Monday, July 25
finding out true love is deaf
had a realization about gimme fiction (and abused alyssa with it in realtime), that has something to say about why i like it so much, perhaps also why i'm not much compelled to compare it to the earlier spoon records, even qualitatively. also about rock in general: the structure of a great live show - basically, a constantly building energy, perhaps parlayed into micro-arcing sub-sets along the way, but more or less growing towards a climactic pitch achieved at or near the end of the set - is not at all the standard structure of an album. albums tend to be front-loaded in terms of energy, if not quality.
[which reminds me to make a list sometime: albums with stronger second halves/sides. off the top of my head: little creatures, definitely. john henry. whitechocolatespaceegg. both change and emergency and i. 13 tales i guess; possibly either/or? this is a lot harder even than it should be.]
gimme fiction has a brilliant build. "beast and dragon" is an undeniable opener, but it's more of a warm-up and an announcement of what's to come, certainly not a high point in itself - it's like an overture. "two sides/valentine" (what's up with that lyric?) is fun if a bit slight, but it sustains the subtly tense mood and builds nicely toward "camera" - the shiniest moment yet and an instant smash that delivers some pop payoff but doesn't let up on the mounting sinister tension. that's saved for "my mathematical mind" - the cathartic, emotional climax of side one. there's not really much to it - a two-chord vamp driven into ground for five minutes, and some dramatic guitar freakout - nothing spectacular in itself, but dynamite in context. the rest of the side is markedly lighter - side-closer "sister jack" is album's sunniest tune, the farthest digression from the otherwise pervasive darkness of tone, although its measure-shifting coda reinduces a bit of that unease, with an abrupt halt redolent of "i want you/she's so heavy." (incidentally, the groove is also a bit of a "taxman" rip.)
"i summon you" opens side B in a similar jangly-acoustic mode, albeit with a renewed, measured sense of harmonic tension and an unsettling cast to the lyrics - but it's the last thing on the record that might reasonably be described as 'light.' "the infinite pet" is the somewhat inferior cousin of "mathematical" - a relentless riff-rider that doesn't have a whole lot of internal direction, but its rhythmic and textural emphasis make it a decent bridge to the final three songs, which for me form the album's climactic segment. "was it you?" is infectiously spare and slinky in way that both hearkens back to "camera" and nearly doubles its intensity. "they never got you," a few shades brighter texturally, it notches up the tempo and cranks the tension almost unbearably, with a slowly ascending chromaticism and an insistent, strokesian groove that make it the most propulsive thing on the album (and the biggest dance-party to boot.) tension mounts, synths flood in, then suddenly the harmony drops out, unresolved, leaving only handclappers to jitter on for a few moments until... well, "merchants of soul," though certainly a comedown of sorts, a relaxation in texture and to some extent tone, chooses not to be the full, sweetening, resolution it might have become in other hands - the drums are still awfully spiky, for one thing, and those chunky piano thumps (on loan from "small stakes"?) aren't even full chords - they're just open fifths and fourths, and even those sweepy strings appogiaturas can't seal the harmonic deal, especially not in under three minutes. and so song side and album close with yet another sudden ending and only a partial resolultion, as if, rather than winding down gradually and conservatively, the record just kept pushing until it could sustain itself no longer, its allottment of energy giving way abruptly with things still in high gear...
to get back to the less involved point i was trying to make, the compositional structure of gimme fiction is more like the flow of a live show than a standard album. (come to think of it, it may be partly a structural issue that makes stop making sense so compelling and appealing, among other things.) and that's pretty cool.
obviously from the above, my experience of the album is also very much affected by the fact that i've come to know it almost exclusively as a vinyl album. i haven't entirely decided how i feel about dave mccandlish's contention that every album, whether by design or otherwise, has a "correct" format - is rightly either a cd album or a vinyl album - but i do agree that how we experience it makes a very large difference, and my experience with gimme fiction has clearly driven that point home for me. i've just now got c'mon miracle and oh! inverted world on vinyl as well - i think that was a good idea, if for no other reason than my love affair with the artwork.
slight change of topic. saturday, abnormally, i went to work, just to "knock out" (as neil says) some scones, and a batch of chocolate chip kookys - ended up staying for nearly five hours though, and it was a good time to think. joe's iPod was playing on random. that i was enjoying immensely, stuff i didn't know almost as much as stuff i did. what do i recall? the everlys' "when will i be loved?" the beatles' "boys", beck's "the golden age," a few cuts from johnny cash's unchained (will have to investigate), demos from loaded, "paranoid android", "i'm waiting for the day", something by elvis p. that i knew but didn't know he'd done, an instrumental, pennywhistle-led version of "heartaches" (funny b/c i'd just put the original [?] on genrecalia) apparently taken from a radio show curated by the cramps' lead singer. some punkier stuff. we were talking about how it all had a common vibe, a personality that was "surprisingly consistent" he said; joe's kind of music. (evidently.)
i started thinking about elvis costello and david byrne, the two towering figures in my musical pantheon, first of all as exponents and practitioners of such a ridiculous range of styles. between the two of them, they've made music that's solidly identifiable as rock, pop, punk, funk, blues, jazz, soul, country, salsa, reggae, "classical"/er, new music, opera, ambient, house, gospel, lounge, filmi, and more, in almost every case with considerably more depth and integrity than would seem possible - often through collaborations with a mindboggling array of luminaries in various genres. is there any other pair of individuals who have even approached that range? bowie? eno? ween? uh, don byron? leonard bernstein? i don't know.
and what styles have they not experimented with? metal. rawer punk and hardcore. hip-hop (pretty much, yeah - as far as i can think of, they somehow both survived the early nineties without any of those always-embarrassing guest rap attempts). drum'n'bass. synth-pop (which, as it happens, i've been genrefying pretty much all day.) inevitably, all sorts of ethnic musics - but it's hard not to cede that, considering mr. byrne has been more involved with international music of many different sorts than pretty much any comparable figure.
•artists whose records are in my collection, wholly or partially, directly because of elvis costello: wendy james, the fairfield four, nick lowe, anne sofie von otter, nat "king" cole, ron sexsmith, hank williams, the jazz passengers, marc ribot.
•artists whose records are in my collection, wholly or partially, directly because of david byrne: jim white, tom ze, joe henry, x-press 2, juana molina, los amigos invisibles, [not even counting all the other artists who are on luaka bop or who i first heard at the luaka office.]
that's just direct influence, and taken together with their own albums, that's a not-unsizable portion of my library. doesn't compare to the impact a handful of other folks have had on my collection - my dad, in particular; uncle dan; rabi, probably - but most others i can think of - aijung for some things; maybe ben; julian going back further and josh h-b, way back somewhere - don't even come that close. more to the point, i definitely feel like el and david have made me want to explore and acheive fluency in whole new styles - country and tropicalia, for instance - in a different way than other, somewhat more organic instances of genre-trawling (q.v. the french house kick; the inescapable britpop phase; my deliberate assaults on techno and indie.) they, it's possible, were instrumental in molding my musicological instincts, my approach as an academic and collector. can i blame this on them?
ec and db: gateway drugs to boundary-defying genremaniacal completist curiosity/compulsion/obsession.
some things that are good to reflect on, obvious on some level but usually unarticulated. my position as music collector is at odds with my position as music listener. hard to reconcile, that one. my academic completism impels me to familiarize myself with (and, a relevant side-point, acquire), more or less anything that anybody considers to be "important" (or even just really really good) in any of my (multitudinous) proclaimed fields of desired expertise. obviously, this is a nonpossibility, but it tries to do what it can, and establishes complicated hierarchies of relevance mediated by time (macro and micro-scale), brain-and-shelf capacity, market availability, and so forth.
where this gets me in trouble is when i try to branch out, for instance, into one of the seemingly inexhaustible supply of "seminal" bands (in the past alone!), and they turn out, as important as i know they might be, to sound pretty uninteresting and/or aesthetically offensive to me. what to do? the (actually, reassuring) thing is that it's not always that predictable what i'll end up liking. in the past weeks, i've given greater-than-usual used-copy-headphone-patience to the mekons' fear and whiskey, mission of burma's vs., wire's pink flag, and ride's nowhere, among others, all of which i'd had reasonable expectations that i'd rather enjoy (in some cases even having heard tracks before), and found them ranging from annoying to nearly unlistenable. i salivated (this is saturday afternoon, leaving work and heading to a.k.a., which, totally unfairly, had just received two large influxes of cheaply-priced used schtuff, requiring me to borrow a stool and an outlet for a lengthy auditioning session) over a mad-cheep copy of mclusky do dallas - two of whose songs had previously been known to lodge in my crania - only to discover that they're the only two mclusky tracks i can hardly stand.
but it's not that i don't like marginally-melodic punk, exactly. i mean, i recently picked up repeater (my 1st fugazi) and this nation's saving grace (1st fall album after starting with a comp last year) and am enjoying them both insofar as i've listened to them (er, well.) it's been almost a decade now (an eternity) since i first made peace with rap, and there was some kind of incremental breakthrough with the still-annoying kinds yesterday when i found myself enjoying and snapping up a cheap copy of the cold vein. i know better than to try to like heavy metal (which isn't to say i can't enjoy, say, a mastodon track genially inserted into a mixtape.) as far as drum'n'bass goes (are you noticing a correlation to the categories eschewed by my twin demigods?) i do occasionally find a decently diggable disc - though there's still not much that can touch that plug.
i'm pretending to complain here. actually this is not something to complain about. it's a pretty wonderful thing, on many levels, that there is music, potentially even entire genres (?) that i can actively dislike. maybe that's a ridiculous thing to say. but with all the incestuous rockcrit consensus-of-opinion b.s. i expose myself to on a daily basis, it's pretty darn awesome of my very-own natured'n'nurtured idiosyncratic preferences to giddy up, assert themselves, and googlysmirk in the face of the whole dang rockist/antirockist (dis)establishment. what we're talking about, evidently, is the gradually unfolding ontology (right?) of my personal musical taste(s). and if nothing else, the unpredictability of my reactions to unheard-but-heard-of albums is a magnificent vindication of my longstanding axiom that a music appeals for its unique and unquantifiable qualia and not (or not dependably) for some formulizaic confluence of stylistic characteristics. to me anyway. jus' good music/bad music. es mucho caballo or forget it. i don' wanna be beholden to no genre noway.
hell, maybe i don't even really like punk, i'm just deluding myself. what do i know. (incidentally, the clash hardly seem to count. who couldn't like the clash? they, if anybody, nip genre in the bud no question.)
i escaped relatively unscathed, with just a headache borne of insufficient eating, drinking, voiding, the heat, the humidity, the noise of sound, (but not from too little sleep, not this time!) and set off to exacerbate it just a tetch more and bring the musical mentalogue full circle, or something --->
---> they might be giants, playing free @ the great plaza @ penn's landing! not the festival pier (that was the allman bros.), which confusion cost me fifteen minutes or so. i'm sticking to my story that it's my seventh time seeing them.
now's not the time (it's 4:44, i'm leaving town in 2:16 and i still hain't packed) to wax all personal-reminiscence about the band that, after all, blah blah, was the first i listened to consciously at the same time they were actually making their music. actually, it wasn't all that nostalgic an experience, the way it sometimes is - seeing them has become such a reasonably regular thing for me that it's okay to let it be part of the present. particularly considering that they're as old as i am, i oughtn't begrudge them continuity and sustained relevance. besides which it was short - they started 15m early, i got there 15m late, and they were off-stage in less than an hour.
but they played "she's an angel," and they played "mammal" (neither of which i remember them doing recently?) and flansburgh said funny things and linnell squinted and played a main squeeze accordion, and they did "working undercover for the man" [mink car: another notably sharper latter half] and a neat prog song about a venue in texas ("trees" anybody?) and i remembered i ought to learn to stop worrying and buy the spine and something that has "dr. worm" on it, 'cause when have i not enjoyed anything they've done? ("mr xcitement," "exquisite dead guy," i hate to say it but "spy.")
(while i'm on the subject, this is one of the weirdest reviews i've seen in a while. what does he mean, it's an "honest acknowledgment of the band's falterings"?)
obviously i'm not sleeping tonight - plenty of bus rides for that tomorrow - but it's been a good one. made another mixtape today. only went outside to pick a leaf for the artwork. even ate some food eventually. i'm gone for a week now, so you can take your time reading all that (er, what you just read.) i promise not to buy any records while i'm canoeing.
i'm interested in things