Thursday, May 16, 2013

Tally Hall Songwriting Showdown: "&" vs. "You and Me" (part 2)

This is part 2 of my previous post, comparing two excellent songs by Tally Hall. I want to re-emphasize that I believe both of these are excellent songs, as I do every song off the album. However, "You & Me" is definitely not one of the best songs, and I believe a little bit of analysis can reveal why. Granted, and I also alluded to this in my previous post, my reasoning has a lot to do with what I personally value in songwriting, others may and will disagree.

But here's my humble opinion.

It really isn't hard to see why this song isn't as strong as "&", now that we've established why "&" is so strong in the first place. A lot of the great things that "&" does, this song doesn't do. Those things are what made "&" unique, and the lack of those things is what makes this song more average, run-of-the-mill. Does every song have to be unique to be great? The answer to that is sort of counter-intuitive, since I believe if a song is great, it must be uniquely great. What a song doesn't have to be is innovative. It can stay well within the bounds of established pop practices, giving us everything we would expect to hear, never challenging us, but it must do these established things excellently, in a way that connects to people in a uniquely beautiful way. I don't believe this song offers us much in either innovation or uniquely excellent pop.

You'll recall that one of the things that made "&" so special is the melody. It was catchy, but it also defied our expectations and kept us a little disoriented musically, we almost never felt completely grounded, which gave the melody this drive, this circular quality where every element fell seamlessly into the next. "You & Me" works very differently. Right from the start, we get the home chord, the tonic, pounded into our brains eight times over. Then the vocals start, which also start on "do", the tonic. So immediately we know exactly where we are within the music. Nothing wrong with that, inherently.

And really, there isn't anything wrong with the verses at all. They're memorable enough, the lyrics do what they need to, the groove is strong, the vibe is there. The chord progression is standard, drawing from all of Tally Hall's typical late fifties, early sixties influences, the breezy sunshine pop of Del Shannon and the early Beatles. No complaints here.

Really, a song like this is all about the chorus. This is another thing that separates it from "&". "&" relied equally on both the A section and B section, neither was given special priority over the other. This is what makes "You and Me" more traditional pop, and one of several reasons why I believe many people probably like it more than "&". Verses are usually there to highlight the chorus, make it shine and look good, which places all the emphasis on a quick, sixteen-bar section of music that's easy for people to digest and remember. Usually the chorus of a song will stick in your head long before the verses ever will. "&" spreads the emphasis out evenly, and since no section of music particularly stands out, it demands more of your attention for a longer period of time to digest it. This is why people often struggle with instrumental and classical music, there's no neatly packaged thing for them to immediately grab hold of, you actually have to pay attention for longer than sixteen bars at a time.

Again, that is not to say that classical music is more artistically valid than pop. I'm a pop guy. I love big choruses, I love hearing them and I love writing them. I love communicating with people and I love doing things that will easily facilitate that communication. I'm just explaining why "You & Me" might be easier to approach initially than "&". "&" is likely to just pass people by on the first few listens, its brilliance remaining hidden and understated for that very reason, that there's no huge shiny chorus to latch onto.

So for the purposes of our analysis, it would make sense to focus most of our attention on the chorus. Now, there is one interesting thing Tally Hall does with this song, structurally. Every time we hear the chorus, it's a little longer than it was before. The first time is just a teaser, we only get three words, "It's just you", plus an extra bar. We know what the chorus will sound like at this point, we know it'll be in the same key and start on the same chord as the verse, but we have yet to get the hook of the song. I'm not sure if this is really a good way of structuring a song or not, personally every time I hear it I wish the chorus would just start, instead of going straight into the next verse.

The second time around, we get the full chorus. And to me, here's where the song loses its momentum. The melody lacks flow (something "&" had in spades), it's broken up into these short, choppy, two-note phrases. This itself isn't bad, but the problem is there's no variety to it, there aren't any longer phrases to break up all the short ones. It's also pretty repetetive in terms of pitch. It hits the same notes over and over again, without anything falling particularly above or below them.

These two facts, the repetition of the notes along with the consistently short, evenly-spaced phrases, add up to one thing. The chorus lacks shape. No notes or phrases get any special emphasis. This also robs the melody of a definite direction, it just floats along in a cloud of same-y-ness. Shape is crucial to making a chorus truly special, or at least as catchy as hell. "Why'd you have to go and make things so complicated?" "Strawberry fields forever." "You get me closer to god." Can you read any of these without the melody instantly popping into your head? It's because those phrases were given special emphasis over the others around them, whether its through the notes used, or through the gap in time between them and the previous phrase, or even a change-up in the groove of the song. What phrase, what series of notes, truly defines "You and Me"?

Everything that happens up to "A circular design" could be saved, if after that phrase it gave us a new series of notes that were emphasized and became the true hook of the song. Instead, we just get a repetition of the previous phrase. This is problematic for a couple reasons, the first and foremost being that the new words are freakin' "do do-do do-do".

Now, I'm all for "do's" and "la's" in my songs, but it can't feel like there should be real words there. When Paul McCartney sang "na na-na na, Hey Jude," nobody thought it was because he'd run out of ideas for lyrics. Not sure I can say the same for this song.

The phrase feels incidental, like they just didn't know what else to put there, because it's a repetition of a phrase that wasn't that catchy to begin with, because it doesn't "flow" in any way, and because they didn't put real words with it, something that feels like a true response to "a circular design". And then after that, we're just clumsily dumped into a direct repetition of everything we just heard. There's no payoff.

Now, the third verse really does have some lovely keyboard work and backing vocals to break up the monotony. Props for that, it's probably the best thing in the song.

The third chorus, or second depending on how you look at it, once again changes it up by being longer than the previous chorus. Tally Hall is a clever bunch, every one of them is a good songwriter (how does that happen?), and here they do something that's simple, but extremely effective. The extension of the chorus happens when he sings, "You and me return to be...", and here we get almost another repetition of the melody, but with one note raised a half-step, and the harmony shifting underneath it. Tricky! This repetition but with slight variation is almost using the monotony of the chorus to its advantage. For the first time in this song it feels like we're being pulled into the next phrase ("in orbit all the time"), instead of having it plopped down in front of us.

That turnaround followed by the completely new section that comes after it are easily the strongest parts of the song, composition-wise, because they feel natural, they flow from one into the next. That's exactly what doesn't happen during the rest of the song. The way the last section combines the new melody with the chorus melody is also pretty clever, though to be fair it isn't hard to reuse a melody as simple as that one is.

Again, talking about the length of songs, a lesser songwriter would've looked at that clever turnaround and said to himself, "Gee, that sure sounded great, let's do it again!" and we would've gotten another chorus with that same turnaround again. Tally Hall is smart enough to know that just because something in your song is special and works doesn't mean we need to hear it more than once.

So there it is, hopefully you've picked up on why I chose to compare this to "&". One informs the other. "&" is not only more unique, it pulls us from one thing to the next, it keeps us interested with its many melodic twists and turns. "You & Me" starts and stops, everything is just there, the individual phrases don't work together to form a cohesive picture, they simply come to us one after another. Both songs do many things right, they both have a solid groove, lyrics that at least sound like they're about something (and that's really all lyrics have to do in pop music), they're both pretty memorable and catchy, they're performed, arranged, and presented well. But in terms of pure songwriting craft, "&" is the clear winner.

Despite that, I'm sure many people prefer this song to "&", and (&?) I understand why. Big singalong choruses are fun. This song is adorable, Tally Hall is very charismatic and pulls it off swimmingly (again, this band deserves to be much more famous than it is). The groove is heavy and dance-worthy. Maybe the song makes you think of those blissful high school summers when you were still listening to Hellogoodbye. Maybe it makes you think of an old girlfriend/boyfriend. Maybe you just like dancing to it. That's great, that's why music is so important, I would never try to dissuade you of your love for anything.

Obviously, I chose to approach the music very analytically for the purposes of these two posts, and it's because I wanted to talk about the intricacies of songwriting, the subtle things that are really the reason why the song is what it is. Think of the song as a letter addressed to you, if the happy emotions and vibe you get from this song are what the letter is saying, then the details I've been discussing are the actual letters and punctuation.

However, I assure you I am very capable of reacting to music at a basic, instinctual level, just like how you react to this song, and I plan to get into that more in future posts. Analyzing at this level is fun but it's not my main purpose for this blog, since I don't actually spend that much time picking apart why I love or don't love everything I listen to. Well, maybe I do a little bit, but certainly not at this length.

I'll also be updating more often. Hope you'll be around to join me! Music is fun.

Thanks for reading,
_Gaius J.


  1. comparing apples and oranges, imo

  2. I agree with you, actually. I really just wanted to discuss songwriting, and I thought comparing one song to another would give the discussion a larger purpose, kind of like making a "top-ten list", it just gives people another reason to read. But the songs are very different, and I like both of them. At the end of the day I'm not sure framing these two posts as a "competition" was the best way to go about it. I'm learning as I go.