June 2008

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That the music I am posing corresponds, very roughly, with the chronological development in my musical tastes.

I suspect this is, in part, because I have better thought out opinions about songs I have liked for a long time. Additionally, my tastes in music started out very focused on lyrics, and I find myself disproportionately posting songs that are noteworthy for their lyrics because lyrics are easier to write about than music, and I am more confident that lyrics will be communicated through this medium. I worry slightly that if I post a song that I like because of its sound that when you, my readers, listen to it you will not here the same sounds that I do.

In any case, I don’t think it’s a problem and, if there are more commenters at some point that will influence the music that I post.

Squeeze is one of those bands that I like, but will go for long periods of time without listening to them at all. Once every year or two, I’ll get an impulse, and listen to the collection that I have repeatedly, and then put it away and forget about it.

They are a band with real strength and real weaknesses. They write great songs, they perform them well. They have clever lyrics and a solid sense of musical structure. They respect pop as a genre, which I appreciate, and seem content to write solid pop songs.

On the other hand, they lack anything that just grabs the listener. It lacks any sort of “rock” edge in either the songs of the performance and the songs themselves aren’t powerful emotionally. It is as if they feel like anything blunt or raw would be impolite. There is nothing Dionysian about them, they are a pure Apollonian pop band.

I don’t want to be too harsh, they’ve written a lot of songs that I like. Looking at the track listing of their singles collection, there’s a good 75% of the tracks that are really good songs. When I am in the mood I will listen to the CD all the way through repeatedly, which is more than I can say for many bands. But, I admit, when I saw Music and Lyrics the Hugh Grant character made me think of Squeeze. (On that note, I recommend One for the Road as an entertaining lightweight music documentary).

The Squeeze song that strikes me as most exception in its strengths is Up The Junction. It is a tour de force of pop songwriting. I love that it takes the conventions of a three-minute-pop song (it’s listed as 3:12), and stretches them as far as they can go without breaking. Unlike any other pop classic I can think of, it has no chorus, and it has no mood or image or phrase, to which it returns repeatedly. It tells a continuous story that arrives at the end of the story just at the end of the song. And yet, it is still obviously a three-minute pop song. When finished it doesn’t feel like the end of an emotional journey (though the story that the song tells is emotional) but rather the successful performance of a trick. The fact that the entire song is written in rhyming couplets, contributes to the foregrounding of the structure of the song, over the story.

One thing it does really, really well, however, is to back the song with details that seem specific but are also archetypal and universal.

We moved into a basement
With thoughts of our engagement
. . .
We spent our time just kissing
The railway arms we’ re missing

I worked eleven hours
And bought the girl some flowers
She said she’d seen a doctor
And nothing now could stop her

She gave birth to a daughter
Within a year a walker
She looked just like her mother
If there could be another

It’s such an effective juxtaposition of taking specific details that also represent abstract themes and events.

For those of you that may not have noticed, on the left hand sidebar, just below the “about” page is a page called “the music.” This has a list of all of the songs referenced, a link to the album from which they are taken, and a link to the post that references that song.

At this point, it’s easy enough to just read all the posts; but it is another reference. I will try to keep that page up to date, but it won’t be updated more frequently than every couple of days.

I should also make a couple of comments about my feelings about mp3 copies. I have someone mixed feelings about them. I think the ability to easily share music is fantastic, and I wouldn’t be writing this blog without it. At the same time, I happen to like CDs, and I am happy that people record music, distribute it on CD, and that stores carry and advertise those CDs. To whatever extent mp3 distribution pushes CDs out of favor it isn’t doing me a favor. That certainly doesn’t outweigh the virtue of being able to easily make copies, but it is on my mind.

I realize that, while I have thought quite a bit about my beliefs concerning digital copies they are largely untested. It hasn’t been a big issue for me because CDs work for me, I can get good sound out of them, and I’m happy to pay for them (albeit frequently buying used or discounted). It’s particularly easy for me since I have no investment in following contemporary music. I’m sure that if I wanted to keep abreast of new music that I would listen to a lot of that on mp3.

Ultimately, I am happy to take advantage of the possibility of easy digital copies, but it does matter to me that essentially all of the music I reference on this blog comes from CDs out of my collection, and that, to the extent it matters to anyone reading this blog, I do hope that the production and distribution of CDs will continue, so I encourage anyone who is so inclined to buy music on CD.

On a related though I also strongly intend to restrict myself to posting only one track off of any given disc. This is an arbitrary line, but I never want to feel like someone who listens to the songs I reference would think that they don’t need to listen to the rest of the album because they’ve heard what they need. I doubt it matters that much, and I will break this rule occasionally, but that is my intention.

As I mentioned in comments, the “classics” category is intended for songs that are older and sufficiently influential that you may well have heard many things influenced by them without listening to the original

In any case, if you’ve heard it before than you don’t need the invitation to listen to it again, if you haven’t then you’re in for a treat.

Up now is The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel. I admit that I’m the last person to take hip-hop recommendations from, but it’s great. It contains both great performances and uses its samples in a flattering way. When you listen to it, it makes you think, “wow Blondie was kind of cool”* or “sure it’s Queen, but that’s an great sample.”

It also provides an excuse to ask what is it that makes for classic and charismatic musical performances? In the case of “Adventures …” I’m hooked from the opening samples of “You say…” What is it that catches one’s attention? I don’t know. How is it able to communicate in the first six seconds that you are in the hands of a confident performer, on his game, and that you are in for a good time?

*I actually have quite a bit of fondness for Blondie, but that’s a different post.

What is your process of listening to new music, and when are you most likely to overlook good music?

For me, I get a new album I put it on once, usually in the background, and try to get a sense of whether anything grabs me, and what the general mood and musical feel of the album is, so I can listen to it again when I’m in the mood that sort of music.

There’s a lot of stuff I miss on that first cut. When I half-listen to it, if I can’t sort of see the angle from which it makes sense, then it may sit on my shelf for a while. There are a number of albums that I listened to once or twice, gave up on, and then pulled out a year or two later and listened to enough to realize that they were good.

After that I’ll probably take it to work and listen through the album four or five times and see what stands out as it sinks in. What songs, and what lines in songs, stick in my head; which songs do I find myself looking forward to when I put it on. If I like it as work music, I may just leave it at work for a while, otherwise I’ll take it home and listen to it (or, at least the 2 or 3 songs that I’ve picked out) on my stereo with closer attention.

The second big point at which I am likely to miss good music is if an album is just too similar, and all flows together. If none of the songs stand out, it makes it harder to have a hook on which to focus in and decide that I know what that person is trying to do, and what their strengths are, and what I should be listening for in the other songs.

I’ve been thinking about this after the Bowie post because he fits the model of what I like. After I’ve gotten used to his sound, he’s very good in his performance at highlighting the spine of song — the lines or verses, or contrasts that are the idea of that song. I’m much slower to pick that out of music that doesn’t use the vocals to emphasize portions of songs. I can get there, but something else has to grab me. I’m definitely used to cuing on the vocals to tell me what are the parts of an album to which I should pay the most attention.

Enjoy

Looking around for something fun to post tonight, I settled on this short song by Kirsty Maccoll.

For a long time I’ve wanted to put this on some mix, and I just haven’t found the right spot for it. It’s Kirsty being as relaxed as she ever gets, with a healthy side of sarcasm. I think Kirsty Maccoll tends to write solid, well crafted, highly-structured pop songs, and I like that this on feels a little bit thrown off.

It’s as if she had a couple of lines that were too good not to use and wisely didn’t add much more than that.

[I have to say, mp3 files on mediocre headphones really don’t sound that good. Previewing the mp3, her guitar and voice both sound harsher than they should]

It’s funny what can make an impact.

One of the earliest examples I can think of a comment sticking with me, and influencing my sense of a song was a throwaway line by my brother about Ziggy Stardust.

He said, “It’s a great song and he sings the hell out of it.” What more needs to be said?

It took my a while to appreciate that recommendation* but what’s interesting is that, while the phrase says nothing specific about the song, it’s surprisingly apt for the song, and the entire album.

*Here’s my story with Ziggy Stardust. I borrowed the CD from my brother, listened to it a couple of times, but didn’t get into it. Then, as these things can happen, I never returned it and, about a year later I started listening to it a lot, and to this day it’s one of my absolute favorite rock albums.

To elaborate: starting with the first element, of calling it a great song. Like almost every song on that album it has a great, memorable guitar riff, and is well structured musically and lyrically. It is important, at this point to refer to the note on the back of album that I have used for the title of the post. The first thing to pull you in to most of the songs is Mick Ronson’s guitar work. I wouldn’t say it needs to be at maximum volume, but it has to be loud enough that the opening notes of Ziggy Statdust bite, and get your attention. The production is great throughout, and particularly notable for how it balances a careful arrangement with leaving plenty of space around Bowie’s voice, and you need to be able to listen to both. If the arrangement is fading into the background, and the song feels unmemorable, turn it up.

In terms of the performance, I think Bowie really earns the emotions of the song. Like any fiction, music invites a willful suspension of disbelief. Compared to other mediums, it matters less, partially because songs are short. It’s possible for a song to be perfectly good song, and carry you along with energy and drive without you ever entering into an emotional world of the song. There is nothing wrong with a song that just asks you to enjoy the groove for three minutes. What is frustrating is a song that is emotionally manipulative — that deploys emotional cues without constructing an emotional core of the song.

Ziggy Stardust is a song for which it is very easy for me to suspend disbelief. When he sings “Just the Beer Light to guide us / We bitched about his fans and should we crush his sweet hands” It doesn’t feel overstated, it makes me think of the experience of feeling a wave of anger and jealousy towards a friend. The line, “Became the special man, then we were Ziggy’s band” makes me think about just how strange it would be to perform with someone who was truly a star. It earns the emotions.

Finally, in addition to that my brother’s comment also just says that, if the song might sound silly on first listening, give a second chance. Trust that, if you’re willing to look for what’s good in the song, and take the song on its own terms, that you will be rewarded. There is substance beneath the surface. That’s always a useful recommendation.

Update: I realize I should say a little bit more about Bowie, at the risk of going on too long. First, I think of Bowie as one of pop’s great interpreters of songs. He is constantly putting different inflection and emphasis on each word, and doing so in a way that develops the meaning of the songs. In particular listen to the first song on the album “Five Years” and listen to how many different ways he uses his voice on that song.

Secondly, the point at which I really got into Bowie was a period in my life when I was feeling depressed and direction less. The Ziggy Stardust album ended up being surprisingly comforting to listen to on headphones, sitting around and night thinking “what am i doing with my life.” I don’t exactly know why that it, and Bowie has stayed in my affection more than any of the other music I listened to at that point, but that was emotional entry point into Ziggy Stardust.

I will return to both of those points in later posts.

I’ve been thinking about the Spoon’s song “The Fitted Shirt“, which is a favorite of mine. I find the central metaphor of the song deeply affecting and poignant.

The song is about the narrator’s affection for the fitted shirts that he’s inherited from his father and I take that as representative of an entire range of masculine gender behavior. I hear it as a song from the perspective of someone who realize that they have learned a set of gender norms from their father, knows that it is somewhat out of date, and can’t be taken uncritically, but still prefers that model to any more contemporary example.

Personally, I have a good relationship with my father, I feel alienated from many examples of masculine behavior, and struggle occasionally with the question of where to look for appealing models of masculinity. In that mood I find the song deeply affecting.

Just reading the lyrics now gives me a chill, and makes me start to tear up.


Been Looking So Long Now
And No One’s Seen And No One Heard
But When I Go Out Tonight
I’m Going To Put On A Fitted Shirt

One Day It’ll Take
And They’ll Start To Make
Shirts That Fit Right
Til Then I Suppose
I Still Got Dad’s Clothes
And That’s Alright

The final, “and that’s alright” kills me, it allows room for so many unstated emotions.

<sigh>

Reading the lyrics now, it is unclear whether the father in the song is still around. Given the age of the singer, one would expect that his father is still alive, but the dad is only referred to in the past tense. At least, it doesn’t seem like the father is still putting on a fitted shirt everyday and going to work. However, the distance in the song, and the use of the past tense aren’t conclusive. The song plays with the feeling that the narrator is at an age or point in life at which he cannot directly rely on his fathers advice or example and so some distance is necessary.

Updated to expand the post slightly. I felt like my original description was overly brief.

I appreciate musicians who can write good liner notes, and there are songs that I have a silly fondness for just because of the introductory notes.

One of those songs is The World Is What You Make It by Paul Brady. Here is what he wrote (this is from the “best of” collection Nobody Knows which has excellent liner notes for all the tracks) :

Sometimes a song comes out so fast you feel it’s writing itself. All those Latin Classes in boarding school in Derry didn’t go to waste. Beneath what appears to be a serious exterior lies the real Paul Brady, daft as a brush, brash… trash. Written in a frenzy at Paramount Hotel, New York City, I later made a demo at home in Dublin and as usual tried to record it for real when I went to do the ‘Spirits Colliding’ record. Divine intervention in the form of John O’Kane, who was over writing with me around this time, convinced me to use the original demo. If this was all I left behind I’d be happy enough. Subsequently this became the theme song to the successful Grenada TV sitcom ‘Faith in the Future’. Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Nanah!!! Go on sing it!!

I always smile when I get to the line about “Don’t hit me with your ‘no can do.'”

Since this is supposed to be a music blog, it’s time to start talking about music.

I was recently having a conversation about whether one could separate songwriting qua songwriting from performance. Here is an interesting song, and cover version which show how much it’s possible to shape the meaning of a song with the performance.

Please Call Me Baby, by Tom Waits is a model of lyric writing. I’m hard pressed to think of any song that has greater attention to and economy of words. “You spit as you slammed out the door / If this is love we’re crazy / As we fight like cats and dogs / But I just know there’s got to be more” defines both a specific moment, and the shape of an entire relationship in four lines.

The song is from the perspective of a man, watching his partner stomp off into the night and wishing that he could tell he how much he cares. The relationship implies is between a taciturn and stormy man and a tempestuous woman.

There is a cover by Sally Norvell that, intriguingly, takes the same song, sings it from a female perspective, but keeps the gender dynamics of the relationship the same.

She sings it as if the man has stomped off, not in a fit of rage, but out of an unwillingness to stay in an emotional moment and fight. When Tom Waits sings, “I admit that I ain’t no angel / I admit that I ain’t no saint / I’m selfish and I’m cruel, but you’re blind” the implication is that his selfishness is his unwillingness to be emotionally expressive (except, implied, in ways that are laced with bitterness) and her blindness is her refusal to credit him with the strength of his attachment. When Sally Norvell sings that line, just in the phrasing, the implication is that her cruelty is in her temper and that his blindness is his unwillingness to admit his own emotions.

For as much as I like the song, neither performance is perfect. Tom Waits is very cautious and controlled, particularly by his standards, and piano sound, and the balance between piano and voice in the Norvell recording are both somewhat off. But it’s a good example of a cover that takes a song, clearly understands the original, and does something with it. It is also interesting as a way to ask the question of where the emotional hooks of a song reside. A good song with two different interpretations.

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