"Pumped Up Kicks" gets a lot of mileage out of one basic riff that repeats with multiple melodies over the top. The verse and the chorus melodies are very strong though, which really makes the song. The form looks like this.
Intro, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, Chorus, Chorus
All of the sections of the song are about twice as long as they normally would be, especially the intro which is a full 38 seconds, yet everything still works. It's about as basic as you can get, but the melodies and arrangement make the song what it is.
Considering that the song is fairly simple in form and the sections are long, the arrangement makes it go. Take the intro, for instance. It begins with a programmed drum kit, but with guitars and synths constantly fading in and out on both sides of the stereo field, you have something to listen to that keeps you in the song.
The Foundation: The drums, synth bass and guitar double
The Rhythm: None
The Pad: The long synth pad during the choruses
The Lead: Lead vocal in the verse and lead with harmonies in the chorus
The Fills: None
This is one of the few songs with only three mix elements, but there's no rule that says that you have to use all five.
The development of the song is interesting in that the verses are very sparse and the choruses are bigger. In the second half of the second verse and chorus an additional guitar double (a triple actually) is added to make it bigger. The bridge is like a chorus except a clean electric chordal solo enters along with group whistling of the melody, then the chorus begins again with only the doubled guitar and no bass or drums. It's tension - release, then tension - release all the way through.
There are some nice layers in the song. The drum track uses a medium room sound, while the lead vocal in the verse uses a bandpass filter and about a 100ms delay. The long reverb of the chorus vocals works great contrast-wise, although the verb itself doesn't sound that great. The vocal sound is also helped with a medium delay on the vocal.
The song is interesting in that the drums aren't compressed and punchy like you'd expect in most pop or rock tunes. The mix is also heavy on the vocal and not so much on the rhythm section, but it works nonetheless.
There are a number of cool things here. The garage sound of the drum kit set up by the room sound works nicely against the rest of the mix elements. The verse vocal with the telephone filter and short delay contrasts nicely against the clean harmony vocals of the chorus, and the subtle electric guitars against the synths all provide the tension/release and element contrast that any art requires to be popular.
One of the cooler aspects of the song is that the rather round synth bass is doubled with an electric guitar to give the line some definition. That's always a good trick and has been used in Nashville for decades.
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