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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21 May '03 08:05:12 AM

This thread, about Stevie Wonder, is one of my favorites on ILM. It reveals a lot. Lots of problems.

My top five (er) seventies Stevie Wonder albums:

1. Talking Book
2. Songs in the Key of Life
3. Fulfillingness' First Finale
4. Innervisions
5. Music of My Mind

The purpose of ranking them now is mostly to mark my realization that Fulfillingness is the best piece of music ever made in the world. Except for the other two.

(I think it's time to break down and buy Hotter Than July.)

The faith expressed in "Heaven is 10 Zillion Light Years Away" has come to really unsettle me, every single time. I'm not religious. But I can certainly appreciate it when something is important to someone else. As significant as anything else significant to anyone is - central to their lives. This sounds like an understatement. I thought I had previously remarked on this, especially on how Stevie's religious songs move me more because they seem distinct from, but of a piece with, all his other songs. This includes the love songs, the non-reggae sex song for the reggae woman, the political songs - everything. I would like to use the word "syncretic" here but I fear I only know it because of reading about Stevie Wonder, and worse, from reading Robert Christgau.

At times like this I remind myself that Bach is held in high esteem, too. Or at least I've heard.

There's a lot more going on in the preachy history lesson slash robot synthesizer showcase on side three of Songs. Including horns. And a vocoder?! Maybe I shouldn't return these headphones for stupider headphones, after all.

And, you know, I don't even really like side three of Songs that much. But it's just so big.

There is something wearying about making it all the way from "Isn't She Lovely" to "Another Star", and though I did just say I don't like side three so much, I don't mean "making it all the way" to sound as critical as it does. I'm just not as into this part of the album, for one thing. But the mood of "Another Star" - it seems to me Stevie was fully aware of the state in which the listener might have come to the last track on the album, having heard at least half of it right before. (Maybe all of it.) On a single LP rock album perhaps that would be the extended-fadeout song, and there would be a feeling of, I don't know, bliss, relaxation, duration (the kind pointing toward going on forever, even though that can't happen on the LP - think of "Blue Line Swinger"), something. But "Another Star" feels too tired for that. Yet it doesn't feel resigned, or really as if it might collapse (though it is very thick and heavy sounding, weighty, for disco).

By the way, it no longer sounds so, er, mooshed.

My much less confidently chosen top five Stevie Wonder songs, with a rule to get me through it: one per album above:

1. "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)"
2. "Heaven is 10 Zillion Light Years Away"
3. "Love's in Need of Love Today"
4. "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing"
5. "I Love Every Little Thing About You"

Interesting, I can't bring myself to list the funk pop songs (though I did consider "Maybe Your Baby", but I only really feel compelled to list it about four or five minutes in, once it's taken hold) even though I think they are pretty much ideal, perfect in that sense where the only thing you'd change is to make it more, more, more somehow, more horns or more funk or longer or louder or something, but of course the inescapable sense of privation is part of their being what they are so there's no getting around it - and so it feels a little more like picking my favorite syllogism, or favorite integral, rather than my favorite friend, or favorite memory, or favorite spot on the bed to sleep. A little more. They are not the same. Of course. But - a little more. And then what's the point? Of course in some sense they should be favored. It's built into them.

I do not think this about the most pop, catchiest, most undeniable songs on my other favorite albums. Nor do I feel tempted to. Yes, I know it's hyperbole. But surely it's significant when I am OK with hyperbole, and when I'm not.

I have a paper due "tomorrow" and I'm afraid I can't finish it. I listened to Stevie a lot today. For example, while walking across the bridge over the Mississippi. What I enjoy most, maybe, about walking about in the beautiful, cool weather with my headphones on, enjoying the music, is when it makes me so happy that I no longer think that I am happy because I am listening to the music, so that I invariably become less happy when I don't like a part of the music as much. I was that happy today, out on the bridge. I will be listening to more Stevie "tomorrow".

20 May '03 06:26:48 AM

"To the Reader

This book was written in good faith, reader. It warns you from the outset that in it I have set myself no goal but a domestic and private one. I have had no thought of serving either you or my own glory. My powers are inadequate for such a purpose. I have dedicated it to the private convenience of my relatives and friends, so that when they have lost me (as soon they must), they may recover here some features of my habits and temperament, and by this means keep the knowledge they have had of me more complete and alive.

If I had written to seek the world's favor, I should have bedecked myself better, and should present myself in a studied posture. I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray. My defects will here be read to the life, and also my natural form, as far as respect for the public life has allowed. Had I been placed among those nations which are said to live still in the sweet freedom of nature's first laws, I assure you I should very gladly have portrayed myself here entire and wholly naked.

Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.

So farewell. Montaigne, this first day of March, fifteen hundred and eighty."

18 May '03 07:52:16 PM

Previous entry in the style of a VH1 list blurb:

With my changer up and running again, it looks like I'll be listening to the Notorious B.I.G., Christopher Wallace, until I'm "ready to die".

18 May '03 07:51:16 PM

It works! For now. So as to not switch CDs and chance it not reading the next one, it looks like I will be listening to Biggie only from now on.

I don't necessarily see this as a bad thing.

18 May '03 06:37:03 PM

Something that's been troubling me, though: if you're a critic inclined to socially-grounded (embedded?) criticism, what do you do when some style of music reaches an audience in such a way that it's cut off from its original social context? Example: drum and bass, possibly. To an American indie listener, it can sometimes seem as if the style was simply invented in the mid 90s for car advertisements and sophisticated "home listening" electronic music records. (This is a slight exaggeration, but still.) It seems as if criticism tied to social context loses force when the original context (the one that it helps to have as a point of comparison, especially since otherwise this sort of criticism is left not being able to draw on the social context of transplanted styles like drum and bass, whose context becomes something like "this box of records that Anglophile hipster critics just got off the boat") is taken away. (Made remote.) Then, it has to make the case - push a historical (genetic) argument, try to make that other music, original music, matter to the reader or listener, too. Maybe this is why so much criticism of music like this has a best-thing-you-never-heard-of missionary tone to it. (Note similarities to indie criticism itself, and to the relative social isolation built into indie production and fandom.)

18 May '03 08:16:13 AM

"Where the character of society provides scope for the open recognition and discussion of collective moral problems, and the social structure is flexible and adaptable enough to respond to these deliberations, the uncompromising sort of stand Wittgenstein took over the separation of facts and values will appear paradoxical. Where no such hope exists, the claims of extreme individualism become more understandable. If the culture and society into which Wittgenstein grew up offered no more prospect for the rational discussion of morality or values than it had offered, say, to Karl Kraus, the ultimate reasons for Wittgenstein's divorce of values and facts accordingly lay, not in any individual quirk of his personal temperament, but rather in those features of the broader social context which had led, in the first place, to the absolute alienation of so many serious-minded bourgeois intellectuals. If the realm of values was completely dissociated, for Kraus and Wittgenstein alike, from the realm of facts, this is a comment on the fossilization which had overtaken the Lebensformen of upper-middle-class Kakanian existence. Given life as it was lived in the Vienna of the early 1900s, no recognized public forum of opportunities existed for the sincere and serious-minded discussion of ethics or aesthetics. The man who truly understood the deeper character of value judgments could, thus, find room for them only in the private world of his own personal life."

Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin from p. 237 of Wittgenstein's Vienna, a mixture of intellectual history and philosophy which places Wittgenstein in his home context, the cultural and intellectual concerns of Hapsburg Vienna before World War I.

18 May '03 07:57:33 AM

It seems odd to me that Simon would respond to Prefuse - or rather, explain his response - by saying "it's a bad sign when you can't remember a single tune after several plays". After all, he's the same person who noted in Generation Ecstasy that timbral memory is not as powerful as melodic memory. I haven't heard the new record, but I suppose it's not much different from Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives, which I enjoy much more timbrally than melodically (or rhythmically).

None of this is to say that a Prefuse song is better or worse than "What's Your Fantasy" (as the matter Simon is responding to has to do with Nick's response to something Simon said about Luda being better than Prefuse, across the board). I've heard the Luda track plenty, but wouldn't have said without consideration that it's especially timbrally interesting or engaging, as opposed to its more obviously interesting features. Which is just to say I don't automatically class it, in my head and sort of reactively, with things like "Try Again" or "Burn Girl Prom Queen". But I suppose Simon might be quite happy to say I should. All I can think to say to that is that, innovation aside, Nick and Simon would seem to have different interests, not just extra-musically (see where Nick inveighs against Simon's criticism being led by sociological concerns rather than musical ones, which division is itself already contestable and contested), but musically. That's just a guess, based partly on what I know about myself.

I've been listening to Mouse on Mars all day, the Rost Pocks EP collection and Glam. The former especially is full of tracks that either are, or are conspicuously related to, drum and bass. I suppose anything at all might show up in a club or a DJ set, but I don't think I'm being controversial to say that these tracks sound more like they're intended for home listening, or headphone listening, than club listening (read: dancing, drinking, shouting in your friend's ear over the sound system). Often, though, I found myself wondering today what really made this music any different - why not just listen to "real" drum and bass?

Augh, I didn't set out to lay down an argument when I started writing this. Here's a quick version: quiet music is different from loud music. Little music is different from big music. Music made for albums is different from music made for singles (or EPs, at that - the comp has a noticeably different character than the band's albums). So one answer to the question is just: because "home" drum and bass and "real" drum and bass do different things. I take it that this answer is sympathetic to Nick, but that it's not necessarily disagreeable to Simon. Their point of disagreement comes after this point: that Simon will insist that our reasons for preferring the one or the other, or both, or neither, with whatever attendant attitudes toward each we come up with, should always have something to do with social things like class, race, money, power. Perhaps that the way those things are connected to music will in some cases mean that the social overwhelms the musical (from Nick's perspective).

There's more than a hint of Adorno in there, but I'm not confident enough of my understanding of either Adorno or Reynolds to say how. It's particularly interesting, though, that Simon is regularly picked out as a new-experimental-thing-is-best-thing critic (as Nick does right away), and that in his critical hands the experimental and innovative, musically, often become the liberatory and socially critical.

My sense is that people regularly misread Simon, but that they are often onto something. Unfortunately the best thing I can see for Nick to do is meet Simon on (sort of) his own terms. The "easiest" way I know of to do that is to, er, meet him on Mark's terms. What happens as a result is unclear: Prefuse better? Luda better? Who knows? Unclear those questions are even univocally sensible on Mark's terms. And certainly it may turn out that on a closer look, both Prefuse and Luda will turn out to be both good and bad for good and bad aesthetic and ethical reasons, yet this won't clearly force one into stopping listening to them, or to being a bad person (or good person) for not stopping.

18 May '03 06:12:23 AM

"A very short thing that is beautiful can carry you for hours and make your day."

18 May '03 06:00:16 AM

"All the buses, we givin' y'all five seconds to get close to a exit."