josh blog

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.

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11 Mar '02 06:32:31 AM

OK, here we go finally.

I had little to say about "Abigail, Belle of Kilronan" last time around. The nature of the project I undertook then led me to say more about the process of writing about and listening to the whole three disc album in a restricted setting.

The lyrics go like so:

Abigail / can you feel my heart / in the palm of your hand / and do you understand / why I can't stay / Abigail / an evil wind is blowing / through the land / and they need every man / to drive it away / When I come home / if I come home / you'll be a grown woman / When I come home / if I come home / don't be alone, / Abigial, belle of Kilronan Abigail / 's gonna be the beauty of County Galway / and she will live always / in a world of love / Abigail / I'm off to the war / but you can be sure / I will know you're / what I'm fighting for...

One of the things that bothers me (among many) about most attempts with which I'm familiar of philosophers attempting to explain how music can express things (emotions, in particular) is that they usually say something like, "we should start by talking about pure [read: instrumental and non-programmatic] music, because of course once lyrics are added the music will easily express." There is still some work to be done even on their view, but the idea that the presence of lyrics sort of gives away the game is misguided because it presupposes that the lyrics will be received and understood in the appropriate way (since they should be in order to be making the most correct judgment about the emotion being expressed). Not enough attention is given to the fragmentary way in which we as listeners routinely engage with lyrics (and with music in general).

I certainly can't take up this complaint to any great depth here, but listening to "Abigail" tonight and looking at what I wrote last year, I was reminded of it by some of the lyrics. My response to it is more complex now. The metaphor in the third and fourth lines, "can you feel my heart / in the palm of your hand", is magnificent because it packs so many details into such a small space. The way we talk about the people we love sounds superficially like the way we talk about objects: "she's my girlfriend," "he's my husband," and so on. The resemblance is superficial not because the reality of love is not at all like property ownership, but because it's much more complex. When you are mine, part of you - in a very real sense - does belong to me, at least as long as you will let it. But because I care for you, I can't do whatever I want with that part of you, like I could if it were just any other thing I owned. It's really like something of yours lent in trust to me; I have a great deal of influence over it, power over it, but it may not ultimately be mine unless I treat it the right way. In Merritt's metaphor Abigail's power is made tangible and physical, the narrator's vital organ in the palm of her hand, vulnerable, with the potential to be crushed, and with it his love and life. And it's the narrator who points this out to her, his entreaty to her not to break his heart.

That's a lot from two lines, but it's enough. Enough for the song to sink its hooks into me (along with the aforementioned woom-woom noise and repeated utterance of a woman's name). This is important, because as it stands "objectively" and "correctly" understood the content of the lyrics makes it more of a historical study. The narrator, already considered a man next to Abigail's youth (when he comes home, she'll be a grown woman), must leave her because he is obliged to leave to fight in a war. The question isn't, why is his heart in her hand, but, what would cause it to break? The lyrics imply that it would hurt him more if she didn't find a new love while he's away, than if she held out for him. So would it break his heart if she stayed in love and waited for him? That seems paradoxical, but remember that part of her holding his heart is that he cares enough for her to let her hold it. So I lied. The song isn't totally a historical study, a run-through of one of the tropes about love in our collective societal stock. It's "if you love something enough, you'll let it free" coming back to bite us on the ass. I've broken up with someone because I cared for her enough that I thought it was the better thing to do for her sake. But "Abigail" feels like a noisy translation of that feeling. The narrator is weighed down by duty, it's everywhere: he's got duties to his country and the men and women in it, including Abigail, but they don't arise out of his love for her. If he doesn't go help fight the "evil wind" "blowing / through the land", they'll lose, because "they need every man / to drive it away". If they lose, there is no him and Abigail, anyway. That's remote enough from my experiences that it dilutes the power in the metaphor I identified and expanded on before. What's troubling the love between Abigail and the narrator is more external to them, less a matter of whether or not they fit together the right way.

The stuff about his heart in the palm of her hand I have to expand on to explain why it seems powerful to me, why I perk up when I hear it. The other stuff I have to expand on in order to explain why I don't perk up, why things get more muddled, why I just chug along, hearing the words feeling something but being unsure why it was awkward.

Near the end, I kept getting the sensation that the lyrics were building up to something much more profoundly meaningful than before, but I was let down slightly by the end when I realized that it didn't sound that surprising. Then I realized that the music builds up toward the end, with the added layers from drums and strings combining with the ending cascade of lyrics which keep a similar rhythm until that rhythm is broken with the last "alone / Abigail / belle of Kilronan".

8 Mar '02 09:20:38 AM

I feel tempted to make a joke about Tesla's cover of "Signs", but this is nice.

7 Mar '02 09:06:40 AM

Today I started falling in love with De La Soul is Dead.

Because of the circumstances, I shouldn't be surprised, but it still feels surprising. I bought the album last fall but didn't even get through a listen before I was bored and slightly annoyed. I hadn't listened to it again until today - the surprise arises from the long absence, if it can be called that. Or the sense of it, at least, since the fact that I never really tried in the first place, never struggled with the record or just gave it time to sink in with repetition as I often end up doing, means that the absence was never one at all.

At this point I still don't think that I'm totally hot on the beats, or the flow, or the production in the sense of the way each part sounds. Part of that is just due to the record sounding 'dated'. Part of it is due to my being out of sync with rap from that date. Past that I'm content to keep listening and see if the raps that don't do as much for me, or the weaker-sounding beats, grow on me. Because I 'heard' two things today that make me want to keep listening.

One is the production, not in the sense of the way each part sounds, but the cut-and-paste, 'sampladelic', bricolage strategy for constructing the record as a whole. Of course, it's prototypical, and it's not as if I haven't experienced De La and Prince Paul's take on the hip-hop aesthetic before (since I've heard and enjoyed, some, 3 Feet High and Rising). But it came together for me today with this record like never before. One reason, I think, is that it's more pervasive; the principles of construction are employed on multiple levels. The whole record is a patchwork of more 'proper' songs, skits, less 'proper' songs that are more aptly 'tracks' when juxtaposed with the 'songs'. Individual songs change styles for different parts, using different samples or different beats, sometimes for different rappers, sometimes for different narrative or thematic segments. Bursts of sound from 'outside' intrude into tracks and songs; sometimes they end up being integrated in some way (think of the connection to the recapitulation in sonata form), sometimes they don't. The music for tracks and songs is made up from parts from different records.

Besides the structural level, this kind of polymorphic method of construction takes place on the level of meaning. The most conspicuous kind of meaning is the verbal meaning, from the lyrics. We get dramatic elements in the skits, but with some aspects like the fight sound effects that reinforce that they're a specific kind of drama. We get 'straightforward' rapping, which is thoroughly bricolage anyway, perhaps just moreso from De La with their penchant for in-jokes and semi-private codes, something a little different from the already highly semantically encoded language of, say, mainstream rap. We get the rappers and a guest woman maybe acting out the dozens, in the midst of some more dramatic elements, only elements that seem to have a different character than the skit ones because they're rapped and related sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly through narrative. (Again, this is often standard, not just a De La thing.) We get metacommentary on De La and their reception by their fans (and nonfans) - and not just from the skit characters' comments on the De La tape they find in the garbage (ahem). (But speaking of which - music that comes with its own reviews! And ones from 'amateur' listeners at that.) We get at the very least a sense that things are adding up from track to track, so there's unity to the fragmented tracks and album as a whole. There's explicit and implicit social and moral commentary ("Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa", "My Brother's a Basehead" are obvious and polemical but not overstated). Some of the range of life is reflected - we get radio announcers, preachers, conversations between friends, fights, and all that outside of the narrative frameworks that contain even more elsewhere on the record. There's more musical commentary - a disco (and roller skating!) jam, complaints about gangster rappers, a send-up of hip house that I'm not sure maintains its parodic distance (and I'm not sure it even means to), and more. And more and more. These are just some of the obvious carriers of meaning, the ones that it's easy for me to talk about.

So, yeah. The record is thoroughgoingly hip-hop because of this, hip-hop in the way that maybe I imagined it would be before I had really listened to any. This makes the experience of listening to it abstract, and slightly unusual because of that.

The second reason the record came together for me is - and this will sound corny and I'm not going to support it much but fuck you - that I heard the love that went into the record, the care. That's care for the record. A palpable sense of the effort that went into the entire thing. Not that I don't think most hip-hop records I listen to (or any other records) sound like the musicians didn't care much about them - but it sounds different here, maybe stronger because of the distinctive specificity.

6 Mar '02 07:40:17 AM

Tonight I saw Dave Holland's quintet at the Dakota in St. Paul. I can't recreate the setlist, but they played "Looking Up", "Herbaceous", "Make-Believe", and closed with a new number, "Free For All". (There was only one other, but I forgot the name.) I had cheap overflow seats which put me behind a pillar in the corner, which wouldn't have been as bad if the screen behind the stage (and right behind Holland) hadn't broken in the down position five minutes before the show. So I could see Holland and Nelson a bit, and Eubanks and Potter some - unfortunately I couldn't see Kilson at all. So Nelson was quiet and Potter and Eubanks slightly quiet but otherwise, I didn't lose much.

Everyone was looser live than on record, though Eubanks and maybe Nelson seemed to play the most like their recordings. Kilson was much louder and more energetic - I think this may have obscured some of his time-manipulating powers somewhat. Holland's bass was the most satisfying sonic difference, since it was much thumpier, more resonant, than I've ever heard before. I've not heard Points of View so I don't know how "Herbaceous" sounds on it, but Potter went pretty far out tonight.

Maybe I'll have some more perceptive things to say later.

5 Mar '02 12:38:25 AM

Go! to the Freaky Trigger Pop Music Focus Group and See! the fifth run of the feature with its rankings of P!O!P! music and comments from many usual suspects. I barely participated this time so I'm not sure if I have comments anywhere.

5 Mar '02 12:35:50 AM

Also, and significantly, I never get the impression listening to Mehldau of an ecstatic repetitive element in his music like Jarrett's, even in his cover of Nick Drake's "River Song", which seems to be one of the ones where Mehldau applies his interest in the building-something-from-almost-nothing techniques of classical composition to not much more than a melodic fragment - that is, a song that by its very nature succeeds because of its brooding over-and-over-again-ness. This is because of the dynamic arc, I think - the sense is always there that Mehldau is heading up for something and then will come down - whereas in Jarrett's Easternish ruminations time becomes much more circular (hence linear on to infinity), at least for a time, so that it's easy to forget (despite knowing how it's going to turn out thanks to recordings' re-playability) where he's going next.

5 Mar '02 12:30:32 AM

One thing that became clear to me just a couple of listens in is that the comparisons between Brad Mehldau and Keith Jarrett, or to a lesser extent Brad Mehldau and Bill Evans, are mostly daft. I can only imagine that they arise out of a general inattention to what's going on in the various pianists' music. It's hard to even adumbrate the differences, but I think they're pretty apparent. For instance, and just offhand: Mehldau's sense of structure seems to be a lot more expansive than Evans', which means that when he stretches out the music is more peripatetic, and it goes more different places while on those walks. Jarrett has a similar expansiveness but I always get more of an impression of linearity from him, because even when he ends up wandering long distances he does so more smoothly, so that it's hard to notice along the way that he's going to end up somewhere very different. Jarrett's rhythm section seems to chug more, and they seem more like they're all working toward a common goal or something. With LaFaro's prominence in Evans' group, it feels more like distinct voices with distinct goals. In Mehldau's group, something else is going on: though Mehldau is often the primary focus (Grenadier rarely takes center stage as often as LaFaro), a significant part of the interest in what he's doing comes from the way he's often set against the rhythm section - the way that Grenadier and Rossy chop up the time in different and perhaps conflicting ways.

I often get the sense, listening to Mehldau, as if he's going to break into some well-known song at any given moment, but that he holds back and doesn't complete his launch. This isn't just due to his covers, which I've never heard any of the originals of, to my knowledge, at least on Progression. There's a similarity there, I think, to Monk, only with Monk my impression is that he's constantly going to break into some other Monk song, which is a very different experience from breaking into someone else's song. There's more recognition involved, in Mehldau's case, and that makes it more exciting somehow. For Monk it also involves recognition, I suppose, but it's recognition of a less differentiated familiarity, a vague Monkness.

I haven't written anything yet about Mehldau's liner notes, but of course I must.

3 Mar '02 07:24:18 AM

I submit that if you "didn't really notice" the bass and piano in as fantastic a piano trio as Brad Mehldau's, then you don't know how to listen to piano trios.

2 Mar '02 09:40:27 AM

"Pinky Ring" came on the tape I made for him and my roommate told me that his girlfriend automatically had the "this is gangster rap" response to it. My other roommate has made similar remarks (upon hearing Mystikal). Correctness of assessment aside (yes, whatever it means for them to be "gangster", in some sense they are - but?), I wonder if this is a general sort of tendency that people who are unfamiliar with rap have. Is it spurred by hearing something specific? (Murph tried to convince his girlfriend that the presence of horns in "Pinky Ring" meant it wasn't gangsta rap, uh oh heh heh.) "Motherfucker" a lot, or references to guns and violence in the lyrics? And what significance does the fact that this response exists, have?

(Similarity to different response, "rap is crap, ha ha ha" - power of naming, etc. etc.)