Friday, November 20, 2009

#40. 'Memories just keep ringing bells'

Amerie "1 Thing"

The most obvious of song fights you could set up for this decade would probably be the battle of "1 Thing" and Beyonce's "Crazy in Love." The two share so many common signposts that it's impossible fo me to not think of them as a matched set courtesy of producer Rich Harrison; both are straight up love songs whose foundation lies in a sample from a relic of early 70s funk, both were among the biggest hits of their respective summers and both were thoroughly salivated over by critics from every walk of life. So the battle lines get drawn; sure, theoretically everyone likes both songs, but they also have their favorite. And it doesn't shock me that great many of them side with "Crazy in Love" to be honest, but as far as I'm concerned "1 Thing" takes everything that did right, refines it and yet doesn't sound like a strict retread. It also didn't sound like the kind of song that would be a single, let alone a top 10 hit, and you know how much I tend to fetishize singles that don't necessarily sound like singles.

The main reason that "1 Thing" impresses me more than "Crazy in Love" is that it turns its perceived weaknesses into strengths. Each element that has a direct precedent in Harrison's other mega hit seems to pale in its shadow: Amerie isn't half the vocal powerhouse that Beyonce is, the "Oh, Calcutta" sample is, on paper at least, so much less dynamic than the "Are You My Woman?" horn fanfare and the song is so much more dependent on it that if it fails the whole thing could capsize. Yet when I play the two back to back all those pairings seem to flip in terms of quality. They're still true on paper, but in practice Harrison takes those shortcomings and puts them into a context that lets them shine so much that it's hard to think of it as anything but the superior song of the pair. The sample, however brief it may be, makes for a perfect foundation, and the interplay between the original drum break from Meters percussionist Ziggy Modeliste and the light bongos that Harrison overlays it with elevates the instrumental side of the track in a subtle yet irrefutable way. Meanwhile the tense guitar stabs that punctuate each bar are just as perfect in their way, not obtrusive but integral to the song nonetheless. The whole incorporation of "Oh Calcutta" is as good an example of sampling done right as you'll find these days, where the source material is actually used as the basis of a whole different song as opposed to the Puffy school of sampling where the songs sound like covers more than anything else.

And then there's Amerie herself, who acquits herself vocally far better than I'd expected based on her previous hit, the lightweight "Why Don't We Fall in Love." She's nowhere near Beyonce's league, but that's a big part of why the song works. If I had written a proper review of "Crazy in Love" prior to this I'd have mentioned that the one complaint I have is that Beyonce is always trying to be the focal point of the song instead of letting Harrison do some heavy lifting with the production. Amerie is content to let her vocal take a bit of a back seat to the Meters loop, especially tending to fit her vocal lines between the guitar stabs as opposed to steamrolling over it. She knows she's not Beyonce so she doesn't try to do what she does, and the result is a perfect synthesis of the sample and her vocal. It's that respect for the monster of a loop that Harrison constructed that takes "1 Thing" over the top for me, and while I still adore "Crazy in Love" it just can't measure up to that level of symbiosis.

It also stands as proof that record labels are by and large incredibly stupid. Columbia tried their best to bury this, insisting that it needed more punch and polish to be single ready despite both Amerie and Harrison insisting that this was a monster. And I can see why a major label would shy away from something like this to be honest; the roughness inherent to the sample makes it sound underdeveloped if you compare it to the over-worked and dulled nature of most radio singles so their contention that the finished product sounded like a demo makes sense in that scope. Thankfully through a bit of subterfuge on their part Amerie and Harrison got it into the hands of some influential DJs who refused to pull it from rotation when Columbia tried to recall it, pretty much forcing their hand and giving Amerie her biggest hit yet. Further proof that when you've got a pair of consummate professionals telling you that they've got a hit on their hands, you fucking listen to them and set aside notions of what a single "should" sound like.

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