3: "Don't Be Cruel" by Billy Swan

The first time I noticed Billy Swan was when I went into the back room of the cafe I work at to see who was playing the broomstick-up-my-ass, awkwardly tight shuffle rock that was driving me insane. I shuddered and noted the name as someone to avoid. 

At some point later I heard this song and felt like an idiot. But hey, you've got to be a big man to admit when you're wrong. Especially on the internet, where evidence of your previous scalding takes is easy to find. In my defense, the cafe has very reflective walls and any music that's densely produced tends to sound terrible there. 

I think I mentioned this, but minimalism and clarity has been all the rage in the isolated space of my head lately, and this song is a fantastic example. Think of how much worse this song would be if the hi hat was on all 4 beats for the first minute. Even when it comes in, it's mixed so low and accented so softly on those beats as to be almost invisible. We don't get anything strong on those beats until the last 20 seconds of the whole song. 

The organ drone that disappears underwater everytime the vocals or piano come in is the secret key to this song. It only stops in the drum break and following bassless verse, and it's what makes the drum break feel so sparse and the subsequent bass & organ reentry feel so huge. Something you notice when you mix* music (or try to) is how removing a seemingly invisible element can just gut a song. I suspect that would happen here with the organ. It's a load-bearing drone. 

"Don't Be Cruel" also employs one of the oldest tricks in the book, which is syncing the bass up exactly with the kick drum. Old tricks STILL work, guys. Some things just feel good.

Listening to this song (and to a lot of music from before the internet PR hustle era) I am reminded of how powerful it can be to sit BACK. The song starts with 10 seconds of unadorned organ drone. The vocal phrasing is one bar of melody to three bars of empty space. At the turnaround it goes to one bar of melody and two bars of empty space. That (along with staying off the I chord) is all it takes to build the tension here. 

Most bands at the moment are desperately afraid of evil mustache-twirling gatekeepers listening to 10 seconds of an organ drone and screaming "NEXT!" at their computers. It's understandable. Most of the gatekeeping takes place in private and none of us really know what the hell goes down. The natural response is to show off, to throw everything you have at them, but this song, which has been an obsession for me lately, shows another way. Listen to all that space, baby.

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*non-musician explanation: mixing is basically adjusting the relative volumes of each instrument as well as where in the stereo spectrum they are placed (on headphones: is the trumpet in your left ear or right? both?). You can go down a lot of spiritual and philosophical rabbit holes, but basically mixing requires endless repeated listening, while trying to mentally toggle between hearing differences in extremely minute details and then hearing how they affect the mojo of the song as a whole. Mojo is a technical term. 

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P.S. would be remiss not to note that this is a version of an Otis Blackwell song initially made famous by Elvis. This slow and spacious version gives it such a new face I didn't even recognize it! Damn.