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Friday, January 30, 2004
One more? Alright, you twisted my arm. But you have to go leave a comment about my song, as Mwanji and Jen so thoughtfully have.
I know I've posted a few times about this particular songwriting technique, but I continue to love it, so let's roll it out one more time. The technique I'm speaking of is turning an empty pop signifier into something real and round and whole, very specific and full of meaning. In the case of the Scissor Sister's "Take Your Momma Out," that particular signifier is "momma."
An uncareful listening--as, indeed, my initial ones were--would tag this as a simple reference to Queen's "Tie Your Mother Down," another gay cock-rock masterpiece, and in that song the word rarely rises above the level of emptiness--yes, the mother is a presence in the song, but only as a rhetorical device for the speaker, not as someone who's actually at issue, and the campiness of the whole affair does tend to make one think that he doesn't actually want his paramour to place her mother in bondage. Aside from that, the music clearly suggest a southern boogie style, and in those sorts of songs the word "momma" seems to crop up a lot, always seeming to mean "girlfriend" or "wife," taking off on the biker vernacular. Take Your Momma Out = take your lover out. Or, following Queen, take your lover out of the picture so I can be with you. No big deal, right?
In many ways, it makes sense that it would be so common throughout rock songs. It's a pretty vague word, and a common one. It sounds great in a rock-singer drawl, in that kind of southern dialect you have to adopt when singing rawk. It's pregnant with vowel sounds, and those two O's give you a lot of room to extend and fillip around. "Hey hey momma..." Yeah, it sounds great to just sort of say over and over again when the guitar player's soloing. It's in that blues tradition, and it works its way into a lot of songs. "Mama Said." "Mama Kin." All that kinda stuff. Mick Jagger makes sense saying it. Bruce Springsteen makes sense saying it. But it doesn't mean anything: it's just sitting there.
But then you listen closer to what Jake Shears is singing--and, er, read this interview--and you realize that it's actually a very concrete thing. "Take Your Mama Out is about telling your parents you're gay." Well, there you go. More broadly, it's about telling your mother that you're gay by taking her out to gay nightclubs. And that, right there, is a great idea. It's a great concept for a song. It's funny, and it's interesting. I've told people that synopsis and they've wanted to listen to the band. It's a joke, but it's a good idea, too.
And then the execution is just great. So many good lines in there: "Gonna take your mama out tonight, gonna show her what it's all about...and if the music ain't good, well it's just too bad, we're gonna sing along no matter what / because the dancers don't mind in New Orleans if you tip 'em and they make the cut / Do it! Take your mama out all night!" "It's a struggle / living like a good boy oughta / in the summer / watching all the girls pass by / When your mama / heard that you'd been talking / tried to tell you / all she want to do is cry / Now we end up taking the long way home / overdressed and wearing buckets of stale cologne / It's so hard to see streets on a country road / when your glasses in the garbage and your Continental's just been towed." Love it. Great lines about being in the closet and coming out, but not whiny or anything, just funny and fun and celebratory.
The music's great, too--the way the acoustic guitar gives way to the boogie-piano and the hard bass, it's very danceable without being, you know, dance music. It's definitely rock music, but it brings it back to dancing like glam-rock and some hair-metal did. You can shake your hips to this: more specifically, you want to pucker your lips and shake your finger no! no! no! And then break down into hysterics.
This, of course, is just one of about 8 great songs on the upcoming album--but that's for another time, isn't it?
posted by Mike B. at 7:42 PM 0 comments Links to this post
About this poptimism business: personally, I really enjoyed 2003 as a Year of Music, and found a lot of stuff to be excited about. I'd rate it, if I had to, over 2002 and 2000 but under 2001, probably.
But that's not really how I think about music. I think about music in 3-month blocks. And I have to say, this recent 3-month block has just sucked big ones. I went to Virgin today and the only thing I could be bothered to listen to was about a minute of the new Oneida record, and that was so awful that I almost lost the will to live. (They don't even pronounce their own name right, the fuckers.) What have I bought lately? Fabric 13, and that's alright, but nothing on it's as good as the original mix of the Heiko Voss track that closes the whole thing. Other than that, some Bartok, which pretty much kicks the ass of everything else out there right now. So right now, yeah, sucky times indeed.
But I'm certainly one of those poptimists, I'd have to say. The problem I think people make in criticizing that almost-always-excited worldview (and I suspect I would be reasonably excited if I weren't so generally listless right now anyway) is that I don't believe most of us think in year-long segments. We're not that organized--we're not really listmakers. We're not that kind of music obsessive. We're not cataloguers, we're cherry-pickers. So we'd never say a year is bad because we don't give a shit about years. We give a shit about moments (three month blocks for me, different for others, I assume), and in any given moment, we can always just pick up some old album we love and get excited again. Years are an arbitrary measure only of interest to the non-poptimists because that's the kind of music fan they are: they always look backwards.
Off-puttingly obsessive twenty-year-old pop chart catalogues do little to dissuade me from liking Basement Jaxx, or from insisting that I'd rather appreciate Justin Timberlake now and later than only later, if at all.
Yeah, you poor bastards wandered off the True Path while I was gone, didn't you? Weeeeell...
posted by Mike B. at 7:06 PM 0 comments Links to this post
I'm finally in the loop enough that I'm starting to get some demo discs for A&R purposes, or at least for consideration and comment. One that passed through my hands recently was by this British band called The Futureheads that I understand has been making some small noise over there recently. On a whole it was OK but not really worth picking up, I felt, more of a "wait and see" kind of thing.
But one track, "First Day," was just fantastic. Lyrically, it's kin to Fountains of Wayne's "Hey Julie" and the other songs on Welcome Interstate Managers about the general shittiness of being young and working an office job. Told mainly in a sarcastic second person from the voice of the new boss, it gives a kind of orientation monologue: "Welcome to your new job / hope you have a wonderful first day / we are so happy to have you join the team / you are so lucky on your first day / and they say" / this is a job that people die for / I hope you're ready for the next stage / a lot of people work in the same place / don't let them get in your way." This is not meant to be positive, clearly being an ironic parody of smiley-smile corporatespeaken. "I don't feel lucky," of course we'd all respond, but maybe, too, we would feel lucky--lucky to have a job and to be able to eat and have fun outside of work, especially while seeing our unemployed friends. Unfortunately, this ambiguity is not actually present in this song, a point I'll address later.
The sound of the whole thing is very early English punk, which I like a lot: some shouting, some toms on the drums, some riffy guitars, very nice overall. I'd say Buzzcocks but I think it'd be easier to say that I could hear them playing on The Young Ones. The verses are more post-punk, with lyrics chanted somewhat irregularly over an off-kilter bar-breaking guitar and rhythm line. The chorus is just great, really melodic and catchy for no particular reason as there doesn't seem to be a definite chord change, just one vocal line falling and rising against another one that seems to mostly hit two particular notes, but it works just so so well, you want to stand up and sing along and pump your fists a bit, I feel.
The great part, though, and the thing that, along with the general theme, really endeared me to the song, is that after the second chorus, the music cuts out and the vocals go: "And they say faster! Faster!" And then everything cuts back in, at, you guessed it, a faster tempo. This may sound a bit cheesy and obvious, and I guess it is--Modern Times-ish reflection of the pace of industry emphasizing productivity over compassion, etc. etc.--but it's just so good to take a song that's already going along great and energetic and ratcheting it up again mid-song. It makes you want to dance.
And then--oh and then, they do it again. Fucking perfect it is, again certainly obvious and maybe a bit gauche, but really effective. "Faster! Faster!" and roooooowr! it all gets speedier and they're chanting, and they're saying "Faster!" over "First day!" and it's great, and then that wonderful chorus kicks in again over a broken-down drum part, and they're chanting some more, and then the instruments hit their final notes and the vocals chime against each other in a kind of a capella rondo for a while and it's very pretty and fun and then they're out, at 2:04, just in the nick of time. And it's short, Bank Holiday-short (maybe a better comparison than I know there), but it feels kind of epic in the parts they throw in and the way it's all used and the way you feel taken on a trip. What folks told me I should be feeling about The Homosexuals I felt about this particular song, if that makes any sense. Perhaps I'm just a slave to novelty.
That all said--and I do enjoy listening to the song--the song's theme, which I find so resonant, they pretty much fuckup. I'm always interested in honest examinations of the middle-class life, but here it seems to be dismissively treated as not even worth the try, something obviously so bad that you should escape from it as soon as you can. And I'm backed up in this assessment by the biographical fact (eek!) that the songwriter penned the track after trying to work an office job and being so horrified that he went backpacking around Europe. Now, in a way this is an even more honest statement about the middle-class life than the band hoped to make, since the kind of people who have the wherewithal to not work and have a long vacation instead seem to inevitably dismiss the corporate life and everyone who works in it as deluded, whereas that simply showcases how ignorant said backpackers are of their own position in life. Very few people actually like working these sort of jobs, and those people are making a lot of money off them; for everyone else, it's something you have to do in order to do all the other stuff you actually enjoy, or maybe even just something you do so you can fulfill all your other responsibilities and never have a whole lot of fun at all.
That's why I like the point of view of Fountains of Wayne's office songs so much: the characters may be losing it, and some even seem to be specifically crushed by their jobs, but there's no question that they're going to quit, and the fact that they're letting it get to them seems disreputable and kind of sad. It's evidence of a flaw in the characters, not the system they're part of. And in other cases, this is explicitly true: in "Little Red Light," for instance, a guy who seems like he's pretty together otherwise is being undone by having to work while his lovelife is being destroyed, a situation I think we're all familiar with: the need to put on a professional face and get shit done when you'd much rather either be talking with someone or lying around weeping. When I originally set out to write this entry I thought I'd end up point out this difference as a kind of European-American divide, and while it partially is--it's a lot easier for an English guy to backpack around the Continent than an American--I think it's mostly an age thing. The FoW guys are older than the Futureheads folks, and the latter seem to still have that annoying youthful sneer directed at "normal" people, a sneer which fully ignores the likely reality that they, too, will be normal one day. Adam and Chris have lived long enough to have an empathy for those people, to not simply dismiss them as soulless corporate automatons, but to see them instead as people who have to be soulless automatons 8 hours a day to preserve their sanity, but who are quite human and alive the rest of the time. They just don't have the money or the freedom--same thing, really--to avoid those 8 hours. (And I'm not entirely sure what the difference is, soul-sucking-wise, between working in a bank and working the kind of service job your average up-and-coming musician has to, but that's another post entirely.)
So yes: "First Day" by the Futureheads. Great track, even if the writers are a bit annoying.
UPDATE: Oddly enough, Tom Ewing has just republished a great old article that touches on the theme of songwriters reflexively slagging off suburbia, which I didn't read until after finishing this entry. Good stuff, although I don't think he's giving Luke Haines enough credit. I think the FoW song "Valley Winter Song" would qualify as what he's looking for, although maybe it'd be better called "Levittown Beat." Would the Wrens? If so, maybe I should listen to them again.
posted by Mike B. at 6:49 PM 0 comments Links to this post
This morning I went into one of my offices (long story) and I found an Ani DiFranco CD on the computer. Is that the music industry equivalent of finding a horsehead in your bed? Am I going to be banished to the lesbian-folk division or what?
posted by Mike B. at 6:08 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Thursday, January 29, 2004
Well, lemme ease back into this whole posting thing slowly. I'll do a few little things first, and then maybe ease into the Big Subjects that've been running through my noggin of late.
I've been in a very odd mood lately. Drawing weird circles in the dirt with my hands when I'm not thinking about it, losing sleep over nothing in particular, spending all day on edge. I don't know where it's leading me and I'd kind of like to; the uncertainty feeds on itself and it grows and grows until I can't separate the newness from the worry about the newness anymore. It's not the good kind of wandering where I'm lost in thought and don't notice my surroundings, but the band kind where I flit from one unfinished thing to another, unable to committ, and scared to death when I glance off in the distance. You wake up one morning and there are piles of rocks everywhere and you know you made them but you can't remember doing it and you don't know what they mean anymore or how to finish them...
Well, whatever--this is boring and no one cares, particularly. Maybe I'll try and be a little more explicit on these sorts of subjects, but maybe not. For sure, though, some concrete posts on concrete tracks and abstract themes.
posted by Mike B. at 6:24 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Tuesday, January 20, 2004
Hello all. I seem to have caught some sort of soul-sucking demon virus, and as such, will probably not be posting today. I know I owe some people e-mails, and will get to that as soon as I can.
In closing, let me just add: bleeeech.
posted by Mike B. at 12:41 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Friday, January 16, 2004
Thanks to our usual anonymous source, we have the newest Klosterman piece, entitled "What Warren Sapp, Daryl Hannah, and Dave Eggers Have in Common, Or, What's With All the Freakin' Pirates?"
I'm kind of disappointed with Chuck for his borderline racist, and certainly bigoted, take on pirate culture and pirate heritage. As you may know, I am of buccaneer stock myself, and I find that I have to be constantly vigilant against hate speech directed at my culture. Klosterman's depiction of my people as violent and inhuman is typical. You'd think by now enlightened people would have had enough schooling to realize that history is written by the victors, and you can never trust what those victors say of the conquered. Buccaneers were a vital indigenous culture all but totally genocided by imperialist Western powers, simply because they were an irritating disruption to their exploitative raiding of the New World, a revolutionary monkey wrench in their capitalist machine. You'd think guys like Klosterman would want to celebrate that, but no: over and over again, they defame and demean my culture and my heritage as somehow "lower" than the supposedly enlightened modern-day American empire. I'm sure I don't need to tell you, dear readers, how much of a laugh that is.
posted by Mike B. at 11:39 AM 0 comments Links to this post
From the aforementioned L-Word review:
Even the infamous kiss between Madonna and Britney Spears at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards was less shocking than shockingly calculated.
This particular, and particularly widespread, attitude has been bugging me for a while, but I haven't been able to put my finger on why until just now.
The complaint boils down to this: it was calculated to be shocking, but since, as the article points out, girls kissing on TV isn't actually shocking anymore, the crime is really trying to do something that's shocking and failing. (Trying to be shocking and succeeding is, of course, just dandy, as this Pushes Social Boundaries and Challenges The Moral Norms Of Middle America, etc.) But if we all know that girls kissing isn't shocking, presumably Madonna and Britney know that, too, and so the kiss isn't a calculated shock tactic--why try to shock when you know you won't?--but a legitimate artistic choice in a choreographed routine. If you want to blame someone here, blame MTV for the close-up. But even better, turn your gaze at the particular people complaining about this, presuming they're complaining in a major media forum like the Times. Basically, they criticized two people for creating a media circus by...creating a media circus. I mean, from reading the papers, you'd suspect no one was bothered by it except people TV critics knew, and certainly everyone would have been a lot less bothered by it if it hadn't been covered (and criticized) everywhere, even four months after the event now.
In other words, it seems like the media used this to sell a bunch of papers, except they lambasted Brit & Mazza for cynically trying to manipulate the media into printing a lot of pictures of them, and these criticisms were always accompanied by pictures of Brit & Mazza. And I dunno, this seems like having your cake and eating it too. But I could be wrong.
posted by Mike B. at 11:26 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Other things to yell at Ryan Adams besides "Play 'Summer of 69!'":*
- "Recite your speech to the Continental Congress of 1787 on the bicameral legislature!"
- "Play Nixon In China!"
- "That guy in Amistad didn't look like you at all, man!"
- "Dude, you make awesome beer! You make awesome beer!"
- "Why don't you use your real first name...David?!"**
* By adding this footnote sign, I believe I legitimately ended a clause with 5 different punctuation marks in a row.
** This is true.
posted by Mike B. at 10:29 AM 0 comments Links to this post
"The L Word," of course, does not exclude men at all. While ostensibly celebrating the lesbian life, the two-hour pilot is in such a rush to pander to male viewers that at times it seems less like an American television show than a hastily dubbed Swedish "art" film. Each new plot development works as a perfunctory excuse to introduce another sexual variation — a man alone, a man with a woman, two women, two women and a man, etc.
Miss Clap's reaction to this would probably run something along the lines of: "Damn straight! When I'm watching TV, I want to see attractive people. A show about actual lesbians would be ugly and boring--two minutes of sex followed by 58 minutes of talking about the relationship and whether they were really in love and the politics of monogamy and blah blah blah. Gay men are natural drama queens, gay women are fun to watch football with."
Not that I would endorse this point of view, of course. I'm fine with unattractive people on TV.
posted by Mike B. at 10:18 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Wednesday, January 14, 2004
If LCD Soundsystem's "Yeah" is a challenge, then this is my response.
The Claps - Do It For Me (192kbps MP3, 10.0 meg)
As promised previously. Hope you like. Please listen to the end. Might need to turn the volume up a bit, but that can't be bad, eh?
posted by Mike B. at 5:23 PM 0 comments Links to this post
It's kind of funny to read the New York Times article on the Flaming Lips on the same day that QV posts the old Esquire Flaming lips article. The Esquire piece eagerly took the Lips at their words--always a bad idea--and depicted Beck as a peulent "rock star." Said article was subsequently and somewhat legendarily revealed as an elaborate prank between the Lips and Beck. Beck can be a bit of a sourpuss, but so can Tom Waits--that doesn't mean either will reject a hotel room for the wall color. Now, from the Times article, we read:
Two hours before the White Stripes and the Flaming Lips ushered in 2004 with their double-bill New Year's Eve concert at the historic Aragon Ballroom here, the Flaming Lips were onstage blowing up oversize balloons, posing inflatable robots and setting up a giant video screen and confetti machine for their extravagant multimedia show.
Uh, yeah, or it could have something to do with the fact that the White Stripes have three instruments and no stage setup. They could set their shit up in about 15 minutes, and probably did. The Lips, on the other hand, have a really elaborate setup, and since they probably know its layout and operation best, it's no surprise that they're all out there setting it up. And this doesn't even mean that the exes White hadn't done their setup a few hours ago. Sheesh, dude.
posted by Mike B. at 3:53 PM 0 comments Links to this post
This letter from Beck is really, really funny. Go read it right now.
posted by Mike B. at 12:11 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Thomas: Having heard The Dif'rent Darkness, I'd wager something like my firstborn that Black Box Recorder/Luke Haines has nothing to do with it. The guitar tones aren't anywhere near Luke's trademark direct-input distortion, and they could be and still work with the song, and the drum sounds are totally different, too.
Matter of fact, the expectation that the track would sound Haines-y has kind of ruined it for me so far. It's got none of the cleanness or the invention of a BBR track, and it seems to run out of ideas about 2 minutes in. Haines does some fabulous covers--Black Box Recorder's version of "Seasons in the Sun" is just majestic and wonderful--but this doesn't sound like his handiwork at all. Goldfrapp? Possibly, but I tend to give them a bit more credit, too...
posted by Mike B. at 10:38 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Tuesday, January 13, 2004
A little teaser, in case my brain does not cohere enough to merit further posting today:
Sometime around Thursday this week--maybe Wednesday, maybe Friday, depending on when I get a chance to mix and, uh, "profreed" (I'm sure there's a more proper musical term for that)--I'm going to have a little MP3 for y'all. I think you'll like it, and it's sort of a demonstration of some stuff I've been yammering about. Or, wanky bullshit. I guess we'll see.
posted by Mike B. at 5:10 PM 0 comments Links to this post
I like a lot of things about this article about the Scissor Sisters--the mention of "I Can't Go For That," singing "Hey Ya" around a campfire, although the Destiny's Child thing is just plain old not true (if you don't think that, say, "Say My Name" is unmelodic, you have a weird conception of music)--but I think the thing I like most is their use of "post-electroclash." It was pretty usual at the time (i.e. 2002) to rip on electroclash as something trendy and empty and mindlessly retro and worthless. And sure, some of it was. But there were those who saw it not for what it was at the time, but for what it could be--as not a final, finished product, but as a Great Awakening of sorts, an infusion of fresh blood and ideas into pop. It was a big open invite reading: hey, you can do whatever you want here. You don't have to be limited to guitars or rock or singer-songwriting or whatever's honorable. Look at pop history, and realize that the technology used to make any and all of those sounds is now available for pennies on the dollar, or for free in the form of computer emulators. Go listen to what you like and try and learn something from it--learn how to make it and meld it with other stuff and write your own songs and produce them however sounds best. Electroclash was limiting, sure, and a bit too easy, but I always was and continue to be interested in hearing where people take it. So far, with bands like LCD Soundsystem, the Scissor Sisters, and the continuing sophistication of still-electro acts like Vitalic, Komtrahn, and Legowelt, it's been pretty rewarding. Watch the skies.
I also like this neat little bit of music criticism:
Is "gayness" important to what the Scissor Sisters do? Shears is quick to respond. "Is straightness important to Bruce Springsteen?" Yes, because his music is almost oppressively heterosexual. Matronic finds this hysterical. "I don't think Springsteen is that calculated."
Of course, the "oppressively heterosexual" thing is bullshit, but it's endearing that he said it, and it's even more endearing that Ana saw fit to shoot him down. That's a good sign for a band, when members are willing to argue each other out of their stylistic fixations.
Then there's this:
"As the Darkness have done with 1970s and 1980s pomp metal, the Scissor Sisters have rescued commercial 1970s and 1980s middle-of-the-road music from the dustbin of kitsch history."
Well, there's important distinctions there. I do like the Darkness, a good bit, but they could never pull off sincerity, which is a pity, since that sincerity produced some of pomp metal's best artifacts. The fact that they don't take themselves seriously in the slightest while still being quite devoted to that style of music makes them lovable--is, indeed, their whole reason for existing--but it's also a limitation inherent to the genre. The Scissor Sisters, on the other hand, clearly have an unironic love for a lot of the styles they inhibit. You really need to look no further than "Mary," a totally straight up Elton John/Billy Joel piano ballad with an unapologetic chorus effect on the guitar during the breaks that you just can't pull off without actually having a great affection for "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant" and "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" and, what's more, be totally unembarassed about singing those songs on a large stage in front of lots of people. It's just too sincere a song to do otherwise. This doesn't make the Scissor Sisters better than the Darkness, necessarily, but it is qualitatively different. From that acoustic guitar comment you can tell that they're concerned with longevity--indeed, they write so many friggin' songs (their forthcoming album has songs on it that weren't on their first version of the album, and at their show on Saturday they played two or three even newer songs, bringing them to a rough total of 30 releasable songs in a year and a half) that they'd have to be--and this particular technique is a good one in pursuit of that goal. I really like 'em, and really like the songs, and look forward to seeing where they go with it. (DFA remix! DFA remix! Or at least Metro Area!)
If you haven't already, check out Matthew's post on that show. It really was a blast. The band rocks pretty hard live, and it's just generally a lot of fun. Yeah, I'm a fan now.
posted by Mike B. at 3:48 PM 0 comments Links to this post
I had lots of reasons to suspect I wouldn't like them, but in fact, I really like the two songs on The Amber Smith's website, and am tempted to say I like the band in toto. They were described as very Teenage Fanclub-y, and that's pretty accurate. The first song ("Yeah Yeah Yeah"--I know, I know) is, in fact, a bit too Teenage Fanclub to be fully appreciated, but the second song, "You Don't Have to Stay (Go)" is really nice. Give it a listen. Great backup vocals in the chorus, weirdly wonderful badly double-tracked guitar solo, etc.
posted by Mike B. at 3:10 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Monday, January 12, 2004
A song just came on WinAmp and I thought, "Wow, this sounds like one of those shitty nights back at the coffeehouse in college." And then I looked, and saw it was a Jason Molina song Tangmonkey posted. Which is significant because both Jason and I went to college at a little place called Oberlin. Weird.
Boy, I hate that guy. And I've hated him since before I found out he was an Obie and/or a PF favorite, by the by. But it's presumably clear at this point that the slow, sad male-singer-with-a-guitar genre is not my thing. And I'll be the first to admit that this is a particular irrational hatred...
Josh Ritter--another Obie, who I actually saw perform a few times as an undergrad--doesn't really anger me in that way, but it does occasionally weird me out to see the places he pop up nowadays (Greil Marcus' Real Life Top 10, a Starbucks CD, etc.).
posted by Mike B. at 6:09 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Rachel Stevens' "Sweet Dreams My L.A. Ex" is possibly the first pop song to ever be notable for who doesn't sing it.
As you might already know, it was originally pitched to--and, by the sound of it, written for--Britney Spears, and a quick listen will reveal why: addressed to an unnamed Los Angeles-residing ex-boyfriend who has been telling public tales about the end of their relationship, it chides him for being rude, assures us that he's wholly mistaken, and suggests that there are a few stories she could tell about him if he persists with this nonsense. The perfect response song, in other words, to Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River" ("All of these things people told me/Keep messing with my head/You should've picked honesty/Then you may not have blown it."), which was widely interpreted as a kiss-off to Britney after their failed relationship, her dalliance with Herr Durst, and all that tabloid jazz. And as such, it works amazingly well. It's a perfect repudiation of the idea that a pop star's songs aren't personal if they don't like the lyrics, because it totally makes sense for Britney, and sounds exactly like something she's say. And why not? The whole point of being a pop star is that you're a public figure, a character on a stage, and as such, other people can write for that character if they have a good grasp of the situation and the terms, which the writers of "Sweet Dreams My LA Ex" certainly do with Britney.
The only problem is that she and/or her "people" rejected it. And so instead of going to Britney, it goes to Rachel Stevens, a British popstar who I certainly hadn't heard of previous to this. Which makes it a pretty different song.
The thing about that is that our enjoyment of pop music is at least 25% contextual, whether it's the context of your social situation (your friends like it and you all listen to it together and quote the lyrics), the context of other music (references to songs you like/know, whether musically or lyrically), or the context of the singer's character and plot position in the public eye of pop narrative. A song that appeals to this last contextual category is the one most likely to gain a widespread audience if its main selling point is its contextual resonance, and there are any number of songs that have done this very well--about three-quarters of Eminem's singles, "Sweet Home Alabama," etc. And "Sweet Dreams My LA Ex" definitely shoots for that category, and does indeed at least partially hit the target. But while it is pretty pleasurable feeling the frisson of hearing a great Britney song covered by someone else without an actual original Britney song to corrupt our expectations, and while the Justin brush-off is more or less as convincing as it would have been in the hands of its intended speaker, the simple fact is that it would have been much more effective, especially in the U.S., if Britney had, in fact, sang it; there would have been much more of a media reaction, much more popular awareness, and that in turn would have created a collective listening context roughly equivalent to listening in on a warring couple's answering machine tapes. Of course, Rachel Stevens is a much more restrained, and arguably more talented, singer than Britney, and I think the song might hold up in the long term a lot better than it would if Britney had delivered it. But that doesn't change the fact that Britney's absence, while giving the song a greater value than it would have had if it had nothing whatsoever to do with her in the first place, nevertheless robs it of its full potential as a pop social artifact.
That said, it's a fantastic song. I love the guitars at the beginning that are actually very simple rhythmically--two dotted eighth-note hits per chord with the second swinging a good bit, one chord every two beats, four-bar loop--sounds so much different once the drums kick in, even though the drums aren't very difficult either--kick on the 1, 3, and pickup sixteenth to 4, snare on the 2 and 4, and that odd clattering on top mostly incidental. The fucker certainly grooves with not much. The nylon-string guitar and syncopated rhythm suggest a Latin feel, although I wouldn't really call it that blatant, since the melody isn't even vaguely Latin. Then, of course, there's the great squeaky octave synth part over the chorus, the hits that dominate the beginning of the bridge, and the fact that it's basically the same chordal loop through the whole song, with harmony to signal the chorus and a sweeter wash over the prechorus, with a great little underturn at the end of that phrase to lead into the chorus.
But the real grabber here--melody aside, which is very catchy--is that weird, non-intuitive chord progression, and the way it's carried out. The first and second bars are pretty clear, with a minor chord repeated twice shifting up a fourth to another minor chord repeated twice, but that third bar, for no good reason, seems like a trip-up that's been looped and made sense of by the melody: it carries over the second bar's chord, but then switches to a chord a half-step above the modal chord before falling back into that original minor chord. That half-step fall into the fourth measure is Latin, too, but it's also sort of illogical in its rhythm, like a sequencer that's been programmed to do a certain chord progression but is stuck in a very straight, constant, dotted eighth-dotted eighth-three eighths pattern that doesn't actually sound like you want it to sound but works nevertheless. Every time I listen to it, it doesn't do what I expect it to do, and that's a neat little trick.
posted by Mike B. at 3:28 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Friday, January 09, 2004
Sasha's right: this guy certainly did have a different year from me. (But then again, so did Sasha.) Reading this guy is like trying to talk to someone about 30 years older than you who has attained some knowledge of popular culture and a large amount of intelligence and so spins it on out. It's so cute! If I was related to him, here are the questions I would ask:
1) Do you really think "rap" is what you call stuff that's negative/ugly/violent and "hip-hop" is what you call stuff that has a "positive social aura"? Do you mean gangsta rap and hip-hop? Will the National Review not let you use the word "gangsta?" (It's especially cute because clearly someone told him that there's a difference between rap and hip-hop, but he doesn't actually know what it is!)
2) "Frat rock" is "punk music's more sanguine and engaging stepchild?" Do you mean pop-punk? Isn't frat rock either the Rascals or, I dunno, Dave Matthews and Barenaked Ladies? Do you think these bands are punk bands?
3) If you think the Dixie Chicks' new album is warmed-over pop, do you think bluegrass is warmed-over pop? (That damned "Landslide" cover aside, obviously.) Is it possible your opinion in this regard is a wee bit influenced by the Chicks' political stance? Did you just see their Lipton commercial and extrapolate from there? Am I totally wrong about it being a Lipton commercial and it, in fact, a Pepsi commercial?
4) Music was once a friend of sobriety? Whose? Should I break out the David Markson and list all the alcoholic composers?
5) You can use "bourgeoisie" but not "gangsta"?
6) Swedish "death-metal"?
7) Since you're astute enough to link FoW and the Barenaked ladies, do you want me to lead you a little further down the indie-pop path?
And then I see Spock's Beard and remember: oh yeah! That the guy who wrote that really hilarious and sort of convincing prog article that I read a while back. If you haven't read that yet, it's worth a look, especially post-Simon's prog-dump. Written by a true believer who's clearly very smart but not very conversant with the terms of rock crit, it's an interesting alternative to the way we all try to sell each other our favorite bands. This is genuinely why he likes it, even if you don't. (Which I don't.)
posted by Mike B. at 2:37 PM 0 comments Links to this post
High-larious e-mail of the day, in response to a question about the onstage times for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs / Black Dice / Liars show at the Hammerstein Ballroom:
From: "Jeff W."
Yeah, crazy, right? It's like it's a business or industry and people are trying to support themselves or something! Which I'm certainly doing by playing "fan-friendly" $5 club shows all the time. I definitely don't want to pay a large place for lots of people and get paid well for it! And Wal-Mart sucks ass!
Oh wait, that's not true. Boy, I'm confused. This is an example of people literally supporting Wal-Mart by going to a concert in NYC, where there are no Wal-Marts, promoted by a company that isn't owned by Wal-Mart? (Oh wait...Wal-Mart and ClearChannel co-promoted a show in Wichita in 2002! Wheels within wheels!) And it's literally at our expense? How about those of us who aren't going to the show?
Wasn't I saying something about confusing morality with taste lately? Yes, having to pay this much for a concert by bands you like sucks. Does it represent a moral lapse on anyone's part? Not particularly.
UPDATE: Dan makes a pretty rational response (he's so good at that):
Yeah, it's a lot of money, but generally I'd give the people involved props for having a great sense of community in regards to "scene" and local bands. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs especially have been great at giving their friends exposure to much larger audiences, whether it be Flux and Golem, the Liars back when, or Prosaics and the Tallboys. Similarly, the Rapture choosing Casiotone for the Painfully Alone or White Magic to play Bowery...
posted by Mike B. at 2:10 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Thursday, January 08, 2004
The next video (and single):
After having been spoofed on "Saturday Night Live" and every late-night talk show, "American Idol" will get another comedy licking courtesy of Fountains of Wayne, who mock a televised talent show in their new video for "Mexican Wine."
Dude, that sounds awesome. And I totally disagree about it being a parody; I think Adam and Chris have a big soft spot for everything being referenced therein. The Idol thing is particularly cool, honestly--I think they really would love to see their songs being sung there, because that songwriter tradition (Bacharach, etc.) is what they're firmly within. Too bad Seacrest couldn't do it, though.
And "Mexican Wine" being the next single is real cool. That's my second-favorite track on the album, no question. (This week, anyway.)
posted by Mike B. at 8:28 PM 0 comments Links to this post
I had composed a post on this and then deleted it because I worried that I myself was being, um, punk'd, but since David at NYLPM and Sasha both jumped in, let me point out that as I was listening to the Steely Dan section in question (in which Tom listed a few bands that were objectively bad--I can't remember the other ones offhand) I thought, "Oh, he's baiting music nerds again. I wonder if that will work?" I'm pretty sure it did--but, of course, I could be wrong. Still, there's a whiff of prank in the air.
Of the rest of the bit, I liked the White Stripes point the best.
posted by Mike B. at 4:22 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Because I don't check my referral logs, I didn't know until Hillary pointed out to me that I got a mention in Slate. It's at the bottom of the Summary Judgment year-end roundup, and I got reccomended along with legends-in-their-own-time NYLPM, Woebot, Skykicking, and Spizzazzz, which was very odd--I'm not really used to seeing my name close to theirs.
So that was quite nice. (And I'd been wondering why my hit-count doubled in the last two weeks.) Thanks to Mr. Ben Williams--and hi to all the Slate readers. I'm fairly proud of my response to the Klosterman thing mentioned in the article if you're looking for some archives to go browsin' through.
posted by Mike B. at 11:44 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Wednesday, January 07, 2004
Sometimes when I'm at the office and listening to, say, Poison or Beyonce, someone will walk by and hear it and say something to the effect of, "Hey, I thought you were Mr. Indie."
And I always think: am I?
This weekend I went with Miss Clap to her Indiana hometown (yeah, Thomas, we got another Hoosier in the house--she's kicking it all South Bend-style), and while we were driving around at one point she mentioned that she'd been a punk in high school, but clearly she would have been an indie kid if there were indie kids at her school--which, she said, there definitely would be today, since indie culture is so widespread. She was always a bit too happy to be a full-on punk.
I think this sort of works with me, too, in terms of being "indie." In many ways, I have some fundamental differences with anything you'd think to describe as indie--I don't mind major labels or success or slickness or a whole bunch of other things. And sure, hating indieness is a key characteristic of being indie, but still...I'm too obscurist/noise-friendly to be particularly mainstream, so "pop" is out, more's the pity. I just sort of like everything. So what the hell am I?
But I think "indie" is a reasonably good descriptor because, along with pop, it's one of the few genre names that don't actually have a damn thing to do with the way the music sounds. Sure, it's come to be identified with a certain guitar-reliant, quiet, amateurish, muted vocals, lo-fi sound, but in reality I can like hip-hop (Mr. Lif), metal (Oxes), folk (Iron & Wine), noise (Deerhoof), dance (Legowelt), country (Old 97s), blues (R.L. Burnside), jazz (Sonny Sharrock), classical (Glen Branca), and pop (Fountains of Wayne) and still be correctly said to be "indie." That's all the broad genres I can think of right now, and that's kind of cool, all things told.
Of course, I don't actually stick to this definition; I listen to major-label stuff all the time. But I think as a kind of suggestion of a broad musical palate, it works well enough.
 Do folks think this is true? I was a bit doubtful, but my sense of the larger culture is clouded by being too close to it, I fear.
 I.e. it's not really what I am, but there aren't enough people around like me for there to be a classification awarded to it.
posted by Mike B. at 5:58 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Speaking of which...
This isn't a view I've really seen expressed much in the blogosphere, so I'm just going to spit it out: I really like Evanescence.
Of course, by "I like Evanescence," I mean what 99% of people mean when they say this phrase: I like their two big singles, "Bring Me to Life" and "Going Under." I've tried to listen to the rest of the album, and it's OK, but I haven't really had time to really get into it yet.
But those two songs: holy crap! It's like a depressed Andrew WK! OK, that sounds weird, so let's go with AWK meets the Cure. But anyway: rargh! Those two songs are just these wonderful little overproduced nuggets, hyperpop in a slightly different form than we're used to, but far closer in kin to Basement Jaxx than Limp Bizkit, albeit not quite as good as the best stuff from the Jaxx. But this is an unfair comparison. Let's try this: those two songs are far better pop than almost any other rock record this year. Yeah, it's easy to be put off by the sound; they're not doing the shambling indie thing nor the recognizably retro thing, and they sound wholly like they come from the '00s, albeit with a good bit of 80's and 90's influences (the aforementioned Cure, Nine Inch Nails, maybe some Cult, maybe some Corrosion of Conformity), and I certainly understand how similarity to the really quite putrid and boring rap-metal dynasty can be off-putting. But if anyone's done that sound well, it's Evanescence. For one thing, those two singles contain a mind-boggling number of Matrixy ProTools tricks that serves as hooks (like the stuttering guitars after the first chorus and the stuttering synths before the second chorus in "Bring Me," for instance, or the great mishmash of vocal processings that happens around 2:55 in the bridge), in addition to all the lines that are, you know, actual hooks. It sounds like what would happen if a pop diva went all-out and made an actual hard-rock record: all the signs and sections and structures for a Now-pop song are there, but the drums are real, mostly, and the synths are bass-heavy guitars. And then there are more synths! Yeah!
I guess the other ideological problem is that, well, it's not even remotely happy music. No two ways about it: this is music to make your bad mood feel awesome and smooth, to make you scowl as you walk down the street. But here it's OK. Their AMG bio contains two great explanations for why that is.
First: a whole bunch of Tori Amos comparisons. Now, Tori and Amy Lee seem to my ears to have quite different vocal styles; Amy's got none of the breathiness or melisma-madness that Tori goes for. She's got a hell of a lot of power, but she pretty much goes directly at the notes and words, which is not something we'd really accuse our dear Ms. Amos of doing. Now, I like Tori, a lot; she somehow makes the drama OK in a way a whole lot of other singers and composers don't. She makes it warm, and that's what Amy does on those two tracks. It's downbeat, but it's not really hopeless or angry. You want to save her, and then kiss her, or at least I do. It's like how you walk out of a Tori concert and just want to go run around a field or something. (Not in a hippie way, just, you know, I seem to have a lot of energy.)
The other clue, of course, is in how the male half, Ben Moody, hooked up with Amy. "I heard Amy playing Meat Loaf's 'I'd Do Anything for Love' at the piano. So I went over to meet her, and she started singing for me." OK, first off, why the hell hasn't Tori covered Meat Loaf yet? And secondly: yeah, there it is. Again, Meat Loaf is someone who, at his best, can take the overblown and make it personal and concise enough to be effecting. Evanescence are, after all, sort of a Christian-rock band, although they were musically excommunicated for swearing in interviews. And there's definitely something Biblical about them, something old-school Christian. Besides of course the general ideological differences, the problem a lot of music fans (i.e. young people, i.e. liberals--let's be honest) seem to have with contemporary American Evangelical Christianity, manifested most directly in Christian Rock, is that it's so commercialized, so banal, so boring and normal. I think there's the assumption at the back of music fans' heads that Christianity at its best is beautiful cathedrals or gritty Baptist churches, full of passion and truth--you know, Al Green, Johnny Cash, etc. But there's no magic in modern-day evangelical Christianity, and the sacred seems to be used mainly to influence buying decisions. That's reflected in the music, which seems just creepily lacking in any kind of passion and commitment, certainly much different from the fiery faith that seemed to inform Christian musicians like Bach. But Evanescence--certainly more Bachian than Stoogian in their song construction, meticulous and perfectionist--seem to have that sort of irrational fire in those two songs, which express not really earthly problems but something grand and inflated to the degree that it's clearly not asking you to take it seriously. But it's not particularly funny, either--though it is comic--and that somehow lets you settle back and enjoy the song. I'm no great fan of unspecificity, but here it really does speak in a vocal piece to the kind of nameless torment, great or small, that Bach's instrumentals did. I guess the best way to describe it would be operatic: big, grand, theatrical, and totally unselfconscious. It's not little or personal, but sometimes music doesn't need to be little and personal. Sometimes it's at its best when it's the hugest thing ever.
So what exactly do I like about these songs? Well, I like the melody. The lines Lee plucks out of the one-note chug of the verse of "Going Under" are just mind-boggling. They sound like something I've wanted to hear for a long time, something I've been listening for ever since I heard a hardcore or death metal song and thought, "Those guitars sound fantastic, but could that asshole stop screaming and fucking sing something?" (A perfect, soaring vocal line always seemed far more powerful than even the loudest scream to me.) I love the way Amy seems to be fighting back that fucking dumb-ass rap-rocker and winning, the way putting those vocals next to his make his sound just childish; the fact that she dominates the song, not him, seems like a kind of fuck-you on behalf of every great female singer who's been relegated to the hook of a hip-hop single. And I really do love that mess of processing at the end of the bridge: in headphones, it's like there's already a great conversation going on and then suddenly people are whispering in your ears and you don't quite know what they're saying but you do anyway.
I love the piano intro to "Bring Me" and the way the strings come in for two bars and then the guitars and drums crash in. I love the way the chorus in "Going Under" gets foreshadowed at the midpoint of the first verse processed all Swedish-style. I love the chorus of "Going Under." I love the fact that you can dance to it, and that I can actually visualize the kind of people I see at goth nights dancing to it in the same way that they dance to Sisters of Mercy. I love the way the one-note vocal line leads out of the bridge of "Bring Me" into the chord change of the final chorus. I love the IDM-y snare rolls that come in under the quiet bits of "Going Under."
Yeah, I just like the songs. I like 'em like I like Christiana or Britney or Justin, and that's cool too.
ADDENDUM: Maybe "My Bloody Valentine with the reverb and delay turned off and the vocals mixed higher" is the comparison I was searching for. Writing this entry made me want to listen to Loveless.
posted by Mike B. at 2:17 PM 0 comments Links to this post
"But this is really Brodie Dalle's show; her razor-cut cords are the bastard product of Mike Ness and Exene Cervenka, and from the sound of things, they could possibly go on to rule the world if sufficiently provoked. Anyone who lifted a hand to champion Karen O as some symbol of modern empowerment in rock music, take note, because Dalle is everything Karen isn't: an impassioned, powerful frontwoman, the legitimate heart of her band, and probably the most dominating female presence-at-large (read: receiving M2 rotation) in rock right now."
Uh...how about Amy Lee? She seems a wee bit more ubiquitous than Ms. Dalle. (This is ignoring the random Karen O potshots.)
posted by Mike B. at 12:08 PM 0 comments Links to this post
I'm not going to post my year-end list of anything because it's not very interesting, as Sasha intimates in his Menand response. (About which I would have the brief comment that having more artifacts of culture to examine makes for cultural producers with many more influences, and I certainly like that.) I always enjoy reading Simon's year-end lists because there's so much stuff I haven't heard about; needless to say, this is not the case with mine, so it will remain in the metaphorical lockbox. Maybe I'll link to the ballot when it's up and post the comments I made, but eh, maybe not. Hopefully they'll print the one where I express a desire to knee Ryan Schrieber in the gonads. Nothing like a feud to increase sales.
Incidentally, I was listening to the dance station here in NYC (103.5) yesterday when I heard a remix of "Cry Me a River" that sounded like it would be comfortable on an R&B-heavy oldies station, like it's from the late 70's or early 80's. Some funk guitar, a pretty constant organic beat. Ring any bells? I kind of liked it--it made the structure of the song much more transparent.
I also heard "Yeah" on 91.1, which was weird but nice. Much nicer than driving a moving van from 181st street to 35th street on Broadway, let me tell you.
posted by Mike B. at 11:48 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Ryan Adams leaves a message on Jim DeRogatis' answering machine in response to DeRo's review of Adams' recent Chicago show. An ILM thread discussing the message includes a response from Adams to the message's public posting (about 2/3 down the page currently).
I'm no particular Adams fan, but I sort of respect the crowd-baiting he displays in DeRogatis' review (to say nothing of the gleeful Replacements-bashing at the Minneapolis show), and I very much like "Buy me a video camera so I can make a movie called 'I Am Trying to Bore You to Death.'" Matter of fact, and maybe it's the late hour, but it sort of makes me think back to that "Summer of '69" thing and kind of respect it. Yeah, when some unoriginal dumbass heckler is annoying everyone, call him on his shit. Maybe it'll make other people think twice about doing it next time.
Or even better--and are you listening here, people?--maybe it'll encourage people to show up to Ryan Adams shows and interact with him as equals, as co-participants in this weird living theater psychodrama he's going for, and really talk back, really grab the mic and destroy that artist shit. It's theater, and that's kind of cool.
Plus, it's hard for me to argue with some of the points raised in that answering machine message. I mean, yeah, someone who's riding Jeff Tweedy's jock probably has basic critical problems beyond "contrived" stage antics. Adams is right--if DeRogatis is admitting in his own review that the fans really liked what Adams is doing, and the only real objection you can have to Adams' onstage antics is that they're disrespectful to fans, where exactly is the problem?
Pity I can't stand his music.
Oh yes, and I'm still oddly allergic to ILM, but "If Ryan Adams ever got mad about anything I'd written about him I'd just ask if he wanted to start a band with me." is pretty funny.
UPDATE: Fluxblog today has an MP3 version of the phonecall for those of you that aren't RealPlayer fans. Matthew titles said file "Ryan Adams Whining Into Jim DeRogatis' Answering Machine," which is a fair cop. I still think that both Jim and Ryan are getting fucked with / are fucking with here, though. Nothing like a feud to increase sales.
posted by Mike B. at 1:18 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Monday, January 05, 2004
Addendum to the below.
The shorter version: music criticism that ignores the music is just literary criticism, and literary criticism of pop lyrics is just no good. Trust me on this one, kids. Sure, some pull it off well (I'm a big fan of Meltzer's stuff, which is basically really good literary criticism) but you can't have a whole profession-slash-genre based on that. Rock crit as we know it wouldn't even be possible without the development of semiotics and cultural criticism, which has allowed us to talk about the context and "message" of a song instead of its actual content. And this is OK--it's produced some awesome stuff--but people have been analyzing music for thousands of years without the benefit of cultural analysis, and so it's weird now that people are analyzing music without the benefit of musical analysis, you know? There seemed to be some effort at doing so when people first started taking pop seriously, like with that famous Beatles review talking about the modalities of their vocal harmonies, but that was quickly subsumed to the more vital, and more rockin', criticism of Bangs-Christgau-Marcus.
The main reason for this, aside from most critics not being musicians (if you're a musician you sort of learn it by feel and can at least describe it from that perspective), is that we lack the terms. It's perfectly acceptable for a rock critic to throw in a term like "funky keyboard riff" but no student of classical music would think of saying "that Bachy ending," since there's a term for that. ("Cadence," I think.) And it really is perfectly acceptable to say "funky keyboard riff" since I mostly know what that means. But it could be far more specific. We could, for instance, get inside said riff, look at the structure of it, and compare it to other funky keyboard riffs--or non-funky keyboard riffs, or funky bass riffs, or whatever. I understand the difficulty of that, since so much of classical musical analysis relies on notation and there's almost no notation for pop. Plus, there's not only the notes and the rhythms, but the swing of the rhythms, the performance of it. And, of course, the prevalence of the beat. Instead of the tempo changes you see in classical, directed by a conductor or ensemble, we have a constant tempo with lots of little variations inside that, and, again, current terms of musical analysis are unequipped to deal with that. But that doesn't change the fact that there's a lot more we can do with the framework we're given, and without asking the music to change into something else.
On the other hand, you look at something like wine criticism (which, yes, has a name, but which, no, I can't remember--some variant on "sommelier," yes?) which is routinely mocked for having a jargon specific to that discipline with things like "nose" and "body" being thrown around willy-nilly. But at the same time it makes a lot of sense. We do have very few descriptive terms for smell in our language, and only a very few more for sound. That's why we need to invent them. That's why professions develop a jargon: so members of that profession can make themselves very specifically understood.
Still, I recognize that it's precisely this lack of a jargon, and this focus on cultural rather than musical analysis, that makes music criticism, along with movie crit, somewhat widely read. People seem to be able to grasp most things rock critics throw at them just with the information they have available to them as cultural consumers. Of course, this is precisely because they use terms like "funky keyboard riff," since we've all heard a funky keyboard riff before, or "Beatlesesque songwriting," because, well, you know. In other words, the musical analysis in pop criticism currently is at the level of a game of soundslike, but this does allow people to grasp what's being said a lot easier. And it would certainly be a shame to lose that.
That said, I do think developing a true pop music vocabulary is both possible and desirable. Because--and this is important--we can do it without losing that other strain of criticism. Ideally, the analysis would exist only to feed that criticism, to make it stronger and more interesting and productive. I'd be bored to tears by criticism that simply examined the subtle modal shifts in Carlos Santana's solos. But I would be interested in criticism that could point out just how a song was similar to its predecessors, how it chose to be different, and what that difference means.
Anyway, that's a project that won't be possible for a while, but it's certainly something I've been thinking about.
posted by Mike B. at 8:00 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Man, there's nothing better than a music critic missing the actual music criticism in an actual piece of music:
Is James Murphy the best music critic working these days? Via his LCD Soundsystem project, he hit the target square on with the 2002 single "Losing My Edge"/"Beat Connection", the A-side sending up the name-droppers and file-compilers while the B-side righteously lambasted the indie scene as "the saddest night out in the USA." But these tough-love tracks didn't declare a dead end for indie, instead offering a way out, infusing the snark with electro beats and announcing the arrival of (no, we don't have a better name yet) discopunk.
It makes it dancing, you jackass.
Look, you can't come in at the end of an essay about a song and say that the song makes a particular point without using lyrics when the only evidence you've used to elucidate said point is quotes from the song's lyrics. The lyrics themselves are easily inconsequential--someone in the blogosphere said that it's the first LCD Soundsystem track they could love without understanding a word of the lyrics, and while I'd disagree with that ("Tribulations" is much better without the lyrics to my ears), it's safe to say that the words themselves are far less vital to the song, both in terms of meaning and enjoyment. You can interpret them as a criticism of the scene Murphy's work has spawned, and while, yes, that's clearly one meaning he intends to suggest, it's hardly the narrative being told (the "master narrative" if we're gonna get nerdalicious), because it's far too specific a tale for what the song is doing. The main narrative is specifically pop (the one Rob's suggesting is more, I dunno, hip-hop) because the words and feelings are universal enough, or vague enough, to appeal to almost any consumer of pop music, the trick that I'm told is the key to any successful pop song. The lyrics could be just as easily interpreted as a complaint by a corporate middle manager about his slacking underlings, or a complaint by a bandleader about his own band members, or a depressive monologue about the hopelessness of trying to achieve anything of consequence in an essentially meaningless world. It's all of these things and none of these things because it lacks a framing device or overriding narrative thread (or even a common theme aside from "things aren't as good as they could be") and lacks a character aside from what you can gleam from the speaker's vocabulary. I hear a stray "I" here and there, but it's certainly lacking the strong first-person perspective of "Losing My Edge," and there's no reason to assume that Murphy is the speaker, an assumption that would certainly eliminate some of the possible plots but an assumption we really can't make based on the available evidence. Nor is there the specific physical setting of a song like "Beat Connection," which is clearly narrated by someone at a party, whereas "Yeah" is just a series of free-floating assertions without any particular perspective. Which is OK, but certainly not what Rob's suggesting.
More importantly than the lyrics, though: yes, the main point is being made non-lyrically, but there's nothing really done here to explain how exactly that's coming to pass aside from a half-hearted, unspecific riff on the idea that a long, gradually mutating track represents an affinity with jambands, a theory which suggests that Rob's never heard a 12" remix before. (Or a jamband, for that matter.) There are certainly very interesting things this track is saying musically, but regrettably I'm going to have to leave most of my take on that for another post, which I've been planning on doing for a while now.
The big problem, though, is that Rob gets the point wrong, a fact which is amply illustrated by that dumb final question. What's dancing to music criticism? It's just like any other dancing, and as a matter of fact almost all dancing constitutes dancing to music criticism, because almost all music is music criticism in one way or another. The idea that musicians are unaware of their art is a fantasy critics maintain to preserve their self-worth, but there are numerous songwriters and producers whose compositions place them in the upper echelons of critics if we were to regard them that way, and almost every songwriter is commenting on music at least at the level of a college newspaper's music reviewer. The reason Rob doesn't seem to be able to articulate exactly how the music constitutes criticism is that I think he's stuck, maybe only momentarily, in the idea of criticism as something critical, something that takes a yes-or-no stance on a piece of art, rather than something that extends or comments non-judgmentally on ideas proposed in other pieces of art. That consumer guide function is only a small part of what makes up criticism. It's an important part, certainly, and the most visible one, but it's one undertaken deliberately from the perspective of an outsider for other outsiders, the words of someone who can't change what he's receiving and so has to decide whether or not the unchangeable finished product is worth consuming. But this is about as far away from Murphy as you can get: not only can he change his own music based on his critical opinions and observations, but he can remix other people's music and actually effect the changes a critic might want to make on a track. He's as far from an outsider observer as you can get. So yes, "Yeah" says, as pretty much every LCD Soundsystem track has said, that people shouldn't be so afraid of combining rock and electronic, of making electronic music live and placing rock into the whole variety of available electronic song forms. But it also says that there were a lot of similarities between acid house and mutant disco. It says that the detuning of synths that, in part, makes trance tracks sound so driving and energetic can also sound great in a more lo-fi context. It says that handclaps sound great recorded in a freight elevator.
What it doesn't say is what Rob's implying: that "nobody's getting it done" except James Murphy. Instead, "Yeah" says that nobody's getting it done, up to and including Mr. Murphy, because music is never done, never finished, and it's that continual comment and incorporation and melding and reinvention and rediscovery that fuels music and makes it so damn enjoyable. If music will never be perfect, it shouldn't be, and if there's a message in that five-minute ecstatic build-and-release, it's that the process of seeking the perfect beat is what leads us to all those wonderful imperfect ones. I mean, there's two version of the damn song! How inauthoritative can you be? How can this be "getting it done" if even LCD Soundsystem themselves offer two separate attempts at it?
All I'm saying is that critics seem a little over-reliant on lyrical analysis and oppositional stances to explore music. But there are many other ways to look at a song and think about a song and hear a song. For one thing, there's the music. Maybe we could start there.
 I realized last week that the title of any LCD Soundsytem song is precisely the word or phrase used the most in said song, unless I'm misremembering one track or another.
 As my dad likes to quote, "This trick I don't know."
posted by Mike B. at 6:42 PM 0 comments Links to this post