By Florrie McCarthy
If you don’t know me personally, then I should tell you I’m currently in a band – cool, I know. We’re called Violet Club, although I don’t really like the name at all, and so far we only really do covers. In fact, basically, our biggest musical vision is playing songs that the people want to hear, and which work well in a gig-type setting and would (hopefully) sell the venue on bringing us back for another gig. I am quite pessimistic about this sentiment, assuming most songs of this mould to be pish-posh as part of a general built-in no-logic-needed agenda I have as a music nerd against pop music.
Generally, this begrudging box of mine gets checked – damn four-chord songs – but the odd time it is left empty and I am pleasantly surprised. More and more of the songs that we have been learning recently have stood out and impressed me with curious landmarks of careful, considerate, artistic production or songwriting. Today I listened to “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne, 2009, definitely at least 4 times while trying to make out a chord sheet for it in a transposed key for our singer. I didn’t know the song that well at all anyway but if you do, maybe you never noticed the stacked harmonies on the vocals in the chorus, blended in a really nice way, production-wise, that makes it a lot easier to listen to the same four-chord cycles over and over again. That and the fact that I’m an absolute sucker for a tambourine filling up space in any song(observe closely next time you notice and you’ll see what I mean – completely levels it up).
But another song we’re doing at the moment which I would before have written off as a generic “pop hit” if somewhat thoughtfully written, but out of which I have been digging more and more gold is “Take Me to Church” by Irish rock-pop heartthrob Hozier from 2013. We must all remember the absolute chokehold the thoughtful music video had on pop culture upon release and the hauntingly broken vocals that drowned the country at the time have pervaded in shops and Spotify playlists alike since then. As well as being an entertaining song just at the surface level, though, the structure and finer details have much to satisfy someone looking for detailed and nuanced artistry in their listening.
First of all, something I can barely get over is the fact that the verse is written in a 3/4, or “three over four” time signature. I’ve been telling every musical friend I meet on the street. For the non-musical, most “normal” popular music these days follows a pattern of four beats in a “bar”, a musical word, where you can normally feel the strong beat on the first beat, or the “one”, of each bar. In contrast, if you can imagine what a waltz sounds like, this song format has a 3/4 time signature as a rule. As I was walking along college road listening to the song for the first time in a long time I was expecting to count the standard four-beat pattern but was caught off guard when I noticed the first chord held for two beats, followed by only one beat of another chord. This might not land for non-musicians but I personally was shocked, as we really don’t find that much pop, if any, written in 3/4.
It’s really the rhythmic aspects of the song that have intrigued me so much. There is a degree of swing to the vocals that are scattered all over the song, in the most teasing style. For example, in the most standout lines of the entire song that surely ring out in everyone’s mind when reminded of the track, “Take me to church/I worship like a dog in the shine of your light” we find probably the most swing; where every other syllable is longer, heavy and accented (“worsh-“, “like”, “dog”) and all others in between shorter and bouncy (“-ip”, “a”, “the”) to account for the room already taken up, it means that the subdivisions of the beats, called ‘semiquavers’ in this instance, are not falling in perfect quarters of the note but are pushed back to create a delayed, rolling sense. There are other points in the verse where he does this to certain degrees. Initially, I found myself annoyed and perplexed as to why he didn’t do this throughout because I think it would fit the tune really well. However upon more listening and thinking it occurred to me that we also have to accept that actually this frustratingly teasing, barely-there balance between swung notes and straight movement is in itself the stylistic expression, choice and control that makes it so masterful and creates what musicians would call the “pocket”. This pocket is so gentle and teasing and all over the track he pulls and pushes his vocals back and forth to create the most subtle swing.
Hozier is one of those artists I’ve kept meaning to get into for ages. I still haven’t listened to his most recent full album, Wasteland Baby (2019), but I keep hearing snippets around the place by which I find myself intrigued in passing.
Enter another of my music endeavours. I am also part of a little club I set up last year when I was in my first year that my friends and I call “Album Club”; a book club but for albums, as you may have guessed. We all submit three albums and spend 2 weeks on each album, rotating through each person and this week we find ourselves sitting on Silk & Soul by Nina Simone (1967), suggested by film editor Cormac McCarthy. It hasn’t really resonated with me at all until very recently when I have started to learn more about her background and how much of her music is an expression of her activism and fiery personality, and I have generally become very excited about its potential, alongside a general soul kick I currently have and a newfound obsession with Stevie Wonder, to help me get a better grasp of the cultural foundations of soul in America in the 40’s up through to the ’70s and ’80s.
So, you can imagine my shock when perusing Wasteland Baby a little more, after already thinking the intro from “To Noise Making” from Wasteland Baby sounded a bit like that of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”, a cover on Silk & Soul and then seeing the top track of Hozier’s album being called “Nina Cried Power”. I was flabbergasted; with giddy joy, I felt fate teasing me. Instantly I seemed to know it was going to have something to do with her, in the same moment that I suddenly recognised so many soul and gospel influences throughout Hozier’s music. The 1-2 triad pair movement glistening up and down through big vocal ensembles in “To Noise Making(Sing)”, the gentle shakers steadily taking up space in “Movement” and “Talk”, and giving just a touch of simple, delicate dimension to the soundscape just like the aforementioned tambourines in “Stacey’s Mom”. As soon as this dawned on me I was sure exactly what Hozier was doing and where his inspiration came from. The lyrics of “Nina Cried Power” unsurprisingly mention other giants of the era such as James Brown, B.B. King, Billie Holiday, Curtis Mayfield and many others within and without the African-American cultural mind space. It is absolutely dizzying for this music writer to see this song so packed with these people whose music has had the biggest impact on the artist when I find myself falling into a hole of this very same magical world.
It’s everywhere. Wasteland Baby has lots of specific references and a more mature, finished interpretation of the foundational materials that Hozier has clearly spent so much time with, but that’s not at all to say that the same sentiment isn’t also present on his debut self-titled album; there is less diversity of tone, in my opinion, but the crunchy guitar and heavy chord movement just have a somewhat watered-down, less mature flavour of that same introspective heavy hitting. And absolutely nobody could describe “Take Me To Church” as not being ‘soulful’, though that particular word mightn’t intentionally relate a likeness to our specific genre.
The more I look at this, the more genius I see, and I find myself unbelievably excited to go digging further.