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Tuesday, July 20, 2004
BB #01: "QUAY CUR"
For what this is all about, please see the intro.
Actually a surprisingly simple structure, when you break it apart; go ahead and cheat down to the chart if you want to see just how simple. Really, you can reduce it to the highly traditional verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge / verse / chorus format if you want to (although it's more like briiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiidge and, OK, there's an extra chorus in there).
The track starts with a slight squeak for a few seconds before a distorted drum machine beat kicks in, consisting of two kick quarters and a distorted snare-ish noise that has a trailing tone that goes down for the remainder of the third beat and then up for about 2/3 of the fourth. After 2 bars piano chords come in, which will form the basis of the verse and chorus melody; these sound like minor sixths a step or so apart. A synth noise comes in before bass and a strong synth line drops at around the 0:40 mark. I don't know how they're making the particular "shooting star" synth sound that floats over the beat, but how I would make it would be to hook up a feedback loop through my four-track, compress and distort the signal, and then play with a pitch shifter. In addition, there are little whistles that play underneath. The bass follows the piano chords.
It continues in this semi-dub fashion until the vocals kick in at 2:06, quieting down about 20 seconds before this. A more contained version of the "shooting star" synth (sounds like a triangle/sine wave combo with a medium-length attack and then a decently long release, with some chorus in there too) doubles the melody, which settles around a strong tone (either the tonic or the fifth) at the end of the first three repetitions but then descends to a more illogical note at the end of the phrase. There are two phrases. The drum machine, bass, and piano continue under this, unaltered as it sounds like. The first verse is followed by a short chorus, where the piano doubles the melody with the synth accenting the first note. The melody is all sixteenths that is in some ways a double-time version of the regular verse melody, alternating between two close notes for the first two beats before proceeding stepwise down to a modulated repetition in the third beat and a descent to what I'm guessing is an augmented fifth (?) at the end. It repeats four times. The second verse and chorus proceed in exactly the same fashion.
There is then a break that starts with a beatless repetition of the chorus melody on piano and synth. This happens twice. Then there is a tempo and key shift and the piano and synth play the melody in a lower register for a few times before a counterpoint melody comes in on the synth.
Then there's a jump cut to the first bridge part, which is very short and does not occur again. The backing is an acoustic guitar played with a slide alternating between two notes over tambourine with piano and kick/hat accents at the end of the bar. Matthew sings vocals here and they're not really a lead, just another interlocking part in this little hook, where the guitar and vocals dominate for the first half and then drop out to make room for the piano and hat. It's all pretty precisely sequenced and very effective even in isolation. The slide ascends rapidly at the end of the section and there's a very sudden cut to the second bridge section, a transition (lacking any percussion and suddenly charging to a new instrument) that's highly reminiscent of their live set. This is the most bluesy part of the song, with a very strong electric guitar pentatonic riff forming the basis, more-or-less doubled by an acoustic. A kick drum thump punctuates the section from time to time, and Eleanor sings an appropriately bluesy melody. This repeats a few times and then there's a chord change that's much more Broadway than blues, although I can't identify it precisely. The electric and acoustic play a palm-muted lower-string riff that sounds like a quick alternation between a sixth and a fifth interval. Matthew picks the vocals back up and it's another mainly interlocking, three-note melody. The electric breaks out at the end of the bar and hits some high open strings. At the end of the section there's a descending sequence of quickly-picked notes leading to eighths, descending into the old chord, with a quick slide up after each note and a longer slide at the end leading back into the previous section. These two sections repeat as before.
After this there's what I'm going to call "The Goddamn Inuit Section." I don't really like TGIS. The backing is actually pretty nice, with an arpeggiated finger-picked acoustic, bass and tambourine/kick on the 2/4 setting off a synth line that mirrors the pretty melody. But good lord, it goes on two and a half minutes! And you don't really know what she's saying! Not much else happening besides some synth quivers, so let's move on.
After TGIS there's a short break that starts out with a synth/piano variation on the melody of the previous section which modulates into the chorus melody. Then there's a slight slowdown as it goes into a sort of plodding, bassy rendition of the chorus with basic kick instead of the drum machine. Then there's another break that's sort of a sea-whistle improv on the chorus melody, with no percussion. Then back into the verse, which has no drum machine, but a pipe organ is added. Matthew sings this. Then they go into the chorus with no change in orchestration, with Eleanor singing her usual chorus bit and Matthew singing a new bit over that. It then ends with a slower piano rendition of the chorus melody, with some left-hand accompaniment.
In chart form:
2:06-2:38 Verse 1 ("I had a locket..." to "...safe again.")
2:54-3:27 Verse 2 ("Up to the quarantine..." to "...up a storm.")
3:28-3:42 Chorus ("We hid beneath..." to "...we're cast.")
3:43-4:27 Break 1 (chorus melody w/key + tempo change)
4:28-4:47 Bridge 1 - Matthew ("The clouds..." to "...Bay Madagascar[sic].")
4:48-4:56 Bridge 2A1 -Eleanor ("Great gulps..." to "...through the fluke.")
4:57-5:21 Bridge 2B1 - Matthew ("A lobby..." to "...Sir Edward Pepsi.")
5:22-5:40 Bridge 2A2 -Eleanor ("Course it wasn't..." to "...without any cares.")
5:41-6:05 Bridge 2B - Matthew (as before)
6:06-8:32 Bridge 3 -Eleanor (the "goddamn inuit bridge")
8:33-9:02 Break 2 (nautical melody of Bridge 3 moving into Chorus melody)
9:03-9:14 Chorus 3 ("And now we live..." to "...our general any more.")
9:15-9:26 Break 3
9:27-9:58 Verse 3 - Matthew ("Down came..." to "...eyes were dull.")
9:59-10:25 Chorus - Matthew/Eleanor ("And as we pass..." to "...Barehaven to land" over "And now I'll never, never, never...")
I'm warming to this song the more I listen to it, but looking at the structure, I can't help but notice the intro being 2 minutes long and TGIS being 2 and a half, and think that maybe there were some missed opportunities for edits here.
The song begins with a girl being given a locket for protection. The girl works the docks, presumably as a prostitute, and feels safe until one day a ne'er-do-well tears off the locket and throws it in the ocean.
It then moves to a specific incident where the girl illegally sneaks onto a quarantined whaling (?(?) ship to get work, presumably because there's a captive audience as it were, but she finds that since the men can't get off the ship, her attempts to exploit the situation are stymied by the fact that the men do not have access to any additional cash besides what they have on them. She and her fellow prostitutes are waiting for the "all-clear" sign that no authorities are watching so they can get off the boat, but a storm comes up and they are trapped on the boat, hiding behind barrels of blubber. The storm is very fierce, and they are cast out to sea, which they think is because the anchor has broken, but it is in fact because they have been towed by, apparently, Bornean natives. They are sold, possibly into slavery, at Kobaba, which I'm going to guess is a port in Japan, but it could also be a misspelling of "Kobala," which is in the Netherlands. Let's all just chalk this up to poetic license and go with the Japan thing.
Meanwhile, we're also getting the perspective of a male crewmember who was, apparently, recruited for his skilled and then pressed into service by an aristocrat with the unlikely (and, indeed, made-up) name of "Sir Edward Pepsi."
After being sold, everyone bands together (or so it seems--both the male and female voices tell of an escape) to bribe the guards, slip down a chimney, and to reclaim their whaler, which they take north, apparently to wherever they speak Inuit, i.e. Alaska. The girl then either stays with the Eskimos for a while or already knows their language (seafaring father? Of Eskimo stock already?) because she's able to give a bunch of narration in said language. The crew finds themselves in dire straits (har har har)--the rigging breaks, they have no food, but five survive until they run aground in Barehaven, which is either in Ireland or Newfoundland, but given the context I'm going to go with Newfoundland.
All in all, aside from the Inuit section which I can't tell about, it's a whole coherent story, and a fairly interesting one, even if the moments of drama are a bit more buried in the music than they are in other songs--"Blueberry Boat" or "Chief Inspector Blancheflower," say. Speaking of which (the music, I mean) the music here mainly serves as a reinforcement to the lyrics. Maybe I need to listen a bit more closely, but I don't hear a lot of instances of the backing either counterpointing or commenting critically on the vocals. Mainly it just does what it's supposed to do: it sounds nautical in the nautical sections, slightly menacing in the sections about being unsafe, fast and exciting in the escape parts, etc.
The setting here is unclear. On the one hand, all signs point to a Pacific setting, except for the very European language of the dockside stuff ("killicks," "Sir Robert Pepsi," etc.). So there are two options: either they began in England and were towed to the Pacific straits, which seems unlikely, or they were in some European protectorate of an Asian country. I'm going to go vaguely with the latter, but I don't think it matters so much; it's mainly important that they start out in a Western setting, move into an Eastern setting, and take a detour in a Native setting. (Using archetypes here because I think it's the most useful thing.)
The way I'm going to frame this, going with the three-storylines idea I mentioned in the intro, is that this is a primary narration for Matthew's character, which is a future incarnation of the one introduced in "Blancheflower." Eleanor's character, however, is an ancestor of her character in "Blueberry Boat," and her verses of the song are that character's narration of her family history. I think Matthew's character remains consistent throughout and their occasional intersections culminate in the present-day suburban stuff which isn't present here but which we'll see later, mainly in "Chris Michaels" and "Blancheflower."
The song does a very good job of introducing a number of themes on the album, which I think is the best explanation for the placement of a somewhat confusing and relatively less hooky 10-minute track in the leadoff spot. It certainly does a good job of presenting the general nautical theme of the album, which is an interesting contrast with Gallowsbird's Bark, since in that album the narrator seemed to leap from place to place with little mention of transport. On Blueberry Boat, the transport plays a key role, and that's one reason why there's more languid sections in this album than on Gallowsbird's. Additionally, there are the first signs here of Matthew's playing with Victorian language and European settings.
I should mention the title, since it's actually pretty good. In the context of the song, "Quay Cur" likely refers to the "killick" who stole the girl's locket, since quay=dock, cur=scoundrel. But, of course, it also is a homonym for "Quaker," the American religion known as the "Society of Friends" which is pacifist and generally kind of hippie, and who had a large role in the founding of Pennsylvania. So this suggests a few things (even while quay cur itself suggests both the various port-based situations on the album as well as the general theme of malfeasence that crops up in almost every song). Aside from fitting in with the suggestion of religion that lurks behind their name, maybe the most direct reference on the album is to "My Dog Was Lost," which aside from explicitly stealing a line from the African-American spiritual "Amazing Grace," also ends up in a distinctly Pentecostal situation, I think, although more on this later. So there's a fascination, I think, with uniquely American religions, which is also at the heart of the blues, a form the Furnaces play with a lot. But at the same time, the Quakers were religious outlaws who emigrated to America. Most of the movement in this album seems to be from America to Europe, actually, but I think it touches nicely on the theme of immigration and movement across national borders that's probably important in some way I haven't figured out yet.
So that's "Quay Cur." Doing it has suggested a few things I might want to do in the future, like note in the structural layout when there's tempo or key changes, or to maybe do a bit more analysis, but eh, let's go with this. "Straight Street" next.
UPDATE: Matthew has a translation of the Inuit bridge (#3).