Monthly Archives: January 2012

Why the awesome Bon Joviver cover works so well

I f you’re at all an indie music fan, I’ll bet you’ve seen the “Bon Joviver” video that hit the internet this weekend.  It’s a killer parody by chamber pop group Miracles of Modern Science that mixes frat boy fave “You Give Love a Bad Name” with the unmistakable sound of Bon Iver, aka Justin Vernon.  Give it a listen if you haven’t already:

Yeah, it’s awesome.  (The ridiculous winter hats and candlelit wooden furniture are perfect.)  The Internet media was dazzled: the MOMS boys got mentions from the likes of the Washington Post and the Atlantic Wire; in just one day, the view count on the video shot up by more than 50,000.  And it totally makes sense – what’s not to love?  People like Bon Jovi, people like Bon Iver, so it seems natural we’d like them together.

But as it goes with viral videos, the intense focus of internet attention will wane and completely cease by Monday or so.  Before it fades from memory, though, I’d like to answer an interesting question posited by the A.V. Club’s writeup.

Q: “Is the Bon Iver thing really this easy to pull off?” (Or, as my roommate put it, could this be done with any song?)

A: Yes!  That is, it is if you’re willing to significantly change the song to be more Bon Iver-like.

Though it’s being billed as a cover, this isn’t a direct translation.  As it turns out, there’s more to Bon Iverizing a song than aping the atmospheric guitar picking and dreamy vocal harmonies – it helps, too, to borrow Bon Iver’s harmonic tendencies.  The Miracles of Modern Science make some major adjustments to the melody and harmony to get it to sound like Bon Iver.  Take a listen to the original “You Give Love a Bad Name” – the video will start on the chorus, the part that’s redone by MOMS.

Here’s the original melody, with numbers indicating scale degree:

3            4          2             3 
Shot through the heart, and you're to-o blame
3        2  6    1    6
You give lo-ve a ba-ad name
3      4            5   2       3 
I play my part, and you play yo-ur game
3        2  6    1  6
You give lo-ve a ba-ad name

By the way, I’m using scale degrees here because the three songs are in two different keys, so using note names would be confusing.  The numbers represent notes of the scale, in order.  You can pretend that all these songs are in C major, where 1 = C, 2 = D, 3 = E, and so forth.  

Here’s the Bon Joviver version:

6            5      3    2             3 
Shot through the he-art, and you're to-o blame
6      5     3  2    1 
You gi-ve lo-ve a ba-ad name
6      5     6 8   2               3 
I play my pa-a-rt, and you play yo-ur game
6      5     3  2     1
You gi-ve lo-ve a bad name

The two versions have some content that is melodically the same – namely, the “and you’re too late” and “you play your game” are unchanged.  Also, there’s a similar melodic rise in the third line (though one comes on “you” while the other comes on “part”).  But the two versions differ in three related ways:

  1. Bon Jovi’s original song toys with a minor key, while the Bon Joviver version is irrefutably in a major key.
  2. The sixth scale degree (which, in the key of C, would be A) appears in both melodies, but operates in completely different ways.  In Bon Jovi’s original, the sixth operates as a nod to the relative minor key, but in the redo, it’s the peak of a IV chord that slides down to the tonic.
  3. Because it’s in a major key, the cadence in the Bon Joviver moves stepwise from 3 down to 1 in “you gave love a bad name,” rather than ending deceptively on the relative minor as it does in the original.

A lot of Bon Iver’s music sounds similar to the Bon Joviver tune, but there’s (at least) one song that could easily be the variable in the algebra that is “You Give Love a Bad Name” + x = Bon Joviver.   It’s called “Holocene,” and it’s arguably the biggest track off of last year’s indomitable Bon Iver.1  Take a listen to the lines “jagged vacance thick with ice / I could see for miles, miles, miles”:

Besides the obvious fingerpicking and lush vocal overdubs, the music in “Holocene” is much more in line with the Bon Joviver cover.  Here’s the melody:

6         5           3      4 3 2
Jagged va-cance thick with i-i-i-ice
5 3         2          1 
I could see for miles, miles, miles

Right off the bat, we clear up the major/minor key problem; “Holocene,” like many of Vernon’s songs, is in a major key (however sad and reflective it may be).  Second: like the Bon Joviver version, this melody from “Holocene” starts on the 6th scale degree as part of a IV chord, and moves down to the tonic with the 5th and 3rd scale degrees both represented.  And lastly, the cadence in “you give love a bad name,” which moves 6-5-3-2-1, is damn close to the 5-3-2-1 cadence of “I could see for miles, miles miles.”

So… yes, A.V. Club, it is that easy.

Becky Sullivan

1 Pitchfork called it the second-best song of the year, it’s featured in the new movie We Bought a Zoo, it’s been nominated for a Grammy for Song of the Year, its official video is closing in on two million views, and it recorded nearly 21,000 listens on last week.  NBD  

Songs cited:
  • Miracles of Modern Science, “You Give Love a Bad Name,” © 2012.  Recording information unknown.  Lyrics by Jon Bon Jovi, Desmond Child, and Richie Sambora.  
  • Jon Bon Jovi, Desmond Child, and Richie Sambora, “You Give Love a Bad Name,” performed by Jon Bon Jovi on Slippery When Wet, © 1986 by Mercury Records, 830 264-1.
  • Bon Iver, “Holocene,” Bon Iver, © 2011 by Jagjaguwar Records, JAG135.

Song of the Week: “Details of the War” demo

T he Seaton Place household has been listening to a ton of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – specifically, their self-titled album from 2005 – over the last week or two.  (Not in part because I’ll probably write up a quick post about Alec Ounsworth’s songwriting on that record sometime soon.)  I first got turned on to that album back in 2007 when a boyfriend put “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth” onto a mix CD, and over the years I’ve come to love it track by track – next it was “Is It Love?”, then “Blue Turning Grey,” then “In This Home on Ice,” and so on.

That said, “Details of the War” might be my favorite song on the album.  There’s clearly a devastating backstory here, but Ounsworth mostly skirts around the edges with scattered three-syllable snatches of detail.1  The only real hints come by way of his outbursts at the ends of the latter two verses, when he 1) recounts a dramatic moment at high school football game, involving what I take to be a boxer’s fracture, and 2) his closing thoughts, including a warning to “be careful with the details of the war.”  How’s that for bitter?

This demo surfaced on a Philly entertainment blog near the album’s release.  I only recently heard it for the first time, and it’s interesting to hear an earlier take on a song I’ve come to know well.  Take a listen (and don’t be fooled, the track’s only three minutes long – for some reason there’s two minutes of silence tacked to the end of this video):

First things first: the sound quality isn’t great, and Ounsworth’s voice is surely as polarizing as ever – maybe even more so since it’s so exposed in the opening lines.  (I’ve come to love it.)   The orchestration is significantly different, as well, as there’s brass, for one, along with a few different counterpoint voices.  Maybe most noticeable is the different melody for the V-IV portions at the end of each verse (the “I’m a wounded bird / I will take your word” section in the first two verses, and the longer “Emerging from the football stands” bit from the latter verses).   Somehow, the ending sounds significantly cheerier than the album version – maybe it’s the busier harmonica, or the lack of a weird feedbacky outro, but either way, this demo is a fun listen.

Becky Sullivan

1 Like “bloody sheets,” “leather pants,” “crucifix,” “tattered dress,” “sunburned chest,” and the most evocative of them all, “camel dick.” 

Songs cited: Alec Ounsworth/Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, “Details of the War,”  demo recording, © 2005.  Recording details unknown. 

Key amnesia in “Do You Remember Walter?”

T he Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society is one of the most underrated albums of all time.  Its fifteen tracks are tight, catchy, funny, and memorable – yet the album only manages to reach #255 on Rolling Stone‘s Best 500 Albums list.  In an alternate universe, it would have gone down as one of the most loved albums of the 60s – but instead, they released it in a year that also included the White Album and Beggars Banquet.  Tough company.

There’s a lot of really excellent – and clever – songwriting on this record.  For CT’s first post, I’m going to focus on the second track, a tune called “Do You Remember Walter?”.  As always, I’d recommend giving it a listen now, reading on, then listening again when you’ve finished.

In short, here’s what’s cool:  This song’s chord progression repeatedly props up three – or even four – different keys over and over again in just 150 seconds.

A quick explanation for non-musicians: most pop music generally sticks to one key – one specific set of notes that serve as the elements for melodies and harmonies.  (Think “Do, a deer, a female deer / re, a drop of golden sun,” which is a mnemonic for the solfege syllables in the major scale.)  Our brains are so used to hearing keys that once a key has been established, a chord or even a single note from outside that key sounds out of place.  

I t’s not uncommon to change keys in a song, but it’s pretty rare to have more than two.  And even then, the keys are usually closely related, meaning they share most of the same notes.  “Do You Remember Walter?” is unusual because there are three or four different keys in the same song, and they’re not all closely related.

1. C major: The first key in “Do You Remember Walter?” is easy to hear – it’s C major.  There’s two pieces of evidence here, and that’s enough.  1) The song opens with the piano repeating a C major chord, then 2) the lead guitar confirms it with a simple melody that walks up and down from G to D to G again.  It’s not the best confirmation in the world – it would be nice to hear an F, the note that differentiates the keys C major and G major – but we hear the leading tone (B) resolve up to the tonic (C), and that’s good enough.  And sure enough, the band sticks with C for the first two measures of the verse:

5 (C) Walter, remember when the
6 (C) world was young and all the girls knew

…but things quickly go wonky.

7 (Eb) Walter's  (Bb) name?
8 (F) Walter, isn't it a
9 (F) shame the way our little world has
10 (Bb) changed? ... Do 

2. B-flat major: “Walter” holds onto C major for just two lines.  In the next measure, we suddenly hear both B♭ and E♭, a surefire sign the song is headed toward B-flat major. Davies underscores the key change in the next couple measures by holding steady on F major (the dominant chord of B-flat major), then confirming our suspicions with the resolution to B-flat major in measure 10.¹

3. G major: In measure 11, “Walter” shifts gears to a C minor chord.  It’s pretty dramatic, what with the underlying harmonies and the F-E♭-D-C of the melodies.  In the middle of the twelfth measure, “Walter” shifts up to D major, which then cadences to G.²

11 (Cm) you remember, Walter, playing
12 (Cm) cricket in the (D) thunder and the
13 (G) rain? ... Do
14 (Cm) you remember, Walter, smoking
15 (Cm) cigarettes be- (D) hind your garden
16 (G) gate? ... Yes,

It’s not a wholly uncommon key change from either C major or B-flat major, but all three in one song is a bit of an abnormality.  But the next measure is a real curveball:

17 (Ab) Walter was my (Eb) mate... but

(4.? E-flat major: Here the song briefly tonicizes E-flat major.³  It’s probably a little tenuous to really count as a separate key, for a few reasons.  Most importantly, it’s too short.  It’s literally just one measure long.4  I’ll put its brevity in perspective: “Walter,” just over two minutes long, spends 58 seconds in C major, 47 seconds in G major, 31 seconds in B-flat major… and 8 seconds in E-flat major (an average of 13.6 seconds for the three long keys, but just 2.6 for E-flat major).  It’s also worth noting that E-flat major is a borrowed chord of G major – that is, a chord that appears in the key of G minor – so it doesn’t sound as foreign to our ears as it could.  A third factor is that the very next chord is a G major chord – because it’s bookended by G major chords, it’s easy to retrospectively categorize this section as just a single abnormal measure.  But as always, you should take a listen and decide for yourself.)

…and the return to C major:

18 (G) Walter, my old (F) friend, where are you
19 (C) now?

Davies is very quick to realign the song into C major.  Measure 17 has four! flats, but measure 18 abruptly shifts to G major and F major in quick succession  (voicing all six chord tones in the melody, for good measure) and then resolves to C major – in just five total beats.  It’s an undeniable return to the opening key, complete with the piano again hammering away at the C major chord.

Here’s the remainder of the song:

20 (C)
21 (Eb) Walter's (Bb) name
22 (F) Walter, isn't it a
23 (F) shame the way our little world has
24 (Bb) changed? ... Do you
25 (Cm) you remember, Walter, how we
26 (Cm) said we'd fight the (D) world so we'd be
27 (G) free? ... We'd
28 (Cm) save up all our money and we'd
29 (Cm) buy a boat and (D) sail away to
30 (G) sea? ... But
31 (Ab) it was not to (Eb) be. ... I
32 (G) knew you then, but (F) do I know you
33 (C) now?
34 (C)
35 (C) 
36 (C) Walter, you are just an
37 (C) echo of the world I knew so
38 (Eb) long a- (Bb) go
39 (F) Walter, if you saw me
40 (F) now, you wouldn't even know my
41 (Bb) name. ... I
42 (Cm) bet you're fat and married and you're
43 (Cm) always home in (D) bed by half past
44 (G) eight. ... And if I
45 (Cm) talked about the old times, you'd get
46 (Cm) bored, and you'd have (D) nothing else to
47 (G) say. ... Yes,
48 (Ab) people often (Eb) change. But
49 (G) memories of (F) people can re-
50 (C) main.
51-end (C)

D o You Remember Walter?” changes keys a total of nine times (or twelve, if you’re counting E-flat major), and it doesn’t stay in any one key for longer than 16  seconds.  The melodies themselves don’t help; they’re all self-contained to each key center, so they don’t actively contribute to the modulations.5   That refusal to commit is a big reason why it’s tough for anybody listening to the song for the first time or two to recall how the song goes, or anticipate what’s coming next, which is very unusual for pop music – usually you can guess at what chord is coming next or where the melody might go, and it’s usually easy to recall a catchy melody.  Even after my 100+ listens, it’s still pretty difficult to perfectly recall the melody to “Walter.”

It wouldn’t be a short essay analyzing the harmony of a song without a guess as to why it’s written like it is, so here goes: maybe the shifting keys are a representation of Davies’s shifting feelings about Walter, which careen from fond recollections to brutal jabs at Walter’s present life.  But whether you buy that or not, you gotta admit it’s a fun – and smart – little tune.

Becky Sullivan

¹ In a clever bit of songwriting, Davies uses the “Walter’s name” measure as a pivot to shift the melody down a step – the “remember when” and “isn’t it a shame” lines are similar melodically. But it’s not an exact transposition, which would play B-flat major underneath the melody. Instead, he takes his opportunity to emphasize the key change with F major.

² The cadence here is an imperfect authentic cadence.  It’s authentic because it moves from V to I (here, D to G), and it’s imperfect because the melody does not resolve stepwise to the tonic (here, it stays on D, which is the fifth).  Additionally, there’s an argument to be made here that this is a half cadence in the key of C minor, where a secondary dominant is resolving to the dominant, but I think that hearing is a bit of a stretch because the melody essentially stands on D (a chord tone of the tonic in G major, but not in C minor). 

³ This measure also includes an A-flat major chord, which gives us a full half the circle of fifths in this song (in other words, we hear every major chord from D all the way around to A-flat).  That’s pretty unusual by itself.  And then… it happens again in “Picture Book,” the very next song on the album. 

4 And realistically, the listener can’t actually even perceive the change until at least a beat or two into the measure. 

5 It also doesn’t help that the cadences are generally 5-5 cadences, rather than 2-1 or 7-1. A resolution to the tonic is much stronger than a resolution where the melody holds steady on the fifth.

Songs cited: The Kinks, “Do You Remember Walter?”,  The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, © 1968 by Pye Records, NSPL 18233.