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.
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.
Some of the songs on Bill Evans' Conversations With Myself - mostly the ballads I think - bear a striking similarity to the Aaliyah I listened to today. It seems as if Evans sets his time - something measured, meditational, like breathing, deliberate steps down the sidewalk, or the counting out of moments alone - in one track, then uses the other two tracks to layer on tinkly melismatic runs that dart around the base time in the first track. There seems to be a similarity to his trio with Scott LeFaro, but the rhythms don't feel filled in like that stuff does. Not integrated. There's a quality of breathing, and then other stuff, like flies buzzing around (getting in your mouth?), instead of just three parts, breathing together.
Epictetus seems to be creeping into my thinking a lot lately (the end of the previous entry is only one such place - most of them have not been written down). So, a sample from the Encheiridion, which I haven't even read so carefully or completely as to be influenced (hi Mark!) by it. Maybe I am coming up with this stuff more or less naturally. Whatta breakthrough.
"1. Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions - in short, whatever is our own doing."
I'm resistant to calling music like the blues simple, but when I consider it as an alternative to music that I think of as more sophisticated somehow (which I want to resist, too, but jesus it gets hard to resist all the time), like jazz, I find myself forced into it. Such was my situation last night, when I put on the Howlin' Wolf Chess compilation. When I don't feel well and I want to occupy myself somehow, distract myself maybe, I tend to prefer to listen to certain kinds of jazz or other music that strikes me as similarly abstract. Often I can't sanction Mingus or some Miles or Coltrane, anything with too much "feeling" (I was going to say, just no slow stuff, but with Mingus especially that's not true, all of his music has too much color or something, which may be a more affectively neutral way of putting what I have in mind - this "feeling" ascription makes me wince). So Miles' second quintet works well instead, or, say, Coltrane's Live in Japan (which I played the other night, two discs of it - "Crescent" sounded strangely similar to the album version I'm used to, in contrast to my past experiences where it blended together in a little-differentiated forty five minute directionless cacophony; I think I liked it better the old way, as the similarity to the album version dilutes its potency somehow).
But sometimes the sophistication is too much for me to deal with. My alternatives seem limited. Usually what I want in these cases is something emotionally, affectively monotonic, but when I turn to the music I have that seems to satisfy that requirement I remember that it makes me sad, or I find it too emotional, or too slow, or too floaty, or... well, I get very picky. It's hard to pin down why.
Yet I find that Howlin' Wolf fits, somehow. One of the things that made it work (I can't go into the others at the moment) seems to have been its simplicity. Saying that is not enough. I have plenty of other music that could be seen as roughly similar in terms of simplicity. But it's not what I want.
Of course, the blues are not affectively monotonic. I don't think I even listen to them as such in order to get a certain thing out of them. My, it's getting complicated.
Observations to keep in mind the next time I get a chance to think about this: Howlin' Wolf is funny. Rappers are too, but they're also bleak (some are Bleek oh haha sorry). Even when Howlin' Wolf is (as I told someone last night) bemoaning evil or celebrating his corpulence, or when his woman done him wrong (this happens often apparently), there's... something there. Confidence is not the right thing to call it. Some kind of assuredness, or acceptance. Yes, there is evil. Yes, woman done you wrong. There's not really any getting around it, and wishing you could have or feeling bad about it is kind of pointless. That's not to say that you should feel good - willfully ignorant (or ignoring?) wide-eyed optimism, denial of the bad things. They require recognition. Maybe "acceptance" is wrong, too. Or inadequate: you have to accept, but only that the bad things will be there. Not your reactions to them. This leaves room for being funny. Or for celebrations of corpulence.
Obviously I need more time to think about this. Note to self: Cohen's chapter in Jokes on Jewish jokes and acceptance of absurdity.
I'm busy; swamped; tired; depressed; cold; and more. Most of my thoughts lately have been about philosophy stuff unrelated to the topic of this blog, when I have time to have thoughts that aren't about grading. I'm nursing a few, though (in brief: expression in music as a disposition, consequence that objective consensus on what expresses what is not likely, but who cares?; what is there in a recording of improvisation to hear as improvisation?; my long suffering paper on Deleuzean (barely) plateaus in listening practices involving popular music; what happens when the desire to do criticism fades?; how local need the social contexts in which music is meaningful be for us (or really lameass philosophers) to be convinced that those contexts are sufficient to ground the music's importance?; is my project here selfish or social or what, and how much?), so stay with me.
The best thing I've read lately has been the intervew Mike links to, with Morton Feldman. Go read it carefully and enjoy.
So I'm grading and listening to Monk (who always works great for grading - I should remember that the next time I can't get started, which is every time), and on "Epistrophy" (the live Jazz Workshop version) the drummer starts doing this thing where he's hitting lots of eighth notes really straight, and then it keeps going for like 20 seconds while Monk and Gales are still swinging behind him, only it settles into something that's not so rhythmically complicated, just really straight eighth notes, bop-bop-bop-bop-bop-bop-bop-bop, and then I realize that Riley stopped 20 seconds ago and I've been tapping my foot on the straight eighths so hard that my chair is making a noise that sounds kind of like the drums coming from the right speaker. It was the greatest thing I've heard all week.