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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19 Jul '02 07:41:41 AM

Ten favorites of the moment.

"Boogie Stop Shuffle" - Charles Mingus. "At one intermission, after they had played a fast number on which their present drummer couldn't keep up, Lou Donaldson told Mingus, "I've got my hometown buddy here. I bet he'll make those fast tempos." He introduced Mingus to Dannie, and Mingus, noting his careful grooming and nice clothes, was skeptical. Dannie sat in for several numbers. On the first number, an uptempoed "Cherokee," he had very little trouble. Mingus says he could tell Dannie was a good musician and just needed more work. Dannie joined the workshop later that winter when the regular drummer left. Mingus believes the drummer is the most important member of the group and says he'd rather have no drummer at all if Dannie weren't available."

"Can't Take It (Herbert's Some Dumb Dub)" - Recloose. Starting at about 2:30 is my favorite section of music right now. I still can't tell if the part that enters at 3:08 is exactly in time with everything else or not, but either way it captivates me. It's far from moving from the regime of beats to the realm of tones, but it feels as if it's on the boundary, fast enough to not be "just" a beat, slow enough to be counted in with the rhythm programming rather than the synths and whatnot, though everything here is moving. Please oh please don't make me listen to any more rock band rhythm sections at the moment.

"Disconnection Notice" - Sonic Youth. I rarely know what they're singing about, ever, but disconnecting is bad, I know that much. You can tell because Thurston sounds kind of sad. But not too sad. Flat, glazed-eyed. I don't know what kind of disconnection it is but I can think about me being disconnected and how I feel. It feels blank, like his voice. Things pass by slowly, while my attention is directed nowhere in particular, except maybe at the empty sensation manifesting somewhere inside my chest. Things pass slowly for the band, too, just hovering between sounding relaxed and sounding like the world is passing them by. Like much of the noise on this record (the rest of it being the subtle sort of string-glitches that on a faster, noisier, more full-bodied record would just seem like the dissipations of the bigger noise, but which here are studied and sometimes frustrating next to the foreground of cleanly strummed notes and chords), the guitar solos (guitar solos!) feel as if they move along side the rest of the song, or perhaps intrude into it, at their noisier moments.

"Girls, Girls, Girls (Remix)" - Jay-Z. At least three things that make me want this song ("remix" doesn't really do it justice I think, because the verses and production are different but they both feel like standalone tracks to me) over the original: 1) the beat, eighth notes for a whole measure, on the chorus; 2) the first verse: "Whoo! Who you lovin, who you wanna be huggin, heh who you wit, who you wanna be fuckin got this smarty art chick to whom I pose this question I read a couple books to add to her soul's progression to put this in laymen's term, I gave her some knowledge she gave me, brains in return, she had to drop out of college knowin she does this homework, I give her in house tutoring in and out I'm movin through her student body union and she, call me professor, say daddy come and test her so she could fail on purpose and repeat the semester I'm like, at this rate ma you never graduate she said, I aint no fool I make it up in summer school"; 3) the bouncier, cheerier sample, absence of the leering Q-Tip / Slick Rick / Biz Markie chorus and world-traveler-spy-gangsta-movie strings (and sitar?!), and lyrics that are probably just as misogynistic but feel less immediately so because they don't run through an easy laundry list of kinds of girls identified with their stereotypes ("Got this Chinese chick / had to leave her quick / cause she kept bootleggin my shit"): they all make me feel more celebratory about girls, girls, girls.

"Hoping (Herbert's High Dub)" - Louie Austen. Louie Austen does the vocal here. Apparently he is some kind of lounge singer - I'm unable to determine if he's supposed to be sincere or ironic or whatever (the distinction being a question just because the standard line on schmaltz is that no one could seriously mean to do it unless they were a cretinous loser with no taste). If this is even a problem, I think it disappears in Herbert's remix. I suppose I'm aware that there's a tradition of over-the-top divas (male and female) in house, but I'm not acquainted with it, really, and I don't care what it's supposed to tell me about how to take the singing here because I love it. What does he want? He wants to see you dance. And smile. It obviously makes him feel good. It makes me feel good too. There's another, separate thing as well. His lounge singer voice. And a memory I have: of singing in my own lounge singer voice, to whatever song was playing at the time, to Anna. She hated it when I did that. So of course I did it all the time to antagonize her, because just the right amount of antagonization endeared me to her (I hope), and her reaction endeared her to me. The half-recalled comment below is from an essay about whether music can be meaningful, in the way words and things are. Authors writing on that usually take great pains to distance themselves from the idea that our personal associations - like the extra bit of warmth I get from listening to Louie Austen and remembering my own lounge singer voice - are really an important or even legitimate part of our experience of listening to music. Even just the fact that I have this association, though, reminds me: the potential to form these associations, isn't it by itself one of the things about music (or about the rest of the world) that makes it meaningful to us? Are those associations intersubjectively knowable? Well, I just told you about it, didn't I?

"Ironclad" - Sleater-Kinney. Spending more time - a lot more time - with The Hot Rock since buying All Hands on the Bad One (which is the first S-K record I actually liked though not the first I bought, happily adding one more success to my method of record-sidling) has made me appreciate better the fusion of the Dig Me Out sound and the Hot Rock sound that they achieved here. Thinking back I don't get the impression that any Dig Me Out songs were as nimble as this, or that the guitars resonated so much or were separated as distinctly into their own voices. None of the Hot Rock songs were as hot, brutal, searing, tearing as those on Dig Me Out, but "Ironclad" is a happy (wait, resolute) compromise. And until I thought about it I didn't realize how happy it will make me to buy One Beat on August 20th.

"Karen Revisited" - Sonic Youth. It never quite explodes the way I want. That urge is always there. It's one of their most important tools. If I didn't have that urge, their careful restraint (listen to the way the noisy and clean parts intermingle at times) wouldn't seem as stately as it does here. This is a long song - it changes at about three and a half minutes into something noisy and then less noisy, and more sleepy. I don't always listen to it - why should I? When I do it's often while doing something else. Those times, the applause at the end pleases me with the way it seems to have come out of nowhere. Other times I am lying in bed, woken up, mind wandering - and the end section seems to make it especially peripatetic. Comment from an essay I half-recall: "Praising a piece of music for the personal associations it evokes is like praising a book for boring you." Have I mentioned that I like boring books, too?

"Presence" / "The Illking" - Mouse on Mars. The former builds up mass and with it inertia, until the buzzing sounds driving it surely forward seem to be dragging the whole mass of horns, strings, and less identifiable noises with it. The latter's sighing, freely-metered strings give it more motion at the beginning, which is then made more urgent by insistent eighth notes from something I can't place as eastern or western. (The entire track sounds persistently "Chinese" to me, but for all I know it may just have been played by a bunch of German orchestra members.)

"Remember Me?" - Eminem featuring RBX and Sticky Fingaz. Pretty much everything about this is totally awesome, but check Sticky Fingaz: "Niggaz that take no for an answer, get told no Yeah I been told no but it was more like, "No, no, no!!!" Life a bitch that'll fuck you if you let her Better come better than better to be a competitor this vet is ahead of, The shit is all redder, you deader and deader A medic instead-a the cheddars and credda Settle vendetta one metal beretta from ghetto to ghetto Evidence? NOPE! Never leave a shred-of". Slam! Slam!

18 Jul '02 04:24:16 PM

Did I just hear a commercial for the US Secret Service on the top 40 station?!?

18 Jul '02 07:23:16 AM

Marcello has been posting up a storm lately. Take a minute and read.

17 Jul '02 05:55:32 AM

Tonight I've been paging through my second-year Russian textbook, and reading sentences out loud. It reminded me of something I wanted to say about Sonic Youth.

I picked the second-year book instead of the third-year book in the hope that I might remember it better, despite its being something I learned longer ago (three years ago, since I didn't study any Russian last year) - I learned it better, so it should be hidden somewhere in my head, despite my apparent inability, at the moment, to conjure up any interesting Russian sentences off the top of my head.

The ease with which I can read it is sort of surprising, despite my hope that it would be something I never really forgot. I was always better at reading than speaking (especially speaking on my own, instead of just responding to others), but I seem to know most of the words, or at least the general sense of them, and the grammar makes sense. I assume I can attribute all of this to the repetition that went into my learning it originally, which foreign language pedagogues the world over will feel vindicated by, I'm sure.

There's one thing, though: when I would read my Russian homework, even though we were supposed to make sure to try to do some of it aloud, I would usually read in an almost sub-vocal whisper, to get the feel for the words, their rising and falling contours, their shapes, how they flowed into the surrounding words, or cut off abruptly. I never wanted to do it aloud because I was either in a public place, or because I felt dumb somehow for talking when no one was around.

This seems to have had an effect. It probably had one at the time, but it feels more pronounced now. When I read Russian 'aloud' in that quiet way, I don't really feel tripped up. But when I read it in my normal voice (I should say 'normal Russian voice', because it feels, and probably is, different from the voice I speak English with - higher in some places, lower in others, in an awkward mixture of unconscious mimicry of the correct intonation contours, and deliberate attempts to force my speech to conform to what I remember of the contours), things start degrading. Somewhat frequently. I get to words that I know and can pronounce, but that I can't get out. I stumble on strange syllables. I think too much about the sounds I'm making.

Sometimes Sonic Youth's detuned guitars are cited as one of their early innovations, along with the structures of their songs, their noisiness, and other such things. To the extent that such things were innovative for what rock music or popular music, I'm reasonably happy with those claims. It annoys me, though, to see the 'innovations' held against the later Sonic Youth. As in: Sonic Youth are past it, because they've just been repeating themselves since their early records, when they were truly innovative and experimental. Sonic Youth are boring, because they've been doing the same old detuned guitar thing for years now. Et cet.

Pick up a guitar. Play around with it - listen to the way the strings are related to one another. That arrangement has, lurking somewhere in its history, the weight of centuries of western tonality behind it - the weight of a certain way of organizing sounds. Guitars are built to take some kind of advantage (maybe not a perfect advantage) of that system. If you understand that system well enough - and I don't mean through theoretical study, but even just through learning to play lots of more or less tonal music on your instrument, or through listening to lots of it - then it becomes more 'natural' in some way to play certain things on your instrument rather than others. Guitars and other stringed instruments only make this easier, I think, because their multiple strings make the harmonic relationships primary to tonality more palpable, more of either a channel, something that guides you into doing certain things, like a groove in the dirt, or an obstacle, something to fight against.

This is why detuning their guitars is, in some way, an experimental thing for Sonic Youth to have done. "Throwing away the rules" is a cliche, but one that partly gets at the value of this kind of musical choice. It also partly gets it wrong, because the rules are still there, in the background, possibly in the choices the band makes as to what to do with those strings once they're detuned, possibly in the way the new tunings still partially replicate or suggest the standard tonal relationships, or standard but less familiar ones. And in the listeners' understandings of them.

Thurston Moore's remarks in this interview about not being able to easily play old songs of theirs are telling. "But the ability is another question, because a lot of it has to do with, what the hell tuning was I playing in? And it's like, if you don't have that notated and you can pull it out of your notebook -- and I have no notebook. I don't have this stuff written down anywhere. It takes so much detective work for me to get back into a song, even from then. It becomes really problematic." Unless you have an insane level of mastery over your instrument, part of the advantage offered by its being consistently in the same tuning is that you can rely on past experience to know which ways to put your hands on it, how to move from one position to another, rather than having to learn that, as well, when you learn a new song. (Even then, it can still take some learning, as new ways of moving around are encountered.) So changing the tunings around throws away all of that. Changing the tunings around a lot, like from song to song, record to record, just multiplies the difficulties. When you learn how to play something, just like learning how to say something, the body remembers. And when you try to get it to play the thing differently, it can be like me, trying to read those Russian sentences aloud.

The allegation that Sonic Youth have been sitting on their experimental asses bothers me, then, because it treats the innovation of detuning - basically, the move away from tonality - as if it's just one thing, over and done now. The experimental choice isn't much of one if it's just made once, as a kind of stylistic affectation - "let's sound funny". What Sonic Youth have been doing, all these years, is in part working inside that vast musical space not governed (or at least suggestively aided) by the 'rules' of tonality. Or in the wider space encompassing both tonal music and non-tonal music. There are lots of ways to do that, lots of songs to write, lots of noises to make that express different and possibly new and unusual things. Doing that work, the exploration of that space, seems to me a more thoroughgoing way of being experimental. And missing that seems to me to miss something key to what Sonic Youth have been doing for twenty years.

17 Jul '02 04:14:41 AM

For a number of reasons I keep forgetting that I really like reading Michaelangelo Matos' Mix Project, much more so than the 'published' music writing of his that I catch, when I do. He stretches out there, and 'indulges' (I can only even make that swipe at the normal usage because of the depressing state of music journalism that needlessly limits critics) in some theory, some description, some personal material, some this-is-how-I-got-this-record, all the stuff that goes into being a listener and thinking about it, at whatever length he sees fit.

17 Jul '02 02:59:23 AM

I hardly have to be acquainted with the relevant history (of jazz) to be able to hear that it's running throughout Mingus Ah Um. Except that 'running thoughout' isn't enough. I probably need lots of words. The past is alluded to. Made modern. It's tangled together with what's contemporary. Hiding behind it. Blossoming out of it. It shades everything here, but never grossly - it never seems like a heavy weight Mingus is struggling to heft, or a host of nattering voices, remonstrances from the proponents of tradition. The past is also the subject of fond tribute. Clever appropriation. Mingus' mastery of it seems total, especially to me, lucky that I hardly have to be acquainted with that history to notice it, since I hardly am.

If that seems like it's a bit much, well, right now I feel like it should be.

What we've got here, I think, is one of those composers who engage with the vernacular, using something like the kind of western art music compositional techniques that are "serious" music's bitches, but it's probably still not what they ("they") want.

16 Jul '02 05:48:38 AM

Nude as the News interview with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, by way of Fluxblog.

15 Jul '02 09:10:28 PM

This afternoon's mix while washing dishes:

"Doit" makes me grin and palsy around uncontrollably more and more every time I hear it.

15 Jul '02 09:04:10 PM

Fred is back!