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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15 Mar '02 08:13:18 AM

All the reviews of N.E.R.D.'s In Search Of that I've seen are just fucking shit. What is wrong with people?

15 Mar '02 08:05:11 AM

A while back I started a list of albums. Every time I listened to an album and thought, wow, I really pretty much totally like that record (or even better), I put it on the list. The idea was that I would get a nice list of the things that I would somehow have a harder time ranking against one another, but which I liked more than other records that in my more careful and principled moments I would stumble over comparing the former ones to. (Still with me there? That was a syntactically exciting sentence.) I haven't been keeping the list very studiously, but here's what's on it right now:

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - The Boatman's Call. Weezer - Pinkerton. Smog - Red Apple Falls. Outkast - Aquemini. Sleater-Kinney - The Hot Rock.

This tells me that I had somewhat didactic purposes in mind when I was intermittently adding things to the list - didactic for my own sake, not others'. I started with the Nick Cave because on putting it on on the spur of the moment one day, I was startled by the discrepancy between how much I thoroughly enjoyed it, and how much I remembered enjoying it. So the Weezer I must have put on to underscore to myself how serious I was about putting the Nick Cave on. (NB: this is a lot, not a little.) Then something similar to the Nick Cave happened with the Smog, except that I didn't even remember liking the record much (as opposed to the Nick Cave, which I had enjoyed plenty, but which I just forgot about). Then I must have been thinking about last July at some time when I was listening to Outkast. Then last night, listening to Sleater-Kinney, I realized that even as much as I love their other records, I love The Hot Rock more evenly, or with more unity, or something like that (I'm vague on the details).

Really the main thing, I guess, is that maybe this gives me a good way of figuring out what to do with cases like S-K where thinking carefully about what I like better (and remember, this is all because I'm still sort of guardedly interested in making lists, seeing what happens when I do) ends up going nowhere (cf. also Spiritualized, Nirvana, etc., though at the moment I suspect I know better how those would turn out now).

It would help if I paid more attention to the thing.

15 Mar '02 01:17:05 AM

Jordan is involved in picking a title for the record his band just recorded. Talking to him about it prompted this thought.

I was listening to Dave Douglas's (well the Tiny Bell Trio's really to be pedantic) Songs for Wandering Souls the other day and wrinkling my nose at how the more lively songs had sort of abstract but apparently hopefully descriptively appropriate names, while the slower ones had more 'meaningful' names that were tied to emotionalish stuff like feelings, starry nights, blah blah blah. Wrinkling my nose, because Douglas certainly isn't the only one who does that. I guess part of what bothers me about it is that it makes some of the music seem as if it's meant to be more programmatic, and I don't want people being able to make that accusation. Maybe I also sometimes don't want them to be hearing the songs that way (though sometimes I do). There's a kind of middle ground that pleases me (though it's probably not a middle ground at all, it's on a different axis) - song titles that have tenuous connections to the music at best, but which have a proper songish sound to them. Like a lot of Miles' song titles. "Gingerbread Boy", "Agitation", "Eighty-One", "Madness". (Some of the ones that sound more descriptive or whatnot only go so far, because it's hard to see how they are descriptive or have programmatic implications, which makes them just sort of pleasing tokens with which to name things.)

I'm not sure what to make of this.

14 Mar '02 04:50:00 PM

Ain't no party like a disco party.

14 Mar '02 07:44:45 AM

Four songs of the moment.

De La Soul, "A Roller Skating Jam Named 'Saturdays'". Sleater-Kinney, "The End of You". The Dismemberment Plan, "Back and Forth". Jay-Z, "A Week Ago" (feat. Too $hort).

Voraciously taking in everything within reach. Mythic flinty-eyed defiance. Overwhelmed, jittery affirmation and necessity-sprung hope. "You'll always be in jail, nigga, just minus the bars."

I can feel myself slipping down a little. Things aren't going badly but they could be better. I have a week off next week, which I need. If you can drop me a line I would be grateful.

13 Mar '02 07:55:50 AM

Apparently I know all the words to the first part of "Epitaph for my Heart", since they've been stuck in my head the past few days.

11 Mar '02 08:58:42 AM

About four minutes in the New Klezmer Trio's "Cardboard Factory" switches gears and sounds like the slow section in a metal song (which reminds me in that backwards-influence way of King Crimson's "Red"), only not, since it's an acoustic trio with bass, clarinet, and drums.

11 Mar '02 07:02:20 AM

Tim currently has up some interesting things about R+B (by way of talking about the new Brandy) and, separately, his reactions to commercial rock music. Of special interest in the former, to people who don't like R+B (this would include me I think), is where he sets up a distinction between good and bad.

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".