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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4 Feb '02 11:58:58 PM

I'm happy to report that Badger is only temporarily away as a result of internet access problems and a new computer, and will be back again in a while.

4 Feb '02 11:57:26 PM

More thoughts (to add to these) on what Tim had to say about the Dismemberment Plan, especially his comparison to Talking Heads.

I popped in Remain in Light on the way in today, and I have to say, only "Born Under Punches" really approaches, for me, the kind of giving-in-to-the-groove that I understand Tim to be talking about. It sort of happens in other tracks, to some extent, but even the most dance-friendly ones seem to have more of a single-groove component with embellishments. "Punches", on the other hand, attains a kind of polyrhytmic magnificence that I wish the whole album had. Also, it reminds me heavily, in the way all the parts are contributing important things rhythmically, of the Plan's "Back and Forth". I guess what I could be saying here, then, is that neither album seems to me to do what Tim wants (which means I'm probably misunderstanding him, or he's not getting through to me).

However, there's something to be said for the song structures, production, and lyrics. I think they make some of the difference (somewhat paradoxically, since one typically thinks that it's mostly the prevalence of beats that would make the difference). By "song structures" I mean the way that the singer interacts with the band, where his lyrics go in the whole mix of things. (Both albums have lots of singing + cooking band songs.) Without looking more closely, I'd venture to say that Morrison's lyrics are more unified than Byrne's, even though I know full well that lots of the lyrics on the Heads album hang together pretty well. So it might be in the precision, the strangeness, of the individual phrases. Vocal delivery important too as Tim notes. Greater reliance by Morrison on first person probably key. (Even on "Ellen and Ben", rare for them by involving lots of third person narrative, involves the third-wheel first-person narrator, though the extent to which he is a third wheel is debatable, since as he makes clear Ellen and Ben sort of alienate or at least ignore everyone they know as a result of their "having sex again and again".)

It would be interesting to look more closely, then, at the sources in the lyrics (music too?) to which the singer-narrators' psychological uneasiness could be attributed, since they're obviously psychically related in distant ways. Besides just the third person stuff, it seems to me as if the sources in Byrne's lyrics are more worldly, external, uncontrollable stuff; in Morrison's case, even if he's often driven by his reactions to the unconrollable external world, his concern is with the stability of his self under the barrage of influences. Byrne's concern is more with a self, or selves, maybe - something more general, or at least aspiring to it.

4 Feb '02 10:32:55 AM

I mean, like, "Double Rail" sounds like a really busy Plastikman track. And if HE'S dance...

4 Feb '02 10:20:35 AM

Oh, and I guess I should say: yes, of course the things I liked a lot then changed over time. Not surprising. Part of what I wanted to write down was just some of what things have shifted. I do think, though, that the reasons for the shifting are more complex than "I discovered that these records were actually better." I would be a fool to think that.

4 Feb '02 10:14:29 AM

Back in April 2000 I mentioned five favorites from 1999 and 1998.

1999: Olivia Tremor Control - Black Foliage Volume I, Mogwai - Come On Die Young, Labradford - E luxo so, Burning Airlines - Mission: Control!, Miles Davis - Bitches Brew (Remaster). 1998 Boards of Canada - Music Has the Right to Children, Dirty Three - Ocean Songs, Godspeed You Black Emperor! - f#a# oo, Hum - Downward is Heavenward, Autechre - LP5.

Though I did say those were just for that day, some thoughts on the choices now. I haven't listened to Olivia Tremor Control in months and months. Hum or Godspeed either, though I've listened to them more recently, and would be more willing to put them on now (especially the Hum, which is just more generally comfortable music for me - the other two are a lot more set apart from other music, in my mind). I haven't listened much to the Mogwai or Labradford in the six months, though I've had new records by them that I've been listening to a lot instead. (Also when I have put on older records by them they've been earlier than the ones listed.) The Dirty Three I've listened a lot to lately, though that's been unusual for the past six months. I haven't listened to much Autechre, including LP5, though I guess I wouldn't mind (I think my copy of Incunabula is on the shelf in my office right now). I listen to Burning Airlines frequently, though since I moved I've been listening to their second album more, trying to get with it. The Miles is one of my favorite albums ever, so even though I haven't listened to it much for a while (here and there, here and there), I'm not at all concerned about having forgotten it or drifted away from it. The Boards of Canada I listen to all the time, at least once a month, but usually a lot more once I get it out again (on and off again as nighttime music).

Without even trying to make sure I consider everything I like that was released in those years, I can come up with records from them that I now like better than some of the ones above. The Dismemberment Plan record mentioned in the original posting (as one I would feel like listing pretty soon). American Analog Set's Golden Band. Low's Secret Name, which I probably didn't list then because I was slightly disappointed by it in the face of the expectations I developed due to their earlier albums (the disappointment arose because of its differences, not deficiencies). I probably like Tortoise's TNT better than the Godspeed or Autechre records, although unlike the other 1999 records I just mentioned I'm suspicious enough about whether I like other records from 1998 better than it to say so. I like Outkast's Aquemini better than any of those 1998 records, probably. Also, the Beta Band's 3 E.P.'s and s/t came out in 98 and 99, and I would probably throw the s/t in on a good day.

(I put in the caveat about not being exhaustive above because of the way I chose the records: by looking around my room at CDs I've been listening to recently, and then checking the interweb to see when their earlier albums were released.)

4 Feb '02 09:23:44 AM

Maybe one reason so many people seem to disapprove of Mazurek's trumpet on that Pan American record is that it's got so much room ambience along with it on the recording, so that it sticks out because of that, and not just because of however it might stick out due to what he plays. Most other things on the record sound very close, not much air on them.

4 Feb '02 09:18:19 AM

So Tim finally bought a Dismemberment Plan record, and he writes a lot of interesting things about it. He and I and others (see bottom for the recent stuff) had things to say on this ILM thread. In particular, I wrote this paragraph:

I think the most interesting idea in Tim's piece is the thing about giving up to the groove. It's probably just my lesser familiarity with groove-based music, but I don't think I bring hopes like that to music that's reaching out to dance. It does make me wonder what reasons we might have for preferring dance/nondance fusions to cross farther in one direction than in the other. My intuition is that it's more helpful and interesting for them to hold back from giving in to the groove, barely, because once they cross the line they seem more like whatever-inflected dance music, which is made a lot; but music that stays behind in, say, post-hardcore, is doing a lot more to its core music. This also makes me wonder what Tim would make of their two previous albums, which to different degrees also dip into other kinds of music, but in less obvious ways, I think (given the number of songs on Change that chug along over a hot rhythm section). I think they make the monogroove character (cyclicalish structure rather than linearish-Pixiesque) of Change a lot more striking.

I guess though I've indicated it basically before, I should say that I kind of mentally divide the album up like this: tracks 1, 2, 3, and 5 go together. 4 and 6 go together. 7 is by itself, and 8, 9, 10, and 11 go together. I think of 1, 2, 3, and 5 going together because they have roughly similar constructions, but really because I think of them as being more like 1 and 5 even if they aren't: rhythm section tooling along, guitar doing something or other, and Travis expressing, to my delight, his extremely twentysomething existential self over the top in a laidback and open-ended manner. Note that since I think of these as 'monogroove' tracks as above, I'm ignoring the fact that "Face of the Earth" has lots of hardcoresque time signature switches (though within the different sections there's lots of monogroove!), or that "Superpowers" has a lot tighter lyrical construction, more traditional (er I think - note my notorious lyrical comprehension ability). 4 and 6 go together because they sound to me like they avoid the monogroove thing, sort of the Plan doing post-hardcore throwback stuff. This makes me pay less attention to them just because they don't fit into my crazy schemes. 7 is by itself because it's quiet and "slow".

The last four go by themselves and not with the earlier ones for a few reasons. Though they fit my monogroove thing better than, say, 4, 6, and 7, the fact that they are set off at the end of the album separates them in my head, too. (Apparently 5 isn't set off far enough apart from 1, 2, and 3 to make the same thing happen earlier on in the record.) Also, though they do all rely on important, central rhythmic parts, they don't do it in the same kind of way as the earlier monogroove stuff, Travis over the rhythm section. Things are closer together somehow, the song construction tighter maybe. The songs are also connected, for me, by their difference. Each of them seems more different from the others in its group than each of the songs in the first group seems from its others. So there's some kind of suite-like thing going on, I guess.

4 Feb '02 08:35:44 AM

They used a clip (starting in the middle) of Basement Jaxx's "Do Your Thing" (er I think - the gospelly one) tonight on "Malcom in the Middle". It didn't really seem appropriate because it was apparently meant to intensify the sense of chaos - Lois had gotten into a fight with a crazy woman at the company picnic - but even coming in at the diva's freakout in the song, it was way too exuberant, too controlled.

4 Feb '02 08:29:18 AM

I don't feel like digging out my Adorno right now to clarify what I'm thinking about, but I have him in mind. He has a very specific concept of "material", the stuff that composers are supposed to work with. The way in which he makes it a historical concept seems to me to make music something more explicitly like math or science, where notions of the fields' progressing toward greater knowledge carry more currency. The "material" is something like all the formal junk at hand, plus the historical implications forced on us by the current body of music. I guess. Like I said, I don't feel like clarifying this right now. I'm sure this isn't what Adorno meant by "material", but I'm only thinking about it roughly. I'm interested because this notion of "material" is supposed to mean that a composer after Schoenberg's time, for example, couldn't just write a Classical-period sonata. He had to answer to twelve-tone and atonal music, somehow.

Whether or not that is so, I think there's a similar but less sophisticated idea running rampant through pop music discourse. Individual artists are supposed to "advance" on their own past work, always come up with something new. It's supposed to be more valuable or interesting when an artist makes big new stylistic changes, when genres form around them, when their records are taken as models for others to follow, and so forth. So individual artists are also supposed to take those records into account.

So if Labradford, for example, make music that "aspires to a kind of stasis", they're in theory expected to take into account, like, all the art music minimalists (Glass, Reich, Riley, etc.), as well as people like Eno and his million trillion followers and knockoffs.

This makes me uncomfortable for lots of reasons. One is that it can make people tend to be bored by or ignore music - maybe actively devalue it or the choices others make by listening to it - just because it's not the music made by the ground-breakers. So, say, since Eno's already been there and done that, long droney go-nowhere music made in a pop-related setting is no longer worth your time. Now, that view is extreme, and maybe a caricature. But it's more plausible when the music in question is harder to get a handle on. I think most people are more sympathetic to the view when its expressed about something like late-70s punk, or hard bop, when we have sort of a clear idea what the genre in question is like, and have some reasons for thinking that it can be improved on or at least modified or added to in significant ways that also seem pretty good. (One way of seeing if this is true of a kind of music would be to look for sub-genres, if it's big/old/influential enough. Another would just be to look at what other well-regarded music comes after the early 'successes' - is there a lot of it? Does it sound very different from the early stuff, even if it's obviously related?) But drone music is hard to simplify in those respects. I guess. I mean, I know there are plenty of sub-genres out there, but they seem less precise to me than the kind of divisions I'm thinking about. (Less based on the musical materials, and not in Adorno's sense.)

Maybe another reason is that this kind of thinking explicitly treats music like a big race to find the next big thing, not in terms of a search for what will catch on next, but a search for some expansion of the mythical, mysterious borders of musical knowledge (which are probably pretty different depending on which musical know-it-all you ask). I sometimes get the feeling that people who act like this reserve their accolades for boundary-pushing in certain fields only, not just because of their limited attention to the variety of music, but because they choose to be more interested in the small stuff in other genres. For example, it might be more OK to make a not-very-innovative guitar rock record, than it would be to make a not-very-innovative minimalist record. Or even a really good one. This kind of bias by itself is just a side concern anyway - there's still the conflict between big things and little workings-out of big ideas.

Anyway, obviously the reason I'm thinking about this is that Labradford make music that's pretty special to me, in some way. Perhaps because it's distinctive to me, even if I know people might argue against its extreme originality. The fact that that's possible makes me want to try harder to get a handle on them. It's, like, hard, though.

I haven't seen lots of reviews of Pan American's 360 Business / 360 Bypass. But they all seem to hover around a loose collection of critical tropes that are kind of depressing to see employed, even if it's understandable why they would be. Pan American is a side project of Labradford's Mark Nelson, so they sound kind of like Labradford. The main different is that there's dance music involved somehow in Pan American. Some of the reviews cache this out as Pan American being "ambient dub", because of the thumping, but this doesn't make it clear enough how different they are from Labradford in lots of places, since Labradford too is often described as having "dub influences" (Anthony Carew points out how casually the phrase is invoked, though I'm not entirely satisfied with his nice try at being more precise). Maybe a couple of the Basic Channel, etc. references I've seen get closer, since a lot of the record sounds to me like ambient house (with the requisite dub influences thrown in there, don't worry) - for ambient music, the beats are fat, steady, pumping. Something like what shows up intermittently on the last Labradford album (which was released after the Pan American one), only more determined, faster, and not made lazy-sounding by Morricone guitar.

Besides the dub stuff, and the house (though sometimes they sound more like techno, and yes I know that maybe there is ultimately not much difference) beats, other references show up in various reviews. Lots of people mention the vocals from Mimi and Alan from Low, and the trumpet from Rob Mazurek. Lots of people say something about world music. And about coldness. I wonder if the large number of things from different sources just automatically makes people think, "mishmash," and thus makes them not want to think too hard about the recipe for the mishmash. Not that it's easy or obvious - because this is one of those records that works with the musical material in less obvious ways.