Royal Academy Reviews: Songs About Betrayal

Our in-house boffin listens in...

Taking up residency as Clash’s in-house music boffin is Alex Hills, a composer and lecturer in the department of academic studies at London’s Royal Academy of Music.

Unaware of each song’s authors, Alex blindly merits the compositional qualities of songs given to him by Clash, judging the best of the bunch by its perfunctory arrangement…

This month, songs of the hurt, anger and jealousy of BETRAYAL!

1. Nirvana – ‘My Girl’
This gets going very slowly indeed – first just the basic chord sequences, then adding the voice, then the bass, then finally the drums. This gives it a strange sense of a sort of massive weight gradually building up momentum, which is enhanced by how far behind the beat the rhythms often sit. Sort of like one of those mile long American freight trains – which is very much the world of the song – very gradually getting going. And then of course taking equally long to stop… Incredibly monolithic and rather humorless, but sort of effective.

2. The Impressions – ‘You’ve Been Cheatin’’
This is incredibly famous, not Marvin Gaye but someone like that. I find the relationship between the incredibly up, bouncy sound of the song and the rather depressing lyrics – I wish I’d never met you, you’ve been cheating on me – extremely peculiar, like they had a song and they had some words and needed something to do with them without thinking about what each of them implied. But on the other hand that it isn’t the usual sentimental wallow about breaking up is also quite interesting. The shape of the song is pretty dull, though – a lot of work has gone into the typically slick ’60s soul arrangement without really thinking about what it is supposed to be adding up to.

3. Interpol – ‘No I In Threesome’
I like the very minimal and ambiguous beginning of this quite a lot – it isn’t really clear what’s going to happen next and it goes on long enough to make this a bit uncomfortable. Once the voice comes in everything seems a bit more conventional and obvious. The guitar solo is nice, because it does seem to be there for the sound rather than just because there should be one, and it is well paced – happening at a good point in the song and short. Likewise the verse without the drums at 2.30… These are well judged and make it more than songwriting by numbers, but there isn’t much really original here either.

4. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – ‘Cheated Hearts’
This has a very similar minimal introduction to the previous song, just even more so – it takes exactly thirty seconds to get more than one note – which is quite a nice risky gesture to begin with. What follows is also extremely limited and repetitive, with the vocal melodies made out of three and four note patterns, but it manages to change things in simple but effective ways – constant moves up a step for example. The sudden instrumental outburst around is a well-paced surprise, and I like how quickly it stops too. The second half of the song needs to do much more, though, and it feels like it loses its imagination rather suddenly – two minutes of doing interesting unexpected things and then two of doing the same things again when they are now rather more predictable.

5. Hank Williams – ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’
Now this is really a classic. I think the best thing about this is the violin and guitar playing, which both echo the voice so beautifully, it is really a contrapuntal – more than one melody going on at once – texture, which is very rare in pop music. It alternates between violin and guitar in interesting ways too, sometimes with long stretches of just one of them, and other times both at once. This provides an extra layer to the structure that would otherwise be a very simple verse/chorus alternation indeed. Although the singing could easily sound incredibly dated, the quality of melodic imagination and how that is mirrored by the instrumentalists really lifts the song.

I think this must be a sort of negative Valentine’s Day selection, they seem to be about cheating and breaking up… That makes the expressive world of the second song very strange, and the last song is the one that seems to have the emotional core of the lyrics most in mind. I didn’t find any of these to be pushing boundaries in an experimental way – although the fourth song starts off that way before falling into something more predictable – but equally none of them are too dull or clichéd. The first song is the one I have the least desire to hear again, it is just too leaden, like that long, long train that never quite makes it out of the station, and it is my loser. I think the most interesting thing in any of them, is the interplay between the voice and the instruments in ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, and that will be my winner.

The Winner?

Hank Williams – ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’

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