Wednesday, June 03, 2015

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 3: A Song That Makes You Happy

Photo credit: Mike Harding (American Photo Blog)
Pictured to your left is Willie Mitchell's Royal Studios, which is a tiny little building tucked away on a tiny little street just south of Stax and just north of South Parkway here in Memphis.  It also just happens to be the place where one of the biggest hits of 2015 and many of the biggest hits of the last half-century were recorded.  Royal Studios doesn't have a catchy nickname like "Hitsville" (that belongs to Motown) or "Soulsville" (that belongs to Stax), but it is known as the "Home of the Memphis Sound," an honorific that by definition includes both soul and hits. I could make an entire 30-Day list of "songs that make me happy" just from the ones produced and recorded at Royal alone.

For those of you who've never been inside, Royal Studios is a strange and magical and incredibly intimate place.  Unidentifiable materials of questionable provenance-- most of them probably toxic, but hey, gratia artis, right?-- peel from the walls and ceilings. Cables and cords snake all across the floors, which are covered in a patchwork of old carpets, rugs varying in degrees of upkeep and good taste, tattered musical charts, a t-shirt or sweat-towel or two. There is the familiar sound-muffling foam of recording spaces everywhere, but not in the perfectly-symmetrical arrangement that you see in the big-business studios of New York, L.A. or NashVegas.  Rather, it's arranged, if you can call it an "arrangement," more haphazardly, organically and intuitively, each piece a testament to some bygone conversation in which somebody said to somebody else, "we need to stuff some of that foam right here." The performing and recording equipment throughout is a hodgepodge of timed-tested, tried-and-true tools of the trade, refashioned/repurposed innovations, and high-tech digital apparatus. It really is an amazing place to see.

But what it looks like inside is not what made Royal Studios famous.  It is the sound of that place, the sounds made in that place, that seduced so many of the greatest blues, soul and R&B artists to record there.  I remember the first time I visited Royal and it really was like walking into a sanctuary.  I mean, even your normal speaking voice sounds different in there-- thicker, more resonant, more complex, layered with nuances you seldom get a chance to hear outside of the sort of sonic laboratory that is a well-constructed recording studio.  I don't know how to put words to that sound exactly.  As much as I hate the language of authenticity, there's just no better descriptor than to say that everything sounds more authentic inside Royal Studios, more real, more human even.

Anyway, all of this is a long way around to my selection for today, a song recorded at Royal and a song I suspect "makes me happy" in no small part as a consequence of that fact.  I'm picking Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk," a thumping, driving, soulful, sassy, infectiously fun and eminently danceable helluvagoodtime in sonic form. Just try not to be happy listening to this.  I dare you. Here it is:

I'll go on the record now as nominating the "Uptown Funk" hook (Don't believe me? Just watch) as one of the greatest of all time.  In fact, there are so many killer lyrical turns in this song that I can't even mention them all.  (Okay, just one: Too hot? Hot damn. Make a dragon want to retire, man.) And I know I seem to be saying this a lot lately, but ohmygod those horns! There is absolutely no doubting that this song was produced in the same place that also birthed the world-famous Hi Rhythm section.  If you've ever heard a musician talk about "the pocket"-- about sitting in it, being in it, feeling it, not rushing it or dragging behind it-- "Uptown Funk" is your test-case for whether or not you can find the pocket.  And, fwiw, if you can't find the pocket in "Uptown Funk," you can't find the pocket.  Full stop.

I'm a huge fan of unbridled, unrestricted and uncensored braggadocio in songs that can also bring the musical goods to go along with it.  This is one of those songs. Uptown funk's gonna give it to ya.

I should also say that there aren't many songs by these two artists, Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, that don't make me happy.  Yesterday I showed you what bad pop sounds like.  Today is an exemplary case of good pop.  Stop, wait a minute.  Correction:  the very best pop.

Runners-up:  Katy Perry "Roar"; The Jackson 5 "I Want You Back"; Rufus Thomas "Walking The Dog";Charmaine Neville "The Right Key, But The Wrong Keyhole"

Click here to return to the 30 Day Song Challenge 2015 home.

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