Two Decades: Differences between 90’s & 00’s rock radio, and what it can teach us about orchestration

Isn’t it weird how pop/rock music from any given decade has such a distinct sound?  Even if I’m hearing a song for the very first time, I can usually guess with reasonable accuracy the year (or, at the very least, the decade) in which it was recorded.  Of course, decades are just arbitrary spans that make it more convenient for us to organize time, but for whatever reason it seems to be a convenient unit for categorizing periods of rock music.

Case in point: a couple months back, WXRT (93.1 FM in Chicago) celebrated its 40th year of broadcasting by showcasing a different year from their existence for each of 40 selected days.  Because they only did this for four days out of every week, it worked out conveniently that they would generally feature one year from each decade over a ten-week span.

As I would listen daily on my commutes to and from work, I began to get a pretty good sense of what defined each year from within this genre.  In many ways this just reinforced what I had already known.  The 70’s were dominated by the rise in popularity of distortion and sprawling epic rock from the likes of Led Zeppelin.  The 80’s became defined by the advent of MIDI and other synthesized sounds, which were explored with rather mixed results.  Yet everything from the past 20 years blended together as variations on how people either embraced or rejected Nirvana.

What struck me as particularly interesting, though, was that the more I listened, the more I became aware of the subtle differences that distinguished these two most recent decades in rock music.  The contrast wasn’t nearly as stark as the gaps that occur between any of the previous decades, but there was still something that allowed me to tell the difference between songs of the 90’s and the 00’s.

I should preface this by admitting that the following commentary is not entirely objective, as I am not particularly fond of music from the 90’s (speaking generally).  This is odd, in a way, as this was when I first started getting into music – specifically, pop/rock music.  I vividly remember a family vacation in the summer of 1997 during which we heard Fastball’s “The Way” and Smash Mouth’s “Walking on the Sun” on the radio about 15 times each day, but I still thought it was awesome because it was all so new to me.  Perhaps my current rejection of this period stems from the acquired sense of elitism that every musician has.  As musicians evolve and develop, we tend to thumb our nose at music that is too simplistic and intended for mass appeal.  There’s probably some truth to that, but I have recently realized there is a more concrete musical reason, as well.

No one piece of music could ever fully capture every essential element of any genre or era, but there are certainly some that serve as adequate surrogates.  For example, whenever I think 90’s pop/rock, I always think of Spin Doctors and their big hit from 1993, “Two Princes”.  It is an undeniably fun-loving and catchy ditty, but the most defining element in regard to what I view as a stererotypcal 90’s sound is the stasis of the song’s texture. What is particularly noteworthy for this discussion is the role of the guitar.  With the exception of the solo taken after the second chorus, the guitar essentially churns out the same chords with the same voicings and the same rhythms from beginning to end.  Furthermore, the guitar and bass drop out for the start of the final chorus, but other than that, the song utilizes the exact same fundamental texture throughout.

Another popular 90’s song that demonstrates similar tendencies is Matchbox 20’s “Push”.  The most significant textural difference between these two is simply the number of guitars used, as the latter includes a smattering of melodic lines to fill in gaps left by the vocal part as well as a couple overdubbed guitars that essentially play the same parts.  In spite of this, the effect ends up being the same because most of the guitars at any given moment are strumming chords in the same comfortable register.  These rhythm guitar parts fall into the generic default use of 6-string open chords.  This is somewhat ineffective because it is not only overdone, it also sounds in a low and muddy register that also inhabits the same range as a male vocalist, thus producing a more cluttered overall sound.  Even in those fleeting moments where the voice and guitar trade off one another, the texture sounds static because the foundation is so thick and repetitive.

These and countless other examples from the 90’s illustrate a technique of orchestration (or, generally, how to use a variety of instruments in any setting) known as “harmonic-rhythmic support” (HRS).  The name is self-explanatory – it identifies any musical texture that is secondary to melodic material and possesses both harmonic and rhythmic elements.  You’ve almost certainly heard examples of this without necessarily being conscious of it.  You can find it in Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano in “Great Balls of Fire” or Dylan’s guitar in “Blowing in the Wind”.  Really, some capacity of this can be found in most pop/rock music, but again, this is especially the case with music from the 90’s.

A shift started to occur around the turn of the century.  Specifically, instruments with the capacity for both harmonic and rhythmic support began to be used in more interesting ways than they were in the previous decade.  One of the earliest and most significant examples of this was The Strokes’ breakout hit from 2001, “Last Nite”.  In some regards the texture in this song is actually very similar to the previous examples, as all voices (two guitars, bass, drums plus voice) are basically present at all times.  The biggest difference is in the function of each voice (especially the guitars) and how this changes at different sections in the song.

Take, for example, the introduction, which is just an instrumental build-up of the song’s chorus.  It starts with steady and constant iterations of an octave unison on the song’s tonic in the rhythm guitar, using a slightly distorted timbre.  After the drums kick in with the beat, the lead guitar emerges another single pitch line following the same rhythmic pattern, but with a more distorted tone.  While it does not demonstrate a harmonic element on its own, it does give at least some harmonic context when paired with the original guitar voice.  The droning tonic of the rhythm guitar implied that the harmony stayed static, but this new voice reveals that this section oscillates between two chords, and the first guitar line is simply a pedal figure holding across these harmonic changes.  Instead of one guitar being burdened with HRS, both effectively combine to fulfill that function.

These two guitars ease into more traditional roles at the verse (0:28), but even this demonstrates more subtle craft than its predecessors.  The lead guitar hammers out what sounds like dyads on offbeats.  Although this does take on at least some harmonic function, its rhythmic propulsion is easily its most defining trait.  The rhythm guitar does strum out chords to a repetitive rhythmic figure, but the tightness of each voicing (they all sound to be within a single octave) and its punchy quality make it reminiscent of funk.  Also noteworthy is the register used by both guitars – they both play in relatively high registers, which distinguishes them from the range of the voice and bass.  This creates a much cleaner and more interesting timbre.  Because of the well-defined functions of each part, the overall effect of the band comes off as a well-oiled machine, which only enhances the catchy nature of the tune.

Using The Strokes as a means of comparison is perhaps unfair in a way: they never really became more than a niche interest of lofty critical acclaim, and they certainly never achieved the crossover success that Spin Doctors or Matchbox 20 had.  An examination of one of the 00’s biggest rock crossovers, however, yields similar results.

When Kings of Leon first got noticed, they were very much cut from the same cloth as the wave of bands that followed The Strokes.  In fact, many critics pegged them as “The Strokes of the South”.  Their sound shifted suddenly and radically with their third album, though, and the lead single off their fourth album (Only by the Night) became a huge crossover success.  “Sex on Fire” had catchy hooks, an energetic backbeat groove, and an anthemic chorus that made it impossible to avoid in 2008.  And while in many ways it is a very simple and easily digestible song, it still maintains the nuanced textures that have come to define much of the 00’s.

The verse has three independent guitar parts that are interwoven in various combinations.  The first begins the track as a solo voice, and it is a unison figure with slight distortion that plays for the duration of the first verse.  The second voice is the fuzzy offbeat chords that enter with the drums.  This voice has a similar effect to the rhythmic guitar from “Last Nite” because it also follows a clean, repetitive rhythm and is voiced in a distinct register from other elements around it.  This part drops out when the voice enters, which then gives way to the third guitar voice: a syncopated and arpeggiated figure with a very clean tone that enters mid-stanza during the first verse.  The second part returns at the halfway point of the first verse, and all three continue in tandem until the chorus.  Even when they are played together, it never sounds cluttered because each possesses a unique and easily identifiable quality that only enhances the overall texture.

A dramatic lift occurs at the chorus, and the texture of the guitars becomes much fuller as a result.  Still, individual voices can be easily discerned.  The most prominent guitar part is the soloistic lead line that competes with and responds to the vocal melody, as it is bumped up substantially in the mix.  There is at least one other guitar playing during the chorus, serving the function of HRS.  However, it is so low in the mix (it is at a far lower level than every other part) that its only role is really to beef up the density of the sound.

A cursory glance at the catalogue of Wilco is particularly interesting in this discussion, as their career spans both decades.  Not only that, the band’s sound has undergone a similar evolution over this same stretch.  Granted, Wilco never embraced the sugar-coated, radio-friendly escapism of other bands, but they did start with a much more straight-ahead, meat-and-potatoes type of sound.  An example of this occurs with the lead track off 1994’s A.M., “I Must Be High,” which is reflective of their early alt-country sound.

While the texture here cannot truly be labeled as static – there are a smattering of lead guitar lines of varying timbres running throughout the track – there really is not a lot of variety, either.  There is a constant foundation of HRS in the acoustic guitar, and this is paired with a steady (albeit subtle) drone of an electric guitar that reiterates the same chords.  Both these parts (as well as the other soloistic lines) are also presented in a similar register to the voice, which only adds to the density and clutter of the sound.  This isn’t to say that there should never be conflicting register usage, but when the whole song has this static foundational texture, it becomes cumbersome.

Wilco’s sound has since evolved to become much more delicate, spacious, and unpredictable.  A good example of is “You Are My Face” off of 2007’s Sky Blue Sky.  The song starts off very simplistically, with a clean electric guitar laying down an unchanging foundation by strumming out chords.  When the lead guitar line becomes the main melodic voice (1:17), though, the song undertakes a radical shift, and the orchestration become far more spontaneous.  No single part is burdened with carrying the harmonic function; instead, a healthy co-op of distinct timbres satisfies this role.

Once the soulful backbeat kicks in (1:29), the distorted lead guitar line is supported by an acoustic piano, at least one organ, and another electric guitar.  This latter voice is mostly confined to accenting the snare drum’s backbeats, but the sporadic, conversational nature of the keyboards lends this section a very organic feel.  This continues once the voice returns at 1:58 in a slightly modified version.  Here, the acoustic piano takes on HRS function with its punchy eighth notes.  Yet even with one instrument solely taking on this function, it is does not have nearly as burdening of an effect as is often the case.  The staccato attacks, the higher register, and the light nature of the piano don’t bog down the overall effect, and it is also a refreshing contrast from when HRS was presented earlier in the song.  Furthermore, the conversational character of this section is cultivated by the space provided with the vocal lines, which concludes each line of text with an equal amount of rest.  These rests are sprinkled with statements from all four independent instrumental parts used at the beginning of this section, yet their distinct timbres and the lightness of the rhythm section save the composite texture from any sense of heaviness.

My biggest issue with HRS, particularly in this genre, is that it really is not necessary.  The drums already account for rhythmic support, and the bass, while not harmonic itself, lays down the harmonic foundation.  Even if a rock band had no harmonic instruments, most people would be able to imply the harmonies based off the voice, the bass, and previous knowledge and understanding of pop chord progressions.  Interestingly, The White Stripes explored the inverse of the function of harmonic support by taking away the bass altogether, thus using only drums for rhythmic support and guitar (or other harmonic instruments) for harmonic support.  But that is another conversation for another day.

This is not to say that rock bands should only use a singer, bass, and drums.  While such a group could maintain necessary musical function, the sonic possibilities in that setting run a great risk of being exhausted very quickly.  My point is simply that instruments such as guitars and keyboards have much greater capacity for freedom than most bands seem to realized, particularly those who earned their living in the 90’s.  Bands in recent years have been far more effective at creatively exploring the individual nature of the instruments they use, particularly those with more functional range.

To use a couple more orchestration terms, this is the difference between “homophonic” and “polyphonic” textures.   The former describes conventional melody and accompaniment texture (or melody and HRS), while the latter presents a more nuanced texture comprised of relatively independent voices.  A visual analogy would be drawing a tree using straight lines and coloring it with solid colors versus creating a tree with more independent, unconnected elements (such as pointillism).  Both achieve similar results, but I tend to embrace polyphony because there is much more for me to absorb.

There is a valuable lesson to be learned from this in regard to classical orchestration: polyphonic writing tends to be more effective than homophonic.  Think of it this way – if you went to hear an orchestra, wouldn’t you get tired of hearing nothing but violins playing melody and winds voicing harmonies played in rhythmic unison?  Or, to put it another way, wouldn’t you get tired of hearing Matchbox 20 orchestrated for an entire evening?  When you have so many colors at your disposal, why wouldn’t you want to use them in wildly inventive ways?  HRS can be incredibly effective to emphasize musical moments of substantial impact that merit that sort of weight.  In order to make these moments effective, other sections should employ a lighter texture in which various combinations of instruments undertake a variety of functions.

I have used this approach in my own writing, and I have particularly noticed it recently in what I’ve written for jazz big band.  Composers of big band music are notoriously guilty of over-employing HRS, in that they will write entire sections of supporting material with all instruments in the same section playing pads set to the same rhythm.  I have certainly been guilty of this myself.  What I have tried to do recently is to consciously avoid static orchestration.  For example, instead of writing a functional harmonic pad for just the trombones, I’ll use one trombone, a tenor and baritone saxophone, and maybe one of the lower trumpets.  Or instead of writing a unison melody for just the trumpets, I’ll split the melody up where instead of having it played by the same group the entire time, it gets presented by a number of musicians in smaller installments to create a richer tapestry of sound that evolves over time.

I suppose that the differences between homophonic writing and polyphonic writing are not incredibly drastic.  At the very least, the casual music listener may not be aware of the differences between them.  Admittedly, I was not conscious of specifically why I preferred rock music from the past decade to the 90’s until I was able to compare them directly over a period of time.  Regardless, while the difference in quality is certainly subjective, that of perceived effect is not, and I sincerely hope that music makers of all forms continue to be aware of these differences.


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