clap clap blog: we have moved
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.