Friday, September 18, 2009

Bread sucks. I love cheese. What?

My Favorite Middle Eights

I've written a few songs in my day. Songwriting isn't easy. I've learned, though--both from my brief foray into composition and from my lifelong obsession with pop music--that the biggest challenge in writing a great song isn't the intro or the ending; great intros and endings are a dime a dozen. The real challenge is in writing the perfect Middle Eight.

What is the middle eight, you ask? In the most basic thirty-two bar pop songs, the middle eight is that part that's neither verse nor chorus; it's often referred to as the bridge, as well. It deviates from the structure of the verse-chorus progression, often changing key and/or shifting into minor and seventh chords. In many modern pop-rock songs, it also serves as a transitory section into an instrumental or solo. And when it's done right, it can turn a good song into a pop masterpiece.

My appreciation for this particular aspect of pop music was imbued in me by my father; a great middle-eight, he always said, should be your favorite part of a song. A great middle-eight could help a song pass his ultimate test of pop excellence: it would give him goosebumps. The perfect minor chord progression under a catchy melody and killer harmony, leading into a sustained vocal peak--it often feels like a tiny little song unto itself before moving seamlessly back into the main theme. Dad raised me on The Beatles, so they are, of course, his standard for all pop songwriting (as they should be). We'll begin our playlist, then, with my very favorite Beatles middle eight: "We Can Work It Out" (0:37 & 1:22)*. This middle-eight is the perfect illustration of what I described a few sentences ago; it's also the most memorable part of the song.

*Times shown represent the start of the middle-eight in each song.

Turning to more modern music, the middle-eight that has always blown us both (Dad and I, that is) away is from Fastball's "Warm Fuzzy Feeling" (0:54). This song, I believe, should be taught as a clinic on pop songwriting: the first verse hooks you in, the second takes it up a notch with harmony and the background vocals, the middle-eight takes twenty-two seconds to blow your mind, and the final verse cools you down, kicks you in the face with a minor-chord ending, and leaves you breathless, all in less than two minutes. Rinse, repeat. Lester Bangs would be proud.

A similarly structured--albeit longer--song, is Panic at the Disco's "When the Day Met the Night" (2:22). The dynamics of the verse-chorus change in this song, the veiled, calm beauty of the verse contrasted with the bright and sunny chorus (sorry, I know that's punny) is just excellent, but the vocal harmony and the strings in the middle-eight really put it over the top for me. The high note and even higher harmony that ends the bridge of "Fallen Leaves" (2:05), from Billy Talent, is a soaring end to its staccato-based minor section, and the "la-la-la-la" background of Head Automatica's "Scandalous" (2:34) creates a standout on an aptly-named record (Popaganda) full of nearly flawless power-pop. Like "Fallen Leaves," the high note that peaks the middle-eight in Gavin DeGraw's excellent "Chariot" (2:08) makes me want to fly, indeed. In slightly heavier territory (and in better days for this band), the middle-eight of "Earthquake" (1:47) by The Used is the most powerful moment of a spectacular rock ballad, as Bert begs: "have I murdered our love?"

I'll almost certainly be slammed for admitting this, but I really like Matchbox Twenty. Please don't take this to mean that I like Rob Thomas; Rob Thomas is a tool, and his solo music is balls. But what began as a catchy but typical 90's band became a power-pop powerhouse with Mad Season and More Than You Think You Are. The middle-eight from "All I Need" (2:16)--a song already full of perfectly-placed minor and seventh chords--has been a favorite of mine for years for the way it pulls the song into the guitar solo.

Back to less embarrassing entries: House of Heroes is one of the most criminally under-appreciated power-pop/rock bands operating today; their The End is Not The End is a nearly perfect combination of pop hooks, concept themes and impressive musicianship. It's tough not to sing along as the middle-eight of "Leave You Now" (1:22) finishes, falsetto-style, with "the only ending that is fitting is you and me, baby." Another of my less-appreciated stand-bys (and one that actually has been mentioned 'round these parts before) is Great Big Sea. "When I Am King" (1:12) is just so unapologetic in its optimism, you can't help but smile through the cheese of it all. From GBS' fellow Canadians The Waking Eyes, the bluesy "Wolves at the Door" (1:55) leads into a slide-guitar solo with an anthemic bridge that bursts with energy. Fountains of Wayne have been perhaps the most reliable Beatles-inspired power-pop band of the last decade; from their latest record, "Yolanda Hayes" (2:00) throws background vocals, a killer ending-harmony and a great horn section together for its bridge. "Sense of Henry" (3:12) has been a favorite song, solo and favorite middle-eight since I discovered I Mother Earth back in high school; it's not exactly pop, but this bridge is still the best part of the song.

Finally, I'll end with the fast, furious, thoroughly unkind and yet irresistible "She Was Dead" (1:27) from SR-71, the always-overlooked and consistently good rock band who wrote and recorded the original (and one-hundred percent better) version of "1985," which unfortunately propelled Bowling for Soup to stardom.

Remember, folks: the bread of the song sandwich--the intro and end--are the easy parts. The verse/chorus are certainly the meat, giving the whole concoction its volume. The middle-eight, then, I guess would be the cheese; you don't need it, but it sure makes the sandwich better. I'm not sure what I'm talking about anymore, but I do know that I love cheese. Love it.

As always, please weigh in with your own favorites, criticisms and/or insults.


Spender said...

Honestly? I have never seen this subject given such a thorough, thoughtful analysis. The Beatles truly understood the impact of the middle eight in a song and thus created masterpieces - imagine 'A Day In The Life' without Paul's jaunty middle eight. It's easy to see the influence on younger bands but nice to hear it as well.
An excellent piece, a great playlist. Just what I expect from TMITM.

TylerDFC said...

Wow! That was really great, Sean. Especially throwing out love for House of Heroes and SR-71. I've long been a fan of the middle 8, I just had no idea what it was called. I would submit "Forget My Name" by New Found Glory and "Calling All Skeletons" by Alkaline Trio. Seems like the Alkaline Trio specialize in this though.

ChristianH said...

Fastall love. You know how to get to me.

I like Colin Meloy's "Dracula's Daughter".

I'm kidding on that last one.

Sean said...

I keep meaning to really dig into Alkaline Trio, Tyler. I really like everything I've heard from them. I did take one day at work and listen to some stuff on Grooveshark, but I didn't get to really focus on it. I'm gonna have to do that real soon.

I like the background vocals in that NFG song, too. Good stuff.