4 for IV, Part III: IV Chords in Sleepy Kitty’s “Projection Room”

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the music of Sleepy Kitty, no need to feel ashamed. They have gone on national tours, but they are mostly a cult favorite in the Midwest. This is particularly true in their adopted hometown of St. Louis, where they have received glowing accolades from the beloved institution that is The Riverfront Times. The band consists of only singer/guitarist/keyboardist Paige Brubeck and drummer Evan Suit (formerly of Harvey Danger), and they have been a strikingly ambitious band, having engaged in various multimedia projects, including providing the music for a staged adaptation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Still, their music remains very much under the radar – I only discovered them through a random comment on an article from The AV Club.

 

To date, they have released two albums: 2011’s Infinity City and 2014’s Projection Room. The latter of these is a fantastic record – I ranked it as my #1 album from last year, and it has continued to grow on me. Their sound is very eclectic within the rock/pop genre. Some songs are reminiscent of the 90’s/early 00’s angst of Hole and The Distillers (“Godard Antagonist Infection”), others have a carefree 60’s pop vibe (“All I Do Is Dream of You”), while still others showcase their interest in classic cinema through their musical-inspired approach to melody (“What Are You Going to Do When You Find Bigfoot?”) or their Spaghetti Western-influenced production value (“Nothing = You”). All of their music is insatiably catchy, though, while still maintaining consistent formal adventurousness.

 

As I’ve continued to listen through and analyze the songs on Projection Room, I discovered that their approach to harmony also enriches their music. There are diverse, creative, and highly functional uses of the IV chord in several songs. While most of the techniques they use can be found in other examples, the concentration of these implementations here lends an abstract unification to the album that serves to elevate the collective bunch.

 

Parts I and II of this series have focused on some of those specific techniques (which will also be referenced in this entry), but in Part III, I’m looking at how one album achieves greatness by approaching the IV chord from several different angles.

 

“All I Do Is Dream of You”

 

Let’s start with the album’s tenth track: the innocently nostalgic surf-rocker, “All I Do Is Dream of You.” The song is very short, clocking in at a mere 1:54, and like a few other tracks from the album, its form has a scorched Earth efficiency. Below is an analysis of the song’s harmony (in Ab Major) and form (blank measures repeat the chord from the previous measure; slashes between chords indicate muliple chords in one measure; slashes between Roman numerals without spaces indicate secondary chord function):

Verse 1:

Ab (I) |     | Eb (V) |     | Eb7 (V7) |     |

Ab7 (V7/IV) |     | Db (IV) | Dbm (iv) |

Bb (V/V) |     | Eb (V) | Eb7 (V7) |

 

Verse 2:

Ab (I) |     | Eb (V) |     | Eb7 (V7) |     |

Ab7 (V7/IV) |     | Db (IV) | Dbm (iv) |

Ab (I) |     | Eb7 (V7) |     |

 

Chorus:

Ab (I) | Ab7 (V7/IV) | Db (IV) | Dbm (iv) |

 

Form:

V1: 0:00

V2: 0:26

Ch: 0:52

Coda: 1:21

 

The song has a very simple harmonic construction, and all chords have roots of either “do,” “fa,” or “sol.” This isn’t to say that all chords are I, IV, or V, as the I chord is occasionally swapped for a dominant seventh chord, making it a secondary dominant of IV (V7/IV). The V is also sometimes made into dominant, but this is merely its diatonic equivalent when the chord seventh is added.

 

The other departure occurs with the minor “iv” chord, which is an example of modal borrowing. Although this chord did not appear in any of the examples I looked at in the first two parts, it is a fairly common sound in rock/pop music. Unlike minor “v” (not dominant) and V (dominant), the modal variant of IV shares its function, and it is often used as an elaboration of IV. In the IV-iv-I progression, which is what is used here, a descending chromatic line that moves from “la” (sixth note of the scale) to “le” (lowered sixth) to “sol” (fifth notes) emerges from the chord tone possibilities of each, which serves to embellish the plagal motion into tonic. Chromatic motion, especially of the descending variety, tends to be a common embellishment in any genre of music. This progression was particularly common in doo-wop and early rock ‘n’ roll music (think the last three chords of “That Thing You Do”), and its appearance here helps to facilitate that stylistic link.

 

Another aspect of this very short song that stands out is its form. Most rock/pop music is dependent on repetition, but Sleepy Kitty seem to be consciously avoiding that cliché in some of their songs. “Dream” has the same structural units as a conventional verse/chorus form, but what stands out is that no section returns after new material is presented. Even though there are two verses, the second one concludes differently, which negates the full repetition one comes to expect in this form. This provides a refreshingly unique twist on pop structure by streamlining the typically cyclical nature of these forms.

 

“What Are You Gonna Do When You Find Bigfoot?”

 

The fourth track from Projection Room utilizes a similar form, but on a slightly larger scale. The specifics for “What Are You Gonna Do When You Find Bigfoot?” are included below, which is in the key of C Major:

Verse:

C (I) / Em/B (iii 6/4) | Am (vi) / C/G (I 6/4) | F (IV) | G (V) | (2x’s)

Am (vi) |     | D (V/V, IV/vi?) |     |

C (I) | F (IV) | C (I) |     |

 

Chorus:

C (I) | F (IV) | C (I) | F (IV) |

C (I) | F (IV) | D (V/V) |     | F (IV) |   |     |

C (I) | F (IV) | (7x’s)

D (V/V) |     | F (IV) |     | (2x’s)

 

Holds:

D (V/V) | F (IV) | C |

 

Form:

Spoken intro: 0:00

V: 0:04

Ch: 0:46 (Vamp: 1:14, Holds: 2:13)

 

Once again, material does not return once the music moves onto something new. There is, however, a significant amount of repetition within each section, particularly in the second half of the chorus. Nearly the entire chorus comes from a simple tonic-to-plagal progression, and these two chords repeat seven times to conclude this section. The constant use of the plagal progression here is not unusual, but the way that it repeats locally but not globally is.

 

The D major chord presents an interesting dilemma in regard to the song’s use of plagal harmony. Aside from tonic and plagal harmonies, this is the most frequently used chord in the song, and it is the only other harmony that exists after the song’s repeated first line. This chord is not diatonic to C Major, but it is conventionally understood as a secondary dominant chord (it is G’s dominant, or V/V). However, an alternate understanding of this chord would be as a secondary plagal chord that elaborates A minor (IV/vi). At no point is a D major chord followed by either of these implied destinations, but A minor precedes it during the verse. Especially since the I-IV progression is so integral to the song’s harmony, this implied tonic-plagal interpretation makes sense. It should also be noted that the D-F-C progression also contains a similar descending chromatic line to the IV-iv-I progression (fi-fa-mi this time), so that may also help account for the pleasant sound of this otherwise unconventional progression.

 

“Don’t You Start”

 

Secondary plagal chords are even more important to the harmonic construction of the album’s second track (though first actual song after its introductory first track), which is analyzed here in the key of E Major:

Verse:

E (I) | D (IV/IV) | A (IV) |     | (2x’s)

G (bIII, IV/IV/IV) | G | E (I) |     | (2x’s)

 

Chorus:

E (I) | D (IV/IV) | A (IV) |     | (2x’s)

E (I) | D (IV/IV) | A (IV) | C (bVI, IV/IV/IV/IV) | E (I) |     |

C (bVI, IV/IV/IV/IV) | A (IV) | E (I) |     |

C (bVI, IV/IV/IV/IV) | A (IV) |

 

Interlude:

E (I) | D (IV/IV) | A (IV) |     | (2x’s)

 

Coda:

C (bVI, IV/IV/IV/IV) |     | E (I) |     | (7x’s)

 

Form:

Intro: 0:00 (pedal E)

V1: 0:09

V2: 0:44

Ch: 1:16

Interlude: 1:55

V3: 2:11

Ch: 2:42 (last 2 bars tagged once)

Interlude: 3:25 (2x’s)

Ch: 3:56 (first 8 bars only)

Coda: 4:11

 

There are two things that stand out about the chords in “Don’t You Start”: they are all major, and none of them are dominant. Tonic (E) and plagal (A) harmonies are crucial, but the three remaining chords (D, G, and C) are best understood through either modal borrowing or their connection to the chain of secondary plagal harmonies. The song begins with same progression used in Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” and the D major chord has very clear secondary plagal function in this context, moving as it does to the plagal A major chord.

 

The functions of the G and C major chords are less clear, as both move to chords beyond their expected destinations in the secondary plagal cycle. When they appear in the verse and chorus, the chord that follows both has a root a minor third below it, and they also both skip two chords in the secondary plagal cycle. Let’s take the G major found in the verse, for example. This would be the full chain of chords moving by descending perfect fourths to complete the progression at tonic:

 

G (IV/IV/IV) -> D (IV/IV) -> A (IV) -> E (I)

 

When the G moves directly to E, it bypasses the D and A major chords. The same is true of the C major found in the chorus when it moves to A major. When this same C chord appears in the coda, it ends up jumping three chords to move directly to tonic.

 

One of the most interesting aspects about this song is that the D, G, and C chords all have multiple functions. Even though their function as secondary plagal chords is an abstract interpretation, it works because of the established precedent for this function within the genre. Because these chords have been used in this context for so long, songwriters do not have to articulate every chord within this progression to emulate its effect. Also helping here is the complete lack of dominant function. Without either primary or secondary dominant harmony, the progressions here naturally gravitate towards a plagal function.

 

However, understanding these chords via modal borrowing is equally valid. This is particularly true for the two uses of the C major chord. When it moves to A major in the chorus, it comes off as an elaboration of a vi-IV-I progression. These chords are used frequently in this order in rock/pop music (Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” is a popular recent example), but substituting the modally borrowed bVI for “vi” gives it an interesting twist.

 

The C-E progression in the coda also gives a fresh perspective on another use for the “vi” chord in rock/pop music. It has grown increasingly common for this chord to move directly to tonic, which gives it quasi-plagal function. This is similar to how, in classical music, the IV chord became a substitute for the predominant “ii” chord (ii-V-I is the arguably the defining progression of classical and jazz music), in that both chords have nearly identical spellings. The bVI-I progression has a similar effect, so whether this chord is understood in the context of secondary plagal harmony or modal borrowing, it essentially has plagal function either way.

 

“The Hoax”

 

This same bVI-I progression plays a crucial role in the album’s fifth track (though it starts with the I chord here), but it used to take the song in a surprising new direction. “The Hoax” is in C Major:

Verse:

C (I) | A (V/ii) | Ab (bVI) / G (V) | C (I) / Ab (bVI) / G (V) |

C (I) | A (V/ii) | Ab (bVI) / G (V) | C (I) / C7 (V/IV) |

 

Chorus:

Am (vi) / E (V/vi) | F (IV) / C (I) / E (V/vi) |

Am (vi) / E (V/vi) | F (IV) / C (I) / G (V) |

C (I) / Ab (bVI) | C (I) / Ab (bVI) | C (I) / Ab (bVI) | C |

 

Coda:

C (I) / Ab (bVI) | C (I) / Ab (bVI) | C (I) / Ab (bVI) | Db (IV/bVI, I of new key) |

Db (I) / A (bVI) | (6x’s)

A (bVI) | Db (I) |

 

Form:

V1: 0:00

Ch: 0:33

V2: 1:05 (instrumental)

Ch: 1:38

Coda: 2:10

 

The I-bVI progression is first used at the end of the chorus, but it ends up laying the foundation for the song’s extended coda. This section begins by stating the progression three times, which is exactly what happens in the chorus. However, instead of resolving to the tonic C major, it shifts to Db major. This chord would be the Neapolitan chord (a major chord built on the lowered second scale degree) in C Major, but since it follows the modally borrowed Ab major, I hear it as being a secondary plagal elaboration of the Ab.

 

That’s when things get interesting. It suddenly becomes apparent that the Db’s function in C Major is a ruse, as it becomes the new tonic for the remainder of the coda. The same I-bVI progression repeats in this new key before ultimately resolving on the tonic Db. Even though the ascending half-step modulation is a jarring one, the fact that the initial Db major chord had at least tangential function in C Major allows for the modulation to come off more seamlessly that one might expect. This is why I feel it is crucial to interpret that first Db as having plagal function – much like the examples I looked at in Part II, “The Hoax” achieves aids its modulation with the comforting sound of the plagal progression.

 

It is also noteworthy that this chromatic shift was foreshadowed earlier in the song. Secondary dominant chords are used very creatively in both the verse and chorus, in that the secondary dominant chord used in each section moves to a chord other than its implied destination. Specifically, the A major (V/ii) found in the chorus moves to Ab major instead of D minor, and although one of the E major chords (V/vi) from the chorus moves to the expected A minor, the other two move instead to F major.

 

Both of these detours are rooted in chromatic movement. The verses sees its secondary dominant move down a half step; the chorus, up. The example from the verse is especially intriguing, and for a couple reasons. First, the chromatic motion continues an additional half step when the Ab major moves down to the dominant G major. Second, the Ab is actually a logical extension of the “ii” chord that is the logical destination of V/ii. Their connection comes from a technique known as a tritone substitution, which is used commonly in jazz music. A tritone substitution is basically self-explanatory: it happens when a chord is swapped for one with a root a tritone (augmented fourth/diminished fifth) away. This works because the two chords have very similar chord tones when upper extension pitches (seventh and flat-ninth in addition to root/third/fifth) are factored in. This technique is rarely seen in rock/pop music because upper extensions are rarely used. I think the chromatic motion connecting these chords is a more likely explanation in this context, but it is a neat use of the technique regardless.

 

The use of form in “The Hoax” is also interesting. While the song fits within a standard verse/chorus form (with the extended coda added), the second verse is entirely instrumental, meaning that there are only two distinct stanzas of lyrics used in the whole song. This is a variation on the steamlined redux of this conventional pop form as seen in “Dream” and “Bigfoot.”

 

“Nothing = You”

 

The final example I will look at from Projection Room is probably my favorite song on the album. “Nothing = You” is in A minor, but as I will discuss, this is also juxtaposed with an implied C Major:

Intro:

Am (i) | Dm (iv) | (4x’s)

 

Verse 1:

Am (i) | F (VI, IV/III) | G (VII, V/III) | C (III) |

E (V) | F (VI, IV/III) | G (VII, V/III) | C (III) |     |

 

Chorus:

Am (i) | Dm (iv) | Am (i) | Dm (iv) |

F (VI, IV/III) | G (VII, V/III) | F (VI, IV/III) | E (V) |

 

Verse 2:

Am (i) | F (VI, IV/III) | G (VII, V/III) | C (III) |

E (V) | F (VI, IV/III) | G (VII, V/III) | Am (i) |      |

 

Bridge:

E (V) | E | Am (i) | Am |

E (V) | F (VI, IV/III) | C (III) |     |

 

Verse 3:

Am (i) | F (VI, IV/III) | G (VII, V/III) | C (III) |

E (V) | F (VI, IV/III) | G (VII, V/III) | C (III) |

G (VII, V/III) | C (III) | G (VII, V/III) | Am (i) |

 

Form:

Intro: 0:00

V1: 0:14

Ch: 0:30

V2: 0:45

Br: 1:03

V3: 1:17

 

The intro and first line of the chorus both utilize a basic plagal progression, but the most interesting use of plagal harmony results from its use of the F major chord. This chord is diatonic to A minor (VI), but it also serves as the pivot to C Major as the plagal chord in that key. Each verse has at least one phrase that ends on C major, which implies a shift to the song’s relative major without ever really leaving it’s A minor tonality behind. Actually, every section of the song uses an F chord as its pivot point to oscillate from A minor to C Major. The E major chord that usually comes before the F has exclusive diatonic function in A minor, while the G major chord that usually follows it has exclusive diatonic function in C Major. The freedom with which this songs jumps back and forth across these two keys is one of its most appealing aspects to me, and this all hinges on a chord with at least partial plagal function.

 

Once again, Sleepy Kitty’s use of form here is pretty brilliant. This is yet another subversion of verse/chorus form in that these sections exist and appear in their conventional order, yet there is no full repetition of any one section throughout its brief duration. The section I label as the verse appears in its general form three times, but each is slightly different. The first of these consists of nine measures that ends on (and thus implies) C Major. The second is also nine measures but ends, instead, on A minor. The third begins the same as the first verse, but instead of reiterating C major in the ninth measure, it jumps straight to a four-measure tag that concludes the song in its tonic of A minor.

 

There is even more departure from convention with the song’s use of its chorus, as this section only appears once. Whereas the verses return in different permutations, there is nothing that remotely resembles this section upon its completion. Where we would expect a second chorus, we instead get what I have labeled as a bridge. Taken as a whole, these sections form a quasi-rondo structure, which makes for a fascinating juxtaposition against the interpretation of its verse/chorus structure.

 

I’m guessing that Sleepy Kitty did not seek to create an album that explores a wide range of uses of one particular chord. Or maybe they did. Either way, they have crafted an extremely well made, concise rock record, and along with their subversions of standard rock/pop forms, much of its intrigue stems from their creative and diverse approach to an otherwise well-worn harmony.


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