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.
The Bad Plus (a piano trio including Minneapolis-based Happy Apple drummer David King) have released a new record, their major-label debut, These Are the Vistas, on Columbia. It has seven originals (not all new to this release) and three covers, of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", "Heart of Glass", and Aphex Twin's "Flim".
All the songs have liner notes (supplied by the band, as far as I can tell). The notes for the Nirvana and Blondie songs are related. Nirvana: "An enormous hit lovingly deconstructed." Blondie: "An enormous hit ruthlessly deconstructed." It's interesting, then, how similar the two covers are. I would say that neither original is especially harmonically rich. I'm not sure whether or not this need be a serious problem for a jazz-inclined cover; bop covers of "simple" pop tunes of the day often solved it by simply dispensing quickly with the melody. However, this is not a bop record. Though they play through more of the melody to "Teen Spirit", they ultimately end up treating the melody that accompanies the albino/mulatto lines as a melodic and rhythmic cell. Much the same happens with Debbie Harry's opening phrases in "Heart". But unlike something like Brad Mehldau's cover of Nick Drake's "River Man", where the cell is transformed, manipulated, basically treated as an object of composition via improvisation, here I just get the impression that the cells are being thrown around a bit. In that sense, there's not much separating the two covers. Perhaps I have high expectations for "deconstructed" covers, but the major distinctions between the two seem to be these: the Nirvana cover is played through a bit more completely (and, as I've read, it's like sad or something, hmm where have I heard of that trick before), and the Blondie cover is broken apart by a big noisy section before they stop fucking around with the rhythm and just go all-out disco. (The note for the song continues: "Is the long vamp (before the final drum salutation) joyful or tragic?") These don't seem like strong enough differences to warrant one song's being "lovingly" deconstructed, while the other is "ruthlessly" so. The Nirvana cover is more or less straight - including the "intense" bits - and the Blondie cover is too, if you consider the freakout in the middle to be confusing, instead of exhibiting a lack of mercy for the original (for its... what? integrity? unity? emotional tenor? substance?).
The cover of "Flim" does not share the flaw of insufficiently tarting up the original's melody. It's nice, straightforward, direct, kind of like the band's original, "Everywhere You Turn", which I first mistook for the Aphex Twin cover since it had been years since I played the original. But it raises its own questions, questions that many of the songs might also raise. When the music is performed live, on traditional jazz instruments (also, in the notes, someone is careful to add: "there are no edits or overdubs on this record"), but many of the usual hallmarks of jazz are gone, and the music starts sounding more and more like translations of electronic music into a live-performance setting, what are the reasons for listening to music like this as opposed to something else? For performing it? Now, as far as I know the record doesn't claim to be a jazz record, exactly. There are reasons for thinking of it in relation to the jazz tradition, and reasons for thinking of it apart from that tradition. Perhaps sorting through those will help me figure out why I might want to listen to this record as opposed to my Aphex Twin records and Miles Davis records (separately).
So I thought, earlier, that I might lie down and do that careful listening, like-meditation thing again, with the third movement of the op. 132 quartet. But by the time I got around to bed, that seemed like an awful lot of work, which reminded me that it is work, despite the idea (maybe true) that meditation is supposed to be relaxing in some way.
So I didn't do it. But I ended up staying awake for another couple of hours, and now I feel bitter, irritated, and bleak (mysteriously - probably not from just having stayed up longer).
So suddenly it seems worthwhile again to listen carefully before bed, because of what it has to offer me.
Of course, the album track / single distinction might be key for the stuff below about whether one should write off commercial rap.
Recent revelations about Dirty:
"This part is kind of annoying but I still like it."
"This part is kind of scary but I still like it."
"This part is kind of dumb but I still like it."
Recent revelations about Dots and Loops:
"Oh, there are strings on this album!"
"No, wait, maybe those are synths, but who cares?
"These are definitely strings, I forgot about them too."
"So the earlier ones were strings, I bet."
"Oh wow, this whole part is in 5/4."
"Oh wow, when I count this in four, this part of the beat stays on but this other one shifts."
"Oh wow, this is in 6/8 or some other meter like that that I never really learned how to count in school."
"The drum machine bit here is actually fascinating instead of boring, I wonder what happened?"
I found myself surprised tonight at just how violent some parts of the third section ("Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart: Molto adagio - Andante") of Beethoven's op. 132 string quartet sound. (In my head, and I think on paper, this is overwhelmingly the "slow" and "pretty" section. Also "deep" and "beautiful" and "sublime" et cetera. But before that "sublime" gives you any ideas, get your mind out of the Enlightenment-era shit-thunder-is-scary-man gutter.)
Something I have yet to understand is how people who have listened to enough (this is some small amount, I'm not sure how much - even just a single album should be enough) contemporary, mainstream rap could seriously contend that the music is not worth listening to or thinking about in virtue of its, well, vice.
One thing to ask is, what is the vice? Problems I often hear cited are commercial rap's obsessions with: material wealth, sex, women, misogyny, drugs, and image. Sometimes it's just one problem that's supposed to be the one that ruins things - note how "bling" rap is just that, bling rap, and not "bling and bitches", say. (Of course, they're more or less in there, too, but to simply say so without asking what particular role women play in bling rap, as opposed to gangsta rap, or whatever other sort of distinctions you'd like to draw, would be too quick. Compare the ways women show up in the lyrics of: Nelly, Jay-Z, Clipse, Dre, Eve, DMX, Missy Elliott, Outkast.) Some people are nominally more canny and group all of these things together as the culprit, the reason we shouldn't bother listening and thinking.
If the complaint is by now tired, the response is, too, maybe just because it seems to go unheeded (then again, the complaint probably does too). What about everything else that shows up, constantly, in rhymes? Poverty - that of the MC, or of those he knows, or grew up around, or with, or maybe of those who are essentially strangers to him. Racism. Crime and drugs, in their negative aspects, rather than only the ways they serve the MC positively. Community, friendship, obligations, respect, family. Power. Self-determination and self-definition.
Do I mean to suggest here the picture that, aside from all the talk about drugs, cash, and bitches, rappers are actually spending their verses pulling a Harlem Renaissance on us? Certainly not. (Of course, I'm not excluding that possibility either.) I also don't mean to suggest that somehow the mere presence of more positive (if whatever it's opposed to is supposed to be wholly negative - which by itself is stupid, either kind of content could be positive or negative, depending on the case) content outweighs negative content, or cancels it out, or neutralizes it, or something like that. (Again, I of course don't mean to exclude this possibility either, though I reckon we might expect there to be some sophisticated relationship between the positive and the negative - maybe recognized or established explicitly by the artist, maybe just by us - for us to think that the negative is ultimately not a problem.)
So what the fuck am I suggesting? Simply that people look and see. I don't know about you, but facts like these make me stop and think before I decide that the music is not worth listening to because of this or that feature of it.
Last night I noticed (though I guess I have been aware of it for a long time) that for quite a while I've been listening to music differently. The best way I've come up with to describe it succinctly is that my mind has been more outside my headphones rather than inside them. This is not to say anything about the focus of my writing for the past few months - and I only this to be avoid being misinterpreted as having a problem with being too cerebral, or not actually listening to the music or something. In some sense I have been hearing it and enjoying it (sometimes). But the focus of my attention has shifted. Tonight while listening to Life After Death I noticed myself staring off into space at a paper bag or something; imagine that feeling and you've got my overriding mode of attention to music for the past who knows how many months.
To see about changing it, last night, I put on "As" and "Another Star" from Songs in the Key of Life. My CD changer is still broken, so this meant playing them just on headphones (which I would've done anyway at that hour) with my portable player (which always makes me feel as if I am camping or something, when I do it inside on my bed). I played "As" a few times and then let it move into "Another Star", then listened to them both again and cut off "Another Star" before it finished and went to bed. I tried to focus intently on at least one thing throughout, though that thing did change as the song went by, of course. Often I tried for the lyrics, because these two songs are especially repetitive for Stevie Wonder songs, and I thought I caught myself drifting away more easily when I focused on a more repetitive part of the music.
The whole thing felt something like what I reckon (through ignorance) meditation to be.
I like to think that, on the cover of Innervisions, Stevie is shooting laser beams out of his eyes. At aliens. Or Jesus (post-ascension).