Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Bill Ricchini and the Muses

Right now I am very excited about a local singer/songwriter named Bill Ricchini. He writes beautiful songs and performs them simply and honestly. Find out for yourself, before he gets more famouser and you can say you new about him way back when. But I come not just to praise Bill Ricchini, but to criticize him. Or rather, to discuss something that's been in the back of my mind ever since I started writing songs. Which is a long time.

Reviews of Ricchini's music, in typical review fashion, seek to describe him via comparison. Some say he rips off Elliott Smith. I say that though there is clearly influence there, what accounts for the similarity more is that both draw from the same influences: baroque/chamber pop, Brian Wilson, and 1965-1966 Beatles. (Later on I intend to write about the periodization of the Beatles, but not now.) And it is this latter influence I want to discuss. The best song on his new album (which is saying something - they're all pretty good) is "Eugene Hill," which you can hear, along with others, on his myspace space. Several critics have pointed out that there is a similarity between this song and the Beatles' "And I Love Her," though they have trouble articulating this similarity: In an absolutely glowing review Arie Musil writes, "The entire chord progression is that of 'And I Love Her.'" This isn't exactly true, or rather, it isn't even close to being true, but there is truth lurking behind this statement. What is in fact going on is that the melody of the verses is reminiscent of the bridge of "And I Love Her" - that is, the part that goes "A love like ours/ Will never die/ As long as I have you near me." This is particularly true at the end of the phrase, where the last four notes are identical, as is the supporting progression (vi - iii - ii - V). But this is not theft, so what is it?

The answer lies in the fact that there are two kinds of songwriters: those who work out their songs note by note, and those who 'just hear it.' Neither technique is better or worse than the other, and the results are often indistinguishable. Paul Simon, for instance, is in the former camp, but his music flows organically, so who could tell? I am in the latter group, as is, I think, Bill Ricchini. The disadvantage of this technique is that sometimes in the course of the songwriting process a melody seems to flow so effortlessly that you feel like you are hearing the voices of the Muses themselves, when what you are in fact hearing is part of a song you already know. I have experienced this countless times. When I catch myself I try to alter it so that it is no longer recognizable. I'm sure other people do this too. What has undoubtedly happened here is that a chunk of a Beatles song buried itself in Ricchini's subconscious mind and squirmed out while he was writing "Eugene Hill." It's a shame he didn't catch it before he recorded it, because it's an amazing song, but it unfortunately leaves him open to charges of unoriginality. [Addendum: the melody of his song "Close the Door" is strikingly similar to the Shirelles' "Soldier Boy," although it uses it in a very different way. It's a beautiful song as well.]

Elsewhere I have written about music whose strength is its originality, but the simple fact is that not all great music is original. Or so I tell myself. But when I hear Bill Ricchini's beautiful, unoriginal music, I almost believe it.

Damn muses.

You can hear and download a lot of Bill Ricchini's music from his website, from myspace, and from If you like it, buy the album.

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