Many Words, by Little Red Wolf

One of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard lately.  Came over the PA in Froth House.  What th– what is this thing, I must have it!  You know the drill.

This is by Little Red Wolf, a Madison band, who have a great new record, Junk Sparrow, recorded by Brian Liston at Clutch Sound, the same guy who did my audiobook.  Range!

Of course the strange piano note, the one that kind of insists despite everything that it’s the right note and thereby colors the whole song with its weirdness and stubbornness, is sort of the same one that Weezer uses to devastating effect in “The Sweater Song.”   And yet the two songs are completely different.  Though the latter is also very, very beautiful.  And now that I listen to both again there’s also something in common about the way the wordless aah-ahh’s are deployed, but it might just be that everybody in the world, whether AOR-indie or alt-country, loves Doolittle.

Wait, are there readers of this blog so young as not to have heard “The Sweater Song?”  Very likely.  So OK:


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12 thoughts on “Many Words, by Little Red Wolf

  1. Dan Schmidt says:

    It is actually basically exactly the same note in both songs, a B♭ over a C chord (implying a pretty normal dominant seventh chord) that immediately shifts up to a B♮ over the same C chord (creating a more dissonant major seventh chord). One thing that creates that nice cognitive dissonance (so to speak) is that even though the B♮ is more dissonant than the B♭ over the current chord, C, it is actually more consonant than the B♭ when pitted against the tonic chord, G. So you have two competing impulses each telling you that one note fits better than the other.

    Actually, to me the weirder piano note in “Many Words” is the C♯ in the previous measure (it’s the highest note), which really is dissonant with everything.

  2. drerichsu says:

    It’s a lovely piano line. The first C# makes the line work for me. it sets the ear up to hear the line modally – I believe it’s technically a Lydian mode with the #4. It’s a very rockish mode — compare Tears For Fears “Head Over Heels” opening piano lick for a descending version of that same mode, or Pretty Ballerina by the Left Banke.

    Once your ear is loosened to listen modally, that later Bb sounds both like part of a rockish C7-Cmaj7 movement and as a passing note as part of a strange mode (not sure it’s any classical mode).

    For me the emotions of the Lydian mode tends to be frantically optimistic, the C7-Cmaj7 is a move from bluesy tension to the kind of etherial feel of the maj7 (compare Sixpence the Richer “Kiss Me” opening for a blunt version of that move). That piano line evokes a mix of those feelings for me, a feeling of your life hurtling too fast into a mix of confusing change.

  3. Yeah, in both songs the “strange” piano note is the minor third, which, again in both songs, is followed immediately by the major third. Equivocation around the third is one of the hallmarks of the blues, so it naturally turns up pretty frequently in rock, with its blues inheritance. Examples abound, but for me, the one that springs to mind is the riff from “Day Tripper,” which begins root minor-third major-third fifth.

    When I play “The Sweater Song” on Spotify, it seems to be in F#, but that seems improbable, so let’s assume Dan is right and that both songs are in G. I agree with Dan that the weirder note is the C# — the raised fourth degree, which is, indeed, the note that defines the Lydian mode. As drerichsu says, there’s also a fair amount of Lydian in rock music (though not nearly as much as there is mixolydian, which was virtually the Beatles’ default scale, and which also harkens back to the blues). First example that occurs to me: the chorus of Elvis Costello’s “All Grown Up,” where the raised fourth degree occurs on the word “all” in the line “and you hate all the people”.

    But it’s entirely possible that, as you suggested over on Facebook, the C# primes you to hear the minor-major equivocation of the second piano phrase as reminiscent of “The Sweater Song” — and not of, say, “Day Tripper”. That, I think, is because the “Sweater Song” lick goes (if it’s in G) E A# B, which, in context, is six minor-third major-third, but which, because it’s repeated several times, and because the rest of the song’s harmony is kind of quiet, does have a sort of Lydian feel. If E were the tonic (as opposed to the sixth) then A# would be the raised fourth.

  4. Dmitri says:

    Rock theory folks often talk about the “melodic harmonic divorce,” which is a way of saying that melodic notes have a freer relation to harmonic notes than in classical music (where melody notes either belong to the chord, or bear one of a small number of admissible relations to identifiable chord tones). Typically, rock music is strongly triadic, featuring major and minor chords almost exclusively. Any additional notes tend to appear in melodic instruments (voice or lead guitar line), so that they’re timbrally distinct from the harmonic instruments. So you will find sevenths and sixths, for example, but they are often aurally somewhat separate from the chordal instruments. (All this is a huge generalization, of course, and only mostly true rather than always true.)

    Finally, there’s a general tendency in recent rock toward textures where the notes of one chord persist into the next creating large (“pandiatonic”) sonorities that extend the classical technique of the pedal tone.

    The Little Red Wolf song, which is really beautiful, is basically I-IV all the way through (C major and G major). That makes the Lydian C# all the more poignant. (Note that the implications Lydian are immediately canceled by the C major chord, which is pretty common; rarely are songs completely in Lydian.) I tend to hear an upper voice melody C#-B-A-A#-B, which sounds deliciously wrong in context. The B over the C chord feels like the third of the G major chord which has been allowed to persist into the C. This is pretty common in rock, I think — it’s in the Weezer too. The chorus continues the I-IV harmony, but changes the melody and allows a big harmonic pileup over the IV.

    The Weezer song is definitely similar. Here the chordal ostinato is I-IV-V-IV (in F#) instead of just I-IV, but they’re audibly related. Then you have a melodic guitar line that adds extra notes: F#-D#-Gx-A# (over F#), B-D#-Gx-A# (over B) and C#-E#-B-A# (over C#). So each chord has an added sixth and the IV also has a seventh.

    So both songs feature: (a) an archetypal Rock progression featuring I and IV; and (b) an ostinato that complicates this progression with weird extra notes, and (c) a notable emphasis on the poignant scale degrees ^#2 and ^3 over the IV chord.

    Good ears, Jordan

  5. Larry Hardesty says:

    Dmitri, I hear the chorus of “Many Words” as I-V.

  6. Dan Schmidt says:

    Sorry for getting the key of the Weezer song wrong! My pitch is just good enough to get me into trouble by not bothering to actually verify it.

    Larry, to my ears the chorus of “Many Words”, assuming we’re talking about the same spot, is a pretty clear I-V-IV (decorated a bit, of course).

  7. Dmitri says:

    I can buy I-V-IV for the chorus, because I hear the bass (cello?) playing G-D-E there; for all I know the acoustic guitar is playing D-F#-A as well. It’s also pretty normal to have a move to V at the chorus like that; I can’t think of too many pure “I-IV” rock songs. That said, though, the continuing piano ostinato pushes me in the opposite direction, toward hearing the same harmonies as the verse, just thickened.

    At some point, you have to wonder what it means to talk about “the” harmony. There’s a lot of different notes going on at once, and it’s a bit arbitrary to whittle them all down to just a triad. (Even in the verses, the G-D drone continues through the IV chord …) I don’t think I’d be totally comfortable saying that I-V-IV is wrong and I-IV is right, or vice versa.

    Be interesting to ask the band how they think about it …

  8. Larry Hardesty says:

    A little before 3:00, the texture thins out and you can hear the acoustic guitar, which is just strumming chords on the downbeats. When I try to hum what it’s playing to myself on the second chord, I keep picking out an F#. But then, when I try to hum a D, it doesn’t feel very satisfying. Maybe the guitar’s playing a D triad all along, but no one else is?

  9. Dan Schmidt says:

    Those downbeat acoustic guitar chords are just G major and C major, I’m pretty certain. The vocals have an F# on the downbeat where the C major is, which maybe is where you’re hearing it?

  10. Larry Hardesty says:

    I guess so. I suppose the texture is sparse enough there that when I was playing along, I drowned out everything but the vocal melody, which implied a D, anyway.

  11. Meg says:

    Hello! I’m in the band :) Kelly wrote this song but I volunteer as tribute.

    Verse is G and C (I-IV)
    Chorus (“all the frightening things to feel” + “ah ah ah”) is G, D, Em, C (I-V-vi-IV) classic pop progression.

    However, Larry, you are correct that there’s an F# in the base because of the way we’re playing the chord. So I guess you could say it’s G, D/F#, Em, C. It’s just a different voicing of the V. **And for a completely utilitarian reason – it’s sometimes easier to play a D chord while holding down the low E string in the 2 position rather than to consistently mute it with your picking hand.** ALTHOUGH it is accidentally a good musical choice because G-F#-E is a nice walk-down…

    The piano line is (notes): G2-D3-G3-B3-C#4-B3-A3 / C3-E3-Bb3-B♮3

    The Lydian-ness of the C# over the G chord is, I agree, what makes it the most special, as is the Bb to B♮ over the C chord. The special thing is that it’s a counter line and doesn’t really affect the quality of the chord progression. The ears don’t pick out an augmented I chord when C# is played, you just hear a cool note on top of the I. Same idea as the sweater song for sure.

    To compare and contrast –
    #1 The Sweater Song (one of my favorites when I was in high school – I’m young but not that young) uses the weird Lydian-ish note in both the guitar line AND in the vocal line, which Many Words only has it in the piano line.
    #2: Sweater Song also stays away from any of that weirdness in the chorus proper (I guess you can count the last “oooos” as a final chorus, but I would call that an outro), while Many Words keeps that dang piano line throughout the entire song.
    #3: Sweater Song’s verse and chorus chord progressions are the same, while Many Words has different chords for verse vs. chorus.
    #4 Sweater Song has an extended outro which MW does not have — but something interesting that is surprisingly similar is the use of the minor third. In MW, the Bb is the minor third in the key of the song (G) and it is probably the second-weirdest/interesting note in the piano line after that C#. In SS, the minor third is used as both a *chord* in the outro and the final “undooooone” A *note* that Rivers sings. Same feeling. The A is a minor third to F# (the key of the song) and the 7th to B (the IV of the song). Both songs rely heavily on the I and the IV. Albeit in different progressions, the melodies have the same effect.

  12. Larry Hardesty says:

    So Meg, are you saying that on “frightening things to feel” you’re playing a D?

    I’m curious about where the piano line came from. Was that the musical idea that inspired the song, or was that something you came up with to fit the I-IV progression of the verse?

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