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Thursday, May 13, 2004
ROCK 'N' ROLL BON MOTS #010
(note: this should have been posted a week ago, but I'm obviously behind)
There's something just plain old fun about listening to LCD Soundsystem's "Losing My Edge" on a crowded L Train, especially when you haven't in a while: you look around and you see overdressed girls with dyed hair and wee little men in tough little outfits and you hear something about "little jackets" and you hear something about "you want to make something real, you want to make a Yaz record" and it just makes you smile, and then it gets to Bedford just as he starts yelling band names and almost no one gets off and you guess Graham Ave. is the hot spot now.
But I'm not trying to rip on these people, because, hell, I'm one of these people. (Although it does feel weird to ride on the L now after spending a while on the A.) I'm really saying it's fun, because in the place that the song should have the most venemous impact, it stands revealed as something not angry at all, but wholly celebratory; if you can't catch the hint of affection in his voice, you shouldn't be able to miss it from the music, which just sounds like jumping. And then you look and there's a very cute little baby with his mother, and the baby is smiling, and yes, that seems like the song, too.
posted by Mike B. at 2:10 PM 0 comments
In the apparent contest between Kanye West and Ghostface for the best hip-hop album of the year (or, probably, the best hip-hop album of the first half of the year, let's be honest here), right now I guess I'm going to have to go with Kanye, although I'm not even going to pretend this is an objective statement: I've always liked Kanye's production style over what Ghostface is using, which is to say (gulp) that I'm not the biggest soul fan in the world.
But that said--and with, maybe, more on Kanye later--I'm really big on two particular songs on The Pretty Toney Album (a title I love, incidentally--it's a great bit of the kind of vague terminology): "It's Over" and "Tooken Back."
"It's Over" is one of the saddest hip-hop songs I've heard, starting at a familiar places (bitches and fame and so forth) but taking it to a new endpoint--giving it an endpoint at all, really--and while that certainly goes along with soul (as pointed out by Ms. Berry in the Voice), something here feels different. There's the beat, of course, harder than in soul, but the lyrics feel different. There's nothing to penetrate. As I said about the slow-jam mechanics of "Fuck It," what would normally be hidden under levels of referents familiar to enthusiasts but banal to outsiders is here brought to the surface. At the most basic level, I like "It's Over" because, unlike half the songs on the album, there's specificity in the situation, and each verse is an actual narrative. Not just a generic narrative like what I tend to hear in soul music, but something couched in very particular details. It's cinematic in the way that a lot of hip-hop tries to play with merely using production; there's no question that G-Unit's "Stunt 101," for instance, sounds like a Mafia movie, but the lyrics don't really bear any relation. Here, they do. You don't just hear the woman walking out of the hotel in slow-motion; you see it, too.
And the whole position of the song is one of regret. There's always an element of power dynamics in hip-hop, but I think here it's mixing it with the soul position of showy confession; he's not only admitting that he cheated, he's going into sorta lavicious detail about what exactly the cheating involved. Sort of like "White Lines," he's trying to make the case that he was wrong, but he's not denying how much fun the partying was. There's some anger at the second verse about the possibly disproportionate punishment for his infidelity ("There goes the car, house, rhyme boats or jewelry / Court date judges, my shorty tried to screw me"), but there's also honest about the reaction: when he sees his wife, he's speechless, immobile, unable to do or say anything while it all falls apart. Obviously that's the whole position of the song, but he doesn't shirk from it, even as he puts a twist on it that separates it from soul. It's about that moment, that sinking feeling, when you know you fucked up and nothing's going to fix it, and it portrays that really well.
Musically, I like how the verses do a nice variation on the sample-from-an-old-soul-song chorus, taking the nice two-chord fall and mixing it up a bit, taking out the backup vocals (obviously, as is common) and toning down the piano to a few little tinkles, while letting the tambourine define the chorus (always a good idea) and breaking up the bassline. It does a simultaneous thing with orchestra hits that alternate melodically with the piano bits, by and large. A few mid-range string trills mark the end of the loop, and a few "overs" make their way in, low, but the focus is mainly on the chord change, not the chords themselves, and that's nice.
In contrast, the backing track for "Tooken Back" basically takes an old Emotions song, loops a line over the verse, and takes the whole accompaniment for the progression. All they really have to do for the chorus is slide in the vocals, and while that works, obviously the great thing is the line they choose to loop, which slides easily into the call-and-response we hear between Ghostface and Jackie-O. The main differentiation with the chorus is actually a slowing of the vocal pattern, from sixteenths to sung quarters, and it's sweet; given the male-female-male arrangement of the three verses, it feels like a break in the argument, a declination between rants. But the whole thing is of a piece; there aren't any clear breaks in the arrangement of the backing.
It would seem like "Tooken Back" should contrast with "It's Over" lyrically, too, seeing as how it seems to be a plea from the female for the man to take her back, whereas if that attitude was present in "It's Over," it would certainly be the other way around. But while the first verse is angry, starting off with a few funny, cartoony lines ("You brought me on Jerry just to take you back / After that bullshit you put me through a couple months back / That wasn't right, call the cops on me, and told them I had it...Once I heard that, I fell out the cop car, real hard") but then proceeding to, again, the kind of very particular details that separate it from what we'd expect to hear, complaining about the price of steak. Still, the ball's in the woman's court.
And she takes it and runs with it in the second verse. Not begging, but being very straight with it, making the case that for everything that was good, there was shit to deal with ("And your sex wasn't wild....but I dealt with it / I always felt shitted, you should of take me back") and she did without complaint. But now that she's being called on, now that she's having to defend her defense, she's saying that he didn't know how good he had it, and no matter what she did, if he knows what's best, he'll take her back. The sample turns into an assertion, and then into a taunt.
So the third verse resolves, nicely, to the Soul Position, almost hilariously so ("Take me please, take me with ease / Take me back, God damn, and scrape marks on my knees"), but also touchingly. He's not gonna lie, either, and he knows what he likes, but he also knows she's got it and he could lose it--see "It's Over." He uses the kind of personal, romantic details you'd expect to see in an indie romantic comedy or something ("'Member the first time you made my key / You was drunk, you went behind a tree and peed") and it's really kind of winning. Winning in a different way from the Temptations saying "Ain't too proud to beg"--but not that different.
 There's also one track with this fantastic verse about being in a party and horny and trying to find someone to fuck but his ex has converted to Islam so he has to find his current. What song is that? Admittedly some of the album is a blur, as I was zoning on the A train at the time, so maybe my opinion of the two will reverse over time.
 Just to be open about my ignorance of soul here, the counter-example that immediately sprung to mind was "Under the Boardwalk," whose site-specific images are a big draw.
posted by Mike B. at 12:52 PM 0 comments
Via our usual anonymous source, here's the latest Klosterman column. It is about KILLER ROBOTS. It is not about killer Probots. (latter link via Flyboy.)
posted by Mike B. at 12:40 PM 0 comments
It's kind of weird when you search for "courtney love" on BlogPulse thinking, of course, that this would be the easiest way to determine if ccb was listed there and come up with a teenager's blog who apparently misses and loves his girlfriend, Courtney, to the degree that it's the tagline to every post. Kids these days with their hockey and school and girlfriends. Don't they know that what's important is applying post-colonial theory to pop music?
posted by Mike B. at 11:47 AM 0 comments
So I'm thinking of going to this bit of geekery (i.e. "A discussion of the book This Is Pop,"also mentioned on blissblog), seeing as how it's got people I like (Klosterman, Reynolds, etc.) and is, what, six blocks away from where I work? Something like that. But also I wouldn't mind recording. So if someone wants to give me a compelling reason to go, I will. Otherwise, it's demo time.
posted by Mike B. at 11:31 AM 0 comments
Wednesday, May 12, 2004
...and some people from The Sopranos, for some reason
Last night it was humid and hot. It rained and then stopped. It was generally unpleasant to be alive in NYC, and you'd think the last thing one would want to do would be cram into an old theater with a full house and no air conditioning.
But no, last night was awesome.
Because last night I went to the Apollo, and I saw a program featuring, among others, Bill Clinton and John Mellencamp. And it was awesome.
We'd heard about it a while back and decided to make the plunge--the tickets were a little pricey, but a) all proceeds went to an organization working to register low-income folks to vote, which is always nice, and b) it sort of sounded perfect. And oh, it was.
First off, the situation: 125th street really has been taken over; it's hard to feel too badass when you realize you're walking past an Old Navy. Keepin' it real. I waited outside for a while and quickly felt poorer than I have in quite some time, the event being a fundraiser, after all, and primarily attended by affluent-looking NY liberals. And younger! I think me and my lovely companion were the youngest people there not brought by parents. It was kind of fun to wait outside, though--I saw this couple get out of a car, and the woman was foxxy, but the guy was wearing this heinous neon-green-and-purple shiny shirt under a jogging suit, and I thought, "Who's that dork with her?" Then I looked closer and thought, "Oh, it's Lou Reed. Hi, Lou!"
The event itself basically got Right To The Clinton, after about four introductions from Rosie Perez, Willem Dafoe, a state senator from Harlem, and maybe someone else, although I might just be remembering when the stagehand came out and moved the podium so everyone could see. And then President Clinton walked out.
He started speaking, and it was great. Great rhythm, great points, lotsa laugh lines. And then I looked down at the podium (had a good view of the top of it from the second balcony) and realized...he had no speech. Not even notes. And he spoke for a good 30, 40 minutes, and he used a whole lot of fairly specific statistics. And it all just flew. He started off by saying, too, that he'd been "locked in writer's jail" for the last two weeks, trying to finish his book, so this was like a furlough. That was funny, but it also suggests that he just came up with what he was going to say on the car ride down. Wow.
So what did he say? Well, he started off by mentioning that his office was two blocks away, and so he welcomed us to the neighborhood, which was all kinds of awesome. He talked about a guy who said, "They told me that if I supported your health care plan, my costs would go up. Well, I supported it, and they've sure gone up!" He talked about how we'd all been united after 9/11 and how, despite the thin margin of victory, it had been used as an excuse to drive the country to the right. "They saw our patriotism and took it as weakness," he said.
He talked about the two stupid tax cuts, but one of the cool things was he didn't say "their tax cut," he kept saying "my tax cut" or "my $5,000," as in, "They took 300,000 kids out of after-school programs to protect my $5,000. Now they want to take another 1.2 million of the neediest children out of those programs." Pretty awesome. At one point he said, "You know, those people were so mean to me when I was in office, and now that I'm out all they can think about is protecting my $5,000!" He talked, too, about how the tax cut was pushed through at the expense of keeping cops on the street, of checking containers for hazardous materials...good stuff.
What else? Oh, his overarching theme was how easy it should be for Democrats to win the election. (He only mentioned Kerry once, but this was ostensibly a non-partisan event.) He laid out how we had 45% of the country already, and the Republicans had 45%, and so we just needed to focus on getting that 45% out to vote, and on capturing enough of the 10% undecided. He said that all we need to do is let people know what the administration has done by taking cops off the street, by abandoning needy children, by failing to protect us from terrorism, by getting our sons and daughters and friends and neighbors killed. He didn't mention Iraq very much, but in many ways, he didn't need to; I think he laid out a much-needed, and very convincing, case on how vulnerable Bush was on domestic issues.
I'm blanking on any more specifics, but suffice to say it was really amazing. He's just an incredible speaker, informal and intimate, warm, funny, and smart as fuckin' hell. I remember that he said, in the course of laying out his case for how easy it should be for Dems, that we don't need to be angry about it, because all we need to do is tell the truth. "Don't be venomous; smile; be glad."
After him followed...well, followed a lot of cheering and catching one's breath, and then (gasp!), John Mellencamp, who came out with an acoustic and did "Rockin' in the USA" by himself, then a song off his new album (forgot which one) with a violinist, then "Little Pink Houses" (!!!) with the violinist and three backup singers who walked in during the end of the last song, which is sort of how I want my life to go. How was it? It was fucking fantastic.
Then there were some speakers, none of whom were particularly noteworthy. I think the woman from Voices for Change came out and explained the organization, which sounds great, and then the two MoveOn people came out, and talked about their organization, which was funny because, as my lovely companion pointed out, they couldn't mention the, er, actual issue that started them off because, well, because the person it concerned had spoken previously in the evening. None of them were very engaging, but that's OK.
After they were done, Savion Glover came out, and I was like, oh no, Savion Glover, and he started to tap-dance, but then he did a routine that...well, I guess if I were a McSweeney's editor, I would title it "Savion Glover Hums 'The Star-Spangled Banner' While Pretty Much Going Completely Batshit With The Tapping." It was pretty great. Then Sandra Bernhard came out and tried to do some comedy and was pretty bad. And then Wyclef Jean came out with a three-piece band and did this great, weird set, in which he tried to get the whole crowd of aging affluent white liberals to dance, and succeeded, but...AT WHAT COST? Well, at the cost of me seeing a bunch of old sober people dance, which was awesome. I forget the first song he played, but then he played "If I Was President," and got us singing along, and then he played--swear to god--"Hot Hot Hot," the Caribbean classic once covered by Buster Poindexter. Again, it was awesome. It was like a 15-minute set, but he played the hell out of it.
Then Rosie came back out and did some shoutouts to celebs in the audience and I somehow managed not to yell "Tell Lou Reed to do Kung Fu!" Then Black Eyed Peas came out and did a set that felt weird at first because all the other performers had interacted with the audience a lot, or at least felt like they were really responding to the room, whereas the Peas more felt like they were Doing Their Set. But everyone settled into it after a while, and it helped, of course, that they started off with "Hey Mama," which apparently involves the female Pea doing a lot of ass-shaking, and that was just fine. (Neither me nor my lovely companion had realized how hot she was. She is very hot.) And then they did "Where is the Love," of course, and that was fine. And then they brought Odessa, an older singer of African folk music, and they all did "We Shall Overcome" and all the aging hippies in the audience sang along and held hands and swayed, and the whole thing made me feel really uncomfortable, although I suppose I wasn't entirely happy with that reaction. Still, it was a little weird. I'm going to put it down to concern for the architecture.
And that was it! Bill Clinton, "Little Pink Houses," a batshit anthem, old people dancing, and hot girls shaking their booty. Pretty great. I know I'm forgetting a thing or two, but perhaps my lovely companion will add her impressions in the comments.
 They're my people, but you know what I'm saying here.
 There was also someone from ANSWER out front, which was kind of funny. He was handing out flyers asking "What's the difference between a Republican war and a Democratic war? A matter of style?" Ah, the cute little Maoists...
 For Jesse's benefit: 1) no, he did not do kung fu, although I was tempted to yell something; 2) no brown stains on the pants were visible, and 3) I'm fairly certain the foxx wasn't Laurie Anderson, although color me impressed if I'm wrong.
 Later I was asked if it was the first time I'd seen Lou Reed in the flesh. I said, "I guess so, but I feel like I see him all the time." My lovely companion stared at me for a second and then pointed out that I have a picture of Lou hanging in my living room, and that this might perchance account for the feeling of deja vu. Oops. Stupid simulacra.
 As he was referred to all night, which was kinda awesome.
 OK, I got a little teary here.
 You'll have to forgive me; I'm really amused by this.
 Who I should probably be familiar with, but I suck.
posted by Mike B. at 12:36 PM 0 comments
Tuesday, May 11, 2004
In retrospect, I feel kinda bad that my analysis of "Why Can't I?" was wholly lyrical. That's the kind of thing that I get mad at others for doing! Ah well. Maybe I'll amend it sometime; it's fairly interesting musically, too. But people did seem to like that post, so yar.
posted by Mike B. at 5:54 PM 0 comments
I had forgotten something until this morning, and that something was that I used to hold up Built to Spill's "Carry the Zero" as a model for songwriting--or, at least, the last minute-and-a-half thereof. Piping it straight into the ol' cortex during the train ride this morning, I remembered, and the simple fact that I hadn't thought of this for a year and a half didn't matter. It was still true.
The song itself carries fairly specific memories. I came to Keep It Like a Secret somewhat late, I think, but this was back in the days when I came to most music somewhat late. And it took a while to really grab me--sure, I liked "You Were Wrong" same as everyone else, but the rest of the songs were hard to differentiate for some reason. But then--and I'm still a little unclear on the sequence--I just got absolutely obsessed with "Carry the Zero." And so I have this particular image of crossing the park and the main quad at college, walking to the library and listening to the song. I have almost exactly the same image for Radiohead's "Just" and "My Iron Lung"--same place, same situation, same feeling. Those songs, so focused on guitars, grabbed me and shook me and I heard them as, I think, they were meant to be heard, or at least as I imagine they must have sounded the first few times the respective bands played them in rehearsal. (My experience has been that a song you're playing rarely sounds better than the third or fourth time you play it, when you first nail it. Everything after that is just a shadow, because the revelation is in the parts actually coming together in a mellifluous, or rockin', way.) It was hearing the guitars, and specifically the guitars, although drums helped to, come together in this way that almost made me feel like I was doing, like they were doing exactly what I wanted to. Evidence of my particular obsession with CT0 would be on the CD itself, which to this day skips in the same exact two places after the second chorus, every time I play it. Although I suppose it helps that I've had the same discman for 5 years now. (Go Philips!)
The track starts out about as simply as rock song can: a chord progression on the guitar with a few little fills to liven things up (sus4s, slides up to the 2nd/6th, etc.) followed closely by the bass, and a leadline, primarily on slide guitar. The lead backs off for the verse and comes back up at the end, leading into a solo before the next section. The chord progression is incredibly easy. I can't quite suss it out without my guitar handy, but I know it's probably a fourth falling into the tonic, then probably a V7 into a minor second. Sure, it's nice when a rock progression doesn't start on the I, but it's hardly innovative, and, theory aside, it's just not very distinctive. There are chord progressions you can hum (think of Smells Like Teen Spirit, although I suppose this is somewhat cheating) and this isn't one of them. What's primarily interesting about the chords is the sound of the rhythm guitar, showcased a capella at the start of the track. It's roughly the same rhythm guitar sound on the rest of the album (is this Martsch's guitar, or Netson's? I'm not entirely familiar with their lineup dances), and it's a really great sound to build a song around--trebly but full, especially when strummed hard, as it almost always is, like an acoustic. To me, it's always been the sound of a Strat or a hollowbody with really, really fresh strings and the tone about 1/3 down, so that snap comes more from the glint on the metal than the dictates of the pickups, run without any pedals into a tube amp (maybe a Marshall, but more likely a Vox AC30 or a Fender Super 6) with the gain/pre-amp up a little shy of half and the treble a notch above the bass. It's a lovely little sound. There's not too much distortion, so individual strings get a chance to shine, but there's also enough crunch to really emphasize the bass strings.
The lead guitar is, as noted, primarily slide, and not that distinctive through the first half of the song. It's fine, of course, and some of the backwards feedback looping under the verses is nice, but primarily it serves as a sort of alternate melody to the vocal line which is just about as interesting as the vocal line, which is to say not very. It drives the progression through what inexplicably feels like 3 separate sections after the first verse vocals end at 1:12, even though the only real difference is the rhythm guitar dropping out at first, then switching to a repetitive lead bit instead of the chords after the first two repetitions of the progression, which then broadens into another slidey part after the fourth repetition. The main thing you can say about it is that it really does progress in the way you sort of wish the vocals would in these early verses, driving to some point at the end of sections and then loping up to a new center for the next repetition. It's interesting that although it really is the same progression throughout, there are constant feelings of transitions, and the best explanation I can come up with for this, aside from the little guitar bits that get added each time (which of course help but don't seem sufficient for the degree of breakitude I'm feeling here), is that because it doesn't start on the I, and because that minor second really wants to resolve to the I, the different interval tricks you into thinking it's gone into a minor-key prechorus or something when it hasn't.
The rhythm guitar comes crashing back in with its by-now familiar chordal tone with the second verse vocals around 2:15. But what was holding down the chords during the interverse solo? Backtracking, it becomes clear that it was, in fact, an acoustic, and this acoustic has probably been there all along, doubling the electric's chordal rhythm. It feels more prominent in the mix during the second verse, although it could just be that I'm noticing it more, and it's precisely this acoustic guitar that leads us into the second half of the song. What's significant about it isn't the chords or the tone or anything besides the simple fact that it's closely following the snare drum, or vice versa. This is very nice because an acoustic snare drum and an acoustic guitar share a pretty similar sonic space, a mix of woodiness and gritty metal, midrange but with a high-end pop. They're not like the electric guitar, which often gets distorted and compressed into a strict midrange, and in a busy mix like this, the main thing that stands out for those two instruments is that initial pop of the snares against the bottom head on the drum (rather than the impact of the stick onto the top head), and the sharp impact of the pick against the strings. When there's more than, say, one electric guitar in a mix, or when something's closely following an acoustic, all you mainly get is a vague sense of the chords and a strong sense of the strumming rhythm. And here, they're panned opposite, I think, and they're almost precisely following each other. I can't tell which is leading, but regardless, there's a strong relationship between the beat and the strum. This is important; remember it for a second.
But let's quickly map out what leads us from the second verse into the coda. There are 2 repetitions with the vocal line the same as it was in the first verse. Then in the 3rd rep, Martsch changes it slightly, going up higher, and then the end of the 4th rep, which starts like a normal first-verse line, rises up at the end, and there's a transition (at around 2:55--and this is, in my mind, where the second half of the song actually starts, although we have another minute to go before the actual coda) that, like in the solo, is no transition at all, since the chords remain the same, and the only thing that changes is the vocal "lead line" and the rhythm electric switching to a riff, which of course again exposes that acoustic guitar strum. Martsch's vocals hover close to the top of his range, and for two reps sing a repeated four-note figure (eighth-quarter-quarter-eighth-rest, or -leadintonextnote) that I'm pretty sure is either D-B-A-B or G-E-D-E, assuming that the song's in E, which I am, judging by the voicing I'm hearing on the chords. More importantly, however, it's doing just what the lead guitar was doing during the first solo, coming to peaks and then rising up at the beginning of the next cycle, creating a feeling of movement rather than simple addition. The four-note motif is then followed, for two reps, by a more elongated line that moves more slowly through, I think, basically the same four notes. After finishing this, something important happens here at 3:34: there's a new chord progression. (Not a very interesting one, mind you, but a good one.) Now, this is interesting, because it's not actually a clear break--that'll come a few bars later. It's actually presaging that without being overstated about it, or undercutting the impact of that break, by going along with the vocal line, and by not adding any elements. The chords switch to IV-IV-I-I and the vocal line largely shadows that, singing eighths for the IVs and then drawing out a tonic over the Is. It does four reps of this, and then, right at 4:00, we begin...the coda.
Thinking on it, it seems likely that this song got replaced as a model for me because what I really liked about it--the monumental instrumental coda, or MIC--was done in a different, and perhaps more immediate, way on at least half the songs on the first New Pornographers album. There, some of the best songs basically follow the model of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-coda, where the coda is a building, repeated motif overlaid with a buncha riffs and a whole buncha vocals, sometimes in rondo or counterpoint form. Off the top of my head, I know that "Mass Romantic" and "Execution Day" do this, and there are a bunch more. What was appealing about this model, of course, was a) the rest of the song was just as good, if not better, than the coda, which is way far from the case with CT0, and b) there are lotsa great vocals. Indeed, I'm not sure if I'd be able to recapture the BTS coda model anymore; my codas tend, now, to be more choral exercises, and the rapturous instrumental workouts usually get their own songs, or bridges. But it's worth returning to, I think.
And so right at the beginning of the coda, we have one of the sounds that makes this coda so mind-meltingly perfect: the rhythm electric, doubled I think by another, slightly more overdriven, electric, as well as the acoustic, playing an open E chord. Just an open E chord. But oh, the way they play it! It goes basically like this: two eighths that are big wanging downstrokes on the bottom two strings, followed immediately by a dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythm that does a full strum downstroke followed by an upstroke catching mainly the top three strings on its way back to the downstroke. And it's just fantastic. Those two wanging downstrokes are great, of course, especially into the full strum, but the fact is that it's the dotted eighth-sixteenth figure, with the sixteenth serving as kind of a pickup, that make it really great: if it were just straight, punky eighth notes, it'd be too steady (see: most Strokes songs, where I like this rhythm, but it wouldn't work in BTS), and so that dotted eighth leaves us hanging up in the air for a split second before catching us and quickly tossing us skyward once more. I'd visualize it as kind of something that's tossed, then grabbed just as it's beginning its descent but before it's reached its actual low point, then speeded to that point by the sixteenth and quickly spun back up as it goes into the downstroke. Important, too, is the fact that it's not too overdriven, so it doesn't just ring through at a constant pitch during those full strums; there's still enough definition for you to really hear the way Martsch is wanging on those low notes. And they drop out of the chord progression for two bars to just dwell on this E-major, and it's great.
But ultimately, while it's worth singling this guitar bit out, as well as a few others I'll get to later, what's less important than the individual lines is the way they all lock in so rocktastically with the drums. It takes a few reps to fully lock in, since the rhythm guitars are still doing the voicings for the A-E switch they'd been doing during the final round of vocals. Which is OK, because the drums foreshadow it a little bit, and there's an absolutely wonderful swooping leadline that ducks under the chords, repeats, and the lets an E wail for a while. Indeed, it's the prevalence of those Es, the way not only the rhythm but everything wangs on it that makes the coda such a force of friggin' nature. But they're holding back here, somewhat, restraining themselves from dropping in the perfect bits of the arrangement that will make it really crazy-go-nuts.
And then, at 4:39, with (sniff!) slightly more than a minute left to go in the song, the leadline rises to the octave instead of falling to the tonic, and we're there.
Again, here it's less the notes, which are pretty basic, than the rhythm, and that rhythm just wouldn't work without the drums. What happens is that the guitars keep the same chords, but change the voicings from a sort of indistinct A to a solid E to an actual riff: for the A, they switch between A and F#, and then for the E, they do the basic power chord between E and B with the same rhythm above. But for the A-F#, they're playing a very similar, but beautifully different, rhythm than with the E. There's a lot of echoes, a few eighth-eighths and dotted eighth-sixteenths, but the way it's mixed up works amazingly well, with the sixteenth sometimes coming before the 3 rather than at the end of the 2 and then letting the end of the bar, rather than the middle, hang in the air, and sometimes there's a strong eighths wang in an unexpected place. It's only two bars long, but there's a lot there, and best of all, it heightens to a sixteenth-note frenzy for the last two beats to drive the whole thing into that awesome E-maj rhythm. In a way, it almost feels disco, with its higher interval than the fourths and fifths you'd usually find in this riff edging it up to the disco-identified octave eights that drive so many 70s/00s dance classix. (80s dance classix are driven by fifths, and 90s by seconds.) But it's not an octave: it's reaching for it, but not quite hitting it, and in that way being a lot more dissonant and rock than dancey, at least for a central riff. In other words, it's a kind of inversion of the groove: instead of having the drums and bass locked in, here the drums and guitar are, with the bass merely following, and that makes you want to bang your head more than shake your ass.
But that groove is fucking amazing. The drums match the riff in an almost melodic way, with the snare hitting the F#s in the A progression and then the crash mirroring the Bs on the E progression. But it's slightly different, too, with kick-kick-crash-crash for the Es being straighter eighths and, thus, more a propellant than a catcher, keeping things going while the guitar has fallen a bit. Particularly great is the way there's a simultaneous snare and crash hit on the offbeat on the 3 and 4 of the last bar of the A progression, really throwing it all down into the E, and introducing the crash into the beat in a way that it feels loud instead of jarring in the E. And then at the end of the E, there's often a little clearing fill. Really, it's the way it emphasizes the high notes, combined with the way it really beats the hell out of the crash. Everything is loud, here, but more importantly it's all in sync, all perfectly aligned, presaging and in some ways beating Andrew WK's "sound-as-machine" idea. The machine here is slightly out of control, but everything feels perfectly placed, and almost literally combustible, like if this was actually a machine this sound would be the sound of it burning fuel and moving fast.
It's a great song.
 Yes, as opposed to an electric one; way big sonic difference between an 808's tschs and an actual live snare.
 I seem to confuse other guitarists with this classification, so to clarify: as you're looking at the guitar hanging from someone's neck, what are actually the most vertically high strings I am referring to as the "bottom" strings, because they are lowest in pitch, and vice versa. So from bottom to top, the strings would go E-A-D-G-B-E. Claro?
posted by Mike B. at 3:14 PM 0 comments
Esselle has some more info on the WB's AI spoof, Superstar USA. This one's good.
At a taping for the upcoming "bad talent" series, "Superstar USA" producers lied and told audience members that the talentless contestants were actually terminally ill patients from the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Now, why did they go and do that? They could have just told them they were indie-rockers and gotten the same reaction. "Aw, Luke Jenner, you almost hit that note! Good for you." *pat pat*
Seriously, though, I kind of like this. It feels like a real-life 80s comedy somehow. And the cruelty just sort of compounds--the guy at the end who thought to himself, "There should be some cancer patients who could actually hold a note" is a perfect reflection of the likely audience reaction. Honestly, as a musician, it's both disheartening and annoying to see AI get so popular that everybody thinks they can get a record deal like this. Not so, and in many cases, not worth trying for. This is a nice counter-weight, perhaps. Although I should reserve judgment until I actually see it.
posted by Mike B. at 12:40 PM 0 comments
Monday, May 10, 2004
In some ways, it almost seems pointless for me to respond to The Case Against Rock & Pop. (Link via NYLPM.) I mean, check out this passage:
My contention is that the musical language of pop and rock is extremely limited, the “literacy level” of the typical composition being fairly low on a scale of musical vocabulary and complexity. If this were language we might be thinking about a reading age of below ten years. This may, in fact, be the reason for the popularity of this music with the preteens. The “reading level” is at the level of the archetypal Sun reader. Pop and rock are the aural equivalent of a Big Mac: homogenised, standardised, pasteurised, certainly not “grown up food”, and ultimately damaging to taste and discrimination. Additionally, pop and rock music can be seen to have a number of negative social and psychological consequences.
I mean, the guy's already ripped on fast food and immaturity, as well as taking pop wholly at its word, pegging it as a cause for social ills, and written in a style that can be best described as "dry sneer #3." It's pretty clear that we just don't agree. So why even bother? Well, because it's clear, I think, that he's gotten a bunch of things wrong, and I think it'll be useful to examine what's right. Let's get started, shall we? If you don't like this sort of thing, you know what to do...
Most rock music and a great deal of pop use a fairly limited number of pentatonic scales...And when we turn to sequences of intervals, as in a melody, we find that pop and rock musicians prefer cliched, commonplace, and easy sequences of notes over the more difficult, less conventional, and innovative. The lesson seems to be that pop and rock is based on easy and conventional building blocks and that there is a real reluctance, and ability, to attempt less conventional and more difficult musical challenges.
Huh? Did he think that pop fans reading this wouldn't know what an interval is? Because if you do--and, um, I do--you have to know there's no such friggin' thing as an "innovative" interval. There are a set number of intervals, and we know what they are. There is no such thing as a new interval, just as there's no secret chord. That's the toolbox we're given, and these are the options we have to work with when we're composing. We all make choices, and these are simply the ones pop songwriters make. Is he trying to suggest that there should be more microtonal scales in pop music? I mean, I agree, but aside from the fact that you do get a lot of microtones (via string-bending on guitars and detunings and moving oscillators and ring mods on keyboards) in any pop song that doesn't sound like a nursery rhyme, so what? Does this make Beethoven musically illiterate? No it does not. And I don't hear the pentatonic thing at all--blues songs use a pentatonic scale, but pop is pretty far from being all blues at this point, and I can point out any number of seconds and sevenths in pop songs.
Because polyphony is restricted pop and rock music demonstrates limited harmony and use of counterpoint. It is certainly true that both jazz and pop are "simpler" or less “deep” forms of music than classical by a considerably wide margin in this way as in other ways. An important rider to this point is that the emotional reaction to music or other art forms is not independent of its complexity: greater complexity and differentiation, a wider use of tonal and harmonic palette, and greater subtlety creates a wider range of emotional response to the music. And music is all about emotional response.
I'm assuming everyone's going, "Whoooooaa, hold on there" at this point. Is he serious? Pop doesn't produce a significant emotional response because there's not enough polyphony? We'll get to the second half of that equation in a second, but let's talk about the first one-and-a-half bits first. Where in the world does he get the idea that people have a paltry emotional response to pop music? I mean, has he seen the footage of Beatlemania, or Backstreet Boys concerts? Those teenage girls are almost having wee little orgasms. And OK, you can make the argument that this was due less to the music and more to the context, and the visuals, but there are lots of other examples: teenagers killing themselves to metal/goth/whatever, people getting married to pop music, people passing out to gospel (surely adhering just as strictly to the requirements he's laying out as pop does), the list can go on for quite a while. Pop music produces an incredible range of emotional responses, and for better or for worse, people have almost exactly the same reaction they do to Nick Drake as they do to certain vaunted classical pieces. Complexity has fuck-all to do with it.
Complexity does, however, have a lot to do with the longevity of a piece of music. Certainly one of the reasons OK Computer is such a great album is because of its replay value, and this stems in large part from its complexity--years later, you can discover a wonderful little bit you never even noticed before, buried somewhere in the mix (think of how different some of the songs on Hail to the Thief sounded between the leaked first mix and the fully-mixed final version if you want a better conception of how much is buried in post-97 Radiohead albums), not to mention discovering new resonances packed into the music, intended for the future, that you wouldn't be listening to hear if the impetus hadn't been there originally. Certainly complexity, along with being Really Good Songs, is a large part of why classical music has endured. But criticizing pop music for lacking longevity is like criticizing pasta sauce for tasting like tomatoes; its ephemeral nature is part of its reason for existing. Pop is transitory, because transitory can be very good.
But OK: if complexity (or, er, just counterpoint) doesn't dictate the range of emotional responses possible from a song, what does? Well, two things:
Content is, as I said, whether or not you like the song or not. There are certain things you can do that will pretty much objectively make a song better- or worse-liked (a good drummer, screeching metallic sounds high in the mix, funny lyrics, a title incorporating the phrase "intestinal maggots"), but by and large this is pretty subjective. Ultimately, however, certain songs do seem to be something close to universally loved, or at least liked, and so this certainly suggests a certain key set of tropes you can analyze and play with. Complexity is a small part of it, but a good melody, a good beat, good lyrics, a good sound, and interesting texture are probably more important.
But if we're talking about emotional response, you can't ignore the context in which something is heard. Certain songs evoke a major emotional response in a particular individual merely because, for instance, it was playing on the radio at a significant time in their lives--first kiss, etc. Others, perhaps, because someone close to them loved them. For something else, maybe it's because people in your social circle were all really excited about it, and so you became excited about it, too. Or maybe you were just were in a situation in your life that it worked for you. But it doesn't really matter in the particulars, because it's all totally, utterly subjective. You're more likely to have a strong emotional response to something that you respond to contextually rather than because of its complexity.
And that's it--substance and context. Fact of the matter is, emotional response isn't something you can really analyze systematically--you might want to take note of the first word in that phrase there, emotion, which I always thought was kind of the opposite of rationality, but what do I know--it's just something that happens. We don't have to be concerned with emotion when you're talking about music, I suppose, but since he brought it up, the fact of the matter is that pop music wins, and if it didn't win, it wouldn't be so ascendant. The means of distribution and production are such now that if people really wanted to hear Terry Riley pieces all the time (nothing against Terry, he just sprung to mind), they can and would. But they don't. They listen to pop music. People like pop music more--they like it a hell of a lot, and that's still an incredible achievement, to my way of thinking.
Related to the above, counterpoint is the simultaneous combination of two or more melodies to make musical sense, one melody being spoken of as the counterpoint of or in counterpoint to another. Double counterpoint is when two melodies, one above the other, can exchange position; similarly triple, quadruple, etc. counterpoint, where three, four or more melodies can take up any positions relative to each other. Independence of melody is of two kinds, melodic and rhythmic...As we can easily hear, polyphony and counterpoint is largely absent from pop and rock music and these share with much folk music a lack of harmonic and melodic complexity and the use of a very early, less complex, and more archaic set of compositional principles, based on monophony or homophony rather than polyphony.
The Beach Boys! And all the bands that ripped off the Beach Boys! Who have been around for 40 years! How about Destiny's Child, or half of R&B? What pop/rock is this guy listening to, Fast Food Rockers and the Stooges? Jesus. I'd like some examples, please.
Despite its apparent and claimed modernity, pop and rock uses the musical tools and the musical language of the nineteenth century or even earlier - see point number 3, above.. When we peel away “the big beat” we find a limited and simplistic use of the musical language of a past century. There is almost no use of the advances in musical language and vocabulary that have occurred since the late nineteenth century. It therefore seems not an unfair verdict on pop and rock music that they have not invented or created anything fundamentally new. They have borrowed rhythms and formulae from jazz; they have borrowed from white and black American folk music; they have taken many harmonies and instrumental colourings from Western art music. What has been borrowed has been reduced to a mechanical process.
Let's grant that no music is actually particularly new, since it's all inversions and thefts from predecessors and outside sources, so this isn't really a valid basis for comparison. That said, the whole point of pop music is its newness, or, at least, its amazing ability to recountenance the appearance of newness for successive generations. In contrast to the conscious, very visible tradition of classical music (or, at least, from the time of its standardization in the 17th century until the 19th century, and 200 years isn't that big of a deal, really), pop music always appears as something freshly discovered and new. That it's not is an open secret of sorts: the thing is, people just discovering pop aren't likely to access the resources that discuss this open secret. If this were pop's eternal function, it would certainly be as shallow as it's being portrayed, but two important things must be remembered. First off, this novelty serves as a starting point, never a destination, and I feel comfortable arguing that pop has generated at least, if not more, lifelong loves of music as has anything in the past. Secondly, because newness is seen as one of the points of the genre, it doesn't matter that they aren't actually doing anything new, since no one is actually doing anything new without inventing a new instrument, it matters that they think they are, because the explosion of ideas and styles this produces serves as on-the-fly music theory, giving us more options for creation and more tools of analysis.
And of course he feels the need to break out the ol' "mechanical process" canard, but really, how is this any different from orchestration? How is this any different from the formulas-and-charts of music theory? Isn't that just as mechanized? For everyone that wants to read pop's surface and see it as something entirely mass-produced, the fact remains that at the heart of every single track is a voice and a creator or two, really human beings working pretty much like Mozart did, just under different economic realities. It pains people to realize this, I know, but the people who make those songs are musicians, composers, no different in spirit or process than anyone else we're familiar with.
As for the idea that pop doesn't incorporate any ideas from 20th-c. music--well, I can make the familiar arguments. There's Timbaland's rhythmically and melodically off-center composition. There's sampling and its relationship to musique concrete. There's the raga form in 60s music. There's the influence of electronic music pioneers on genre-crossers like Aphex Twin or pick-a-Warp-artist. There's the Beatles sonic experimentation. There's, again, Radiohead. But these arguments have been made before and are at their heart, I think, essentially defensive about pop music. That's not what I'm going to say. What I'm going to say is this: the last two decades of progress in art music would not have been possible without the preceding, and subsequent, influence of modern pop music.
Why? Because of minimalism. That's been the main innovation, as far as I know, and where would you get this from besides pop music? (OK, Indian music, but go with me here.) What he's saying is that pop music is one beat and one key. Uh, "In C" anyone? The main difference is that what art music uses to flesh out this formula is largely the tradition of classical music, whereas pop borrows from, as he says, jazz, the blues, gospel, and country. Otherwise, the only difference is a steady beat, which, far from being a reduction, seems to me an innovation in the context of Western music. And that's an argument I would make about a lot of pop music: vary the tempo, throw in a few key changes, loop a few songs together and you've got a classical piece. Why not do that? Because it would suck.
The vast majority of the music is in 4/4 time. Thus, other time signatures, the common 3/4 and others such as 12/8, 6/8, 7/8, 7/16 etc. are not part of the vocabulary...Structurally, the music is extremely simple. There are generally no musical progressions. A song is in one key with a main part and perhaps a chorus. There is no movement between keys, little complexity of structure or musical organisation, little sense of progression. The limitations discussed above, together with the shortness and simplicity of the musical phrases militate against any level of complexity of organisation of the musical material. As a contrast, it was common for classical composers from the late 18th century to move between a number of keys in a small number of bars, and they used complex musical forms such as Sonata Form and Fugue.
Dude. We tried this already. It's called prog. Want to hear lots of key changes and weird time signatures? Prog away. I've come to realize that people I have a lot of respect for really like prog, or at least used to, so I won't dismiss it wholesale, but I am saying that we've done it, and the option is there. Sure, just as I wouldn't say that jambands' attempts at improvisations and time signature fuckery really hold much of a candle to jazz, I wouldn't say that Yes really makes much of a dent in Haydn's rep, but I do honestly think that we could have taken this farther if we wanted to (more than enough conservatory-trained folks are in rock bands now for this to have happened). The fact that we didn't is less because we couldn't and more because it wouldn't sound very good. It's as silly to complain about the lack of a hook in a three-minute movement of a string quartet as it is to complain about a lack of time signature-breaking, key-changing 45-minute pop songs. It's just not what they do. And that's OK.
Much pop and rock music is based on a very simple form, typically a thirty-two bar sequence...(alternatively, as in some rock music, there is a lack of organisation or form and the musical material is unstructured, incoherent, unorganised, and ultimately just meaningless noise.)...This all adds up to “assembly line” composition. This is formula music written for a certain audience and the creator of this music either has no freedom because in order to sell this music it must meet the standards or fashion of the day, or they do not wish to extend themselves beyond the formula because of limited horizons, a lack of ability, or laziness.
("Meaningless noise"! Awesome! But I thought he wanted rock to imitate 20th-c. music?)
To say that a pop song is bad because it adheres to a formula is just as stupid as saying this about sonata form, or a sonnet. Within those bounds there are infinite possibilities for variation, and this is actually the heart of what pop music does. The form is far less important than the variation. Would you criticize someone writing a sonata for adhering to a formula aimed at sonata audiences? Well, I suppose you might, but it'd still be stupid.
Look, the fact is that the only three reasons he can see for not deviating from the pop formula are ignorance, inability, or laziness shows that he doesn't understand this at all. Because he doesn't consider the possibility that they do it because it produces Really Good Songs. Who knows why, but just as we seized on counterpoint and string quartets and violins as being things that produce pleasing music, we've seized on it and ran with it. To say that you shouldn't do it even though, year after year, people use that form to make great, incredibly pleasurable songs is just stupid.
Theodore Adorno recognised that popular music is based on repetition rather than liking and appreciating good music. The main pleasure is in recognising a hit record and buying it at the same time as everyone else, producing the illusion of immediacy and intimacy. Adorno’s view is clear: that the pop music fan is a victim because the industry liquidates the individual, creating an attitude of surrender and resignation (passive consumption) and a stupidity in listening...Popular music becomes increasingly narrow-minded and conforms to a narrow uniformity, it is soapified, literalised, commodified, and globalised. There is a fetishism of right-wing, individualistic, capitalistic, and narcissistic preoccupations, despite the surface impression of dissent and rebellion (which might, more accurately, be seen as adolescent-style narcissism). This is music denatured: homogenised, pasteurised, and sterilised. It is the new fascism.
Now, at this point, I'm tempted to simply say, "Oh, he likes Adorno. Of course," and leave it at that, because for me, well, that would suffice. But I know that it would be too easy, and besides, it's unfair to Adorno. I think people tend to read their own prejudices into him a lot, and if you don't like low culture, well, there's certainly a lot of ideas there that would seem true to you. But I think that Adorno was less judging and more simply describing a situation he saw, and his ideas are more complex than his followers seem to give him credit for. But regardless, a critique of the idea that the prevalence of pop music is somehow antithetical to freedom is probably beyond the scope of this post.
Look, I love a lot of classical music. But I also love pop music, and I don't think the two are incompatible. Far from it. Certainly classical music can arguably be more rewarding, since we have the tools to analyze it and appreciate it. But the same will be the case for pop music in a few years, I think, as soon as we learn how to appreciate it, and to understand it in its proper context. What matters is the content, not the form, and the content is one of the most malleable musical devices ever constructed. Moreover, what's been done with it is breathtaking. But more on this later.
What this whole 10,000 words of "The Case Against Rock & Pop" comes down to, it would seem, is not an objective demonstration of why pop is inferior to classical and, moreover, dangerous to society. Instead, it amounts merely to "I don't like pop music." And that's about all it's worth.
 Although wouldn't it be cool if there were!
 OK, arguably this is more of an early 20th-c. passing notes thing like Messiaen or Stravinsky or something, but still, not exactly 12th-c. chants.
 Presumably the first and last time I will ever use this sentence.
 And of course, sometimes it's significant to lots of people because they see this happen to someone, i.e. "In Your Eyes" with Lloyd Dobbler and whatsherface, which is sorta weird but sorta cool.
 I'm so sorry. He's getting to me.
 I'm especially curious given that when he does talk about one, The Beatles, he gives their producer's name--twice!--as "George Malcom." Who now?
 Just as one example, a lot of the art music made after 1960 seems in debt to Indian music in one way or another.
 Or are they?
 Well, I guess I added a few.
 Although let me offer a quick comment on this sentence: "I suppose this might also explain why some people prefer Mills and Boon and other genres of literature that do not challenge, rather than the great classics that might well disturb one's world view and create uncomfortable emotions." This seems to sum up what he's trying to get at with the Adorno stuff, but you can make a pretty good guess what I think of the idea that great art is fundamentally and wholly subversive.
posted by Mike B. at 11:44 AM 0 comments