’s a proper family affair.

My favourite, album opener Bad Times Good, is credited to Neil, Liam and Elroy Finn and Nick Seymour. That’s interesting, as there are elements here that feel new to the band’s music and two credited songwriters who’ve not written for the band before. I’ve not been able to find any articles or interviews that shed light on who was responsible for which parts, so at this stage we can but speculate on who contributed what, but it’s still worth having a poke around under the bonnet, so to speak, to see what makes the song go.

First up, it begins in 5/4 time. The chords are (essentially) F and G, with three beats on the F and two on G, but the voicings on acoustic guitar are extended to something that sounds closer to Fmaj7sus2 and G6, with a single note melody line on electric guitar that bubbles away throughout the verse, pattering toms (sounding as if they’re being played with mallets), and touches of keys and piano from Froom.

Frankly, this is not how you write a song if you’re going for mainstream radio play in 2021. The non-standard time signature means that the melody feels weightless and strange the first few times you hear it; emphases seem to be in strange places, and there’s an unresolved quality to it. The extended chords add to the dreamy atmosphere.

Eventually we move to an unstable-sounding E7 before shifting to C (perhaps revealing that we’ve been in C all along, and F and G are the IV and V chords, with E7 as a substitute for Em) and waltz time for the chorus. Still, though, the melody seems to be playing tricks. We’ve just established our key and a stable-feeling rhythm, but Finn answers the short line “Before we choose a path” with a much longer one “(Let’s spend the night at Los Campeneros, please” – a metrical pattern that doesn’t recur outside this line, with a rhyme that isn’t answered at the end of the chorus. The melody is gorgeous, but in a evanescent kind of way. It feels like it might disappear, or slide out of your hands if you try to grab it.

Via another unstable-sounding chord, this time a D major, we go back into the verse, which mirrors the first in form. The next time the chorus comes round, though, it will be extended and get really cool harmonically:

E7 | C | A7 | Dm | E7 | C | D | Dm | Em | Am | A | A7

These are the type of “songwriter’s” chords that anyone who learned guitar by playing Beatles songs will recognise. E7 and A7 as substitute iii and vi chords in the key of C crop up in numerous Lennon and McCartney songs, as well as in those by their conscious inheritors: the likes of Alex Chilton, Aimee Mann, Elliott Smith, and Neil Finn himself. What I particularly like, though, is the emotional journey you get taken on by the shifts from major to parallel minor, and minor to parallel major. Everytime you think you know where you stand harmonically, the ground shifts beneath your feet.

Major/minor games continue in the middle eight, with its twice-repeated Dm | E7 | C | D sequence. This is the section of the song that will sound most like Crowded House to the majority of listeners, with Finn singing up in his Not the Girl You Think You Are range (that is, his most Lennon-esque range), while the close harmony vocals take full advantage of the possibilties inherent in that D to Dm change halfway through the sequence.

It’s lovely, but the band don’t overplay it. It’s over before it outstays its welcome, and is genuinely only eight bars long (not all middle eights are). From there, it’s back into the verse, and a slow, atmospheric winding down of the song.

5/4 time signature apart, all the elements of the song – the clever chord sequences, the unshowy but intelligently written lyrics, the dreamy atmosphere – are frequently present in Neil Finn’s songwriting, whether for his main band, solo albums or side projects. But still, the song does feel like a subtle evolution for the band, and the shared writing credits may have something to do with it. The rest of the album is good too, if perhaps not quite at the level of Bad Times Good. Some of the more uptempo songs remind me a little of the Go Betweens, while the gentle, predominantly acoustic Show Me the Way (not a Peter Frampton cover) and Too Good for this World (co-written by Neil and Tim Finn) are both lovely.

*In all probability, the band always intended to work this way. A two-part tracking process – full-band basic tracks being recorded in a studio, overdubs recorded remotely by band members using home-recording equipment – is how most rock, indie and singer-songwriter records that feature live drums are recorded these days. Much cheaper than doing the whole thing in the studio.

Space music – Holst’s Neptune, the Mystic

Like most kids, I was interested in space as a boy. I used to read the space section of my family’s junior encyclopaedia over and over again. I read sci-fi books, had space-themed toys, wrote little spacey stories. This was the late 1980s, and though the Challenger disaster was a terrifying recent memory to those older than me (I was only four when it happened) and therefore able to process and absorb what had happened, near-space exploration still seemed to be just the beginning of what we could, and in time would, do. The moon landings still weren’t that far in the past, I suppose.

In recent years, I’ve come to find the idea of space (as well as the idea of ocean depths) oppressive, bordering on scary. The idea of so much nothing is more than I get my head around. Perhaps it’d help if I were a scientist and could understand these things on a theoretical or molecular level. As it is, I find just thinking about space overwhelming, a situation perhaps not helped by seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time, around five or six years ago: that dreadful shot of Frank Poole drifting off into nothingness without end, cut adrift by HAL, his oxygen supply severed. I probably hadn’t thought about space much as an adult, and to an adult – with an imagination more vivid and powerful than that of a child, but simultaneously more grounded in physical reality – the idea of being out there in such a blankly hostile environment wasn’t cool and exciting, it was terrifying.

We aren’t meant to be up there. We’re not built for it.

It’s improbable that these things were occupying Gustav Holst all that much when he wrote The Planets between 1914 and 1916. Holst was an amateur astrologer, and his movements are named after the qualities associated with the planets in astrology rather than astronomy.

The Planets‘ two most famous movements are Mars, the Bringer of War, the barnstorming opener, with its hysterically aggressive final section (emulated thousands of times in Hollywood movie scores) and relentless 5/4 ostinato, and Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, which contains at its heart the beautiful melody Thaxted, grievously misused (with Holst’s weary acquiescence) by Cecil Spring Rice as the tune for I Vow to Thee, My Country – loathsome, sentimental, nationalistic nonsense. (Thaxted was Holst’s home in my native county of Essex – in the 1910s and 1920s, Thaxted was a hotbed of Christian socialism, with Conrad Noel and Daisy, Countess of Warwick at its centre, and Holst as a sort of orbiting moon.)

The movements that interest me most are very different: Venus, the Bringer of Peace and Neptune, the Mystic. Venus’s beauty is heavenly, lulling flutes, a tinkling celeste, soft harps and mellifluous French horns, with only the double bass hinting of mystery and danger hidden behind that impassive-looking cloud structure.

Neptune (like Mars, in 5/4 time) is something else again, with its emphasis more on texture and atmosphere than melody (not to say that its melodies aren’t exquisite). This is music of unimaginable distances and patterns we’re far too puny to discern. It’s most chilling moments come shortly before the female chorus enters. We hear a dark, barely discernible rumble from the organ accompanied by arpeggios on the celeste. Harpists play continuous ascending and descending glissandos before, finally, the cellos and oboes play an ascending melody that just won’t resolve; Holst leads you up and then away from where you feel the point of resolution should be. At this point the voices enter.

Holst does thrilling things with this chorus. Ralph Vaughan Williams, fellow composer and a lifelong friend of Holst’s, wrote penetratingly on its effect:

Such a work as Neptune, the Mystic seems to give us such a glance into the future—it ends, so to speak, on a note of interrogation. Many composers have attempted this, sometimes bringing in the common chord at the end as an unwilling tribute to tradition, sometimes sophisticating it by the addition of one discordant note, sometimes letting the whole thin out into a single line of melody; but Holst in Neptune actually causes the music to fade away to nothing. We look into the future, but its secrets remain closed to us.

The chorus does, as Holst says, “fade away to nothing”. The singers, screened so as never to be visible to the audience, slowly walk out of the concert hall into an adjoining room, and a door is closed quietly behind them. This in itself was a daring, near unprecedented, move, but in its totality, Neptune creates a vocabulary of space music that is still being employed today in movie scores*: delicate, sparse orchestration and quizzical chords, high, sustained strings, the interplay of deepest bass and lightest treble, the choice of instruments to create uncanny timbres – Neptune succeeds so well in evoking space (in a way that the other movements of the suite, no matter how successful, don’t try to – as they are intended to, they evoke the moods and humours the planets are associated with in astrology) that it spawned hundreds of imitators in the movies, and may fool us into thinking that Holst himself was working in an extant tradition rather than calling one into existence through the sheer scope of his imagination.

Neptune_Full
Neptune, currently somewhere between 4.2 and 4.4 billion kilometres away

* Perhaps the most obvious Planets reference is in John Williams’s Star Wars music, which quotes the ending of Mars almost exactly. The mood of Neptune, meanwhile, is Hollywood’s default “mysterious space” mood, with the gentle moments of James Horner’s Aliens score, for example, deeply in hock to it.