Tuesday, June 21, 2011

the oopsie flat 7 bass line mistake

I've noticed this phenomenon for years, but it may have been my friend Chris Weisman that pointed it out, or made me more aware of it. Many many (many) bass lines consist of root, fifth, and the "flat" (depending on the key) seventh scale degree. This sound is such a part of rock/jazz/pop music that it sometimes makes its way into places it doesn't belong. Whether these players "hear" these lines or if they are a result of fingers falling onto the bass in comfortable patterns is hard to say. But here are a few stinkers. It would be cool if these were interesting super-impositions, deliberate or not, but no, not this time. These are wrong notes to my ears, and I really have a hard time listening to them.

U2: classic wrong bass

Man, does this song have an identity crisis. Is it straight-up majory? Is it blues-ish? It also features one of Chris's big pet peeves: the bluesy woozy strings over the I-IV dominant progression. To Adam Clayton's credit, his bass line lines up with the questionable arrangement (but the first bass entrance has some rough notes). But there's an AMAZING moment at 4:05: The Edge is bluesing out up high, and Adam plays the major-sounding line (half-steps) instead of the whole-step line. Fantastically bad. Poor guy is locked into "line B" when he should switch to "line A." Or was the guitar solo overdubbed? That's a bad idea, too.

Some may defend this, but I'm not buying it. This song is a mess. Is this tonality/mode/inflection soup part of U2's sound? Certainly. It's true of many bands. But it doesn't always work. Just listen to The Edge riffin' over the implied major 7 IV chord at 4:05 and tell me otherwise. And besides--the blues inflection has nothing to do with the lyrics. Weird choices.

Cake: the first time I heard this I was shocked at how amateurish the bass playing is. They are generally way more slick than this. The vocals get progressively more obnoxious, too--the hesitation bit.


I have a great idea--ignore the harmony completely and pretend everything is a vague, dominant-7th sound. Root, octave, flat 7, fifth over and over--EVEN WHEN THE RELATIVE MAJOR IS TONICIZED. Mercy, what a bad, clunky, unrefined sound.

Duran Duran: John Taylor does better, but it's the same formula as the above.


And weren't those weed smoking sound effects played out by 1982 (anyone compiled that list yet)? Anyway. Root, octave, flat 7 formula again. Who on earth thought the tonic I chord was a dominant chord in this tune (the melody is major/major pentatonic during the verses)? And constantly leaving the 7th unresolved on V7 is grating. At least he never plays the flat 7 on the IV chord--he plays the root 2 or more times. So...I can deal with the busy-ness of the line--it's appropriate to the style. But the line is clunky. The entire Rio album is full of bass gems and bass stinkers.

So what is my beef? Bass players that don't know what they're doing? Don't listen? That suck? Perhaps I'll expand my message--music is not a series of mutually exclusive moments. Say, chord to chord to chord. There's always a context of some sort. And the playing I've discussed ignores that context in favor of fingering patterns, or even rote lines in the U2 example. And this is especially dangerous when the music relies on combined or shifting inflections. If that context isn't understood, or if the changes aren't heard, the results can be unfortunate.

1 comment:

  1. Nice, I didn't know you had a blog.

    As I was reading this post, I immediately thought of the Cake cover. It's awful. Major 7? Screw that, it's dominant now. Half-diminished? Nope, it's a power chord now. Flat-seven that bitch.

    The Duran Duran is less egregious, as they clearly went to great effort to make the Major 7s in the synth NOT conflict with the flat 7s in the bass. (I checked!) There's intent there, even if it sounds a little like an identity crisis.

    U2 is a little worse; it's definitely not an accident, just a weird direction they took the song in. It sounds like whoever arranged the "strings" tried to work with it, but there are clashes between the strings (Major 7) and the bass. (2:28) Still, I appreciate the unconventional effort to spice up a mostly 2-chord song. I think the biggest issue, like you pointed out, is that the tone doesn't really match the lyrics.

    Which explains why Everybody Hurts, which does almost exactly the same thing, works. Yeah, it's not bass driven, but it's the same idea, and it's driven by intent and tonal relevance to the song.

    But man, that Cake cover - no excuses. Just awful.