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Wednesday, 26 June 2013 08:00

Finding buried treasures in song, no cheat codes necessary

Fleetwood Mac Fleetwood Mac commons.wikimedia.org
Written by Erin Frank
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The term "Easter egg" refers not only to a festive springtime tradition, but also to a bonus or extra feature on a DVD, game, or other piece of digital format media, a sort of gift from the creator to the viewer, should the viewer be dorky/obsessive/having of enough time to kill to find the X-marks-the-spot hiding place.

Most consider the Easter egg to be a concept limited to something viewable. There is, however, a musical equivalent, one that a listener could find all on their own without cheat codes or lists of playback times.

Let's call this musical equivalent a buried treasure -- 'tis not the season for an Easter egg, after all -- and let's define it as the moment (or moments) within a song that, while perhaps previously undetectable or easily overlooked, suddenly become crystal clear in a moment of lucid listening, moments that clinch the piece for us with just a second of unexpected brilliance, moments that aren't the point of the whole song but that illuminate it for us in such a way that they make us love the whole song all the more.

I should be clear: a buried treasure is not the entire song. Sure, the entire song can be great, but there is a difference between the compilation of brilliant elements and one especially brilliant element itself. I'm not sure if these buried treasures have become harder to find in newer music. On one hand, I see how more advanced production techniques could eliminate the happy accidents or gloss over the quirks uncovered by careful ears in older songs. On the other hand, I don't think that every song is tamable, and I'm sure any one listener can rattle off a handful of their own favorite buried treasures.

Below is my list of the moments that make certain songs even more remarkable to me, those tiny glimpses into the unexpectedly wonderful.

"I Don't Want to Know," Fleetwood Mac

Between the third and fourth notes in the beginning of Fleetwood Mac's "I Don't Want to Know" hides the sound of Lindsey Buckingham sliding his hand up the neck of his guitar. It's so quick, just a brief "zzzhhhhh" whisper of strings on fret, but it's inclusion by Buckingham, a notorious perfectionist, quietly lays the groundwork for the loose, jangly nature of a track played by a band in which everybody slept with everybody and despite their apparent wishes, the whole world knew about it.

"Lay Me Low," Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

I'm the first to admit that this is a pretty disgusting reason to love a song, but in the opening line of "Lay Me Low," the microphone captures a hint of spit on the side of Nick Cave's tongue. Gross, right? It's like having a conversation with someone who's never taken "say it, don't spray it" to heart, but in the context of this song, it works beautifully. "Lay Me Low" is a man delivering his own eulogy, and the intimacy of his mouth, of the wetness, pinkness, and softness between his tongue and cheek, begins the song in a way that simply striding up to a metaphorical grave site could never do.

"I Want You Back," The Jackson 5

It's hard to find the buried treasure in any Jackson 5 song, primarily because they're all so much fun to listen to already. But in "I Want You Back," young Michael momentarily takes a backseat to Jermaine's vocals to repeat a mainstay of the group's lyrics: "baby." On the third repetition, the word is exclaimed with such abandon that it's nearly unrecognizable, and although we now know that Jackson left nothing to chance and possibly beat the (ahem) word into the stratosphere, it's delivered at the apex of the song and the beginning of a to-be-legendary career.

"I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)," The Four Tops

If I ever get kidnapped by aliens and am asked to describe music, I'll probably end up describing Motown. "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" is a prime example of music's prime example, covered and sampled endlessly, a perfect blueprint of a perfect form. Tying the vocal bridge to the refrain is Levi Stubbs shouting "c'mon!," and the swoop of this word alone stamps the image of Motown's moves, suits, and line of microphones into my brain better than anything else could possibly do.

"Pearl 'n' Roy," Mott the Hoople

Like all great R&B-influenced English rock acts of the early 1970s, Mott the Hoople and their song "Pearl 'n' Roy" is a party anthem rounded out by fat horns, clinking glasses, and a "yeah yeah yeah" chorus that wouldn't have been out of place in "Fraggle Rock" years later. In "Pearl 'n' Roy," vocalist Ian Hunter enjoys an almost spoken-word moment, the end of which is punctuated with the line "amateurs, amateurs, bullshit collaborateurs!" This is probably just me, but the charmingly intact mid-Northern accent on "collaborators" is hilariously classy and a perfectly British kiss-off.

"Coin-Operated Boy," Dresden Dolls

The Dresden Dolls' interpretation of punk-rock cabaret veered into conceptual art on multiple songs, particularly "Coin-Operated Boy" (which serves as the intro to KDHX's "Coin-Operated Radio" show hosted by Ryan Heinz). This track about finding the perfect-but-mechanical man is syncopated by Brian Viglione's razor-sharp drumbeats and, near the end, Amanda Palmer's vocal match to the rhythm of wind-up gears, including two unexpected half-step pauses that throw delightful wrenches into the song's machinery.

"Sweet Virginia," The Rolling Stones

I have always liked "Sweet Virginia," but admittedly, I didn't love it until I watched "Stones in Exile," the terrific documentary about the making of one of the greatest Stones records. Featured in the documentary is a piece of footage from a live performance of "Sweet Virginia." In this clip, Mick Jagger is in the foreground, blurry and wearing silver eye makeup. In the background, Keith Richards sits on a stool at stage right, head down even as he sings harmony. It's Richards' voice that sends chills through me. It's high and almost feminine, and, I am embarrassed to say, previously unrealized by me as his, but forever after appreciated and in this song, held in higher esteem than Mick's.

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