If you are interested in how music is put together in a recording studio, you will love the podcast "Song Exploder." I have to admit that I find it so-so interesting when they explode a song that I never heard of, but I perk up when it's an artist I know, and I get obsessed (listening multiple times) when it's a song I know.
What does it mean to "explode" a song? Well they get the individual tracks from the artists' recording sessions, and demos. Like, just the isolated bass line. Or just the bongos.
So Liz Phair might share the home recording of "Divorce Song" that she recorded in her bedroom, quietly so as not to disturb her roommates. Then the engineer who added a bass line to the song will explain what he heard in her demo that made him want to play with a certain feel (should it be funky? Slinky? Minimal? Maximal?).
Another of my favorite episodes explodes the 2006 earworm "Young Folks" by Peter Bjorn and John (you know, the one with that whistle hook and the "idiot drumming"?). They drop lots of weird trivia: They didn't have a female singer in the band, so when they asked a guest to sing on their track, they had to change the key. One of the strings on their bass wouldn't stay in tune, so that dictated what string to play the bass line on.
See, I told you, you know the song. (BTW, while you're here, look at how close they hold the mics to their mouths.)
Of particular relevance to us is an episode featuring Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac. He explains how he wrote the song "Go Your Own Way." Buckingham is a great guitarist but the bare bones of the song starts with a very plain, dare I say, uninteresting guitar pattern. But he sings the first phrase, "Loving you, isn't the right thing to do" and explains how the conversational tone of those words led him to pursue the idea farther.
Once the song is written, Buckingham presented it to his bandmates, and asked them for specific ways of playing. He tells Mick Fleetwood to play the drum pattern from a Rolling Stones record but Fleetwood can't quite do it without adding his own particular style. As for bassist John McVie, Buckingham explains why a certain part has to be very boring and the thing McVie hates the most. But then he lets him add a melodic line elsewhere.
And then there's the guitars. Buckingham explains how he creates a guitar sound by layering two instruments over one another. And then, as a finishing touch, he overlays that "uninteresting guitar pattern" with an acoustic strum that is really weird. It's sort of famously weird and he's told the story before about how a DJ on the radio said he couldn't figure out the beat of the song until the chorus came in. On Song Exploder, Buckingham retells the story but in a slightly different way.
One more thing: Buckingham is a great singer, but his isolated vocals are not anywhere "musically" perfect. They are full of emotion, though, and you realize that singing doesn't have to be perfect, but the best singers convey the emotional story of the tune.
Anyway, check out Song Exploder, especially the episode:
"Go Your Own Way" Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac
(But really, look in the archives to see if there are other songs you know.)
(Also, if you're aware of the Universal Music Archive fire, you realize that one of the big issues will be fewer episodes of Song Exploder that deal with "classic rock".)
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Jack Cheng directs the Clemente Course in Dorchester, excavates in the Middle East, and writes in Waban, MA.