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A not-so-perfect harmony
EELS’ new single, ‘Peach Blossom’, opens with their distinctive growl and grit: guitars distorted to the point that you’re guessing they’re guitars, heavily compressed drums and the swaggering drawl of ‘that was a long, cold night’. But there is more to this new single—and in fact many EELS songs—that sets them apart from the mainstream of pop and even the more ‘arty’ indie rock bands out there. EELS’ approach to harmony beckons the question why rock bands are still reliant on the same chord sequences that make up the vast majority of songs. Furthermore, the harmonies that they employ (or eschew completely) add to the timbral effects that mark out EELS as something different from the norm; unafraid to experiment even in their tenth studio release.
The Axis of Awesome’s now-famous ‘4 Chords’ song demonstrates just how many pop songs use them same chords over and over, and their hilarious collage barely scratches the surface, despite including everything from James Blunt to Journey.
Peach Blossom opens with nothing less than a bona-fide backbeat, devoid of any real sense of pitch or even a voice. Then the guitars enter—overdubbed, compressed, and nasty-sounding. There are four phrases to this riff, the first two put us in a sort of G minor territory (with a natural seventh instead of a raised one, in case any music theorists are reading this). The third gesture gives us an A-flat and an E-flat. The E-flat belongs in G minor; the A-flat definitely does not. This creates a semitonal shift (meaning the harmony has shifted ‘up a black note’ on the piano), destabilising the tonality of this section. Without any other harmonic support, as a listener you are left suspended for a moment until the fourth phrase gives us a rising fourth from D to G—the skeleton of the so-called ‘perfect cadence’, which has been used to indicate finality and tonal stability since the sixteenth century. This same pattern repeats with the vocals taking over the guitar line—the tonal point of gravity keeps disappearing and the drums are all we have to keep us in the game.
Then the bridge comes at 1’13″. A Fender Rhodes, or something like it, gives us our first real chord of the song, D major. Arguably, EELS begins to manipulate the ‘Four Chords’ here. If we were in D major, the ‘usual’ four chords would be D – A – Bm – G. Here they are D – Bb – B – Bb. In other words, the ‘A’ chord of the original formula has been shifted up a semitone, the third chord made major (where it had been minor), and the fourth chord has been moved by a third, just as the relationship between D and B-flat is also a third. More relevant, though, is the semitone shift between B-flat and B – a semitonal shift that matches the similar shift of the opening riff. It also occurs in the third phrase of the section, where the A-flat and E-flat idea destabilised the G minor tonality. This creates the feeling of a semitone shift-and-return throughout the song, meaning that although the various sections of it don’t use the same chords, they can relate to each other through what would be described in semiotics as ‘the level of the signifier’; they have something in common despite being harmonically very different.
But why should you care about what chords pop music uses? One of the biggest fallacies that plagues opinions about academic music is that knowing more about what you are listening to in some way detracts from the experience itself, as if listening to a semitonal shift in an EELS song becomes all that can be heard and the ‘mystique’ of listening is somehow lost.
Far from detracting from the listening experience, an awareness of the structure of music can be uplifting. One finds that ‘Peach Blossom’ is a refreshingly novel song in a world where, as Theodor Adorno put it, ‘everything is so completely identical’; a world in which goods are sold in different packaging without fundamentally changing the product that is on offer.
Samuel Parsons is reading for a BA in Music at Hertford College, Oxford.