clap clap blog: we have moved
Friday, July 30, 2004
Here's my ballot for the best of the last five years, if you're interested:
My favourite albums (in order of pref.):
01. 45pts The Fiery Furnaces - Gallowsbird Bark
02. 40pts Andrew WK - I Get Wet
03. 36pts The New Pornographers - Electric Version
04. 32pts Lightning Bolt - Wonderful Rainbow
05. 28pts The Scissor Sisters - Scissor Sisters
06. 24pts PJ Harvey - Stories From The City Stories From The Sea
07. 20pts The Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Fever To Tell
08. 16pts The Rapture - Echoes
09. 13pts The Streets - A Grand Don't Come For Free
10. 10pts Kanye West - College Dropout
11. 7pts Mclusky - Mclusky Do Dallas
12. 5pts Sufjan Stevens - Greetings From Michigan
13. 3pts Max Tundra - Mastered By Guy At Exchange
14. 2pts Interpol - Turn On The Bright Lights
15. 1pt Eminem - The Marshall Mathers LP
My favourite tracks (in order of pref.):
Please note that you have a limited selection to choose from, and like Steve said, some very odd omissions, especially in tracks, where I sometimes could find the artist but not the song I wanted to vote for. (One example: "Extrordinary" instead of "Rock Me" or "Why Can't I"? Weeeeird.) So this doesn't represent my actual preferences altogether, although it was kind of interesting to try and figure it out. Indeed, not a bad five years...
posted by Mike B. at 6:44 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Let us bid a fond farewell to Mr. Beau Esselle, and here's hoping his retirement is as short as certain other folks'. Where will I go now for my hip-hop MP3s? Where will I go to laugh at people injuring themselves, or doing spell-bindingly nerdy things?
And let us welcome back Mr. Vacation himself, Mwanji! Dude, I want to go to Martinique.
posted by Mike B. at 10:49 AM 0 comments Links to this post
A few notes on The Mae Shi:
1) I think it's fair to say that one of the things musicblogs are concerned with is exposing and/or avoiding the kind of backslapping bullshit the hard-copy music press is known for, partially by putting music fans in direct, peer-level contact with music journos. It's also fair to say that a large part of the appeal of MP3 blogs comes from the impression that their curators have just happened upon the song in question. But I assume that most bloggers heard about the Mae Shi the same way I did, i.e. by having them send me an e-mail asking if I wanted a copy of the CD. So is it fair not to note this in a post about them? When information about a band comes directly from a label or promoter or the band itself, is it really in the spirit of a musicblog not to note that? I'm really asking this, because mainly I don't care, but I know that some people really do. And I'm certainly not doubting that the music had a genuine appeal. But it does seem to be something worth considering.
2) That said, the mix that Sean links to really is quite good. At its best, it's clearly free-associating, with obvious links between the songs. (Sorta like the Random 100.) The various resonances between hi-hat offbeat sounds in track 14 is particularly nice.
3) Did I miss the part where Thurston Moore decreed that all noise rock album covers have to be pastel? I mean, come on, folks.
ADDENDUM: 4) It was very cute that the band (or, I suppose, some remarkably DIY-aping publicist) sent me a burn of the album. Gotta love that. Also gotta love that they intentionally sent their stuff to MP3blogs! Although I guess when you have 30+ tracks, you can afford to give away a few.
posted by Mike B. at 8:37 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Thursday, July 29, 2004
BB #03: BLUEBERRY BOAT
Intro, one, two.
The general outline is that it starts off with an intro, does a quick intro verse, transitions into the main verse melody after a break, does two verse/chorus pairs and another verse, then 2 breaks, then the intro, a verse, another 2 breaks, 2 verse/chorus pairs, and ends with two breaks. So this one's a bit more complicated than the rest, but really, if you chopped off that first section and took away all but 2 of the breaks, which could be bridges anyway, you'd just have a lot of verse/chorus pairs, and in this way it's a bit like a Gallowbird's song with extra breaks thrown in.
We start off with the intro, which for my money is one of the best hooks on the album. After a great little bit of keyboard noise, a distorted drum machine beat kicks in for two bars, and then the great synth line drops on top of that. I'm having a hard time figuring out how the intro relates to the rest of the song (although, again, I'm not in a position to play an instrument, so I'm doing this by ear). In a lot of these songs the intro seems like a differently-arranged but melodically/chorally similar version of some other part of the song. The switches between intro and other things work great here, but is that because of crash edits or an actual harmonic similarity? I don't know. But I do know that the intro kicks ass. The distortion on the drums sends the snare skittering through the mix when it hits, the detuning on the (presumably multiple) synth lines gives it a rough and harsh but intense chorus effect, and the parallel line running in the left channel emphasizes the first half of the line. And then they go down a key! Awesome.
This gives way to some "whoo!" noises and rough percussion--sounds like drums, particularly kick and an open hat, miked from a distance, along with I'd guess some feet and hands doing percussion in various ways. It's recorded very nicely to contrast with the up-front dryness of the wholly synthesized intro; hearing that air makes it feel like you went into a completely different room, or, better, outside. After a few bars of this the melodic backing for the intro verse drops in, which consists of a piano and guitar doing a high, open chord on the 1, a big thump on the and of one (as the piano/guitar are muted), and a slide guitar slowly descending down from I'd say about a fifth above that chord back to the chord for the rest of the bar. Eleanor sings a melody that pretty much only consists of two notes here, as the backing runs along uninterrupted or muchly varied behind her.
Then we have a break. Except the great thing about this break is that it's actually describing the riff for the verses for the rest of the song. I think we've been trained by "Quay Cur" to expect these things not to cohere too much, and especially when we hear a break like this, with its nautical synth patch, we don't expect it to connect much to the rest of the song. So when, even better, they follow this break (the "Verse Break") with a wholly unrelated break (the "Keystone Kops Break") and we have some separation between the break and the melody it describes, I think instinctually we assume that the numerous verse to follow which use this melody are, in fact, variations on a break, rather than vice verse, and so not really verses. But do not be fooled! This arrangement does a nice job of subverting song-form expectations and making you feel a combination of lost and soothed.
This second break consists of various percussion and garbage-can melody--I hear a triangle, kick-snare combo, and what I'm guessing is a synth on a "xylophone" patch before it starts getting crazed with the addition of one of those scrapy wooden things (help?), a few bells, and a piano that gets more and more out of time and barrelhouse-y. I really like this break. Then we have kind of a recapitulation of the last break with a lower synth line, Rhodes, piano and triangle added.
Then the verse starts with a pretty smooth solo piano transition from the previous break. The verse riff consists of three pairs of lower-higher swung descending arpeggios that themselves feel like two pairs of augmented thirds, and then a little dip down a step from the higher arpeggio which it lands on for a while. There's also clearly a center tone, as in later verses the piano will just ride on one chord while other instruments describe the riff around it. There's also an open-tuned acoustic slide guitar which plays accents sometimes, and then kicks in for real with some of the same instrumentation heard in the two previous breaks right before the chorus, which consists of a higher chord (a fourth up?) with the addition of a whistling riff on top that emphasizes the nautical themes of these verses. In the verse, Eleanor sings something a lot like the two-note melody of the intro verse, but then swings up a fourth at the end of the rep, which sounds nice with the chord descending to where she's heading. In the chorus she jumps up to something near the top of her range, which sounds great, and sings another two-note melody that ends up being varied with triplets at the end of the chorus.
We have three verses and two choruses here, with the piano doing the aforementioned riding-the-chord variation on the second verse, and then we have our third break, the "Matt Break." It features, as the name indicates, Matt on vocals. The music takes a direct turn from the verse pattern (like it was all a regular song and stuff) and I think the best way to describe it is that it goes the opposite direction of the verse riff after starting in a similar place, joins up briefly, and then falls away. Specifically, it starts with a muted chord and a descending melody that follows the vocal line, both on electric piano as the whole sections is, which then jumps up and alternates between two notes for 2 bars before dipping down to the previous chord with a lower, 2-note vocal line and then dips down even further with the vocal line dipping proportionately, and the right hand follows the vocals. I hear it as IV-I-IV-iii, but I could be wrong, although I'm pretty sure that's an alternation between the root note and the second on the second chord there. This all repeats twice.
Then we're in another break, which 'm going to call the "Bittersweet Drinking Break." The tempo slows in preparation, I think, for the next section, and like the previous break, everything is very focused on the melody, which is held in the vocals but echoed in a whistley synth line and then reiterated with a more forceful synth part after the vocals end. I also think there's a nice metrical transition here, with the previous part keeping the one-two feel of the rest of the song but grouping itself into 6 beats rather than 4, and so when we have the tempo change here, there's almost a triplet feeling. Very nice.
And then, boom! Back into the intro. Awesome. I like the intro.
The intro lasts about 1.5 times as long as it did at the beginning of the song, and then we pretty much charge right back into the verse. Except it's a short verse, only eight seconds long (as compared to, say, 30 seconds each for verses 2 and 3). It's quieter than the previous verses and certainly a lot quieter than the intro, hushed really, and I hear an added autoharp, although maybe I just missed that before.
This leads into the fifth (!) break of the song, which I'm going to pretty obviously call the "Pirate Break." It's very tense, featuring at the outset only a plunked, augmented piano triad on the first beat and very light, distantly miked hand percussion--maybe some muted guitar strings being struck, or a foot setting and releasing the piano resonator. It builds by adding a gong, another piano chiming a different chord on the first beat and then adding another one on the third.
We then have a quick change into what feels like, to me, a whole different break, given the way it less dissipates the energy of the Pirate Break and more just totally ignores it, like a cross-cut between men with knives in their teeth climbing up the side of a ship and sailors calmly enjoying the ocean breeze. This being the breeze part, let's call it the "Sailing Break." It's really a piano solo, with the left hand playing the verse progression and the right hand soloing over it. The only interesting thing here is the way the sort of haphazard, out-of-time soloing recalls Matt's guitar soloing technique (most on display in "Paw Paw Tree"), but aside from that, let's move on.
We have now come to almost the end of the song and have only six more sections left. Which is sort of funny, but I think it's fair to say in regards to this song. At any rate, first comes a verse/chorus pair, with not much change, although the piano does ride the chord a bit before going into the riff and then the chorus. There might also be a bit more slide, and the whistle riff is more muted in the chorus, and there's a bass double on the main riff as we go back into the verse.
This final verse is simply fantastic. It totally abandons the riff and instead centers on the main chord until it jumps up at the very end. The various string instruments describe the tonal with little slide dips down and back up at the end of every bar, and halfway through the piano drops in, really riding the chord, and the percussion builds. Then everything stops but continues to resonate through the final bar of the chorus, which Eleanor sings a capella, before crashing in once on "boat" and then pausing for about a bar and a half. I love this because it was the only thing besides the intro that really struck me the first few times I listened to the song (after Matthew posted it), but somehow, hearing the ending, and the subsequent resolution in the final chorus, made me want to hear the rest of the story, to figure it out. It's that simultaneous reduction and build, and that great pause 8 minutes into a 9 minute song where there really aren't many breaks just nails it home, especially as the vocal line reduces to subtle variations on the same pitch and Eleanor delivers it very forcefully, with the same resolve we hear in the character. More on this later, obviously.
Then the vocal part of the song concludes with a final chorus, again with not a whole lot of musical variation from previous choruses, but with a very strong delivery on the vocals.
Then there's pretty much a crash cut into our seventh break of the song, the "Stringy Break," which consists almost wholly of a semi-atonal left-hand piano riff shadowed by a two-step melody done on synth strings. Both riffs are doubled for a while by other sounds.
Finally, there's the eighth and last break of the song, the "Wander Break," which as the name suggests pretty much totally consists of a synth line wandering around.
In chart form:
0:31-1:31 Intro Verse
1:32-1:39 Break 1 (Verse Break)
1:40-2:17 Break 2 (Keystone Kops Break)
2:18-2:31 Break 1 recapitulation
2:32-3:06 Verse 1
3:14-3:49 Verse 2
3:57-4:20 Verse 3
4:21-4:55 Break 3 (Matt Break)
4:56-5:23 Break 4 (Bittersweet Drinking Break)
5:24-6:10 Intro recapitulation
6:11-6:19 Verse 4
6:20-6:50 Break 5 (Pirate Break)
6:51-7:17 Break 6 (Sailing Break)
7:18-7:26 Verse 5
7:35-8:06 Verse 6
8:14-8:47 Break 7 (Stringy Break)
8:48-9:09 Break 8 (Wander Break)
Some notes on all this:
The transitions here seem less overdubbed or edited-together than mostly organic, almost orchestral in their way. They might indeed require a conductor to accomplish (especially the first four minutes or so), but they could be done. Moreso than a lot of other rock songs that might claim to be, this achieves a kind of classically structured interestingness.
There's about four or five minutes here when they're really only circling around the same two chords, which is odd, and lends the song some of its woozy, drifting character, a fact that goes along well with the subject matter.
I should be concentrating more on when particular synth patches reemerge, as I think this would be interesting.
A pretty straightforward and uninterrupted story here, really. We open with Eleanor's character going out to her cargo ship on a sailboat called a sunfish (in the midst of a remarkably wonderful line, "pink wine in the Labor Day sunshine / I'm sliding the sunfish up through the wakes"), negotiating the disturbance made by the larger ship unsurely, and worried about this, because she does not want to look unskilled before her crew, and doubtless some of this unsureness is caused by nervousness as much as by physics. When she makes it on board everyone is indolent and drinking; she sneaks a peak at their cooler and sees that they have way too much alcohol to be healthy, so presumably she disposes of some of it.
They sail through the Taiwan strait past Taipei, and knowing that their destination is Hong Kong ("old H.K.") , this means they are going West, and thus could be coming from either somewhere like Japan/Korea or North America. It is Eleanor's first time captaining a ship, and it is actually going very well, and she is filled with a kind of idealistic pride. This has already manifested itself in the pragmatic-but-also-kinda-snooty move of stowing the alcohol, and further crops up in her insistence that a crewmember turn off some porno in order to properly appreciate the beauty of the ocean in the morning, even as she herself has some scotch. But this is all OK, as she has won the respect of her mates during previous voyages, and indeed, everything goes remarkably smoothly.
Eleanor is, as it happens, from Grand Rapids, MI (or claiming to be so for the purposes of the voyage).
Then at the end of the third verse (which, notice, has no matching chorus), we get a sudden jarring interruption: something, undetected by radar, is coming up on her ship on the starboard side.
Then we have a quick break to Matt, who while drinking some drink involving Triple Sec in the belowdecks of his own boat, recalls standing on shore and trying to pick up a girl there waving goodbye (which is kind of caddish!). He asks her who she knows on the ship and she suddenly sneers at him and replies, "I don't know no one there yet but just wait see what you get."
There are two possible interpretations of this. One is that she's merely reacting to the sexism inherent in Matt's caddish question, i.e. that she must simply know someone on board, she can't be involved with it in some way. Instead, she is, like Eleanor was, a prospective captain, or at least crewmember.
The other option is that she's actually an advance scout for the pirates, one of whom may have stowed away on Eleanor's ship in order to disable the radar so as to make the pirates' ship undetected in its approach. Thus she doesn't know anyone on the ship yet, but she will as soon as the pirates board it.
After this nice little jump in location (to Matt's ship) and then time (back to when the ship was boarding), we jump back to Eleanor's ship but also backwards in time slightly, to show what they were doing when the pirates attacked, specifically "pop[ping] the top" of some alcohol. I like this part very much, because for all the pride and beauty we see in an ocean voyage in the first three verses, we now have a taste of the loneliness and isolation such voyages entail. And so the traditional drinking song cry of "we'll never go home" has both a positive meaning, i.e. that they're having such a good time that they'll never go home, and a negative one, i.e. that they can never go home. And it's also an odd premonition of what's about to happen, since they will, indeed, never go home.
And so we hit the fourth verse with a restatement of the third verse of the pirate ship approaching, and then a quick jump into the ominous break that would seem to represent the pirate's boarding of the ship, followed by the placid break meant to represent the crew's drunken obliviousness to said boarding. They capture the crew and beat two of the men to enforce order, kick over Eleanor and threaten her with death unless she cooperates. But she refuses, and after making this defiant statement, we have a pause and then a cut to the revelation that the pirates do, in fact, kill her, and apparently sink her boat as well. I love the way this is handled, mainly because of the various implications of the captain in this familiar-ish scenario being a woman. So the blueberries in question could be literal, or they could be a metaphor for her choice of death over rape; she is sad and cold, but she has kept her honor.
A few questions here. First, is the captain necessarily a woman? S/he is never explicitly referred to as such, and of course it would be a critical error to simply assume and shit. But it's more fun this way, so I'm going to go ahead and assume.
Second, was the captain's choice really the honorable thing to do? In many ways it could be seen as reflective of that sort of prissy idealism evidenced earlier in the voyage: she is not the only person being threatened with death here. It's "you and your men." So by refusing to cooperate, she once again self-righteously sacrifices her crew's happiness for some abstract value like honor or beauty. But they're still dead.
I'm pretty convinced that this takes place in the present day, given the references to the pirates being Asian and this being a relatively modern phenomenon, as well as the modern Sunfish sailboat. I'm also pretty sure that chronologically it's either the last or second-to-last song in the story, depending on how much of "Paw Paw Tree" you want to incorporate. This song basically reflects the final end of Eleanor's character. Unless it's all a fantasy. Which we'll discuss later.
I think given what I mention above about whether the captain's actions are actually morally defensible, it seems reasonable to assume that this character is an older (or, I guess, fantasy) version of the one seen in "Straight Street." There, frustrated by shady business practices that she was unable to play along with, arguably because of the traditional business-world bias towards women, she finds this very rewarding form of physical labor and sticks with it long enough to be a captain, but her idealized view of the profession leads her to make some stupid judgments, and once again her inability to practically compromise her values is her downfall.
What the hell is Matt's character doing in here? I think I'm going to assume that this is just one of those random coincidences, that years after he lost touch with Eleanor he just happens to be on a dock where her ship is leaving, and he maybe or maybe not talks to an associate of the pirates that will eventually kill her. But you could also assume that either she or he is projecting himself into this scenario as an almost-but-not-quite savior, which is mainly only valid if you assume that the girl is a pirate and the whole thing is part of a story or fantasy on the part of the younger Eleanor.
At any rate, this is definitely related to the Eleanor we see in "Chris Michaels" and "Blancheflower" and maybe "Spainolated." She's from Michigan and is taking a load of Michigan blueberries to Hong Kong, in what's interestingly enough the reverse of the journey taken by the ship in Quay Cur, which is hijacked somewhere in the Pacific and ends up in North America before returning to Europe.
This will all tie together later, but for now, let's move on to the next song. ('Til the break of dawn...)
posted by Mike B. at 7:56 AM 1 comments Links to this post
You wouldn't think a show called Amish in the City could really be any good. But you'd be surprised! Here are a few reasons why it's worth watching:
1) The idea is that 5 Amish kids are living in a house with 5 "city kids" as they generally refer to them. One of the first things they do is all go to the grocery store together. One of the Amish boys requests fatback and the spacey vegetarian girl (who, by the way, seems to honestly think that cows come from outer space) says, "Ew, that's so unhealthy."
AMISH KID: Abraham Lincoln ate fatback every morning.
VEGETARIAN GIRL: Well, I bet he died at, like, thirty.
AMISH KID: I don't think that's why he died.
2) Who knew that a bunch of Amish people seeing the ocean for the first time could be so touching? But it was! They were all so excited and cute.
3) Three words: Mose! Mose! Mose! Mose is awesome. He's the doughy, dorky Amish guy, and I just want to make an album with him or something. At one point he's in a hot tub (for the first time!) and really grooving on the fact that the jets are puffing up his big, baggy black swim trunks. "So," he says, "I thought to heck with it. I was underwater, no one could see me anyway..." He goes to take off his shorts and you start to worry that they're showing Blind Date there on the farm, but then you see that under his swim trunks he's still wearing underwear! And he's kind of paddling around the hot tub in his briefs and it's remarkably endearing.
4) At the end of the second day (Mose almost drowns) the city kids are making fun of the Amish kids. So, of course, their "challenge" the next day is for the city kids to put on Amish clothes and go out in public.
Now, there's probably a logical place to go at this point, somewhere to really drive the point home. But do the producers send them to that place? No they do not. They send them to a go-cart track. To race go-karts. In their Amish clothes.
At this point, I realized I really liked the show.
It did drag a bit in the last 15 minutes as it descended into Real World-style squabbling over chores, and maybe it'd be better at a half hour. But, it's sort of hard to complain when you've got that many points in your favor, and besides, as long as I get a little more Mose, I'm good.
POSTSCRIPT: I do feel like kind of a dingus for watching this instead of the early part of the evening's Democratic Convention coverage, but whatever, I'll see the Sharpton speech online. Edwards' speech was excellent, and I did catch that l-i-v-e.
posted by Mike B. at 7:42 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Tuesday, July 27, 2004
"I SNUCK A DRINK IN THE CAR, SMASHED THE CORPORATE STATE, AND HAD AN EARLY SUPPER AT THE SIZZLER IN YONKERS": MY PARTLY-CLOUDY AFTERNOON WITH THE DARK TWIN OF INDIE
About a month back, our band got an offer to play a festival just north of the city. The pitch for this was that it was with a bunch of other bands from the college we'd all gone to, and apparently there were various connections to people we knew. So we said yes. It seemed like a fine idea. We already knew a few alum bands in the city (in my circles I'd actually heard graduates of the college in question called a mafia, we seemed to be so pervasive), and they were all plying various versions of indie rock, some of which I like more than others, but all quality of some sort or other. Plus, we were getting a little tired, I think, of the routine of city clubs, which, nice as they are, don't have the same feel somehow as a good basement or loft crowded with kids. I guess I pictured something like a VFW hall, or a crappy garage somewhere, with the cops lurking just outside the property line.
When we started to get a little more information about the event so we could start promoting it, the picture began to change. The promoter--who was the funny-but-weird combination of obviously young and overly professional ("what's your draw like these days?")--sent us a link to the festival's site, and while I won't post it here, suffice to say we started to get a better idea of what kind of festival it was when we saw the phrase "interband collaborations" on the descriptions page and "jugband" on the performers page. Oh yes oh yes: we were playing a jambands festival. Confirmation followed; I forwarded the info to a friend who has roots in said community and he replied with a description of the promoter's reputation (who, in fairness, is 19) that was, shall we say, less than glowing, and included the phrase "hippie shit." And so there it was. We had signed up to play a jambands show.
Upon realizing this, we were a bit annoyed and a bit dismayed but mainly amused and intrigued; our aesthetic fits into the jambands thing in a tangental way--our Venn Diagram circle probably intersects with the hippie one about 180 degrees away from where the Flaming Lips' does, but it's a similar kind of thing--but that's not really our thing, man. So it was a surprise, but we were still planning on renting a van and bringing people up with us.
But then we got another update e-mail, and it included the immortal words: "No Alcohol, No Drugs."
Now, the thing about music is that you can put up with a lot of crap if the two above things are involved; indeed, whole genres are based on this phenomenon. So we could ask people in good faith to get up, get in a van, ride an hour to Westchester, and listen to hippie shit if we all got to hang around and drink while we were doing it. But without drinking? No friend in good conscience would ask such a thing. So our draw would be, uh, kind of low.
But listen: we haven't reached the final fact yet, the one that turns this whole experience from "Well, you're just being picky," to "Oh. Oh. I'm sorry." Because why, you might ask, would there be no drugs or alcohol at a hippie festival? Are there really such things as straightedge hippies? Ah, but no, of course there wasn't. Because, you see, a quick scan of the address of and directions to said event revealed that, in all likelihood, this was not at a club. Nor a hall. Nor a public space of some sort. No, said event appeared to be taking place at the promoter's parents' house.
In--wait for it...Scarsdale.
And so we got up Saturday morning around 9, showered, gathered in the LES around 11, and set off to drive upstate. It started off all normal--turn onto Houston, get onto the FDR, cross the 3rd Avenue bridge, get onto the Major Deegan expressway. But then it got weird. Maybe a brief description of the location-narrowing process we underwent will help you picture what this was like.
Imagine one of the richest counties in the country, Westchester county.
Now, imagine getting off the parkway into one of the richest towns in the country, Scarsdale.
Imagine driving through Scarsdale, which is an incredibly affluent suburb. Imagine driving through the wooded lanes and past the very expensive houses.
Now imagine turning off one of these wooded lanes onto a suburban cul-de-sac. Imagine the houses that line this cul-de-sac. You know what they look like.
Imagine parking the car on this cul-de-sac and walking up the driveway of one of these big, rich homes. Imagine walking into the yard and seeing a bunch of canopies and couches in the yard, and lights and equipment on the porch.
This was where we were playing.
In truth, it wasn't so bad; our set went OK, despite some technical problems, and we got a good reception. Really, if there's a lesson to be learned from the whole experience, it's that even if you're dreading a gig, if you're a decent band, people will respond well to you, and playing live music is rarely not fun; there are very few gigs not worth playing, especially in areas you haven't been in before. So it was really, honestly, fine.
This does not change the fact, however, that the whole context was absolutely insane.
The two most insane things were probably the first things we saw there in the driveway: the promoter's vehicle (I want to say SUV, but maybe I've just imposed that in retrospect) and, next to it, a portapotty. In a backyard. Now, that's obviously insane. The insanity of the car, on the other hand, lay mainly in its bumper crop of bumper stickers, and oh, I wish I had a picture. I guess it's partially because of my lack of exposure to the scene, but there was something about the particular combo--the Phish "1983-2004 no regrets" sticker, the venue sticker that boasted "the best bands, the kindest sound," the private school sticker, the very weathered "Free Tibet" sticker, etc. It was like a joke that was real!
We'd arrived about an hour and a half before our set time, so after loading in we mainly hung out in our cars, I think because the situation freaked us out so much. Plus in the car we could listen to our own damn music. As there was no alcohol allowed inside the grounds, the bassist's friends had brought some beers in an ice bucket (very classy) and the two other members went on a supply run and came back with vodka and orange juice and plastic cups. We sipped in the car. It was weird--it felt like being teenage again. Well, if I had done that stuff when I was a teenager. This was the impression I got, though. And honestly, it was 1 in the afternoon--we didn't need to have anything to drink. But, again, like teenagers, there was something about being told not to...
Eventually we found out that the first band had canceled--for some odd reason, cough--and that we were the openers. All right. So we set up as they attempted to set up, using what looked like very new equipment that they didn't entirely know how to use. Also, they miked our amps. On the porch. In the backyard. The guitarist's sister came in and told her that the cover had been $12. I guess they had to make up the money for the portapotty rental somehow. I did a mic check and after babbling for a while settled on a high-pitched noise that fluctuated slightly. Someone from another band yelled "Test, test!" and I yelled, "Don't you fucking tell me how to soundcheck."
We started playing. Someone was videotaping. A dog ran on stage. The drummer busted through the head of the kick midway through the first song and used duct tape to patch it up every once in a while. It was not his kick drum, but meh. I couldn't see who was there because the tarp was in the way. This meant, I guess, that they only saw up to my chest. Meh again. Afterwards the dad came up to us and told we had "a mellow sound." The guitarist and drummer nodded and sipped their screwdrivers. It was weird.
But it did get me thinking about jambands. Really, if you're indie, there's no reason not to like jambands. Well, aside from the music, of course. But there are a host of things the indie mentality values that the jambands scene has in spades. A non-corporate business structure: check. A community-based promotion and distribution model: check. No sell-outs: check. Being totally "for the kids": check. Bands form organically, make the music they want to make uncompromisingly, get signed and distributed by independent labels, tour relentlessly in largely non-corporate venues, build up a fanbase through hard work, get written up in grassroots publications as well as independently-owned ones, and maybe find wider fame and success. What's there to complain about? They've acheived amazing popular success without much of any compromise to either the mainstream or corporations. Jambands constitute probably the largest independent music movement in our time. Why wouldn't you want to emulate it?
Well...because the music's bad, right?
There's a tension in most white subcultural movements, jambands and indie included, between social value and aesthetic value, between community and quality. Do you value something purely because its members are good people and the way they make music lines up with your value system, or because the music is really good? There seems to be a certain agreement that decent music made the wrong way is somehow "tainted;" not very good music made the right way gets more of a pass. Obviously a combination of the two would be a home run, but given how rarely this happens, which do you favor?
Jambands fully endorse the former, the community model. If you can get up there on stage and lay down a decent groove, and if you're good people trying hard, well, you're doing OK. You might not be wildly successful, but you'll be able to do reasonably well, I think. Because the music itself doesn't matter to the experience so much as the simple fact that music is being made, and that people are listening to it, and dancing, and all in this place together and seeing each other.
Indie, on the other hand, leaves it unresolved. For every band that gets a good reception because the people in it are good friends or interesting characters or supportive of other bands, there's someone to accuse them of being merely "trendy;"for every band whose uber-indie image is a grabber, there's someone to point out that they're not actually very good. But, similarly, for every band with a great set of songs, there's someone to accuse them of having the wrong production style, or the wrong label, or the wrong style. Now, you could argue that it's this tension that produces a lot of the good that comes from indie, that by having this social endorsement in place it can work in tandem with people who look for musical quality to rise up the best-of-the-best, that elusive home-run combo of the right values and the best songs. Maybe the fact that there's the option to favor one or the other that allows indie to thrive in so many different directions and to be of such interest to so many people, relatively speaking. (It is a style that seems to emphasize suffering over dancing, so how big are you really going to get? Even goth's avoided this one.)
But you could also argue that it's what's holding indie bands back, that by their social status and reach depending in part upon their adherence to the scene creed, it encourages process over product. That by having some value assigned to you simply because you are a noise band who employ muted vocals but at the same time throwing you into a critical context that does value content over context, it invites the wrong kind of activity, the kind of activity that can in the end be detrimental to a scene. It's this odd combination of morality and high standards that makes indie such a weird beast, the insistence on both an absolute morality and a totally arbitrary aesthetic taste that makes its waters so difficult to negotiate without succumbing to the urge to make a load of crap.
Oh yes, the third part of the title. After we packed everything up, we went to the Sizzler in Yonkers for Meal. We ordered at the checkout, we got chicken wings and fried creamed corn at the all-you-can-eat buffet, we saw senior citizens taking advantage of the $10 steak-and-buffet deal, we said "Sizzler!" in a particular way numerous times. It was pretty awesome.
 We did recently play a festival in the city, but the setting of that is the subject for another post of the restaurant-review variety.
posted by Mike B. at 3:41 PM 0 comments Links to this post
"'Love is a hat-lead field?' This superintelligent panda can't transcribe Belinda Carlisle worth a good goddamn!"
Hi, folks. First: thanks for coming! Second: stuff's half-done but will be coming later today. Check back in the afternoon. I promise I won't hurt the panda. He's just a little logey today.
posted by Mike B. at 11:10 AM 0 comments Links to this post
ROCK 'N' ROLL BON MOTS #016
You wouldn't think Lightning Bolt would be a good thing to listen to in the morning while getting ready for work. But man, it sure is!
Although, as I found out, less of a good thing to listen to while shaving, especially while shaving off 8 days' worth of facial hair. But how can I not shave against the grain when he's doing those bitchin' hammer-ons?!?!?!
posted by Mike B. at 11:08 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Monday, July 26, 2004
The Fiery Furnaces on the Fiery Furnaces. Written, I am informed, as a parody of academic-rock-crit style. I'm not so sure, the end of the 3rd and 5th paragraphs aside (yes yes "triumphant assault on notoriety and money" and "the classic applicable" and "doubly debilitated by our enabling example" obvs). Thoughts?
posted by Mike B. at 11:10 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Friday, July 23, 2004
Really, really good Lynda Barry comic: is the new favorite sound the laughter, or the imitation of the pop moves? Aren't the two inextricably intertwined? Doesn't the one create the other, and what creates the one? Is crap only as good as the reaction it inspires? Etc.
posted by Mike B. at 6:11 PM 0 comments Links to this post
I try not to do too many restaurant posts, but I can't resist this one: Shake Shack is fucking fantastic. And I'm not just saying that because they have peanut butter sundaes, which I've had a hell of a time finding in the city. But they do, and they're good, if a bit odd--they spread the peanut butter (not PB sauce, just regular peanut butter) on the bottom of the dish, and so you scoop into it. Kind of nice. I also had the fries, which were pretty good, and the double burger, which was just really great, beefy and well-grilled and on a good (potato bread?) bun. The custard was OK, a bit thin I thought, but maybe I need to try it without whipped cream and peanut butter. The chocolate flavor was definitely the best chocolate soft ice cream I've ever had. (Although the vanilla has a tough act to follow after some of the stuff I've experienced.) So highly reccomended, even on rainy days.
posted by Mike B. at 3:21 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Follow-up on BB #01: although you should of course be reading Fluxblog every day, today Matthew's featuring an excerpt from Eleanor's appearance on (the generally excellent, by the way) East Village Radio in which she does acoustic performances of bits of "Quay Cur" and all (oops--actually just parts) of "Straight Street." She also talks about the Inuit section of "Quay Cur" a bit, thank the lord, and Matthew adds further explication, which I've added as an addendum to my analysis of the song.
Additionally, I know that not everyone has the booklet for Blueberry Boat, so I'm going to scan it as soon as I can so you can see the full lyrics of each song. This whole project will end up being a permanent installation on a different website once it's finished, and I'll definitely host lyrics and maybe the EVR MP3 there. More details once this is all tied up...
Oh, also, I meant to ask this before, but hearing the acoustic "Straight Street" actually helped a lot to sort out the chord progressions in the verse. So, aside from the single version of "My Dog Was Lost," does anyone know of any alternate versions of these songs? I guess the live versions are different, eh--"Spainolated" sounds a lot better live, I think. A little help cataloguing that might be nice.
posted by Mike B. at 1:11 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Thursday, July 22, 2004
BB #02: STRAIGHT STREET
Surprisingly basic. It's three verse/chorus pairs, then a bridge, then two more verse/chorus pairs with a different arrangement (and/or key), but with the final verse having the same lyrics as the first verse. Since there's less to deal with here, maybe I can delve into the instrumentation and whatnot a bit more.
The song begins with a shot that's more of a rock explosion than any point in "Quay Cur" was, and it reminds me strongly of (don't kill me) Loretta Lynn's "Portland Oregon"--slide guitar, simple drums miked roughly, bass, very twangy and much lower on the keyboards, despite the clucking noise that plays eighths here. The contrast with "Quay Cur" is, I think, quite useful, as we actually hear the first crash cymbal of the entire album here, at the very beginning of the track, which is an odd thing for a rock-ish band, although not as much if you know the Furnaces. Moreover, the crash doesn't reoccur until the section change, and the only percussion throughout the intro appears to be a snare. This can work sometimes, but here the fact that it doesn't, that it doesn't really hold down the other instruments (the clucking noise is often hugely off-beat) and that it doesn't actually work for the rocky structure being set up, is somehow important. In the context of following the first song, even that small sop to conventionality becomes huge. So they're playing with our expectations here, I think.
At any rate, moving beyond the first beat of the song (ahem), the explosion also works because of the particular slide riff being deployed here, which besides being the only significant source of tonality in the intro, starts at a pleasing height before descending to a tone, repeating, and then dipping down before coming back up to the same center tone, and repeating. This is powerful for two reasons: a) it starts relatively high in pitch for the instrument, and b) it's basically vamping on the same chord, going, I dunno, a fourth above and a fourth below or something alone those lines. (I should really do these not at work so I could have an instrument handy, but oh well, I'll have to keep doing it by ear.)
The riff also works well because of the way it charges into the first verse vamp, which it does at 0:20. What happens here are a few important things that represent an almost crash-edit difference between the two bits: the slide and snare cut out, there's a crash hit but then no more drums, piano and bass come in, and the only thing that runs through is the squawk noise. (Which if you want to get technical about it sounds like a high-res medium-cut fourth-octave half-noise synth burst.) As for the bits itself, the piano is playing a discordant stagger between two notes with a syncopated swing that resolves to a straighter sixteenth-eighth-eighth-eighth on the higher note at the end of the bar, which actually flows directly out of the tonality established by the slide guitar in the intro; both vamp around basically the same chord. (I think it suggests a V-7, but I'm almost sure I'm making that up. Maybe a ninth? Oh, fuck it, it's called "clap clap blog," not "rigorous musicology blog.") The bass seems to be riding on the same note throughout. Near the end of the pre-vocal bit of the first verse here, the drums come in, but end up focusing on a slap-delayed snare and claps on the 2+4. Similarly, a lead guitar comes in, played sort of furiously and semi-randomly, mostly sixteenths with repeated notes and occasional very brief forays into doubling of the piano part, with some trademark sloppily-played accidental low-string hits from time to time. This fades out right before the vocals come in. The first set of verses has a distinctly (and, I think, explicitly) country feel, although the chorus doesn't. I think this has some relation to the lyrics, but we'll get to that later. It's also notable that you could play this bit of it live in a conventional band arrangement, unlike a lot of "Quay Cur."
When Eleanor's vocals come in, they display the second brand of melody she deploys. The first was displayed through almost all of "Quay Cur," and consists of a line that's doubled or even tripled by instruments, one that's fairly closely tied to the backing and which can't be changed very easily; it's highly tonal and tied to some sort of chord present also in the orchestration. What we see in "Straight Street," however, is a vocal line that's very strong and confident--indeed, this strength and confidence is a lot of what makes Eleanor's delivery and melodies so appealing--but which has only a glancing relationship to the orchestration. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and indeed, I can think of quite a few Furnaces songs where this works exceedingly well. (If it doesn't work as well here at first, I think that's because the backing isn't quite as compelling as we've come to expect.) This second brand of melody is absolutely key to much of the Furnaces' MO--take a melody line that isn't much dependent on any other element of the song, and you can change all of the other elements without disrupting the vocals. This is how we get not only the different live and single arrangements, but the arrangement switches within a song, which we've already seen to some degree with the final verse of "Quay Cur" and which we'll see again very soon.
The format is this: Eleanor sings a couplet, the backing changes slightly--the bass slides up a third, the piano changes a bit--and then back into the vocals. This happens four times, the backing pauses with a slight rollantando and an actual coherent chord on the piano, Eleanor sings a few more words, and then we're into the chorus.
The chorus is a basic IV-V blues chorus, and is only two lines. It starts out at a slightly slower tempo than the verse, and with definitely a more deliberate rhythmic structure, and then accelerates through the last line, which is said very quickly. Don't hear a piano in here, but there's a regular chordal guitar and root-note bass with a full drum kit. The great thing about this chorus--and it's a goddamn great chorus--is the combination of the accelerando with the synth riff that comes in at the end. It's really just a series of steps up to a fifth, but both the patch (a midrange-heavy tone with a vibrato) and the really deft playing (which sort of lags a few clicks behind the changing tempo), along with the swooshing noise, kill it, and really build to that final line.
The verse/chorus bit repeats two more times, with not a whole lot of changes, aside from the quite notable addition of strings, chorus and viola, sounds like, along with a quick-strummed slide acoustic guitar in the third verse, playing little glissed-up accents that are more rhythmic than anything else. (It's a pretty rhythmic song, really.) After the third chorus there's a change into a bridge that starts off with a piano and synth playing doubled lines, then a quiet piano for a few bars that modulates the key down a few steps before being joined by an electric piano and, maybe, a synth, which plays a little dabble between two notes, and then the piano reprises its earlier riff in the new key accompanied by some sort of basic percussion, either a foot stomp or a muted clap on the 2+4.
Then the fourth verse kicks in straight to vocals, and as with the first verse, we have totally different instrumentation all of a sudden. While Eleanor's singing an electric bass slides from a high note down a fifth to a lower one while a church organ plays the chords and a synth does a sort of parallel line to the riff the piano was playing in verses 1-3. When there's no vocals, the bass slides up to mirror the wah guitar, which is playing a noisy bit of rhythmic accent which may form its main tonal suggestion purely from the wah, not any notes, but I also might be making that up, and which both, again, mirror the piano riff of the early verses. After the fourth verse the chorus kicks in, but--and here's the odd thing--exactly as it was in the first part of the song. There doesn't seem to be any changes. This is followed by a brief instrumental bit that introduces the fifth verse (which is a repeat, lyrically, of the first verse) by adding the cello/viola from the third verse. As the vocals start, these play a gliss up for the first two beats and arpeggios for the final two, emphasizing the rise and fall of Eleanor's vocals, but cut out for the inter-vocal bits. Then another identical (but slightly more intense, somehow--more of an accelerando?) chorus, and we're done.
The second half is odd, stylistically--there's a suggestion of a sacred atmosphere with the organ and the strings, but it doesn't really sound like traditional church music or even gospel--it sounds more like, I guess, a classical combo covering a country song.
In chart form:
0:21-1:15 Verse 1
1:25-1:58 Verse 2
2:08-2:41 Verse 3
3:26-3:59 Verse 4
4:09-4:50 Verse 5
Update: after hearing the acoustic version of the song, Eleanor plays the verse as a I-IV progression with what sounds like a V-7 between the verses, but I'm not sure how well this maps to the album version. I'll have to try it at home at some point.
This song has a lot more in common with Gallowsbird's than many of the other songs here on Blueberry in that it seems more concerned with interesting couplets than a narrative, but once you start to tease it out there's definitely something there.
The basic story is that Eleanor's character is a not very successful global salesperson for a the cellphone company Ericsson, and the song chronicles her sort of Gil-in-the-Simpsons if you will misadventures. The song opens in a Syrian internet cafe where she's trying to pick up tips from the locals but it studiously looking disinterested, trying not to draw their attention and so having to go by who smells the best (by which I think she means "most affluent"). This scenario to me seems like something plucked directly from Eleanor's travel experiences, where you're in a 'net cafe in some foreign country just wanting to get some sort of connection back to your home life but being surrounded by the cafe's regulars who use it as an information center. And so here, she hears "all the nonsense in extensia," especially about football games ("Leeds v. Valencia"). She picks out the group most likely to respond to her sales pitch, but they regard her as either: 1) a mere automaton who's there to be an opponent in a very deliberate game, or b) someone they're going to fuck with by taking on ultra-stereotypical behaviors and mannerisms. This I'm getting from the last line, "but the only thing they care about is to whom to play the Turk," which is either a reference to a famous, but fraudulent, chess-playing machine from the 19th century (later reincarnated as a computer game), or a joke about how foreigners fuck with Americans/businesspeople. At any rate, her sales pitch is unsuccessful.
In the second verse, she's in a more rural area; I'm going to guess from the context as some of the details that it's a North African area, but it could also easily be a lot of other places in the world (Eastern Europe, southern Russia, Asian steppes, etc., although the stuff about a cup of water and "when the sun came up" do suggest a warmer climate than these). She's subsisting on very slim resources and ends up in a dilapidated car, suggesting both that she's out in the boonies trying to make sales and that she hasn't been doing very well, cash-flow-wise. She does make it safely to wherever she's going, it seems, because she's able to put a question to her "local adviser" about the "trucks...parked up by the town" but receives no distinct reply, suggesting that it's a forbidden subject and makes the trucks into even more of a menace than the simple mention of noticeable-but-mysterious vehicles would imply. I absolutely love this verse--there's a lot of really interesting stuff going on, especially with the trucks at the end, which paints a picture of whatever country (or region) she's in as being under some sort of military or otherwise milita'd control, except so covert that she's not aware of it (or, I guess, she's so oblivious that she doesn't already know and commits the faux pas of asking). That nice collision of this very stereotypical American-style, door-to-door capitalism with the improvised governmental protection of a private or overly prominent police force (which is the case in not a few areas of our modern world) is really interesting, both because of the revelation that free market sales are only possible when the citizens are reasonably free--or, more accurately, when they're more concerned with comfort than basic survival--and because I think she would be more successful a salesperson if she wasn't so honest. If she was crooked enough to know who had control of the town, she might be able to sell to them instead of the impoverished residents.
This inability to make a sale continues in the third verse, where we get specific, sorta. We're back in a more corporate environment because she's talking to "the head of sales for Western Asia" (aha! But then why "Damascus"?) who is warning of an encroaching threat from Nokia, who might tell presumably Muslim consumers that Ericsson "uses pig by-products." The salesperson shows up for a meeting with the Nokia people but "knew that we were Finnished" (a pretty funny actually play on words based on the fact that Nokia is from Finland and Ericsson is from Sweden) because, as the rep tells her, the phones are already being "stoned," which here I think means not "smoked up" but "hit with stones," as Muslims sometimes do to religious violators. In other words, they have successfully spread the rumor of pig-use and so the phones are being destroyed for religious reasons.
This causes the character to be fired, and the switch in music we have after the third verse is meant, I think, to reflect this change. In the fourth verse we see her trying to find a new job, in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia trying to learn some of those nasty tricks of the trade and setting herself up as a fence for religious and historical artifacts. Her friends, though, try and talk her out of this, saying that she could work in Baku (in the former republic of Azerbaijan) for an American cellphone company. But when she calls her contact at the company in Houston, she finds they have no use for her. And thus, in the fifth verse, we find her back in the Damascus internet cafe, trying to scam her way into sales to Syrians.
The song seems to be about the conflict between honesty and theft in business dealings, and here the blur of references works for a thematic reason: in a world where there is so much, where local cultures collide with global ones and vice verse, there's no way to make sense of it, no way to go door-to-door. And that's why the chorus: "So I walked up the length of the Street they call Straight / cursing myself cause I got there too late." She's trying to go straight (or, even better, trying to go what people tell her is straight) but it's too late--there's no way to go straight anymore. Everything is tainted, and even when you're trying to be devious it doesn't always work. The only verse mention of straight street comes in reference to where the religious authorities are destroying the tainted phones, and I think that's a decent explanation of what it's talking about--a place where faith is untainted by doubt or contradiction.
This is really a self-contained little episode, although aside from the various thematic references I'll get to in a moment, I do think it fits into the character arc for Eleanor. This is probably what she's doing in between her youth in the US and being a ship captain in Asia, and her frustration here with modern capitalist business practices explains the pride she feels from managerial responsibility and manual labor in "Blueberry Boat," which we'll get to on Monday.
Aside from the geographic similarities with other songs (especially her boss being the head of sales for Western Asia), the most interesting thing here, I think, is in the title: straight street, or strait street? I.e., a street that's a body of water. In "Blueberry Boat" there's a mention of the Strait of Taiwan, and I think that's part of what's going on here, with nature as something purer than the cluttered earth. But maybe not.
 Not that I'm asserting a relationship of influence, here, as the timelines don't mess up, but then the sound Jack White went with on Van Lear Rose sounds just a bit different from most country or blues things that came before, so I don't know a better precedent.
 This is a post for another time, but it's interesting how expectation and context matter to our perceptions of instrumental intensity. Higher, of course, is generally held to be more intense, but we get so used to the timbres and conventional sonic ranges of an instrument that it's really only high-for-that-thing. So, for instance, a high weedly-weedly guitar riff that sounds like it's reaching into the stratosphere would still only hit maybe third position on the violin, which still has a long way to go. (Ah the glorious high squeakiness of the violin! I love it so. But that, too, is for another post.) And when we play outside that range, even on the same instrument, it usually gets regarded as somehow being a different instrument--think, for instance, of the way free-jazz saxophone squeaks were described before we got used to them, or how a pitch-shifted guitar (or one played with a slide above the fretboard) gets described.
posted by Mike B. at 5:58 PM 1 comments Links to this post
Mark replies to Simon's guilty pleasures post and touches on my comments in the process. Poptimism part 2 ensues. Maybe.
posted by Mike B. at 1:17 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Wednesday, July 21, 2004
There's been some talk recently about "guilty pleasures"--see Mark's and Simon's take on the issue. Because I'm a hugely egotistical prick, I might as well repost what I wrote about that issue about a year ago, because, eh, I think I have a different take.
The idea of guilty pleasure is a stupid, Catholic, one, but so, I often feel, is loudly declaring that you don't have guilty pleasures. Because, let's face it, you probably do. Mine include Tori Amos and Eurovision-y europop, mainly because I don't know anyone else with decent musical taste who non-guiltily likes these things. (I still listen to 'em, though.) The problem with the concept of the guilty pleasure is less the "guilty" part and more what's defined as a guilty pleasure. The term is used by people with "good taste" to describe anything mainstream which they, horror of horrors, like. But this presumes that anything mainstream is bad, or falls within "bad taste," and I think that's just not true. Just because something is liked by a lot of other people, or not liked by the Wire, doesn't make it a guilty pleasure. The point of guilty pleasures is that you just like them, they're pure pleasure, and you don't think about it too much (viz. the above strategy of listening to the song without thinking about the horrendously politically incorrect lyrics). But there's lots of pop stuff that you should think about, that is well-crafted and interesting and wonderful.