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Thursday, September 02, 2004
BB #04: CHRIS MICHAELS
"Did you miss meeeeeee..."
Intro, one, two, three.
A brief note here: I have come to realize that these sections are both the most time-consuming to write and the least interesting to read. (Not uninteresting, mind, just of lesser appeal than the textual analysis/interpretation.) And so, mostly in the interest of my own sanity/productivity, but with the knowledge that I won't get too many complaints, I'm going to try and tone this section back a bit, filling it out if/when I do a full compendium if there's need.
In general, this is one of the few rocking songs on the disc; critics as well as Matt himself (who's following who is hard to tell) have singled it out as a real Who-derived song in light of Matt's comments that Blueberry Boat was inspired in part by Townsend and co.'s "Rael." That never comparison has never really connected for me, but I guess there aren't a whole lot of other antecedents for allegro-paced clean drums/guitar rock songs with melodic as opposed to strictly rhythmic piano stuff. I feel like there's a considerably better comparison outside of the prog spectrum, but since I can't think of one, let's grant the Who thing.
It starts off with a solo acoustic guitar strumming a chord for a few seconds before Eleanor's vocals drop in, followed by a bass leading into the stinger for this opening section, which adds a melodic piano line and drums, which do have a distinctly Keith Moon-ish feel here with their continual fills (never much drop to kick-snare-hat-kick-snare-hat) interspersed with phrase-emphasizing shadow rhythms. The vocal line is quite nice, but has no particular stylistic or allusive quality; I do quite like the way it repeats a phrase twice before the chorus over different chords, then at the end of the stinger rises atypically right into the first note of the verse, a bit like those jump-rope rhymes that head toward a naughty rhyme at the end of the couplet but is revealed to be a non-naughty homophone beginning the subsequent couplet, i.e. "Miss Susie has a steamboat, the steamboat has a bell Miss Susie went to Heaven, the steamboat went to hell-o operator, please give me # 9, and if you disconnect me, I'll kick you from be-hind the 'fridgerator' there lays a piece of glass, Miss Susie sat upon it and cut her little ass- k me no more questions..." Sorry, I could quote that forever. They almost said "ass!" Tee hee!
So anyway, this goes on for a bit, then there's an actual chorus (I don't throw around "stinger" for no reason, kids), in which the piano drops to a minor chord, followed by the bass, and then it ascends back up. Once around with this, then a few more verse/stinger pairs, another chorus, and into the second section, which starts on a minor 7th (I think) that feels like an ascension, adding a synth note following the root and regularizing the drums to a kick thump with crash on the 1. This is the bit where Matt sings "Plume bloom bloom blaby bloom/cheep cheep beep bee-bee beep" and he does vocals for the whole section. So we get a bit of verse, a lower chord, the "beep beep" bit which is louder, it descends to a new chord and has a measure with only 3 beats, then a part with arpeggiated piano and no crash, then another "beep beep" section that ends as the previous one did, and a tempo change into the third section.
Here it slows down and we're back to acoustic guitar, with a strummed/trem'ed electric providing counterpoint. It's structured a lot like the first section: quiet verse and loud stinger/chorus with full drums and otherwise, where the Moon-isms continue (the drum lead-in to the section is a full bar of rolls). The second time around there's a cello. Eleanor sings this, beginning with "Remember that girlfriend of Al's..." The melody is very strong and particular.
Then there's a slight speed-up into the fourth section, which Matt sings as it begins, or rather speak-sings. Again we're back to acoustic and electric, with the electric doing the wandering-wah'd solo that's all over this album as well as their recent live shows. The vocals are laid-back and narrative. Then there's a chorus that Eleanor sings that's a bit more disciplined melodically, and again very nice. The electric drops out and a piano and synth come in, playing straight chords. Also, drums. This repeats.
Then a big whonk on all the instruments and a rest before we go into the fifth section, which is great and kind of nuts. Here's where it stops bearing any resemblance to the Who, unless Pete did some secret side project with Harry Partch when he was really stoned. Beyond that, I'm having a hard time pegging exactly what it is this section sounds like. It's driven by the vocals, which at this point I have a hard time describing as anything besides "sounding a lot like Eleanor Friedberger"; it strikes me as what she'd come up with if you caught her singing to herself, and in that regard it's a lot like the stuff on Gallowsbird's--"Leaky Tunnel" springs most readily to mind. She goes haywire with the meter, sometimes doing a bar of 4 then 3 then two of four, then some random 3, etc. But what's interesting is that it's shadowed by the piano, both rhythmically and melodically. Meanwhile, there are bells firing off in between the notes as they rise at the end of phrases; in some ways, it's the ultimate but different expression of the very live, in-room sound you hear on a lot of Furnaces recordings, in the sense that everything here is acoustic and could conceivably be played at once. Very nice.
This only lasts for about 30 seconds, and then we're into the sixth section, aka the "Subcontinent Section." The tempo slows and we're back into classic rock territory, except not like even kinda proggish, just totally classic-rock, like if this was its own song and the guitars were a bit louder, it'd be Skynard or something. A real groover. Full drums, piano, bass, and two electric guitars, all pounding out a similar rhythm and even melody at the end of the phrase. Almost sounds like the outro to "Layla" but more rocking. Occasional synth noises. Good Moon-isms. Everything pauses sometimes and we get double-tracked Eleanor, or possibly Eleanor/Matt, hard to tell. It could totally launch into a solo if they wanted. Those little breaks.
Then the final section, which Matt sings, and it alternates between verses that sound like the early verses, strummed acoustic and little breaks interspersed with distinctly nautical/naturalistic choruses, all swooning strings and flowing rhythms. The whole song ends on a synth buzz.
In chart form:
0:00-0:29 Verse 1 (Eleanor)
0:44-1:09 Verse 2
1:26-1:42 Chorus (Matt)
2:00-2:12 Verse 1 (Eleanor)
2:30-2:51 Verse 2
3:08-3:26 Verse 1 (Matt)
3:27-3:46 Chorus (Eleanor)
3:47-4:02 Verse 2 (Matt)
4:26-4:57 Verse (Eleanor, "crazy part")
4:58-6:42 Verse (Eleanor, Subcontinent section)
6:43-6:51 Verse 1 (Matt)
7:10-7:21 Verse 2
This song strikes me as a bit like a Wes Anderson film: overdramatized high school banalities interspersed with incongruous or even absurdist flights of fancy. I'm not sure I'm tracing all this right, and it probably wasn't meant to make storyline-sense, but nevertheless, I can make one up that I'd be willing to stand behind. Here it is.
Eleanor is playing a character named Melinda. There is a new girl named Jessica at her high school who is clawing her way to the top of the social hierarchy, and Melinda doesn't like her at all. Melinda especially doesn't like Jessica when Melinda overhears her trying to disparage Melinda to the old folks' home where Melinda does her community service, telling them that Melinda is a woman of ill repute, has a babydaddy (and not the gay kind, either), etc. When Melinda confronts Jessica the next day about this, Jessica gets all alpha-girl and blows her off.
We then get a glimpse of Jessica talking to her hockey-playing boyfriend, Tony, which scenario may simply be a figment of Melinda's imagination, as she don't seem too stable. Jessica is doting on Tony and lets her queen-bee guard down, but Tony is distracted, imagining Jessica as a bird wearing a blue-green sweater--note that blue-green is the color scheme for the artwork on Blueberry Boat--and holding sticks in her beak while drinking dripping water. Tony then asks what went on at school today, which could mean one of two things: either he goes to a different school from Jessica, or he goes to the same school but didn't know where she was at lunch. He then gets shot down for a date, which seems odd, although maybe this is simply Jessica's reaction to Tony being distracted. Again, this could all be taking place in Melinda's mind, which would explain the odd bird imagery and the imagined strife, in addition to making the "Did Kevin and Jenny show?" line a reflection of Melinda's yearning for a relationship.
So Melinda clearly wants to start some shit. But how? She thinks back to a previous incident, in which she flirted with a guy named Al whose girlfriend was a longtime friend of hers. Melinda so charmed Al (go with me here) that it broke up their relationship and pissed Al's girlfriend/Melinda's friend off to an immeasurable degree.
What this suggests to Melinda that the person to go after is not the boy, but the girl. And so she puts the information in Jessica's head, Iago-style (OK, I'm just freestyling now), that Tony has been cheating. But this is not a delusion; it is in fact true, because when Jessica confronts him, Tony gets all nervous and "wondered who had spied." This makes him paranoid, and he starts to take precautions like only communicating with his, uh, mistress (Jenny?!) in baby talk with the windows closed, even though he knows Jessica is out driving. We're not privy to the details behind any of this, either as to how Melinda gets the information, how she relays it to Jessica in a way that retains her trust, nor who and how Tony's a-cheatin'.
At any rate, this apparently fails to break up Tony and Jessica, so Melinda goes a little nuts, again Iago-stylee, stealing the credit card of a guy named Chris Michaels and using it to charge various things, in direct violation of federal law (trust me on this one). Tony has gone off on a trip to Columbia for the hockey team and Melinda waits at the airport to meet him when he comes back and possibly confront him. But he doesn't come back; he has stayed in Columbia to mend his broken heart, although the sounds of nature serve only to remind him that love is eternally fleeting.
Melinda, incensed, leaves a message on his phone. It purports to be a sort of family history that would serve as a fable for what you should be willing to do for love, except it's unclear if Melinda heard it from a relative, heard it from some dude in the Aden airport, or just made it up out of her crazy crazy head.
At any rate, having no idea what a lot of the stuff in this section means, I decided to turn it over to my friend Alex Vaughan, who's spent a decent amount of time in the subcontinent, and what he came up with was so good that I'm just going to let him handle this part. Just to mention, though, he wasn't familiar with the song when he did this interpretation, and he actually didn't even know a girl was singing it. I think it works incredibly well, though. So take it away, Alex.
One of the things I really like about the song is its title--before I actually went through and traced the character lines, I thought Chris Michaels was somehow an important figure in the narrative. But he's not: he's just the dude whose credit card Melinda steals. We never even see him. Moreover, given that the credit card is stolen from a purse, presumably the credit card was actually not even the purse owner's to begin with, and thus was in the possession of someone in high school whose parent had given them the parent's Visa for emergencies.
Some of the music/text pairing make a lot of sense; in fact, it makes sense the whole way through until we get to the subcontinent section, really. The Who-isms at the start evoke a period high school piece in the way the more literal Who-isms did in Freaks and Geeks. When it shifts to the crazy bit is actually when Melinda is going crazy with the credit card and the phone call. But the actual music of the section in India doesn't fit much, even though it's very nice. It would probably have been cheezily literal to have Desi-esque music during the colonial Indian bit.
This is basically the backstory, or to see it in explicitly novelistic terms, the first chapter/section, of the characters we see in all the rest of the present-day songs. (Quay Cur and another song yet to be named here being conceived of as flashback or ancestral memory/story.) It takes place in a Michican suburb of Chicago such as , which I'm calling because of a) the Michigan reference in "Blueberry Boat," b) the Chicago reference in "Spainolated" and c) the mention of Gunzo's in this song, which is indeed "the major hockey equipment supplier for the Chicago area." If anyone has any more specific guess about what town it is, feel free to chime in--the only other place-specific name is "Wolf Road," of which there is one in many towns, I assume, but sometimes it's a more major thoroughfare, such as in Albany, where it's one of the big commercial strips. Then again, a Michigan suburb of Chicago would be way unweildy, so maybe they've moved from Michigan to the Chicagoland area. It could, of course, also be Oak Park, IL, where the siblings F. are from. So maybe it's best to assume Eleanor's character was born in Michigan and moved to somewhere like Oak Park, which would explain some of her social awkwardness.
At the end of the song, I think Eleanor's character ("Melinda") flees to Spain to escape the law as a result of her credit card fraud, and Matt's character ("Tony") has settled in South America to mend his broken heart. This song, along with "Blancheflower," are the only two places on the album where it feels enclosed, lyrically--everywhere else it feels impressionistic and expansive, like with the great distances traveled in "Straight Street" or "Blueberry Boat." But here everything is hemmed in and small, little disputes and little places all circling around and around. And so you can see the end of this song as kind of a good thing, with the two characters in question managing to totally escape their small town for a more rootless existence (although only temporarily in Tony's case, I think). Or, if you're more Biblically inclined, you can see it as an expulsion from paradise for their sins, especially given that in a recent interview Matt spoke of Oak Park as "a very pleasant place...very easy." But either way, most Chicago suburbs where teenagers would have their own credit cards tend to be places limited by their priviledge, in a way, places where you aren't forced to make the kind of compromises you see Eleanor's character making in "Straight Street," and the fact that these kids have to face those realities instead of being able to ignore them from their position of affluence is probably a point in their favor. So again (and there's a Wes Anderson comparison here, too), it's sort of about the corrupt world, but in a way seeing that as a good thing. Or maybe not--Melinda certainly does seem to be unhinged. And, of course, the crime she commits that forces her to flee is explicitly one of commerce, while Matt is almost literally swallowed by the outside world. He goes and does not return.
To tip my hand a very small bit here, I will say that Eleanor's story continues with "Spainolated," and Matt's continues with "Blancheflower." But we'll get to those later.
 This is officially the most annoying website in the entire universe. I screamed out loud at work while viewing it.
 Whoa, I just surprised myself with my own nerdiness.
 What the hell do you call your on-the-side highschool fuck-buddy?
 I'm being generous, of course; with all the queen-bee talk it seems not unlikely that they go to the kind of high school where the kids have credit cards of their own just for regular spendin'.