Provisional

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I started this post yesterday and got stuck, so I’m going to try to keep it simple and unfinished, and figure that it’s still worth sharing.

In the latest post in the “52 Girls” series at The Song In My Head Today, Holly posted “Rosie, Won’t You Please Come Home?” by the Kinks. A song Ray Davies wrote for his sister who had moved to Australia. It made me think about another song with a girl’s name in the title written to an absent sister, Caetano Veloso’s “Maria Bethania.” It’s a favorite of mine, and the comparison seemed like an interesting way to think about both songs — Ray Davies wistful, restrained, English song and Caetano Veloso’s more emotional, troubled, experimental song.

The more I listened to them, the more I realized how complicated both songs are, and the harder it seemed to encapsulate their differences in any simple scheme. “Rosie, Won’t You Please Come Home” started to seem more forceful, and more of a rock song as I listened to it, and “Maria Bethania” is experimental but also the structure is very important since the clear contrast in emotion between the verses and the chorus is part of what creates the emotional dynamic of the song (until the final line of the last verse, “but I love her face because it has nothing to do with all that I’ve said” brings those two together. I hear that as the first mention of Maria Bethania in the verses, and the the “she” and “you” before that refer to somebody else who may be a specific figure, or just a general expression of his alienation from Brazil),

But in respect there is a simple and crucial difference between the two songs. Ray Davies is still at home, singing to his sister who has left. Caetano Veloso is the one in a foreign county, having been forcibly exiled from Brazil, moved to London, and is singing to his sister who is still in Brazil. Because I don’t speak Portuguese my knowledge of Caetano Veloso’s career is limited and mostly confined to his songs in English, but some things are very clear about that album. He looks harried on the album cover, wearing a heavy coat, and looking intently into the camera. The first two songs he wrote for the album were “London, London” and “A Little More Blue” (which deserves it’s own post at some point), both songs of homesickness. “A Little More Blue” presents an intense loneliness and “London, London” is more open to the experience — he sings about walking down the streets and not knowing anybody and not making eye contact, but feeling safe and almost whimsical. In the final verse he sings, “I choose no face to look at / Choose no way / I just happen to be here / And it’s okay / Green grass, blue eyes, gray sky, God bless / Silent pain and happiness.” He doesn’t feel at home, but he does feel at peace.

“Maria Bethania” alternates between verses that a deep sense of trouble and of things falling apart (the opening line is, “Everybody knows that our cities were built to be destroyed”) But then, the chorus begins with his sister’s name and instantly the mood becomes tender and one of comfort. Just thinking about her is allows him to relax for a moment. Where Ray Davies asks his sister to move back, Caetano Veloso just asks her to, “send me a letter. / I with to know things are getting better.” And then the song end with two minutes of him vocalizing over very dramatic music before, as I hear it, exhausting some of the tension and reaching a provisional but real resolution and calm.

It’s interesting to have two songs, with a similar inspiration, written five years apart by two of the greatest songwriters of their generation both living in England under very different circumstances.

I’m continuing to work my way into the book slowly and am enjoying it. I could read it more quickly but I’m enjoying that the slow pace gives me the time to enjoy his many interesting asides or digressions, rather than trying to follow a thread of argument too closely. I will post some more quotes later but I wanted to follow up one one of the quotations from the previous post.

When Simon Reynolds says that, “This is the way pop ends, not with a BANG but with a box set whose forth disc you never get around to playing” or quotes Sufjan Stevens as saying that rock is dead*, the obvious example of what this might look like is Jazz. For years older albums and reissues have been outselling new music in Jazz. People still play and listen to jazz but, as a genre, it is no longer part of the pop culture landscape, more or less. It’s possible to imagine the same thing happening to rock music.

I don’t think that will happen to rock, anytime soon. But I do think it’s reasonable to assume that, if Rock dies, something will replace it. I don’t think there are fewer people making music now than their used to be — to a first approximation at least it’s possible that some people who would have picked up a guitar twenty years ago are now spending their time blogging instead or some other waste of time. But generally, I don’t doubt that people, including young people, are doing some music, somewhere. So if Simon Reynolds no longer feels connected to a contemporary music scene that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

I don’t mean that to be too easy a response. It’s entirely possible that nothing happening today feels like a satisfactory replacement for the music that Simon Reynolds cares about, and I don’t want to dismiss that. But I will turn the mic over to George Starostin at his cranky best.

Now the problem is: when and how does a new musical revolution occur? The obvious answer is – when the previous musical genre has exhausted its possibilities. While a certain genre is new and fresh, its supporters are many and its new creations are welcome. But sooner or later, it inevitably dies down – simply because no type of art is limitless. Classical music was given two centuries to flourish, after which it withered down and, let’s admit it, died a miserable death. How many important classical composers do we know in the 20th century? One can probably count a handful, but even these won’t really be able to compete with masters of the Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin or Tchaikowsky species. And it’s no big surprise that the most accepted ‘classical’ composers of the 20th century were much more ‘experimental’ or ‘avant-garde’, rather than purely ‘classical’, like Stravinsky or Schnitke.

Jazz was given even fewer time: about half a century. Again, jazz is not completely dead today, but who has superated or even come close to Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, etc., etc.? Nobody. Jazz is exhausted as a genre, and today’s jazz is an esoteric and almost perverse affair enjoyable only by complete jazzmaniacs.

Why the hell does that happen? People will tell you about the lack of brains, the corruption of our time, the conservatism, the need to grow… rubbish. It all happens simply because the ‘pool of ideas’ has become shallow. Like I said, nothing is limitless. After all, music is not magic, at least in the process of being composed. Music consists of notes played by people on instruments. The number of notes is limited. The number of instruments is limited. The number of note combinations is huge, but, first of all, not all of these combinations are pleasant to the ear, second, even this number is limited, too. No matter how long you are able to create good music using a given pattern, you won’t be able to do it forever – even if you’re the greatest genius on Earth.

The musical processes that happen now may be interesting to some, but they’re so tiny, pudgety and midgety as compared to the global cultural revolution of 1966-75, that I’m not really interested. It is true that I do not, and cannot, observe much of the things happening in the States, or, in fact, anywhere in the world except Russia, but after all, isn’t Russia part of the world? Here, we have the definite rule of recycled, brainless pop music; the few good bands that are in existence are mostly unknown to the general record-buying public, and have no hope of becoming known someday. But are these ‘few good bands’ really good? Answer is – they’re… okay. There are some bands who I don’t mind listening to; some bands that have interesting melodies I ain’t never heard before; some bands that I’d really like to see in concert, etc. But there are no bands of which I’d say: ‘well, this is definitive modern Russian rock!’ Russian rock also passed its heyday, by the mid-Eighties it was already half-dead, and now it is struggling, but less and less and weaker and weaker….

Which brings me to my final, and decisive point. Rock music is dead. The few interesting bands that are still in circulation today can be fun and entertaining (even if 99% of them can only be found in the Underground), but overall they are mostly conservative – bringing up and fostering the old values of the same Beatles, or Yes, or Mott the Hoople, or the Police, but not coming up with ideas that would be essentially new. The widespread idea that rock is alive and well and the only problem with it is that it needs to be saved from corporate greed and greedy, murky managers that only feel the need to stuff the public with all that brainwashing crap like Alanis Morrisette or Puff Daddy or Marilyn Manson, is a myth. It is a myth created by people who simply do not want to face the obvious: there will never be another Beatles, or another Doors, or another Jethro Tull, in rock music. There will be amusing, entertaining bands that’ll go in and come out and be forgotten, but that’s not it. Rock is dead. We do need another Beatles – but these new Beatles, if ever they are bound to appear (and I do hope for it, since I’m an optimist), will not be an element of rock music. They will create another type of music – I don’t know what’s it gonna be called, nor what instruments or harmonies it is bound to exploit, but it’s gonna be something different. Something totally different from rock – rock that died, just like jazz and classical died before it. Do not try to deceive yourself and say, ‘oh no, you’re wrong, it’s all the fault of our commercialized and greedy recording industry’. Recording industry was always commercialized and greedy – yet it let out the Beatles. Do you think today’s recording industry would miss another Beatles if it saw ’em? They sure could bring even bigger bucks!

I just got my copy of Retromania by Simon Reynolds — the book which, indirectly, inspired my recent post on newness in pop music. I’m optimistic about the book. I liked his previous book Rip It Up And Start Again a great deal, and a recently read a review (in the CJR) which suggested that it’s a book which manages to be interesting and thought provoking even though it may not be completely convincing. In fact it’s a book which announces from the beginning that it’s provisional and more an attempt to wrestle with a series of thoughts than to present a linear argument.

So, in that spirit, I find myself skeptical about a couple of comments in the introduction and I thought I’d make note of that now before continuing on to see what he has to say. I may continue to take notes as I go through the book, and it will make a difference if anybody finds this interesting. So please let me know if you would like more on the book.

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I was thinking about the Folk Revival in the US and possible causes. It occurred to me that, if you date it as starting in the fifties, it isn’t a coincidence that it would happen as the development of the interstate highways system and the internal movement following WW II. I theorize that bringing more people into contact with unfamiliar local culture and traditions would lead to an interest in documenting or preserving those traditions.

Before I thought about it I would have said that the interest in local culture was a response to the rise of a more national culture — radio, movies, etc. I think that’s part of the story, but, upon examination, that transition started in the 20s and 30s, which leads me to think that transportation and the mixing and movement of people during and after the war were more important.

Comments? It sounds reasonable to me, but it’s just inference.

A while back I saw a recommendation for Terry Allen. I’d never heard of him, but when I saw AMG describe Lubbock (On Everything as “one of the finest country albums of all time” piqued my curiosity. It took me a while to pick up a copy, but I can now say, on early listening, that it is really good.

I didn’t quite know what to make of the album until I got to “Truckload Of Art” and immediately got into line with his sense of humor. It had taken me a little while partially because his voice isn’t anything special; it isn’t particularly smooth or resonant and his singing seems forced at times (and the conversion to .mp3 doesn’t do it any favors). But “truckload of art” convinced me that his voice and style were, in fact perfect for the material, in which people are both sympathetic, and also far more at the mercy of chance and circumstance than they believe themselves to be. It isn’t hostile to people just to any sense of grandiosity they may possess.

Just start with the chorus, “Precious objects are scattered / All over the ground. / And it’s a terrible sight / If a person were to see it / But there weren’t nobody around.” The loneliness of the accident isn’t a tragedy because it’s the ultimate joke on people who only wanted to be seen.

With my sense of humor properly adjusted, I have to say that the whole album is better than any of the individual songs. It’s so so slyly funny throughout. His style just grows on you. But, to give a sense of his range, such as it is, the opening song of the album “Amarillo Highway” is more uptempo with more of a classic country sound, but with the same edge suggesting that he’s simultaneously celebrating and mocking Texas culture. “I don’t wear no Stetson / But I’m willin to bet son / That I’m a big a Texan as you are. / ‘Cause
There’s a girl in her barefeet / ‘Sleep on the back seat / An that trunk is full of Pearl…and Lone Star.” Unlike some country music it doesn’t try to argue that there’s anything grand or honorable to Texas country culture, just that it’s likable enough if that’s where you happen to be in the world. I’d say that’s too harsh, except that’s the feel of the whole album, anything that wants to claim to be the whole enchilada* is probably setting itself up.

* I’m thinking here of the line by Dan Rather, “Texas…another of the so-called big enchiladas, or if not an enchilada, at least a huge taco.”

As a follow-up to the previous post, it occurs to me that the current dynamic between the movie industry and the home theater industry is relatively recent, and is not without it’s challenges.

My general sense is that twelve years ago, home theater wasn’t a large enough industry to have a significant impact on the entertainment industry as a whole and that eight years ago movies studios hated home theater because they thought it was competing against movie tickets.

At this point I assume that the relationship is more mutual — that studios have more to gain from the market for DVDs for TV shows as well as movies, than they have to lose from reduced ticket sales or TV viewership, but I don’t really know. I do know, however, that the movie industry is very much aware that the various technological improvements in home video equipment are a significant part of the environment in which the operate and sell their products.

I genuinely don’t know whether the music industry is similarly conscious of the state of the art in affordable consumer audio gear, and plan their strategy with that in mind*, but it doesn’t feel like they do. It certainly doesn’t feel like they think their position, as an industry, would be improved by people having access to better sound quality at affordable prices and that confuses me. I would, at the very least, hope that if there were significant improvements in audio technology (as there have been in video technology over the last decade) that would be good for the music industry. Perhaps it’s just that nobody thinks that sort of improvement would be possible but I don’t get the sense that the music industry would be prepared to sell it if it were. It just looks to me like their happy with a market for audio equipment in which it’s difficult for people to find out what’s available, what is better or worse, or what trade offs they have to consider and that forces people to experiment with expensive gear that might or might not improve their sound (at least at the middle of the price spectrum. I do expect that upgrading from, for example, $10 headphones to $30-$50 headphones should provide obvious benefits).

* Historically, of course, there are various stories about record companies gearing the sound of their recordings to radio. So perhaps the entire industry is just used to targeting people who are listening to poor quality reproductions.

Update: Some additional discussion of this issue at unfogged.

I have been listening to Saint Etienne recently, and I didn’t like them at first, but they’re growing on me and I have a comparison to try out.

Listening to Sylvie, I found myself thinking of Steely Dan because hearing the word “September” made me think of “My Old School.” The more I think about it however, I think that the qualities that make Saint Etienne good are similar to the qualities that make Steely Dan appealing, though they’re very different stylistically.

To start out with, they’re both studio bands, formed by people who’s primary relationship to music is that of a listener, rather than a performer. They both draw on eclectic influences and enjoy obscure references. Both of them are very much of their times, Steely Dan the 70s, and Saint Ettienne the early 90s, while having a sound that seems to look both forward and backwards.

Most importantly, they both have a strong sense of style, without being just an exercise in style. The music is produced, but it doesn’t feel faked in any way. In both cases studio work feels like a method for a genuine musical creativity. There’s something heartfelt in the music, but in a very different way than someone who’s performing for an audience. They are sincere, not in the subject of their songs, but in their appreciation for music itself.

Looking for an appropriate Steely Dan song to match, I settled on the entertainingly sarcastic Show Biz Kids which feels like the right tone.

Apologies for the layoff, I’ve been fighting a cold.

Lately I’ve been listening to this REM collection, and it’s gotten me to appreciate REM more than I did, and want to try to figure out what it is about them that bugs me on some level. What follows is a somewhat scattered series of notes.

The first thing about that collection, somewhat oddly, that helps me is the cover. It makes me realize that, in my life, the first REM songs that were ubiquitous were “Shiny Happy People” and “Losing My Religion.” By that time they were already international stars. I find their sound both more appealing and more understandable, for reasons I want to explore later, when I think of them as a young band trying to make an impression. That cover image makes it easy to appreciate the way in which their early work is subdued but also full of youthful energy.
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The discussion in the previous post has been quite interesting. Let me try to recap the major points, as I see them and hopefully we can keep the conversation going.

As I understand, Ben was making three basic arguments:

1) That the terms “narrative”, “narrator”, and, in particular, the phrase “unreliable narrator” are all terms that have originate in, and only have clear definitions within, literary criticism. That any application of those sorts of terms to music is always going to imprecise, and somewhat poorly fitting.

He also points out, specifically, that the use of the phrase “unreliable narrator” that I quoted is not accurate, even allowing for imprecision.

2) If we want to use those terms in talking about music then it’s worth figuring out what we think they should mean.

The distinction that Ben found most helpful as a way to think about possible analogies to music was that of storytelling vs. theater. A storyteller is, practically by definition, a narrator. They directly address the audience and present a story. The storyteller can, and probably will, adopt a persona for the telling of the story. Based on the note in literary criticism that the narrator of a written work exists within the fictional world of the work, Ben would take the adopted persona as the “narrator” of a story, not the real world storyteller.

In theater, the actors are not narrators. they do not address the audience directly, and they do not present the fictional world. They play a character within the fictional world and, in character, they have no awareness of the audience or of the story being told. The character is just representing themselves within their own world.

3) From this Ben takes the important point that it’s possible for an audience to watch a story, without the telling of the story involving a narrator, with theater as an example.

The question he then asks is whether, as an audience, you feel like listening to music is more like watching a play or a storyteller.

RS asks the related question of whether the performer feels more like an actor or a storyteller.

In both cases, the answer will obviously vary based on the given performance. One can easily think of examples that clearly fall closer to one end of the spectrum or the other.

But the question then becomes which end of the spectrum feels more descriptive of pop music in general. Do we believe that pop music is paradigmaticly closer to theater or storytelling?

I’m still considering this, but hopefully that is a reasonable summary of the question.

I may have a new favorite synth-pop song.

After 80s week, I was listening to more of the Heaven 17 collection and I really like “And Thats No Lie”.

It’s surprisingly successful at deploying the Soul / R&B influences within the synth-pop framework. It goes much farther in that direction than “Fascist Groove Thang.” The back-up singers are great, Glenn Gregory singing is the perfect mix of heartfelt and abstract.

I like it.

“But when the fire goes out / The dark starts moving in.”

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