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December 8, 2008

"The Rat" -- A Musical Analysis

[ “The Rat? never fails to enthrall me. The song, released from The Walkmen’s 2004 album Bows and Arrows, incorporates a simple melody with a clear-cut rhythm, as well as expresses heartfelt lyrics in an upbeat tempo. “The Rat? evokes an intense adrenaline rush, considering its heavy drum beat and powerful vocals, and temps the listener into moving with the flow of the song. It is nearly impossible to remain still during this song, which is broken down into basic elements in the following paper. ]

Generally, people who listen to music decide whether or not they like a particular song by focusing on the melody or catchiness the tune has to offer, disregarding seemingly unimportant details such as form and texture. Although this is a common method of determining a song’s popularity or likability, it is essential to note that songs are comprised of several characteristics that make each song unique. Of the songs the band The Walkmen is most known for, “The Rat? is arguably one of the best, which can be established by analyzing its form, texture, rhythm, melody, lyrics and timbre as separate components that blend together to craft an amazing song.

In terms of form, “The Rat? is fairly simple. The melody in stanzas 1 and 2 is broken into three smaller segments (A, B, and C as noted below) which are played consecutively and repeat throughout the entire song:

(NOTE: this diagram is incorrect and unable to be fixed due to the format of this page)

A--- A--- B--- B--- C--------------
A--- A--- B--- B---
A--- A--- B--- B---


The music is composed of three different verses, two of which repeat and have the same melodies while the other is played only once with a different melody altogether. There are only seven stanzas in the song. The set-up (stanzas 1, 2, and 3) is like so:


Intro 1 2 1 2 3 1 2 Outro


Stanzas 1 and 2 are divided by the start of the melodic phrase, Segment A, while Segments B and C are played throughout each stanza. Between stanzas 2 and 3, a calming interlude with a slower tempo and softer dynamics is played without vocals or drums and occurs only once in the song.

As far as texture goes, the song is rather straightforward. There is a monophony in which two different instruments, the keyboard and guitar, play a single melody in unison. The guitar begins playing while the other instruments join in one by one, creating a more complex texture. There is a very even harmony that supports the melody.

The rhythm in “The Rat? is constant throughout the whole piece. The beat is regular and there are 8 measured bars of 4 beats in each section, with 168 beats per minute. When the interlude begins the song seems to slow down, but in reality the beat is consistent while the dynamic softens. The drummer has the same tempo as the rest of the band, but while the other instruments carry a single rhythm throughout most of the song (the intro, interlude, and outro differ), the drummer has a pattern of his own which carries the song and adds a feeling of intensity. The drummer’s pattern cycles throughout about two-thirds of the song while the other one-third matches the other instruments. The drummer has a repeating rhythmic pattern that differs from the other instruments, which results in a total of two repeating rhythmic patterns in the song.

In relation to melody, there is a perceptible melody line that is repeated throughout the song, sounding fairly composed and being played by two instruments. The overall shapes of the phrases in the song are smooth, plain, and simple. There is a central tone that continuously resounds all through the song, beginning with the interlude and maintaining until the very end. This tone is set by the one of the guitars and is sometimes accompanied by the keyboard. The pitches in the song move with very smooth transitions, and as noted before, there is a repeated pattern.

The lyrics of “The Rat? were said to have been written in five minutes time, according to Songfacts.com, and it is amazing that the words blend so well with the song, even without rhyming. There is nothing very deep or insightful about these lyrics, but the way they are emphasized as well as the way they describe a story make them seem much more profound. The lyrics of stanza 1 are smooth and follow the melody line of the instruments, but in the last line of the first stanza of the song, the word “know? is accented with a yell apart from the melodic flow:

You've got a nerve to be asking a favor
You've got a nerve to be calling my number
I know we've been through this before


In the second stanza, the verbs in the lyrics are stressed. The singer increases his intensity when singing the verbs for stylistic purposes as well as to highlight the importance of the words. Verbs such as “hear? and “see? are emphasized, as well as phrases like “calling out your name? and “pounding on your door? in order to illustrate the emotion of the situation described by the song. The third stanza is unique because it is the only stanza that is not repeated. An interlude precedes this stanza, and when the words are sung the instruments have died down, making the audience focus directly on the verse. It is a great technique that draws the listener more fully into the song.

“The Rat? is comprised of both instruments and vocals. The instruments include two electric guitars, a drum set, and a keyboard, and there is only one singer. The lead guitar vibrates to produce the sound of the song, caused by the reverberating strings of the guitar after being played. The tone quality of the sounds has a metallic tint and appears to be a bit brassy and grating.

This song is characteristic in several ways. For one, it utilizes a simplistic approach to the basic strategies of rhythm and melody as well as contains a plethora of elementary lyrics. In the middle of the song, an interlude breaks the song down into separate instrumental parts while continuing to maintain unity, which is a riveting effect. The voice of the lead singer is a key factor in the song’s distinctiveness; there is an aspect of familiarity that the vocals offer. Though it is hard to describe such familiarity precisely, it is obvious upon hearing the song that the listener can relate to the voice. The singer brings both comfort as well as an air of power and control, making the song unique in its own right.

As one of The Walkmen’s most famous musical pieces, “The Rat? has a lot to offer to its listening audience. The song’s basic elements, such as form, texture, rhythm, melody, lyrics, and timbre, are fitting in regard to the band’s genre, indie-rock. “The Rat? is clearly a good song when simply listened to, but only after deeply analyzing the work can it be fully appreciated as a great one.

A Manifestation of Indie Rock

[The Walkmen is a classic example of an indie rock band, as made obvious through the definition this paper gives in terms of the genre as a whole. Indie rock’s young age and relative popularity among college students entice audiences into sticking with the genre and waiting excitedly for what is to come. The genre itself is examined on several levels in the following document, which includes a brief history as well as the names of other indie rock artists, to name a few prevalent topics.]

“Indie rock takes its name from ‘independent,’ which describes both the do-it-yourself attitudes of its bands and the small, lower-budget nature of the labels that release the music. The biggest indie labels might strike distribution deals with major corporate labels, but their decision-making processes remain autonomous,? according to www.allmusic.com. Indie rock can be dissected through various approaches, but the history, biography, performance, and cultural aspects prove to be the most well-equipped to define and sum up the genre as a whole.

In terms of history, indie rock commenced in the 1980s and continued to develop through the 1990s and 2000s. The genre is “very much rooted in the sound and sensibility of American underground and alternative rock of the ‘80s, albeit with a few differences that account for the changes in underground rock since then? (www.allmusic.com). Though very popular in the United States and the United Kingdom in comparison to other countries, Ireland and other European lands are known for producing many great indie rock groups. More and more bands have emerged in the past decade, such as Bloc Party, LCD Soundsystem, and Tapes ‘n Tapes, but most are greatly influenced by bands of the past two decades (Sellers 193). Many such groups have gained fans and recognition by sharing their music through college radio stations and performing at universities, which provides students of all backgrounds and interests with an opportunity to discover different music. This genre habitually exhibits songs that replicate the artists’ personal experiences and shy away, for the most part, from any connection to societal happenings. For example, in Nada Surf’s song “Always Love,? the singer reflects on his life lessons, as is popular for most: “To make a mountain out of life is just a choice / But I never learned enough to listen to the voice that told me / Always love / Hate will get you every time? (www.letssingit.com).

There are many distinguished indie rock bands, but a few of the most important to note are Pixies, Sonic Youth, and The Smiths due to their role as some of the first indie bands to gain success in the 1980s (www.nationmaster.com). These bands have excelled among other indie rock bands for great stretches of time, with Sonic Youth still continuing today since their debut in 1981 (www.nationmaster.com). The fact that these bands were among the first in indie rock has provided many later-formed bands with a heavy influence. The above performers have pursued their musical dreams and encouraged others to experiment with new sounds and to grow with the music. The newer bands have then developed their own style and, in turn, influenced still others in style and technique.

Generally, indie rock bands employ guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, and vocals in the majority of their songs and performances. Performance practices are fairly traditional in the sense of stage set-up, venue, and core instruments, but such traditions are not passed from band to band through notated texts, but rather through experience and preference. For the most part, the only lights are pointed onstage toward the performers, who are either a few feet in front of the audience on the floor or above the audience on a platform stage. Most venues played by indie rock artists are small-scale, though not necessarily. It is traditional for the bands to tweak or improvise the rhythm or pace of their songs, as well as add instrumental solos in the heat of the moment of performance. The skill of the performers is displayed through instrumental solos or verbal recognition from the lead singer. If the performance is relatively low key, bands will prepare for a show by checking out the venue and doing a sound check hours before the show, if anything at all. In larger shows, the band is much more likely to rehearse onstage prior to show time. To prepare, bands practice their songs for months before the set date, though it is not uncommon for an artist to present a song that has not yet been perfected, to the delight of the crowd.

The cultural aspects of indie rock are somewhat predictable. Considering its birth in the United States and the United Kingdom, the majority of indie rockers are middle-class and Caucasian, though the spectrum is vast. It is not rare to see persons of color or foreign descent performing on stage, but it is not necessarily frequent. Not only are most indie rock bands comprised of white people with a knack for music, but the greater part of these bands are dominated by male members. It is a bit atypical to stumble across a strictly female indie rock group, however not hard to do. There are many female indie rock groups who have gained overall success, including A Fine Frenzy, All Girl Summer Fun Band, and Tegan and Sara (www.myspace.com). For the most part, indie rock bands generally include one female among males, if any females at all. Based on my observations, the overall sexual orientation among males seems to be mainly heterosexual, as with females, but the percentage of homosexuals or bisexuals appears to be higher among female indie rockers than male, however, there are no reliable, available sources with this information on the internet. According to my concert experiences and knowledge gained through the exploration of numerous bands throughout the years, the typical age ranges from mid-teens to mid-forties, depending on how long the bands have been playing. Obviously such ages are extremes, but the average age seems to fall in the twenties.

My perceived demographic of indie rock audiences vaguely mirrors that of indie rock performers, but the audience tends to produce a broader range of each characteristic. For example, many indie rock listeners are barely teenagers while indie rock performers are somewhat older and more experienced. The sex of the audience is rather evenly distributed between male and female, and sexual orientation is generally heterosexual. The majority of audience members are Caucasian, as with the performers, which is predictable given the societal statistics as well as the style and messages embedded in the songs. The blending of these characteristics fuses the lifestyles of the performers with those of the spectators. The performers, who are on stage entertaining others in order to make a living, merge with the audience, who are spending their hard-earned dollars and free time in exchange for a couple hours of amusement. When the music is being played, both parties from different ends of the situation come together to create a feeling of leisure and togetherness, but the people who induce such a feeling are part of a subculture in which unpopularity is embraced. The genre is not supported by mainstream societal norms due to its inclusion of songs with titles and lyrics regarding topics and ideas that are not readily accepted by society as a whole.

It is a curious situation that primarily middle-class, heterosexual, white males formulate a subculture within a society comprised mostly of this demographic. The indie rock subculture rebels against societal norms that happen to give this characterized group the most power out of any other group, which is a surprising idea. I believe that this demographic is defiant of society because society puts pressure on people with these characteristics to be successful and to look and act a certain way, while these people do not want to fit into a mold and live up to such expectations. All crowds have outcasts and rebels, but what makes the indie rock crowd stand out is the fact that the people in this group are the people with the most collective power.

The band I saw, The Walkmen, fits snugly into the indie rock category in all facets mentioned. They consist of all straight, white males between the ages of 25 and 35 who reside in New York (www.myspace.com). The group writes songs pertaining to everyday feelings as well as unusual and personal thoughts and experiences. Formed in the ‘90s, The Walkmen have been influenced by artists before them and have produced a unique sound all their own.

Indie rock has been my genre of choice for quite a while and I believe it will continue to intrigue me and fulfill my musical cravings for years to come. It can be described and understood in many manners, such as history, biography, performance, and cultural aspects, but words seem ill-fitted to fully illustrate the impact it has on an indie rock enthusiast. John Sellers believes that “it is simply wrong to love music halfway,? and I completely agree (182).

Works Cited

“A Fine Frenzy.? Myspace. 11 Nov. 2008 fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=3601090>.
allmusic. Macrovision Corporation. 22 Oct. 2008 amg&sql=77:2687>.
“All Girl Summer Fun Band.? Myspace. 11 Nov. 2008 index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=34757965>.
“Indie Rock.? NationMaster. 23 Oct. 2008 encyclopedia/Indie-rock>.
LetsSingIt. 23 Oct. 2008 m9f9jgg>.
Sellers, John. Perfect From Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life. New York: Simon &
Schuster, 2007.
“Sonic Youth.? NationMaster. 23 Oct. 2008 encyclopedia/Sonic-Youth>.
“Tegan and Sara.? Myspace. 11 Nov. 2008 fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=2096711>.
“The Walkmen.? Myspace. 11 Nov. 2008 < http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?
fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=4143976>.

Up Close and Personal

[As part of my freshman seminar course “Sounding Off: Studying Sonic Experience,? I was asked to reproduce a musical analysis for a chosen artist of a chosen genre. Considering my interest in indie rock, I chose The Walkmen as my topic of scrutiny. This paper reiterates a Walkmen concert I attended through description of the atmosphere, performance, and audience demographic, which was observed with careful consideration, as well as incorporates the personal impact the concert had on its spectators.]

One of the best experiences I have had so far in my college career occurred on Saturday, September 13, when I attended my first concert in the Minneapolis. The up-and-coming New York band The Walkmen performed at 9:30 pm after a rousing introduction beginning at 8:00, starring lesser-known bands The Broken West, hailing from Los Angeles, California, and Sleepercar, formed in Texas. The gig took place onstage at The 400 Bar, a shadowy, diminutive lounge conveniently located in walking distance from campus, and only cost $19.50 for each secured online ticket. I attended the indie-rock concert with two friends who had no expectations and an open mind. I had heard very little about The Walkmen and absolutely nothing about the two opening bands, but nonetheless I was very excited to check out Minneapolis’ indie-rock scene.

Upon entering the obscure bar before the show, the mood shifted from the hustle and bustle of the outside street into an energetically charged yet altogether relaxed atmosphere. Some people who came to watch the bands lounged on the few couches available in the back, while others leaned up against columns or stood in compact groups. Many of the area’s inhabitants sauntered to and from the bar with drinks in hand. Each person attending the concert wore laid-back clothes, most in jeans and a casual shirt. Anyone could come and watch the show, though the audience made it clear, given their filthy, judging stares, that anyone who stood out in looks or persona would be noticeably disliked. The bands themselves wore everyday apparel, ranging from striped long-sleeves to wrinkled, half-buttoned dress shirts. While one band played, another band respectfully lolled in the back of the room as the third band hung out backstage. Members of the band perused the area with an emanating quality of self-assurance visible to all those who laid eyes on the musicians, while the people throughout the space were a common blend of simple colors and simple faces. The spectators talked blandly with others around them, creating a mild ruckus between sets as the musicians onstage gave signals as to which song to play next.

Throughout the opening bands’ performances, the audience refilled drinks, chatted good-naturedly, and applauded when each song ceased. In turn, the opening bands played their music, took their cues, advertised their name, and thanked the audience for their support. It was very ritualistic the way both band and audience acted toward each other, like a game of some sort. The game ended the second The Walkmen took the stage, however; all chatter died down and was replaced with shouts of elation and cries of excitement. During The Broken West and Sleepercar’s performances, there was very little movement among the spectators and enough breathing room for each person. Once The Broken West left the stage, the crowd crammed together into a dense mob of excited, impatient fans. When The Walkmen began their show, the throng of spectators danced and jumped around as one, causing the floorboards to bend and sink rhythmically. All eyes were glued to The Walkmen as if there was no other option to look at. The audience was arrested by the sweaty, mildly famous musicians spilling their hearts into song before their very eyes. Although the audience paid attention to both intro bands, critiquing the unknown melodies and rating the performances, the interaction was almost nonexistent in comparison to the lead band’s performance.

As each band started and finished, the enthusiasm rose with each consecutive song played. The crowd was relatively calm and composed when the first band, The Broken West, came out. The fervor increased as the time crept closer to The Walkmen’s debut. Once The Walkmen took stage, the excitement still grew from the first song to the last. As organized, the slower songs were performed first while the more invigorating songs were saved for the end of the concert. The concert was fairly straightforward and did not seem blatantly planned-out, besides the increase in tempo from song to song. The only other major sign of organization was that each band explained how many more songs they would play and who was coming up after them. Other than that, no other aspects of the concert were explained, keeping the audience on its toes. None of the bands neither introduced their songs with titles or antecedents nor named or explained them once finished.

The most amazing features of the concert were the performances themselves. Despite the difference in popularity and experience between bands, all of the musicians played with an unprecedented passion. The band mates interacted with each other through encouraging head nods, face to face jam sessions, and split-second eye contact. It seemed as though each band member was in his own carefree world of just himself and his music, but at the same time it was obvious that each band was in sync. All three bands had a drummer, bassist, guitarist, and lead vocalist. All three bands also had a unique playing style. The first band, The Broken West, was the worst band among the three, but was still enjoyable. Their songs were relatively slower paced, carried by solid drum beats. The next band, Sleepercar, utilized a country-like tone in a couple riffs, which added dimension to their sound. They also played more slow songs than faster ones. I particularly enjoyed Sleepercar’s lead singer’s voice in comparison to the others. Though both intro bands were tremendous, The Walkmen obviously excelled above the previous two. The singer’s voice reminded me of that of Bob Dylan during the lower-intensity portions of the songs, but as the chorus increased in volume and force, the voice embraced its own element. Each of The Walkmen’s songs had a steady crescendo and decrescendo throughout the entire number, which guided the crowd on a rollercoaster of dramatics.

One instance in particular stands out among all of the performances – in the middle of a Sleepercar song, the singer stepped away from the microphone into the middle of the stage, surrounded by his band mates, and yelled along with the song in a voice of pure feeling and vehemence. The stage seemed to disappear from around him and it was as though the man was standing alone in a field of passion, living the song. It was truly a moment of musical bliss. Throughout the performances, the musicians danced with their instruments and maintained the attention of the audience through switches in rhythm and tempo. All the bands had to do was perform their music and the audience was captivated.

The emotional impact caused by the performances as a whole was enormous. The concert evoked a togetherness and sense of familiarity among strangers. Moods were altered through song and every person seemed to leave the concert happier, reflective, and most importantly, whole. What was missing from each individual before the concert was found by the end. The audience reacted to the concert with a legitimate respect for the musicians and a longing for more music. The performers in turn reacted with honest appreciation for their audience and an obvious satisfaction with the night’s events.

The concert as a whole brought people together who would not have bonded without music as a common thread. No matter what the listeners’ income, clothing style, personality, or history is, each person can connect to another through the shared experience of a musical performance. The general demographic of the audience had an average age of about 26. Most audience members seemed to be generally well off in terms of income, and it appeared as if people came with a couple friends rather than alone. There were mostly Caucasians in attendance, with a smattering of black people, Hispanics, and Asians. Each person witnessed a unique display of talent and love for music, and these people are forever tied through that one night despite race, gender, or creed. This is obvious, considering that at the beginning of the show, the audience was segregated into small groups of similar people and as the concert progressed, the audience merged and became one. At the end of the show, every person was physically and emotionally closer to the people around them than they had been mere hours before.

One of the greatest aspects of indie-rock and the concerts that produce it is the ability this genre has to enthrall its audiences, recruit more aficionados, and still stay true to the music. With indie-rock, the musicians feel the music and live the music with an adolescent excitement caused by the general inexperience indie bands have. With other genres such as popular music, the songs are so commercial. They are played over and over without end. The artists are desperately conforming to what the audience wants in order to attract listeners and make millions of dollars. The beauty of true indie-rock is that the musicians stay true to the music. They play for themselves and play what they like, and as a result the audience catches onto the buzz and expands excitedly. This brings on an exponentially grown popularity, which converts indie-rock bands into mainstream and in turn, expels them from the genre. Though there are many unsuccessful bands, there are some who flourish. When played effectively, indie-rock concerts have a tremendous affect on an individual because they allow the listener to be consumed by the music. Even if a person is not entirely keen on a specific band when he hears it on a CD or online, if that person attends a concert of the same band there is an extreme likelihood that the person will enjoy it. Once the audience sees an indie-rock band in action, in its element, the audience can truly respect the band and enjoy them so much more. This has been my experience with the indie-rock band The Walkmen. I am honestly moved by their exquisite performance and I fully intend follow this band as well as pursue other bands of this musical genre.

Works Cited
http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=305582585

http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=7036444

http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=4143976