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February 29, 2000

"this is a song about a superhero named tony...
it's called tony's theme!"

Spotlight on Jon!

"Jon Stewart" writes:
>> "Jon Stewart" writes:
>> >Ever heard of a band named Morphine? Their new CD is KUNI's CD of the
>> >month and the tracks they've been playing sound kind of cool. Pretty
>> >Joshish.
>> I already own _Cure for Pain_ and _Like Swimming_. I've played
>> a couple of tracks from _The Night_ on my show lately, and I was
>> planning to pick it up once I had some cash.
>And your opinion of said band?
I like Cure for Pain a lot, Like Swimming* less so. The latter was two albums after Cure, and it seems a little short on songwriting ideas. They still have their two-string-bass-smoky-ambiance-bari-growl etc. going on, but (a) it's not as loose and (b) the songs aren't as powerful - not really about anything in particular, as I remember it. Which is why I want the new one - I've only heard a little but liked it, and all the reviews I've read make it out to be a big return to form.

*: Not that Like Swimming is a bad album - it just pales in comparison to A Cure for Pain.

February 27, 2000

Watching Hitchcock's Vertigo last night I couldn't help but think that the music, though certainly effective to some extent, was a bit overwrought. My gut reaction is to say this kind of music is more common in films from the 50s and 60s - but is it?

In contrast, Andrei Tarkovsky's film adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris features only one piece of music (a Bach chorale, if I remember correctly) - so that when there is no dialogue, or no external sound (i.e. the sound of the freeways during the extensive car travel scenes), the film is largely silent.

A programming note: viewers using graphical browsers (i.e. most people except for me) will now see the blog in a slightly more compressed format. I don't like the way it looks when stretched out in a full screen window, as many people are wont to do, so I've fixed that a little.

February 26, 2000

Thoughts on a circular tune from Bill Evans' Conversations with Myself.

Which album, by the way, is slowly worming its way into my consciousness. It's taken me some time to appreciate parts of it, because the musical dialogue seems a little obtuse at first. Evans recorded 10 songs in trio with himself by overdubbing. First he would play one part, then another while listening to the first, then a third while listening to both of the previous two. Gene Lees writes, in the original liner notes:

Had this been written music, all carefully pre-planned, Bill's performance would be amazing enough. When you remember that everything is improvised, it becomes unbelievable....

His mind obviously was working in three dimensions simultaneously, because each Bill was anticipating and responding to what the other two were doing. Bill Left could hear in his head approximately what Bill Center and Bill Right would be saying a half an hour from now, while Bill Center and Bill Right were in constant communication with a Bill Left who had vanished forever into the past a half an hour or an hour before.

The entire album is not modal, as my thoughts above might imply, but still excellent in their own ways: Monk tunes, standards interpretations, barrellhouse swing, and even the love theme from Spartacus. I highly recommend you check it out.

February 24, 2000

A quote from one of today's Pitchfork reviews, "sampled" in turn from another Pitchfork review:

Great works of noise don't lend themselves to regular rotation or top ten lists. You have to be open to the possibility of being accosted by it. (7)

Also: TOOG!

February 23, 2000

Quoth my friend Jon in an email:

But I think this is less so with fusion piano solos -- it sounds like a bunch of chords to me and I have a hard time getting at the actual solo.

Not to pick on Jon, but this seems to me to be an interesting, commonly held confusion - that solos are melodies. It's certainly true that lots of solos, in jazz and in other genres, are melodic, but they often have very strong chordal/harmonic components. In particular lots of rock guitar solos are really more like sequences of chords than sequences of notes in a melody.

There are plenty of examples, but the first one that pops to mind is Nirvana - Kurt Cobain's guitar solos were few and far between, and for the most part they were "bunches of chords." That's common in punk and lots of indie rock, I think.

Also lots of blues and blues-based rock, I think. How often did you hear Jimi fingerpick a solo?

February 22, 2000

there's a girl
with cherry chapstick
on and nothing
- Yo La Tengo, "Cherry Chapstick"

There's something uniquely comforting about hearing a good new album by a band you love.

Two things that maybe could stop happening now:

  • Referring to James McNew as the "new" member of Yo La Tengo
  • Mentioning how Ira Kaplan worked as a rock critic before forming Yo La Tengo, more than 10 years ago

February 21, 2000

Today's mission:

  1. Go to store.
  2. Get new Yo La Tengo.
  3. Die happy.

Well, Tom, I figured it wasn't but despite that I'll continue to think of Massive Attack every time I visit. :)

February 20, 2000

On not caring about lyrics:

With me it's more complex than that, and I suspect for many other people as well.

If I pick up on a lyric and think it's bad, then it hurts the enjoyment of the music as a whole. Thus despite whatever charms Korn may have musically, I don't want to listen to them if it means having to hear their lyrics.

On the other hand, there's music that I've liked for some time, whose lyrics I'm now not as pleased with. Some of this music I still like, some I don't. I think the stuff I still like is stuff with better purely-musical elements. The stuff I don't like - well, either the music couldn't save it, or it was bad on both counts.

But for much music, it's hard for me to piece together the lyrics. For instance, there's a Yo La Tengo song where in the middle, there's a lyric like "don't you think that's trite?". Every time I perk up right about there, and that lyric is really quite good, to me, but I couldn't tell you what they say before or after that.

It seems to me that part of this thing of mine with lyrics is that I listen to lots of music with lyrics which aren't meant to stand alone. I often feel like the lyrics people who like lyrics hold up as good are meant to stand up on their own, sans music. Obviously that's not even true of someone like Dylan, but at least it's more true of Dylan than, say, the Flaming Lips (whose lyrics I like, but which I wouldn't read repeatedly, etc.).

Lately I've found myself liking 'good lyrics' more and more on two fronts: Dylan, and rap, specifically A Tribe Called Quest and Mos Def.

And also: it seems like a lot of music promoted as having 'good lyrics' is often just less musically interesting, to me. Especially music toward the folk end of the spectrum. I guess I'm just a whore for sonic innovation, or something, because singer + acoustic guitar often does little for me, when the lyrics are supposed to carry it.

Some more data to consider: lots of poetry that I've read does little for me. Especially poetry with 'meaning' or 'symbolism'. I can understand those things, they just don't ring my bell. My favorite moments in poems tend to feel more like jokes, or especially sonically interesting things. Coleridge's declamatory voice (or Whitman's for that matter); the a-ha moment in a Japanese haiku, or one of Jack Kerouac's; the surrealistic, or sometimes just silly, as in some of Damon's poems (cf. 'I LIKE CUTE PUPPIES'); lots of William Carlos Williams.

Lewis Turco, in his New Book of Forms, separates poetic meaning into levels, even ranking them in importance, or power, or whatever, and at the top are the sonic, then sensory, then ideational levels. The sonic is obvious; metaphor and symbol fall into the sensory; form and structure fall into the ideational. I dig the former two. But the sensory, only for certain things.


Maybe some thoughts on favorite bands tomorrow. Later today. Er. Proust was right: time is cool.

Brandon Wu says: what about "Rachel's Song" and "Love Theme" on the Bladerunner soundtrack? Which brings up my other hunch about wordless love songs: "slow" songs, possibly in standard pop-ballad form, and with other trappings commonly associated with emotional songs. The first such example that came to me was Mingus's "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" - not love eros-style, but clearly a kind of love.

Also, Brandon's examples have intentionality: names associated with love, and even worse, use in love scenes in a film. Would we still think they were love songs, without these things?

February 19, 2000

Challenge: name as many love songs as you can that don't have words. And mail them to me, because I'm stumped. The biggest winners seem to be jazz standards, which once had words, being reinterpreted.

Tom hops on the blogwagon with blue lines - not necessarily about music, but today, musicfans, we're lucky.

The setlist for Friday night's Josh and Neil show is now up. Pedants of the world rejoice.

There's a great collection of jazz articles at The Atlantic Monthly. I haven't read them all yet, but the one about Coltrane is particularly good. So despite enjoying Charlie Parker right now I'm going to switch to Meditations and follow St. John on his spiritual quest...

February 18, 2000

Brandon Wu, a regular contributor and webmaster of the ambitious new listener-run progressive rock review site Ground and Sky, recently had this to say in his own listening log:

I like to think of the progressive rock movement as vaguely analogous to the bebop movement. Both see an increase in musical sophistication and roots in a counterculture of some sort. So why was bebop so much more successful? Jazz was as "popular" and "lowbrow" before bebop as rock was before (and, hell, after) progressive rock. I'm just now learning about the history of these musics, so maybe there are answers... but I see these as open questions.

I have plenty of ideas - many in the analytic tradition, of rephrasing the question in order to eliminate the problem. :) It seems that the vagueness of the analogy, and "sucessful," contribute an awful lot the the mystery behind the question. Not enough time to think about it tonight though!

Also, while listening to the Cowboy Junkies (sometimes lumped in with some late 80s / early 90s "slowcore") tonight:

One area in which music snobs say classical music excels over popular music in dynamics: there is more variety, it's said, in the dynamics of classical music. It seems somewhat disappointing then that many popular musicians seem to help confirm this line of thought by conflating (as my high school band teacher warned us against) slow with quiet and fast with loud.

February 17, 2000

After hearing most of Moby's Play today at the great new West Street Deli, I had the following revelation:

Moby's hip-hop beats are lame because he treats them like house beats. As soon as he speeds up, his beats are convincing and entertaining. But at slower speeds, they've got a sickly drum-machine pallor that reminds me of two sounds playing synchronously - the blues-singer samples together with the studio presets on a low-end drum machine - but without compositional purpose.

So what I'm thinking here is that a house beat need not be as distinctive as a hip-hop beat, which is why Moby (confusedly) tries to get away with a substandard midrange beat.

"All you feel like listening to Beethoven
is going out and invading Poland."
- Gustav, in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow

A counterexample (which shouldn't really be necessary anymore) to any digital naysayers: the Cowboy Junkies' The Trinity Session, recorded direct to DAT on a single microphone, digitally engineered and mastered, all aglow with pedal-steel ambiance and Margo Timmins' honey-coated voice.

(And, Damon: it's not bad like you remember from working at the insurance place, really.)

February 16, 2000

A little tangent today, but still musical:

Today for my Russian class, instead of the typical "dialogue check" where we're expected to memorize lines in a dialogue and repeat them back at the appropriate points of the "conversation," we had to recite poems. Promoting slack worldwide, I once again memorized my assignment the night before (rather than 2 weeks or so ahead of time, which I could have done).

So the interesting thing is, I know enough Russian to translate the poem with help from a dictionary - it's got some words I know, some I don't, and the grammar is familiar - but not enough to be able to understand it upon reading it. I also have an English translation of it, so I know approximately where the two line up.

This means that, during my process of memorizing, the poem was a strange combination of words (things I had meanings for) and sounds. I think this really brought out the lyrical quality of the poem - it highlighted the qualities of the lines of speech, in a way that it's hard to do in, say, English, when the meanings are always present, insistent.

If you know a language just-well-enough to be as ignorant as me, I suggest you try this. It's important to be able to prounounce it well and have good diction, but that's all.

The poem, by the way, was Anna Akhmatova's "Zdravstvuj! Lyokij shelest slyshish'" ("Hello! Do you hear the rustle").

February 15, 2000

Screamin' Jay Hawkins died at the age of 70 recently - appropriately enough, after aneurysm surgery. He's perhaps best known these days because of Mariln Manson's cover of "I Put a Spell On You" for the Lost Highway soundtrack.

Depressing to discover today that The International Lyrics Server sold out or was bought or something, and is now a slick bloated lyrics server (with plenty of e-commerce options, of course) operated by (owned by NBC).

All I wanted were the lyrics to James Brown's "I Got the Feeling."

At least the Online Hip-Hop Lyrics Archive is still keeepin' it real.

So anyway, about that James Brown song: listen about 54 seconds in, where The Godfather of Soul gets free "production" by moving farther away from the mike, then closer, within the same phrase: "baybee bayBEE BAYBEE baybee bayBEE BAYBEE".

Also, for those who've never heard jungle/drum n bass: listen to the drum part on this song. Then imagine that being pushed to the forefront, with 10 times as many notes (though the tamer junglists can sound like that, too - also see the much-touted forays into jungle from Soul Coughing's drummer Yuval Gabay on El Oso).

February 11, 2000

Stealing more good ideas from rmb's Howard Pierce:

I'll back you up on this, Tom. The kids 16-25 I know are much more aware of different styles of music, and also more inclined to listen to recordings more than two years old, than 99% of the members of my generation. In fact it's the parents of today's kids that have, I think, the most limited tastes.

My theory is that this is because rock is not the monolithic institution it onc e was. In the seventies rock was rock, pop was rock, country was rock, punk was rock--all popular music was basically rock. Since the 90s, rock has dissolved into a dizzying array of substyles, and other musical styles have made inroads into pop culture. So, the media is no longer projecting a single blinding visio n of what's "cool." Left with a void where a single hegemonic vision used to be, kids have almost no choice but to seek variety.

Also, an ambitious project: rather than simply adopt as a band name that of a great philosophy (as "John Stuart Mill" or "The Jean Paul Sartre Experience" have), do that while making music somehow philosophically indebted to that philosopher. Then break up and do it for another philosopher. All the important ones. :)

So what could these bands sound like?

February 10, 2000

The importance of the standard in jazz decreased during bop, and after. Usually this is attributed to the corresponding rise in importance of soloing over changes, only somewhat (sometimes vaguely, sometimes not at all, melodically) related to the melody from the head (usually the only place standards' melodies showed up). But it seems to me that of equal importance are the astounding imagination and individual characters of lots of the (now-remembered) soloists. Take Coltrane, for example. Lots of his songs, post- Giant Steps, don't seem to be that big as standards. Part of this is probably due to complexity, for his bop stuff - playing "Giant Steps" or "Countdown" is really, really hard (I saw a local big band play it once, and they really had to work at it - one of their hardest tunes, they said). On the other end, his modal stuff from A Love Supreme onward is too simple, harmonically: when there's one chord for sixty bars, a lot more of the responsibility is placed on the soloist (unless he's just noodling, in which case, viva single-chord-solo-sections). But most importantly, people listen to Coltrane songs and Coltrane records to hear Coltrane solo, and that's something that seems pretty special, in retrospect. This line of thinking also applies to stuff like Miles Davis (a unique voice) or even Charles Mingus' compositions, which even when he wasn't soloing, were driven by his own particular style of bandleading.

People seem to re-interpret "So What" a lot more often than "Flamenco Sketches", and I don't think it's because one is particularly better than the other. The former does have a more memorable melody/head (hell, it has one), though - an anchor.

February 9, 2000

Rap is not pop, if you call it that then stop.
- Q-Tip in A Tribe Called Quest's "Check the Rhime"

February 8, 2000

Quote from a different rmb reader (Howard Pierce) on Stravinsky:

Whenever the Rite of Spring riot is brought up, I always feel compelled to remind people that it was not Stravinsky's music that caused the riot. Historians are all agreed that it was Nijinsky's choreography that led to the riot, especially the part where Nijinsky, not known for mental stability, got a big, visible hard-on and started humping the stage. Very few reviews the next day even mentioned the music; those that did ranged from lukewarm to enthusiastic.

Stage-humping is only slightly more acceptable now than it was at the turn of the last century. Yes, classical audiences are more polite than they used to be, but I suspect any premiere down at your local symphony hall that involves contact between turgid penises and wooden floors is probably going to result in some angry subscribers, regardless of the quality of the music.

The contest is done!

Quote from on "free" jazz:

"Mitchell has argued that he saw 'free' as the right to construct new rules for making music, rather than the absence of rules. Ornette has said similar things."

This seems to be true of many avant-gardes, though since in general since they're not as easily misconstrued as having no rules, people tend to just think they've got bad rules, rather than none. Think about it, though: bebop was somewhat motivated by the same concerns as free jazz (indeed, a lot of the free jazzers started out as bebopers and were probably well aware of the changes that led to bebop).

On a broader scale, i.e. outside jazz, maybe things are different, maybe not. Rock music in general seems to have its boundaries redefined more easily.

February 7, 2000

Exchange from

Kris Srinivasan ( wrote:
: Tom ( wrote:
: T: Kris Srinivasan  wrote:

: T: What changed things was rock criticism - writers about pop giving a
: T: public shape and parameter to the music (and defining in various
: T: bullshit ways what was 'good' to do in it or not - not the point of
: T: criticism -  though even back then you had Nik Cohns and Richard
: T: Meltzers to help you out).

: And Metal Mike and Lester Bangs and Lenny kaye and Greil Marcus and Robert
: Palmer and Peter Laughner and a nearly sane was a golden
: era for rock criticism.  By the same token, you'd have to give a great
: deal of the blame for the various stuggles modern bands have in
: conceptualizing themselves to the extreme lameness of the typical modern
: critic.

And possibly also the golden-era critics? They helped to solidify all sorts of notions of What Rock Is, er, What Rock Should Be. Creates a conflict for up 'n' coming bands: they are often steeped in the earlier days of rock music, when people were doing adventurous/great/weird/new/ whatever things and being acknowledged for it by first-class critics, which helped legitimize their music... so then the modern bands want to follow in their influences' footsteps, at least on the meta-level of fucking shit up and making critical, artistic, etc. waves, but they can't because (a) we've already got a canon, and (b) the modern critics suck more at legitimizing (not always a bad thing - could just be explaining, elucidating, turning listeners on to...) the music.


Sorry for the lack of updates - for the past weekend I have been immersed in a mathematical modeling contest. And it's not over yet.

So along those lines: my contest teammate Erik Hoversten says he's probably related to A Minor Forest guitarist/vocalist Erik Hoversten. And what do A Minor Forest play?

Math-rock. Heh.

February 3, 2000

Surrealism offers defamiliarization: in different contexts the normal becomes anything but, allowing us to see just how remarkable it can be.

February 2, 2000

Mozart's wind music on low, low volume is hard to hear but makes the room seem airier.

It lacks the stasis of other ambient music.

February 1, 2000

Tom's Thoughts on Pop at Freaky Trigger.

For the past day I've been listening to and thinking about Dylan's Live 1966, the legendary "Royal Albert Hall" concert. Thanks for the present, Mom.

January 2000