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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...)