spare changes

At a recent Daytrotter session, Tricky covered the XTC song “Dear God.” (I don’t know who the female vocalist is – the site had no information. It’d be nice to credit her…) While I don’t think it’s all that good a version of the song, it’s rather interesting for what it implies about certain kinds of musical variation.

Variations in different versions of songs have a long history, of course. Jazz musicians developed a whole library of substitute changes, following from extending the original’s chords with higher-degree voicings (adding 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, etc.). Later, they began using chords built on fourths rather than thirds – and, as if by contrast, chord sequences built on thirds rather than fourths and fifths (the so-called “Coltrane changes“). In rock, extended chords tended to develop based on guitar voicings – in particular, chords developed from leaving certain strings “open” (not stopped on the fretboard) within conventional chord shapes.

Tricky takes a different tack. The first thing you might notice, comparing it to XTC’s way of doing it (here’s a band demo of the track), is that Tricky all but eliminates chord changes. Andy Partridge, as a relatively conventional songwriter, carefully arranges the chord sequences of the different parts of the song to work together, putting the bridge into a major key for contrast, say. Tricky essentially takes a static loop of the same chord sequence for the entire song. But here’s where it gets interesting: what he does instead is vary the dynamics and density of the music. Again using the song’s bridge as a point of comparison, where XTC moves to a major key, Tricky instead keeps the same chord sequence but drops the volume and density.

(I’ll note parenthetically that in XTC’s demo version, the static chord pattern of Tricky’s version is somewhat implicit in the acoustic guitar part, which for the first part of the verse retains the same chord varying only in its bass note.)

So we could develop a series of correspondences: major vs. minor chords, basic vs. extended chords, fifth-cycle vs. third-cycle chords, loud vs. soft, dense vs. sparse, perhaps even acoustic vs. electronic, clean vs. distorted, or specific textural/timbral structures… What’s interesting is whether any of these correspond, in their emotive connotations within musical discourse, across the different registers of variation: whether it’s typically the case that the emotional effect of a particular modulation is often similar to that of a particular change in dynamics, say.

Tricky “Dear God” (Daytrotter session 6-8-09)

XTC “Dear God” (band demo from Coat of Many Cupboards, 1986)

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