8 tracks ► songs for the ides

►  March Madness. Just about everyone has heard the saying about March: In like a lion, out like lamb. I’ve even seen an elementary school craft of a March mask made out of paper plates and a paint stick, with one side bearing the face of the lion and the other the face of lamb.

Typically this phrase is applied to the weather, describing how roaring wintry conditions accompany March’s beginnings, but then, before too long, spring comes around and sets things to rights, and by the month’s end, March is usually mild and pleasant as it gives way to April.

Today we’re going to apply this saying to songs. But in reverse. So, in like a lamb, out like a lion. That is, songs that start off mellow but end up in a rollicking jam. It’s a musical move that is one of my favorites and seems to be have been a fun exercise and almost a rite of passage for most classic rock bands.

Below are a few of my top picks, some featuring just a change in tempo, but the best highlighting the gradual addition of vocal parts, instrumental accompaniment and harmonic layers.

►  A countdown:

8  • Captain • Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet ►  Generally, I cannot say enough about the glory and wonder of the combined talent of this quartet, and I think this song especially highlights their individual and collective strengths. In fact, here’s what I’ve said before about this very tune:

For me, this is one of those songs that was life-altering. Right up there with Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks […]. This tune opens with a bright, searching intro followed by a plucky, upbeat bridge into a darker, driving march that builds in intensity. The spare, sweet sounds of this song are tempered with an undercurrent of foreboding, a sense of holding back, like a skirmishing between the light and the dark. The entire melody seems to rise and swell, ebb and flow, like the water it opens and closes with.

[ Sidebar: For more about this band, click to read what I have to say about its being a crossroads of Chinese and Southern culture: The Sounds of Appalachina. ]

7  •  Starla • the Smashing Pumpkins   ►   You know it’s coming the whole song–the grungy break-out of dirty guitars and reverbed sound–but the first half of the song has this bottled-up atmospheric drive that while not quite light-heartened is nevertheless much more restrained than the latter half of the song. Probably not the most widely known Pumpkins song, but worth a listen for fans and newbies alike.

6  •  Smoke on the Water • Deep Purple  ►   Fire in the sky.

5  •  Bohemian Rhapsody • Queen   ►   This rock opera covers the bases and is just all over the place. But it does feature the swell in intensity and instrumentation that is requisite for this playlist. And, anyway, it’s just fun.

4  • Free Bird • Lynyrd Skynyrd   ►   What song is it you want to hear? It’s always this classic rock standard. You have to appreciate a song that doesn’t even need vocals for a dynamic finish that is over 5 minutes long!

3  • Over the Hills and Far Away • Led Zeppelin   ►   I know: This playlist is starting to read like a greatest hits album. However, many (dare I say most?) benchmark bands employ this kind of switch-up song-writing approach, and Led Zeppelin may have mastered it like no other band. Many of Zeppelin songs feature this shift in dynamic–Stairway to Heaven, anyone? Or, for my money, Bring on Home.

For this mix, I’ve included Over the Hills and Far Away not only out of deference to “No Stairway” rule of thumb when discussing rock songs, but also because this tune very clearly demarks the incoming of new harmonic layers. And I just love that.

2  •  Hey Jude • The Beatles   ►   Take a sad song and make it better by listening to the way each instrument is gradually worked into the melody and builds the impact of this landmark tune.

1  •  American Pie • Don McLean   ►   As the rock ballad of rock ballads, it seems only fitting that this most iconic track features a musical move that is a distinguishing characteristic of the genre.  

►   Bonus Track   »   Stairway to Heaven & Bring It On Home • Led Zeppelin   ►   »
“No Stairway” rule or not, no playlist of this nature is truly complete without this song. And for a cheekier, folksier, grittier example of a tempo switch-up, my advice is to just bring it on home.

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►  In the queue  »  rain songs • 

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