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Tuesday, May 11, 2004
I had forgotten something until this morning, and that something was that I used to hold up Built to Spill's "Carry the Zero" as a model for songwriting--or, at least, the last minute-and-a-half thereof. Piping it straight into the ol' cortex during the train ride this morning, I remembered, and the simple fact that I hadn't thought of this for a year and a half didn't matter. It was still true.

The song itself carries fairly specific memories. I came to Keep It Like a Secret somewhat late, I think, but this was back in the days when I came to most music somewhat late. And it took a while to really grab me--sure, I liked "You Were Wrong" same as everyone else, but the rest of the songs were hard to differentiate for some reason. But then--and I'm still a little unclear on the sequence--I just got absolutely obsessed with "Carry the Zero." And so I have this particular image of crossing the park and the main quad at college, walking to the library and listening to the song. I have almost exactly the same image for Radiohead's "Just" and "My Iron Lung"--same place, same situation, same feeling. Those songs, so focused on guitars, grabbed me and shook me and I heard them as, I think, they were meant to be heard, or at least as I imagine they must have sounded the first few times the respective bands played them in rehearsal. (My experience has been that a song you're playing rarely sounds better than the third or fourth time you play it, when you first nail it. Everything after that is just a shadow, because the revelation is in the parts actually coming together in a mellifluous, or rockin', way.) It was hearing the guitars, and specifically the guitars, although drums helped to, come together in this way that almost made me feel like I was doing, like they were doing exactly what I wanted to. Evidence of my particular obsession with CT0 would be on the CD itself, which to this day skips in the same exact two places after the second chorus, every time I play it. Although I suppose it helps that I've had the same discman for 5 years now. (Go Philips!)

The track starts out about as simply as rock song can: a chord progression on the guitar with a few little fills to liven things up (sus4s, slides up to the 2nd/6th, etc.) followed closely by the bass, and a leadline, primarily on slide guitar. The lead backs off for the verse and comes back up at the end, leading into a solo before the next section. The chord progression is incredibly easy. I can't quite suss it out without my guitar handy, but I know it's probably a fourth falling into the tonic, then probably a V7 into a minor second. Sure, it's nice when a rock progression doesn't start on the I, but it's hardly innovative, and, theory aside, it's just not very distinctive. There are chord progressions you can hum (think of Smells Like Teen Spirit, although I suppose this is somewhat cheating) and this isn't one of them. What's primarily interesting about the chords is the sound of the rhythm guitar, showcased a capella at the start of the track. It's roughly the same rhythm guitar sound on the rest of the album (is this Martsch's guitar, or Netson's? I'm not entirely familiar with their lineup dances), and it's a really great sound to build a song around--trebly but full, especially when strummed hard, as it almost always is, like an acoustic. To me, it's always been the sound of a Strat or a hollowbody with really, really fresh strings and the tone about 1/3 down, so that snap comes more from the glint on the metal than the dictates of the pickups, run without any pedals into a tube amp (maybe a Marshall, but more likely a Vox AC30 or a Fender Super 6) with the gain/pre-amp up a little shy of half and the treble a notch above the bass. It's a lovely little sound. There's not too much distortion, so individual strings get a chance to shine, but there's also enough crunch to really emphasize the bass strings.

The lead guitar is, as noted, primarily slide, and not that distinctive through the first half of the song. It's fine, of course, and some of the backwards feedback looping under the verses is nice, but primarily it serves as a sort of alternate melody to the vocal line which is just about as interesting as the vocal line, which is to say not very. It drives the progression through what inexplicably feels like 3 separate sections after the first verse vocals end at 1:12, even though the only real difference is the rhythm guitar dropping out at first, then switching to a repetitive lead bit instead of the chords after the first two repetitions of the progression, which then broadens into another slidey part after the fourth repetition. The main thing you can say about it is that it really does progress in the way you sort of wish the vocals would in these early verses, driving to some point at the end of sections and then loping up to a new center for the next repetition. It's interesting that although it really is the same progression throughout, there are constant feelings of transitions, and the best explanation I can come up with for this, aside from the little guitar bits that get added each time (which of course help but don't seem sufficient for the degree of breakitude I'm feeling here), is that because it doesn't start on the I, and because that minor second really wants to resolve to the I, the different interval tricks you into thinking it's gone into a minor-key prechorus or something when it hasn't.

The rhythm guitar comes crashing back in with its by-now familiar chordal tone with the second verse vocals around 2:15. But what was holding down the chords during the interverse solo? Backtracking, it becomes clear that it was, in fact, an acoustic, and this acoustic has probably been there all along, doubling the electric's chordal rhythm. It feels more prominent in the mix during the second verse, although it could just be that I'm noticing it more, and it's precisely this acoustic guitar that leads us into the second half of the song. What's significant about it isn't the chords or the tone or anything besides the simple fact that it's closely following the snare drum, or vice versa. This is very nice because an acoustic snare drum[1] and an acoustic guitar share a pretty similar sonic space, a mix of woodiness and gritty metal, midrange but with a high-end pop. They're not like the electric guitar, which often gets distorted and compressed into a strict midrange, and in a busy mix like this, the main thing that stands out for those two instruments is that initial pop of the snares against the bottom head on the drum (rather than the impact of the stick onto the top head), and the sharp impact of the pick against the strings. When there's more than, say, one electric guitar in a mix, or when something's closely following an acoustic, all you mainly get is a vague sense of the chords and a strong sense of the strumming rhythm. And here, they're panned opposite, I think, and they're almost precisely following each other. I can't tell which is leading, but regardless, there's a strong relationship between the beat and the strum. This is important; remember it for a second.

But let's quickly map out what leads us from the second verse into the coda. There are 2 repetitions with the vocal line the same as it was in the first verse. Then in the 3rd rep, Martsch changes it slightly, going up higher, and then the end of the 4th rep, which starts like a normal first-verse line, rises up at the end, and there's a transition (at around 2:55--and this is, in my mind, where the second half of the song actually starts, although we have another minute to go before the actual coda) that, like in the solo, is no transition at all, since the chords remain the same, and the only thing that changes is the vocal "lead line" and the rhythm electric switching to a riff, which of course again exposes that acoustic guitar strum. Martsch's vocals hover close to the top of his range, and for two reps sing a repeated four-note figure (eighth-quarter-quarter-eighth-rest, or -leadintonextnote) that I'm pretty sure is either D-B-A-B or G-E-D-E, assuming that the song's in E, which I am, judging by the voicing I'm hearing on the chords. More importantly, however, it's doing just what the lead guitar was doing during the first solo, coming to peaks and then rising up at the beginning of the next cycle, creating a feeling of movement rather than simple addition. The four-note motif is then followed, for two reps, by a more elongated line that moves more slowly through, I think, basically the same four notes. After finishing this, something important happens here at 3:34: there's a new chord progression. (Not a very interesting one, mind you, but a good one.) Now, this is interesting, because it's not actually a clear break--that'll come a few bars later. It's actually presaging that without being overstated about it, or undercutting the impact of that break, by going along with the vocal line, and by not adding any elements. The chords switch to IV-IV-I-I and the vocal line largely shadows that, singing eighths for the IVs and then drawing out a tonic over the Is. It does four reps of this, and then, right at 4:00, we begin...the coda.

Thinking on it, it seems likely that this song got replaced as a model for me because what I really liked about it--the monumental instrumental coda, or MIC--was done in a different, and perhaps more immediate, way on at least half the songs on the first New Pornographers album. There, some of the best songs basically follow the model of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-coda, where the coda is a building, repeated motif overlaid with a buncha riffs and a whole buncha vocals, sometimes in rondo or counterpoint form. Off the top of my head, I know that "Mass Romantic" and "Execution Day" do this, and there are a bunch more. What was appealing about this model, of course, was a) the rest of the song was just as good, if not better, than the coda, which is way far from the case with CT0, and b) there are lotsa great vocals. Indeed, I'm not sure if I'd be able to recapture the BTS coda model anymore; my codas tend, now, to be more choral exercises, and the rapturous instrumental workouts usually get their own songs, or bridges. But it's worth returning to, I think.

And so right at the beginning of the coda, we have one of the sounds that makes this coda so mind-meltingly perfect: the rhythm electric, doubled I think by another, slightly more overdriven, electric, as well as the acoustic, playing an open E chord. Just an open E chord. But oh, the way they play it! It goes basically like this: two eighths that are big wanging downstrokes on the bottom[2] two strings, followed immediately by a dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythm that does a full strum downstroke followed by an upstroke catching mainly the top three strings on its way back to the downstroke. And it's just fantastic. Those two wanging downstrokes are great, of course, especially into the full strum, but the fact is that it's the dotted eighth-sixteenth figure, with the sixteenth serving as kind of a pickup, that make it really great: if it were just straight, punky eighth notes, it'd be too steady (see: most Strokes songs, where I like this rhythm, but it wouldn't work in BTS), and so that dotted eighth leaves us hanging up in the air for a split second before catching us and quickly tossing us skyward once more. I'd visualize it as kind of something that's tossed, then grabbed just as it's beginning its descent but before it's reached its actual low point, then speeded to that point by the sixteenth and quickly spun back up as it goes into the downstroke. Important, too, is the fact that it's not too overdriven, so it doesn't just ring through at a constant pitch during those full strums; there's still enough definition for you to really hear the way Martsch is wanging on those low notes. And they drop out of the chord progression for two bars to just dwell on this E-major, and it's great.

But ultimately, while it's worth singling this guitar bit out, as well as a few others I'll get to later, what's less important than the individual lines is the way they all lock in so rocktastically with the drums. It takes a few reps to fully lock in, since the rhythm guitars are still doing the voicings for the A-E switch they'd been doing during the final round of vocals. Which is OK, because the drums foreshadow it a little bit, and there's an absolutely wonderful swooping leadline that ducks under the chords, repeats, and the lets an E wail for a while. Indeed, it's the prevalence of those Es, the way not only the rhythm but everything wangs on it that makes the coda such a force of friggin' nature. But they're holding back here, somewhat, restraining themselves from dropping in the perfect bits of the arrangement that will make it really crazy-go-nuts.

And then, at 4:39, with (sniff!) slightly more than a minute left to go in the song, the leadline rises to the octave instead of falling to the tonic, and we're there.

Again, here it's less the notes, which are pretty basic, than the rhythm, and that rhythm just wouldn't work without the drums. What happens is that the guitars keep the same chords, but change the voicings from a sort of indistinct A to a solid E to an actual riff: for the A, they switch between A and F#, and then for the E, they do the basic power chord between E and B with the same rhythm above. But for the A-F#, they're playing a very similar, but beautifully different, rhythm than with the E. There's a lot of echoes, a few eighth-eighths and dotted eighth-sixteenths, but the way it's mixed up works amazingly well, with the sixteenth sometimes coming before the 3 rather than at the end of the 2 and then letting the end of the bar, rather than the middle, hang in the air, and sometimes there's a strong eighths wang in an unexpected place. It's only two bars long, but there's a lot there, and best of all, it heightens to a sixteenth-note frenzy for the last two beats to drive the whole thing into that awesome E-maj rhythm. In a way, it almost feels disco, with its higher interval than the fourths and fifths you'd usually find in this riff edging it up to the disco-identified octave eights that drive so many 70s/00s dance classix. (80s dance classix are driven by fifths, and 90s by seconds.) But it's not an octave: it's reaching for it, but not quite hitting it, and in that way being a lot more dissonant and rock than dancey, at least for a central riff. In other words, it's a kind of inversion of the groove: instead of having the drums and bass locked in, here the drums and guitar are, with the bass merely following, and that makes you want to bang your head more than shake your ass.

But that groove is fucking amazing. The drums match the riff in an almost melodic way, with the snare hitting the F#s in the A progression and then the crash mirroring the Bs on the E progression. But it's slightly different, too, with kick-kick-crash-crash for the Es being straighter eighths and, thus, more a propellant than a catcher, keeping things going while the guitar has fallen a bit. Particularly great is the way there's a simultaneous snare and crash hit on the offbeat on the 3 and 4 of the last bar of the A progression, really throwing it all down into the E, and introducing the crash into the beat in a way that it feels loud instead of jarring in the E. And then at the end of the E, there's often a little clearing fill. Really, it's the way it emphasizes the high notes, combined with the way it really beats the hell out of the crash. Everything is loud, here, but more importantly it's all in sync, all perfectly aligned, presaging and in some ways beating Andrew WK's "sound-as-machine" idea. The machine here is slightly out of control, but everything feels perfectly placed, and almost literally combustible, like if this was actually a machine this sound would be the sound of it burning fuel and moving fast.

It's a great song.

[1] Yes, as opposed to an electric one; way big sonic difference between an 808's tschs and an actual live snare.
[2] I seem to confuse other guitarists with this classification, so to clarify: as you're looking at the guitar hanging from someone's neck, what are actually the most vertically high strings I am referring to as the "bottom" strings, because they are lowest in pitch, and vice versa. So from bottom to top, the strings would go E-A-D-G-B-E. Claro?