Ordinary language is all right.
One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.
If you think of records as (at least tentative or provisional or suggested) answers to questions, then one question for Emperor Tomato Ketchup - at least at times - might be "How much can a record sound like a rock record while being as fundamentally non-rock as possible?"
(Dots and Loops seems to me to not care about answering that question.)
I always lean in closer when "The Drum Thing" comes on on Crescent. It has something to do with the way Coltrane articulates his phrases - maybe it constantly seems to court fading away completely, not just at the beginnings and ends of phrases but during them too.
I'm not clear enough on the details of Deleuze's position (described below) to know whether what I'm going to suggest would better be thought of as another sort of image of thought, or a particular kind of thought in the image of problem solving or encounters with the unknown, as he advocates. But anyway.
This idea of an image of thought seems helpful along with this idea I mentioned, about taking improvisation in music more seriously in order to help better understand improvisation in other contexts. I had in mind very wide-ranging contexts: writing a paper, teaching a class, finding your way to a new place, talking with a new person, talking with a person you've known for a long time, cooking, making a mixtape, packing your suitcase for a trip, listening to a new record, listening to an old record, reading, friendship, love. This is not to say that these cannot be done in non-improvisatory, or less improvisatory, ways. Or that there are not degrees. For some it may be better, in certain circumstances, and for certain goals or criteria, to plan them out more. For some, planning seems to be of extremely limited use, and sometimes harmful or at least inhibiting. All can be done improvisationally. I think that doing them this way may often make them work out better, or negotiate unforseen problems more readily. Often when we do them and unforseen problems do arise, we do improvise. But I think we often do so unreflectively, or regard the improvisation as something we would rather not have to do. A better understanding of how improvisation works might make it seem more central, more vital, might help us recognize the ways it's always there, even if in a sort of suppressed form.
I especially have in mind a picture of improvisation like Paul Berliner's in Thinking in Jazz, which I am unfortunately not able to give an apt summation of at the moment. But the emphasis he puts on a couple things seems key. His book is organized following the life path of an improviser: background conditions and musical knowledge the improviser brings to the practice, the way the improviser learns to improvise initially by learning from other musicians and trying for themselves, the way the improviser's technique develops over time in response to their continued attention and interaction with other musicians. Also, Berliner does well making the resources that improvisers have to draw on seem - I don't know, real, thick somehow, making it clear that it's nothing as naive as "they just get up and play whatever they want", while also not slipping into "they just figure out a bunch of riffs to play beforehand". Elements of improvisation like these seem to have direct analogues in the activities above, and emphasizing their importance in musical improvisation is important if the activities are to be meaningfully described as improvisation, since our typical understandings of them seem to often involve drawing on a store or reserve or experience that somehow guides us aside from the contingencies introduced by the improvisational context, and the idea that somehow we can get better at them over time while still never mastering them.
Paul Patton from Deleuze & the Political, on p. 19, in the section on "the dogmatic image of thought":
Deleuze objects that recognition offers a timid conception of thought which draws its exemplars from among the most banal acts of everyday thinking: 'this is a table, this is an apple ... good morning Theaetetus ... who can believe that the destiny of thought is at stake in these acts ...?'. In opposition to this model, he argues that it is not the reassuring familiarity of the known which should provide us with the paradigm of thinking, but those hesitant gestures which accompany our encounters with the unknown. Examples that point to an alternative model of thought may be found in Plato, when he draws attention to the responses of the subject of contradictory perceptions which 'provoke thought to reconsideration', or in Heidegger, where he points to the situation of someone learning to swim. Apprenticeship or learning may be contrasted with recognition at every point: it is an involuntary activity which need not involve the application of a method. Apprenticeship is not the natural exercise of a faculty but something to which we are driven by necessity or puzzlement, in any case by the perception of a problem. The antithesis of thought in this case is not an error but the failure adequately to perceive a problem or the inadequate specification of the dimensions of a problem which confronts us - in other words, stupidity.
More on this rock/beats thing: if I follow the distinction here that Tim and I were arguing about with respect to the Dismemberment Plan and (perhaps not coincidentally - remember Peter Scholtes' line about them) the Talking Heads between giving up to the grove or, er, not, then I am saying something like this: on Dots and Loops Stereolab are giving up to the groove, and on their other records they are not.
It's a very sort of sophisticated, reserved (?) giving up to the groove, but at least by comparison...
Another interesting thing to reinforce this rock/beats dichotomy: when I listen to Dots and Loops, even though there are lots of organs and analog synths and stuff (or at least things that sound like them) on the record, I don't really hear the music as having them; versus say Emperor Tomato Ketchup or others, where when I hear them I'm like "hey listen to that synth". (And then I make farting noises with my mouth.)
Even the horns, which there are many of, don't seem like horns to me. Perhaps because they do not seem deployed as horns, and likewise the synths do not seem deployed as synths. They're deployed as sounds.
But lots of the bass parts, the ones that seem to at least derive originally from a real person plucking a real bass guitar (I am aware of the presence of looping, electronic production, synths etc., although sometimes only in the most limited sense that I have been informed they are in there somewhere), I still hear as "bass guitar parts", where I mean by that something like "things like the bass guitar parts in any other music that has a bass guitar". Like, er, rock music.
I would like to think that something like this underpins my willingness to go back to listen to Stereolab records that are not Dots and Loops, but two things speak against this.
Today while waiting for the bus and listening to (yes you guessed it) Dots and Loops I felt as if I've made a fundamental shift in an important attitude. When I started writing here, I thought very strongly that I should attempt to work on records that I didn't like or didn't get, in order to eventually change that. Now, it seems like I just don't care. If I don't like a record, I won't listen to it, and if I like it but not that much, I'll just put it on whenever I happen to want to, like really want to. In a way this may involve my regarding coming to love records I am not that fond of as a process of becoming used to being annoyed, or just one of learning to overlook a lack of "real" pleasure or enjoyment because of the comfort or familiarity that comes with constant association with a record. (I don't think I formerly thought this did not ever happen, or that it was good or bad. It just seems to be more habitual for me now.) This isn't even wholly true, though, because I still put things on out of something like a sense of duty. But I don't do it as often, and what I do it with seems to have shifted.
The other thing: aside from Emperor Tomato Ketchup, I don't really put on my other Stereolab records, anyway. Tonight was the first time I listened to Cobra Phases in a long time. I was not inspired to put on Sound-Dust as a result of my recent-and-ongoing Stereolab obsession. Nor Transient etc. I did put on Emperor Tomato Ketchup, and have done so recently, but I don't usually enjoy it as much as Dots and Loops and I don't try to change that. Tonight was actually the best it had sounded in a long time - the entire album seemed quite good, and rather than being bored by its rock-ears-readiness, as I have been for some time (this is connected with how much I love Dots and Loops), I enjoyed it for what it was.
The change I mention above is, I think, not like a change from doing things the right way to the wrong way, or vice versa. Both ways are part of the grammar of musical experience, and as such are neither right nor wrong in themselves.
The single record I've listened to the most in the past month or more has been Stereolab's Dots and Loops. It's been my favorite Stereolab record for some time (since before I wrote that), but I feel differently about it now. Saying that I like the way it lets me drift in and out is true, but maybe a little deceptively reserved in its praise. Now, I love every moment of the record, and even though I can drift in and out (of listening, of paying attention, of consciousness) and enjoy doing so, I also find it natural to listen raptly to the whole thing.
I've heard the record called boring or other bad things more than once. Peter Scholtes said some things along these lines in his review in 1997 (though check out that great line, "a Talking Heads for the 90s underground ... they take from the avant garde to make accessible music about the meaning of modern life"). I asked him just now; he still thinks it's boring.
I often wonder what sort of thing conditions people's negative responses to the record, compared to their other (usually their earlier) records. I have this persistent notion - not that I want to shake it - that this is the only Stereolab record, as far as I know, that has beats. Beats, in the rap sense. Or the dance sense, or electronic music sense. This doesn't so much have to do with electronic percussion, drum machines, etc. (Though the other day while listening I wondered if there still indie fans nominally informed about music made without just rock instrumentation, who would be inclined to say of the record "it has drum machines on it" not simply in a narrowly technical sense. I suspect I may have said it when I first got the record, if I was even able to tell when I thought they were using drum machines.) It has more to do with the nature of the rhythms, and whether or not there's a sense that melodic and harmonic instruments hold sway, whether they're dominant, or whether it all seems to be contributing to the rhythm. This is a poor explanation of what I mean, I know. I don't mean something as simple as "melody over rhythm", or "harmony over rhythm." (I read a review that complained there were no good melodies here, compared to past records. That may have been correct, in some sense of "melody", but at the very least I think there are plenty of melodic things to enjoy, even if they're somehow more fragmentary or repetitive or whatever than some prefer.) And now, listening again, the whole thing seems to break down. But, for now, just go along with me. Beats.
So, the thing I wonder because of this is, how often are the people who like this record less liking it less because they're looking for something more like a rock record, like say Emperor Tomato Ketchup? Or to put it another way, are they just listening with rock ears?
(I expect an easy response to this, that goes something like: no, because Stereolab don't sound like a rock band given the borrowings from minimalism, krautrock, lounge music, etc. That may set them apart from rock music in some important ways, but if we take column A (the Beatles, Can, Sonic Youth) and column B (the Neptunes, James Brown, microhouse), I'm much more compelled to put Dots and Loops in B and Stereolab's other records in A, even if Dots and Loops would seem very different from the other records in B.)
In defense of Peter and others, though, have a look at this old post about Sound-Dust. The "song built out of one thing" part is key. I think that with rock ears, Dots and Loops sounds even more susceptible to this problem than their other records. I can't explain positively right now what the other records are like by way of contrast, but here the music strikes me as much richer, much thicker, and somehow that lets every little part contribute to the interestingness of the beats. I would like to say this is a matter of production, but I mean it in a specific sense and don't want to be taken the wrong way. Arrangement also doesn't capture it. Both sound like I'm talking about a kind of fussiness, or indulgence of sound, a kind of cheating, or overcompensation for boring music. I'm not.
Tonight I saw (and heard) a commercial for Southern Comfort that used the Magnetic Fields' "Desert Island" for its soundtrack. And not in any background-music kind of way. It was the only part of the soundtrack. And what's more, it seemed to be a strange mix that was even more abrasive, with even more obscured vocals than normal. I am unsure of the message about drinking Southern Comfort that the advertisers intended to send. The old people dancing seemed happy, with no problems whatsoever akin to floating gloomily through life with a cacophonous indie-pop din in their heads.