Saturday, December 26, 2009

Best Things I Heard in 2009: Pazz/Jop Ballot and Comments

If you're interested in year-end music lists, especially those made by people who heard pathetically few new albums over the course of the year, here's mine! Also, if you enjoy rambling specious comparisons between theological concepts and pop music, you've reached the right page, my friend. These ballots are always fun to do, so God bless the Village Voice for letting me continue. As a response to their grace, my New Year's resolution is to be a better rock critic in 2010. Off I go to download some darkwave promos!

With the exception of the Collin Raye song, all top 10 singles are Youtubable, but I'm too lazy to provide links right now. (You know how to use Youtube.) I've had the best luck with Collin's tune at myspace.

1. "I'm On a Boat"--The Lonely Island feat. T-Pain (Universal Republic)
2. "High Cost of Living"--Jamey Johnson (Mercury Nashville)
3. "Midlife Chrysler"--Collin Raye (Saguaro Road)
4. "Quiet Dog"--Mos Def (Downtown)
5. "New Wu"--Raekwon feat. Ghostface Killah and Method Man (ICEAL)
6. "2 Turntables and a Microphone"--DJ Crazy Toones feat. Kurupt (
7. "Don't Stop Believin'"--Glee Cast (Sony)
8. "Sidestep"--Robin Thicke (Interscope)
9. "Then"--Brad Paisley (Arista Nashville)
10. "On the Ocean"--K'Jon (Universal Republic)

Other good ones:
"Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell"--Das Racist
"Bang!"--the Raveonettes
"Nothing to Hide"--Yo La Tengo
"ABCs"--K'Naan feat. Chubb Rock
"Waving Flag"--K'Naan
"Dead and Gone"--TI feat. JT
"I Run to You"--Lady Antebellum
"Waking Up in Vegas"--Katy Perry
"Nothing to Worry About"--Peter Bjorn & John
"My Life Would Suck Without You"--Kelly Clarkson
"I Get Crazy"--Nicki Minaj feat. Lil' Wayne
"I Do Not Hook Up"--Kelly Clarkson
"Use Somebody"--Kings of Leon

1. K'Naan--Troubadour (A&M/Octone)
2. Maxwell--BLACKsummer's Night (Columbia)
3. Ata Ebtekar and the Iranian Orchestra for New Music--Orientalism (Sub Rosa)
4. Lightning Bolt--Earthly Delights (Load)
5. Yeah Yeah Yeahs--It's Blitz! (Interscope)
6. Bob Dylan--Together Through Life (Columbia)
7. Brad Paisley--American Saturday Night (Arista Nashville)
8. Cesium 137--Identity (Metropolis)
9. Raekwon--Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II (ICEAL)
10. U2--No Line on the Horizon (Interscope)

Hi, thanks for letting me vote, since I'm nobody's idea of a Gatekeeper. Demographia: 32, a straight white married American, and a stay-at-home father of one. Also, as a part-time Lutheran organist and choir director, I am very moved whenever I listen to "Welcome to the Future" and Brad Paisley proclaims, "Wake up Martin Luther!" Assuming we did awaken the crusading monk and noted anti-Semite, what would he have to say about The Year In Music 2009? Probably something dicey about Matisyahu--but then, who wouldn't?

Maybe he'd compare the Catholic Church to The Monoculture! Remember when Michael Jackson's death symbolized the Death of Monoculture? (Results 1 - 10 of about 27,100 for "michael jackson" death monoculture.) I'm not totally sure I understand this claim--how long has The Monoculture been dead, exactly? Did it just die in June? Was it still alive in 2001, when Jackson's last album came out? Or did it die sometime since 1991-2, when he could have reasonably been said to have a claim on EVERYONE? (Though maybe not as big a claim as niche artists Metallica, Garth Brooks, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana, all of whom have sold more copies of their 1991 albums, at least in the U.S.) Furthermore, if The Monoculture has been dying or dead for a while, why did we only start mourning it when its last living exponent kicked the bucket? I'm pretty sure we noticed its death before Jackson died, if we read the preface to Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s, published in 2000. ("Who can possibly believe that Madonna and the Wu-Tang Clan mean as much to the Culture at Large as the Beatles and Aretha Franklin?") So if we only started mourning at decade's end, how much could The Monoculture have actually meant to us?

If any musician had Monocultural reach, I suppose it was '80s Jackson. But by 2009, MJ and The MC had outlived their symbolic equivalence. Maybe the Black Eyed Peas or, yes, Madonna still deserve it. More likely, The Monoculture as symbol deserves to die. The cranky Protestant in me counters any claim on The Monoculture with Jimmy Guterman's sage comment from 1991's The Worst Rock 'n' Roll Records of All Time: "Rock and roll is but one small part of the music being made on this planet. Rockers who think they're changing the world are in fact only reaching a small part of it." (If you're put off by the rockist language, Guterman selected MJ's Off the Wall in his companion volume of Best Rock 'n' Roll Records.) My advice for trendwatchers: next time you're tempted to overstate the importance of The Monoculture, stop to consider the reach of Norman Borlaug, practitioner of a very different kind of monoculture. The agronomist, who died in September, won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize and is estimated to have saved a billion lives through increased crop yields and large scale farming techniques. That's monoculture with reach.

That said, I liked Jackson more than most other pop stars--probably more than I like the Catholic Church, now that I think of it. I can't think of another singer able to negotiate such rage and beauty within a single song--and in plenty of his songs, within a single line ("DIRTY DIANA! Nooo...."). Forget "crazy," forget "rich," even forget "entertainer" and "influence." They may be true, but they smack of faint praise. This guy was one of the great MUSICIANS of the past century. We're talking Stravinsky, Armstrong, Ornette, Beatles territory. (As a vocal arranger of multitracked Michaels, he's an unsung studio hero.) The fact that he was able to communicate to unimaginably huge audiences with stuff that was as claustrophobic and violent as lots of black metal only rarefies his music even more.

Ultimately, though, the only size audience I care about is me. I'm sure you all have the same impulse. That's the Protestantism rearing its head again--screw the papacy, I'll worship however (whoever?) I want! It's no accident that Protestantism has inevitably led to "niche" religions, even within Lutheranism. The self-hating Missouri Synod Lutherans = doom metal, the woman-hating Wisconsin Synod Lutherans = black metal, while my beloved Evangelical Lutheran Church in America = power metal. We're happy and we fight dragons! Plus, as of August, gay people can preach and get married. And fight dragons. (If they want--we don't make them or anything.)

I guess the "point" I'm dancing around (and was trying to avoid "making") is this: just as the breakdown of Catholicism wasn't really a breakdown because Catholicism still exists, and just as the breakoffs from Catholicism inevitably led to a boutique culture within Protestantism--so the breakdown of The Musical Monoculture wasn't really a breakdown because the Black Eyed Peas still exist, and so the breakoffs from Said Monoculture have inevitably led to the boutique culture that Christgau identified back in 2000, if not earlier.* The interesting aspect of all this is that both impulses, Protestant and Catholic, still exist, always have and always will--we only like what we like, but we still want to see the consensus. If your Protestant nature totally wins, you're probably not voting in the poll. If your Catholic nature takes over, you probably scored the top Critical Alignment rating, and everyone knows those dudes are LAAAAME.

I fear I'm making the classic critic's mistake of equating Pazz and Jop with The Monoculture. Sure, Thriller won, but so did TV on the Radio's Dear Science. Like, who actually listens to Dear Science? Among people I regularly talk to, Susan Boyle is far more important. So is Brad Paisley. And like Martin Luther, like MLK, like most sane people who accomplish anything, Paisley's a dreamer and a realist, which is why his vision of a modern American Saturday Night is a union of the niches. (A very consumer-driven union, too--his multicultural title song reads like a Google Products search.) However popular, though, Paisley's not The Monoculture. He's a niche, too--just one with more crossover appeal than TVOTR.

Speaking of crossover appeal, the local Hot AC station became integrated this year! I mean, they'd played "Hey Ya" and "No One" before, but this was the first time I heard actual black people rapping on 101.9 "The Mix." We're talking a station that had previously left Lil' Wayne and TI verses on the cutting room floor. Now they play the Peas (who doesn't?), but also the Weezy verse of Jay Sean's "Down," and "Empire State of Mind." That one blew me away. Aging fans of Bon Jovi and Vertical Horizon must finally be ready for Jay-Z!

I digress.

Most Protestants still value their gatekeepers, be they pastors, bishops, teachers or whoever. Our worship is our own, but it's nice to have people in charge who know what they're talking about just the same--WHICH LEADS ME TO MY BRIGHT IDEA FOR FUTURE POLLS. Have everyone list the gatekeeper who introduced them to their favorite music. That'd give us a nice sense of how the industry operates and who the most influential critics are, about which I'm sure everybody's curious. Here, I'll start:

"I'm On a Boat"--Chuck Eddy via Rhapsody
"High Cost of Living"--Chuck via ilx, library
"Midlife Chrysler"--Chuck via ilx (I swear I'm not a sycophant.) (Actually, I think I first heard this on some mysterious country station in Rolla, MO, this past summer. Haven't heard it on the radio since.)
"Quiet Dog"--KDHX (St. Louis community radio)
"New Wu" and OB4CLII--media blitz, previous fandom
"2 Turntables"--KDHX
"Don't Stop Believin'"--TV
"Sidestep"--Chuck via LiveJournal
"Then" and American Saturday Night--media blitz, library
"On the Ocean"--WGCI (Chicago R&B radio)

K'Naan--Chuck via ilx
Maxwell--Borders promo, previous fandom
Ata Ebtekar--Scott Seward via ilx
Lightning Bolt--previous fandom
Yeah Yeah Yeahs--media blitz, library
Dylan--Borders promo, previous fandom
Cesium 137--Metropolis promo, previous fandom (Note that this is the only item on my list that came directly to me as a promo. Metropolis is my only promo provider. Boo hoo.)
U2--Borders promo, previous fandom

With the Borders well dried up (I quit in August), who knows how I'll hear music next year? Library CDs and darkwave in 2010!

Despite my stodgier demography, I think this is the first time I've ever voted for three artists whose names rhyme--K'Naan, K'Jon, and Raekwon. (Of course, pointing this out may just reinforce the stodge.) No Jay Sean, though, and I'm still awaiting the J-Kwon comeback. Oh wait--Wikipedia tells me it happened this year and I missed it. Youtubing (at church) as we speak... The lyric "J-Kwon back--WHAT?!" seems about right. Yeah, this "I Smacked Nikki" thing is way stodgier than even my sorry attempts at rhyming.

Speaking of stodge, how about that Neko Case CD?

If I want a song cycle that grapples with nature and gets me in touch with my chthonic urges, I'll listen to Germans. Schubert's piano/vocal Winterreise has more variety, and Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) has more feel-good moments. I would maybe buy Case's maneater claim if she didn't sing "surprised, -prised, -prised" the exact same way in every chorus of "People Got a Lotta Nerve." As it is, I feel like I can predict her every move, and would thus be able to escape her attempts to eat me. Frankly, there's an alarming shortage of people on my list that I believe could eat me. Maybe the girl from Glee. But even Lightning Bolt are more comforting than threatening at this point.

I'd apologize for running out of steam and leaving you with half-baked ideas, but that assumes the presence of steam and ideas to begin with. So anyway, keep up the good work and may your health insurance not screw you over.

*My parallel between Catholic/Protestant and Monoculture/Niche Culture breaks down in a couple important respects. Catholicism is (theoretically) completely hierarchical, whereas The (theoretical) Monoculture is at least partly driven by consensus and consumer choice. Untouchable record label honchos may be responsible for 90% of what we hear, but even they can't make us like what we don't like. It's not like pop stars are ordained by God, no matter what they might say while accepting Grammys. And while Protestantism represents a more direct relationship with God, which resonates when discussing Niche Culture--nobody's force-feeding you this music, and maybe you even know the artists--it also represents a rejection of idolatry, which means the elevation of something temporal to the status of an absolute. Temporal things could include golden calves, money, the Bible, or your own opinion. Absolute things include God. So it's sort of perverse to say the Protestant Principle is making me vote for Ata Ebtekar instead of the Peas. If anything, the Protestant Principle should be telling me, "Christgau and Rosen are voting for the Peas, you think you know any better?" Or, "In the grand scheme of things, what does it matter whether Ebtekar's better than the Peas?" Or, "Why don't you go become an agronomist and feed starving people?"

Best Thing I Heard on Christmas: Michael Nyman doing "Chasing Sheep Is Best Left to Shepherds"

Not THOSE shepherds! Nyman originally wrote this peppy Purcell rip for Peter Greenaway's 1982 movie The Draughtsman's Contract, but we heard it last night in the 2008 documentary Man On Wire, which is fantastic, go Netflick it now. (You can stream it!) Here's the Youtube with superior sound:

--and here's a live performance, which is nice because you can see who's playing what:

When I played Nyman’s career retrospective overhead at work some years back, I got one of two responses:
“It sounds like movie music.”
“It sounds like Philip Glass.”

These made sense, because it was movie music, and because Nyman wrote the book, literally, on Philip Glass and his cronies (Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond), and some people blame him with first describing music as “minimalist” back in 1968.

Ever since I first heard him, though (in Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover), I’ve heard a lunatic parody of Baroque music. Nyman’s stuff is more compact, driving, and repetitive than most movie music, and it employs Baroque circle-of-fifths ground basslines, rather than the 3 or 4-chord pop basslines of Glass’s tunes. "Chasing Sheep" features crazy horns jumping unexpectedly out of the texture on dissonant passing tones, a caffeinated pogo-stick beat, and a weird double-time “B” section, but the whole thing manages to be gorgeous anyway. Nyman’s repetition and aversion to development gives his music a static quality, which goes well with Greenaway’s contemplative, often monochromatic imagery. Be warned: after it loses the Baroque edge a quarter-way through, Nyman’s 2-disc retrospective goes downhill, with only a couple minimalist-y exceptions along the way. (He also wrote some more generically pretty stuff for The Piano.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Best Thing I Heard Today: Brenda Lee doing "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"

As Ms. Dynamite would say, I'm sorry, because you're probably sick of this song. But isn't it the coolest? Think nothing of it friends, that's just Mr. Hank Garland on the guitar fills, with Mr. Boots Randolph on the ace sax solo. And the lovely and talented queenofspades25 helped us out with the Sims animation in this video.

Whenever this song comes on the radio, my four-year-old boy says "I LOVE that voice!" Me too: good-humored without hamming it up, the 13-year-old Brenda Lee somehow had the presence of mind to wink with her voice. When she sings the lines,

You will get a sentimental feeling when you hear
Voices singing "Let's be jolly,
Deck the halls with boughs of holly"

we're reminded of how unsentimental this music is. The guitar fills and sax solo refuse to linger, and their virtuosity is casual. Even the song itself is a highly efficient joy machine, doing its job as quickly as possible and then going away. (May your holiday guests behave likewise!)

Fifty years after it was recorded, "Rockin'" no doubt induces sentimental feelings in lots of people, the way most oldies do. But lately I've been hearing the song in a NEW old-fashioned way. Its citified professionalism, the mark of "Nashville Sound" producer Owen Bradley, makes "Rockin'" sound even more stunning--it can cut through the maudlin sentiment of Christmas radio like the shards of a broken ornament. (Or like our little ceramic Mrs. Victorian Caroler, who recently sustained a decapitation while worshiping at the manger scene.) (May your holiday guests behave likewise?) Writer Johnny Marks knew how to make money off of Christmas songs. In "Rockin'," he and Ms. Lee blatantly condescend to the idea of "sentimental feeling" in order to have some fun and make a buck. The effect is beautiful.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Best Thing I Heard Today: Hawkwind doing "Spirit of the Age"

The lyrics in verse one have not been equaled. Equaled for what? Not sure, but they're in a class by themselves:

"I would've liked you to have been deep frozen too
and waiting still as fresh in your flesh for my return to Earth
But your father refused to sign the forms to freeze you
Let's see you'd be about 60 now,
and long dead by the time I return to Earth
My time held dreams were full of you,
as you were when I left; still underage
Your android replica is playing up again, it's no joke
When she comes she moans another's name
But that's the spirit of the age"

Not to belabor the point, but these guys sound like how I WISH Amon Duul II sounded. That's especially true of the Live Seventy Nine album, which is one monster moto-jam after another, and vocals that are much more unhinged than those in the above clip. Some quick digging reveals that I'm not the first person to hear some Kraut in the English Hawkwind. It's blitz!

I'd also like to note that, in the past year, two of Rolling Stone's "legacy" interviews have been with ex-members of Hawkwind--Lemmy and Ginger Baker. (They weren't in the band at the same time, true...) Unfortunately, Hawkwind didn't get a mention in "The Devil and Ginger Baker." The Lemmy interview mentioned Hawkwind, though, and also referred to Lemmy as a "Zelig-like figure." Other "Zelig-like" figures in that same issue were Paul Shaffer and Madonna. Granted, Madonna referred to HERSELF as Zelig, but still! Either the editors need to settle on some new cliches, or Hawkwind and Zelig are the real roots of rock 'n' roll. There are no other options.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Surfing with CryoShell

Allmusic's biggest failure may be that they don't have a proper biography of the band CryoShell. Of course, that's true of the band's website too, leading me to believe that CRYOSHELL ARE SHROUDED IN MYSTERY. Either that, or they're an Archies-like jingle machine for the LEGO corporation, a theory supported by this droll Wikipedia entry:

"Cryoshell is a Danish band best known for their work for Lego BIONICLE advertisements. Until their site changed its cover in promotion for their newest song, "Bye Bye Babylon", the site contained a strange and interesting story stub relating to a powerful biomechanical form in the Arctic, called the Cryoshell, from which the band may take its name. There were also fictional profiles of the three band members..."

Indeed, the most hilarious comment for the above-linked Youtube says, "I work at a LEGO store and this song KEEPS PLAYING in the Bionicle section. Good song when heard thru occasionally, not when you hear the chorus every 3 minutes for 5 hours straight!" Momentarily set aside the question of how huge the LEGO store must be to have a whole Bionicle section. You can really hear the pathos of the Common Man in commenter 902411's words, especially if you've ever worked retail.

I'm puzzled as to why the latest Bionicle jingle is a Babylon song. A cursory search turns up nothing in the Bionicle line of fine products that would support such imagery, but maybe I'm missing something (or maybe something's coming down the pike). The song does sound like what I imagine Bionicle fans hear when they're playing with their action figures or video games, i.e., an uninteresting Lacuna Coil knockoff, sung by a hot chick.

Though it dabbles in "Middle Eastern" scales by throwing some flat seconds into the guitar riff, CryoShell's Babylon song has little in common with Rainbow's far superior invitation to hell. "Bye Bye Babylon" is basically a smattering of Babylon cliches mixed with the sort of dimestore (LEGOstore?) antiauthoritarianism that advertisers and their young demographic targets love.

This Bionicled Babylon is a land that reaches for the sun, depraves everyone, is scattered and will run, left burning in the sun; so right there we've got the Tower of Babel's hubris, the unspecified moral depravity of hair metal's Babylon, and the fact that Babylon's in the desert. These various definitions do NOT mean that lead singer "Lore" is operating on some multi-tiered architectonic platform of deep meaning. More likely, she (or whoever wrote it) didn't know why they were writing a song about Babylon any more than we do, so they went to Wikipedia and tried to incorporate every meaning in the book. (No whores, though; missed one!)

Note the lack of specificity. We don't know exactly how Babylon is obstructing our heroine's fight for... whatever it is she's fighting for. Freedom? Identity? The right to trademark Maori words for commercial purposes? (Dude, some of those words sound pretty rad.) Maybe she should buy some Bionicles and make them fight; I bet that'd help.

Best Thing I Heard Today: Hawkwind doing "Motorway City"

I'm tagging this "metal" because they're in Martin Popoff's books, but this tune is more thud-prog meets Krautrock (a term I use with impunity, thanks to my heritage) (Did you hear about the new German microwave? Seats six!). Great solo at about 3:00 or so, and the fadeout jamming is just as motorik as anything by Neu--with Ginger Baker on drums, no less!

Someone had a good time making the Youtube video, too! I'm not quite sure about the cover, though--what exactly is the HMS Hawkwind beaming down onto the mountains? It looks like something Dan Brown would recognize.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Best Thing I Heard Today: Dirty Little Rabbits doing "Hello"

If you asked me, "Would you like to hear a Slipknot side project?" I would of course say "Yes," but no way would I expect it to sound this HAPPY:

The drummer is the Slipknot link; and so (nevertheless?) the Rabbits manage some nice grooves here, especially the metal chugging during the dramatic prologue. Stella the singer manages to do justice both to the spacey journal-entry esoterica of the verses, and to the pure joy and vindication of the choruses. "All good people find one another," eh? It's easy for her to say that once she's found the guy. If she was still down in the rabbit hole or wherever, I doubt she'd feel quite as self-satisfied.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Surfing with SOJA

Here's a touching ode to the difficulty of NOT being an impoverished Jamaican:

SOJA (Soldiers of Jah Army) are a competent middle-class white reggae band from Washington D.C. Simply keeping their noses to the grindstone, they could have had a respectable career playing UB40 covers on cruise ships, or maybe busting out their roots repertoire at frat parties seeking a modicum of "authenticity." Instead, lead singer Jacob Hemphill seems bent on "self-expression." This is unfortunate, considering his skill at expressing himself in interviews:

HEMPHILL ON SONGWRITING: “When you listen to an artist you can either have a series of one liners, or you can tell a story with your music."
Guess which one he wants to do.

HEMPHILL ON ELEMENTS OF STYLE AND FINANCE: "We set out to tell a story, it's like poetry – dancing around an entire theme, but never putting a period on anything. It is like the two sides of a coin, but you can see them at the same time.”
Thoughtful of him to explicate the obscure meaning of that cliche.

HEMPHILL ON HIS LOVE AFFAIR WITH MUSIC: "I think music calls me for booty calls. It's kind of crazy."
Dude, that's called "masturbating to your Lee Perry records"--which is, admittedly, kind of crazy.

Granted, musicians often sound like idiots in interviews. (See Sheryl Crow.) Usually they can muster some clarity in their songs, though--that's what we pay them to do. True to form, Hemphill's "Born in Babylon" is CLEARLY the rant of a man who's been lambasted by critics, doesn't appreciate it, and sees in his bad reviews a parallel with the physical and economic enslavement of the Jamaican people. Why? Because these authoritarian critics are stifling His Voice!

Attacking critics is certainly nothing new--Eminem and Toby Keith have done so in fairly entertaining ways, Akon more passive-aggressively. (I'm conflicted about increasing nu-Idolator's hit count, but this is right on.) SOJA wisely choose the latter method, particularly during Jacob's priceless closing scat:

"If I never tried to do this at all/ I think he [the critic]'d be out of a job/ And maybe I just should've stayed in bed/ Stay out of the booth and put all these guitars in the closet."

Perish the thought! If you did that, we might never get to know your attractive self-righteous side:

"Saving this world just come with a cost..."
"I'm too busy to judge another man/ I'm tryin' to write the blueprint for all the world to understand."

Good luck with that, Jake! In the meantime, you might want to decide whether you want people to actually read that blueprint, or simply look into your eyes and divine your saving heart:

"While they were aiming at my words/ they missed the rest of me."

Well, your words provide a big target. The idea of "Born in Babylon" was born when Hemphill was shooting the breeze with his buddy, Redskins quarterback Colt Brennan, who has also faced the abject, soul-killing adversity of people telling him he'd never make it to the NFL. In what could have been a misplaced Punky Brewster episode, the two sat around one day bemoaning their lot in life. According to The Star:

"Me [Hemphill] and [Brennan] were sitting there talking one day like, `Dude, nobody wants us to f--king make it because of who we are, it's so f--king Babylon.' He said, `I came from a good family and good house, but because of who I was everybody says I can't make it; so it's like I might as well have come from nothing and pulled myself all the way up.'"

Not exactly. COMING FROM NOTHING is like coming from nothing. Overcoming discouraging words to become an NFL QB or a professional musician is admirable, but not unthinkable when your parents have had the good fortune to raise you in a middle-class suburb like Arlington, VA. I'll grant you, worrying about bands' authenticity and whether they've "paid their dues" is one of the biggest bugaboos around; a more real concern is when some yak from "a good family and a good house" makes a living in a touring band (behind Matisyahu, no less!), but still compares himself to this guy:

Choose your symbols carefully!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Flowtation Device Presentz: "House of Flying Daggers" by Raekwon feat. GZA, Deck, Ghost, Meth, and LOTS OF CUSSING BEWARE

After days of soul searching, struggle, wrestling with angels and the absent U-God Himself (QUOTH THE U-GOD FROM VOLUME I: "Before we got Germanic and thoughts got sporadic..." POINT TAKEN U), I've finally come to the determination that I don't love Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II as much as I should. Like Job when he came face to face with the Almighty and lost, I'm bewildered and don't pretend to understand, but I take solace in the fact that the whole thing is made with untold skill, not unlike Leviathan (NOT the Mastodon album, though my feelings toward it are similar). Indeed! Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a hook? Bitch? I don't think so! Nor shouldst you expect to draw out Cuban Linx II with hooks, cuz they're not there. There's nothing to hang onto, nothing to grab. You want grabby, go listen to K'Naan.

But forget what I just said! Because every time I listen there's more and more--like you're, what, surveying the surface of Leviathan and seeing all the little details, all the scars of, um, harpoons past? With that, we retire the metaphor and instead listen to one of these songs I DO love, a battle-hardened harpoon scar incarcerated on larceny and arson, see--you Johnny Carson, son, a farce to me:

Anyway, this tune's handy for comparing different flow styles. Inspectah Deck (verse 1) and Method Man (verse 4, 3:32) offer what I'll call "complex sung" verses until world-historical hip-hop scholar Adam Krims deigns to advise me otherwise. Meth bases his rhyme schemes around a four-bar, three-rhyme pattern:

MANya'll /
*split*yourMELonLIKEi / SPLIT.THEdutch

He messes around with that pattern throughout the verse. My favorite variation comes later in the verse where he pushes the second rhyme to beat 1 of bar three:

GOTa /
THEjoint*let'sPUSHthisMUSic / PAST_THEpoint*

And Meth LOVES his syncopated syllables here. Listen to the end of his verse, where he's practically chewing his off-beat "ch" sounds:

MY_TIMEtoGO.FORsure / *yaNIGgaGOES_TOwar /
=whatch=yaTHINKiBROUGHTthese / SOL_DIERSfor*toSEND. /
SHOT.LIKEforGET.MEnots / *atANyNIGgaRESpect /
*bitch*thatFIGureTHEYgon' / GET.MEgot*

Deck is a little more varied, but is basically playing around with a similar four-bar pattern of three rhymes:

iPOP_ /
LOB_STERsauce=.SUMmer / TIME.CAN'T_TOP_THEscorch

He nearly always pauses for an empty beat between phrases. (Meth would, too, except he fills his empty beats with those chewy syncopated "bitch"es and whatnot, that anticipate the next phrase.) While Deck changes his phrase lengths, he ends every rhyme on beat 2 or 4--an opening verse that's good and solid, but not too off-kilter.

Both of those guys offer up lots of stuff to hang onto--regular patterns of rhythm and rhyme, beat-long rests separating phrases--that makes it easier to grasp their words and rhythmic variations. Between those "complex sung" verses, we've got the "definitely speech effusive" Raekwon (verse 2, 1:53) and Ghostface Killah (verse 3, 2:53), who occasionally nod to regular rhyme patterns, but mostly do away with them altogether. They also rarely place more than an empty half-beat between phrases, because they've got too much language and murder to cram in. BUT they throw us some crumbs: in the middle of their verses they break up the chaos of their attacks with strong on-beat lines. Rae's got:

WHIPS_ANDspears=andROUGH_ / DIAmondsOUTofSYriA= /

--while Ghost gives us:

hu /

These are like little islands we, their humble listeners, can process before they flip into insane shit like Ghost's:

JUMpers*theTRAIN_HATS_ / FIT*MEloveLY.

Young Zeegy models the Osh Kosh conductor jumper, minus train hat. OG since '05!

Given all these similarities, it's nice of Rae and Ghost to sound so dissimilar. Rae's all quiet burn, while Ghost always reminds me of some unhinged free jazz trombone solo. He's one of the most musical rappers I can think of, even though he's nearly always speech effusive and rarely "sung" (though I haven't heard his new smooth R&B CD--further research).

As I look over Rae's verse, I'm seeing that he breaks up his phrases with empty beats a little more than Ghost does, giving us bewildered listeners a chance to appreciate lines like these on first hearing:

and /
THEcrop=.ALLtheseHIP. / HOPpersEATcock*.YOUcan
SEEmeINtheSTREETorTHEyacht / =i'dRAtherBEproMOTin' /
YOURblock*orBUYin'FRESH= / SNEAKersWITHgwops

Let me just reiterate how, as in Meth's verse, I LOVE the rhymes landing on beat 1. And part of that LOVE comes from the fact that it frustrates my expectation of where they SHOULD land (on beat 2 or 4), an expectation that exists partly from Deck's Verse One patterns, but more from Rae's ability to SEEM like he's slipping into a typical "sung" pattern that we've heard somewhere before, where the rhymes end on 2 or 4. This ability is no doubt intuitive for Rae, as it is for all these guys. It's sort of like how a jazz soloist will have all kinds of licks and melody fragments at her disposal, deploy them selectively, and wickedly exploit listeners' memories of those fragments by altering them at choice moments.

Ghost makes the fewest nods to typical "sung" patterns, and is consequently the most exhausting of the four to listen to. Maybe this is a key to why this whole album hasn't reached out and grabbed me yet--because it's got a lot of Rae (obv) and Ghost, and they're exhausting. If it was all Meth's delicious syncopated stuff in fairly regular patterns, I'd have a better idea of what's going on and would be annoying my family with more recitations by now. As it is, I'd've never heard Ghost's Osh Kosh reference without looking at the words written out. So while I love listening to these speech effusive guys in small doses, because what they're able to do is incredible, they're a lot to take in. I appreciate Rae's efforts, however meager, to give me something to hang onto.

And "New Wu"--you've GOT to hear Meth on this one (3:28)...

Monday, October 26, 2009

Best Thing I Heard Today: Marty Robbins doing "The Strawberry Roan"

Today's pic for Best Line in Any Song Ever: He's about the worst bucker I've seen on the range; he'll turn on a nickel and give you some change.

Most of the songs we listen to, we know what they mean. (Unless they're by Pavement.) They employ words and phrases from our experience, sentences we might have actually said at some point. "You must not know about me--I could have another you in a minute." "I've got a feeling that tonight's gonna be a good night." "You belong with me-ee-ee!" Smokey Robinson became America's greatest poet--in Simon Frith's explication of Bob Dylan's apocryphal(?) comment--by turning everyday phrases into resonant art. You, the listener, see yourself in the song first, and then (if it's a good song) you see your experience elevated to something universal because of its song treatment.

But some of the songs we listen to--and sorry for heedlessly roping you in here with me, but I bet it's true--we don't know what they mean at all. Or even if we do, there's NO WAY that these songs' specific lyrics resonate with their entire listening audience. I mean, how many cars do you see driving around with 28-inch rims? Not many, right? I see one out of several thousand, if that. But R Kelly's "I'm a Flirt" was a huge hit, and there's T-Pain opening his verse with the line, "When I pull up to the club all the shawties be like 'Daaaaaamn, 28s!'" (I don't make it to "clubs" or "VIPs" much, either, but those might be a little more prevalent.) Or, at a completely opposite end of the musical spectrum, take these cryptic lines scrawled into stone tablets by the Beach Boys:

"Just a little deuce coupe with a flat head mill
But she'll walk a thunderbird like she's standin' still
Shes ported and relieved and shes stroked and bored.
Shell do a hundred and forty with the top end floored"

I don't even know what a "Little Deuce Coupe" is, outside the fact that it's a Fast Car (Tracy Chapman! Now there's a universalist!), but that's all I need to know. And I'd guess that if you took all the people that love that song, you'd find more people who couldn't accurately describe a "flat head mill" than people who could. And of course, the Beach Boys also excelled at impenetrable surfing jargon.

We've got the same principle in play with today's featured song, "The Strawberry Roan," off Marty Robbins's iconic Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs:

While the idea of the song is pretty clear--Marty meets a horse he can't ride--some of the lingo is mysterious: "His legs are all spavined, he's got pigeon toes." Um...poor horse? "He sure is a frog-walker." Yeah, I remember when I came across a...frog-walker. That was a trip. Even when I understand something, it sounds enough like bronc fighter jargon that I sort of congratulate myself for being able to decipher it (much like T-Pain's "28s" line): "I gets the blinds on 'im and it sure is a fright / Next comes the saddle and I screws it down tight." I can picture it in my head, though that's not the verbiage I myself would've used, being scared of horses and all.

The appeal of these "jargon" songs seems to lie in that blend of self-congratulation ("I'm more a surfer than you are, because I know where Australia's Narabine is!") and authoritative mystery ("I'm sure Usher frequents the VIP, because he knows exactly what they drink there!"). In the case of Mr. Robbins and me, I have no doubt that this experience really happened, and that he is all the more badass as a result. (That's why he doesn't even have to play his guitar in the above clip!) (Note: the author of this song--"Traditional"--may be the true badass.) I also have no doubt that some of this badassness has transferred to me, since I was able to understand about 75% of what he was singing. In however small a way, I'm now part of Bronc Fighting World, and I can recognize the sublime mixture of relief and humiliation near song's end:

"I know there are ponies that I cannot ride;
There's some of them left, they haven't all died."

That's probably the true takeaway line. Actually, it's how I feel when I listen to music and I come across a song like this, that I don't fully understand (it happens more often with rap, or contemporary classical): Embarrassed by my ignorance, sure, but relieved that there are still unexplored vistas.

"There still are strange songs you unwrap like a gift;
There's some of them left, it's not all Taylor Swift."

Friday, October 23, 2009

Surfing With Outkast (CUSSING CAUTION)

A sad gospel wail, punctuated by frantic doubts:

Over three verses, Andre and Big Boi detail some of their relationships with women and then explode the meanings of those relationships into world-historical philosophical musings, sort of like how Jack and Diane sucking on a chili dog and talking about running off to the city becomes "Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone." And I can't claim this song makes a whole lot more sense than "Jack and Diane," either. But it's inescapable once it's in your head.

In verse one Andre talks about being a crack baby (actually cocaine baby), then about the cattiness of women who won't even give him back rubs; then he disses the powers that manufacture guns while they simultaneously criticize rap music for its violent imagery. I think. Remember, this is PERCUSSION-EFFUSIVE, so meaning is secondary. But then we get the sadsoul chorus:

"Ooooh, I fear the battle's just begun
Ooooh, though we're here someday we will be gone
so i'm hopin, wishin, prayin
to keep my faith in you, in you"

What battle? The battle for life? For learning to deal with being born a crack baby? For living in a world that's an inescapable web of violence and not getting what you want or need, and being unable to even distinguish what you want (back rubs from women) from what you need (a society without gats, the freedom to speak truth)?

And then we're back to the second verse! Which is all about dry humping in the woods during P.E. class! With... the squirrels? (It does rhyme with "girls".) Fun stuff, but the point of the verse seems to be the last couple lines, "They call it 'horny'/ Because it's devilish/ Now see we dead wrong." So Andre, because of his Adventist upbringing or whatever, feels guilty about his lust, and his lust is also part of this "Babylon."

Big Boi gets verse three, which is about his estrangement from "Rene" and people criticizing his lyrics for promoting violent crime, when in fact the violent crime and sex trade have been around since people could write, and probably before. And then he talks about the "pinks" who "moved in"--gay people? So to recap: characteristics of Babylon include drug-addicted babies, girl troubles, stifling of creative expression, violence in society, stifling of creative expression BY those who create the violent society, lust, estrangement from other people, and societal ills like drugs and prostitution, especially when you get blamed for them.

The song's borderline incoherence works to its favor in this sense: it convincingly depicts the desperation you feel when you have to deal with a problem so huge that you can't break it down, you can't separate the parts that are urgent from those that are inconsequential. And since it's a Babylon Song, Babylon seems to be the inescapable web of societal and personal ills that we can't break away from. If that's so, it's similar to reggae's Babylon--the web of civilized evil that staves off the Kingdom of God.

The chorus's simplicity settles the seeming randomness of the verses. Never mind that we don't know what the "battle" is, or even in whom the singer (Andrea Martin) is trying to keep her faith. She sees into the abyss--"though we're here someday we will be gone" (which, if you really UNDERSTAND it, is pretty much the deepest thing you can understand)--and expresses her "ultimate concern" (as dead theologian Paul Tillich would say). Unlike some Rastas (but like some others), Outkast aren't worried about "chanting down Babylon" here; they just have faith. For all they know, Babylon'll go on forever, but they'll still have faith. And that faith can be defined as "ultimate concern", NOT "expectation that Babylon will meet a sticky end at God's hand."

Babylon's overwhelming litany of sin either blinds you from your ultimate concern or--more interestingly--pushes you into your ultimate concern. Without Babylon, would faith be as accessible, or even possible? The chorus comes as a relief from the verses, because its meaning is less convoluted, and also because its musical style is much more straightforward. (NOTE: THIS IS WHERE I TIE IN THE MUSICAL ANALYSIS!) The chorus is sung, it sounds like a slow beautiful gospel song, nothing tricky to it, whereas the PERCUSSION-EFFUSIVE verses are full of weird rhythmic figures and oddly accelerated syllables, making us listeners uneasy and disoriented. Seriously, don't listen to the verses while you're on your feet, or you'll bump into walls! On the other hand, if you fall down during the verses, Ms. Martin's refrain will help you figure out where you are, and might give you what you need to rise again.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Stay-At-Home Parenting 101: A Toddler's Guide to Ungodly Squawl* featuring Diamanda Galas and 1/2 Japanese

Whether you're chauffeuring your little trooper to toddler Pilates, the kiddie salon, or just an everyday anti-vaccination protest, you'll both want some music for the ride. And if Sting and Baby Mendelssohn are getting old, why not try something different--what I like to call ungodly squawl?

My four-year-old, Liege, has recently latched on to "the Silly Lady," a.k.a. Diamanda Galas, a Greek-American avant-garde singer best known for her important, moving AIDS benefit piece The Plague Mass. But we don't listen to that one--instead, we enjoy her song "Skotoseme," a smorgasbord of vocal shrieks, cackles, and foreign tongues. (The word "skotoseme" means "kill me" in Greek, but unless your little one has taken the Language Stars Greek class--NOT recommended--that'll probably fly right over their heads!) The song is from Diamanda's 1994 collaboration with John Paul Jones (the bassist from Led Zeppelin--rock on!), called The Sporting Life, and you can sample a live performance of it here:

Liege demands "the Silly Lady" every time we get in the car. His therapist, Dr. Hoffmeister from the Center for Jung Development, speculates that the aggressive music gives Liege confidence to face the day! (It's similar to how, in my pre-Stay-At-Home days, I used EMF's "Unbelievable" to pump myself up before seeing clients.) Dr. H also suggests that Diamanda's barrage of noises acts as a "vicarious release" for Liege's busy inner life. All in all, he beams, it's "quite a progressive choice for one so young."

If modern American primitivism is more your thing, Liege would like to recommend the 1979 debut album from the band 1/2 Japanese (careful--we're not talking Jon and Kate's kids here!), called 1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beasts. No videos available online, sorry--too obscure! Here's the beautifully instinctive album art:

The band made this album before they could really play their instruments, so it all sounds sort of like the bang and clatter you hear every week at Kindermusik! But it'll give your kids the confidence they need, to turn their God-given noise-making chops into a useful living. (We've been looking for something to supplement Liege's budding modeling career!) Liege is particularly taken with 1/2 J's song "Funky Broadway Melody," which has introduced him to the memorable catchphrase "Papa's got a brand new bag," but in a more artistically complex way than the original James Brown would have done. In addition, Dr. H suggests that "Funky Broadway"'s dissonant-yet-repetitive drone taps into Liege's "emotional comfort place"--it's sort of a substitute for me hugging him.

So remember--your kids' music doesn't have to be same-o lame-o! Put on some ungodly squawl instead. Those other parents won't know what they're missing!

*Apologies to the dead Lester Bangs; who, incidentally, appreciated 1/2 Japanese.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Flowtation Device Presentz: RZA's verse from "Wu-Gambinos" vs. Outkast's "Babylon" (CUSSING AND WHATNOT)

In honor of RZA's recent media tour to support his new tome The Tao of Wu, and in honor of Raekwon's new sequel to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, which I was somehow unable to find at either Borders or Best Buy, a shameful disgrace for brick/mortar retailers everywhere, The Flowtation Device would like to present a celebration of RZA's verse from "Wu-Gambinos" off the FIRST Cuban Linx, contrasted with an exploration of Outkast's "Babylon," which is right at home on this blog and will probably be thematically explored here sometime soon.

In other words--Welcome back to some esoteric horseshit! Exhibit "A" will be Andre's second verse in the Outkast song "Babylon," from ATliens '96. Exhibit "B" is Big Boi's verse from the same song. Both exemplify what world-historic hip-hop scholar Adam Krims calls "percussion-effusive" flow (Major Tom, iz you IN DA HOUSE????) [caution: I no longer get that joke], which basically means the rhymes don't occur at regular intervals and the words conform to the rhythms, not vice-versa. Both also employ triplets and 16th notes, indicated here with italicized words. (If you see two syllables joined by italics, they're 16th notes; if you see three syllables joined by italics, they're a triplet.)

The best example of words-conforming-to-rhythms is in Big Boi's verse. Big Boi uses fairly regular triplet rhythms alternating with straight 8th beats:
"AUNTiewasTIGHTlikeSOUTHwesssst-be / FOREthePINKSmovedIN.LIKEthe /
LIVin'upONthisEARTHbeFOREa / NIGgaLIKEdadDYwasBORNbut /"

Andre's verse is less regular, but still sounds like curlicued and filigreed antique furniture.

RZA's verse on Raekwon's "Wu-Gambinos" (Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, '95) is the klassic Krims example of "speech-effusive," which basically means the rhymes don't occur at regular intervals and the rhythms conform to the words, not vice-versa. RZA's verse was much harder to analyze rhythmically. All these guys have some ambiguity in their rhythms--they'll attack words ahead of or behind the beat or whatever--it's like comparing a transcribed Wynton Kelly solo to what Wynton's actually playing--but RZA was totally rushing words and employing septuplets or some shit. (As payback, I totally gave up trying to figure out the penultimate line. My payback's a mutha.)

Perhaps paradoxically, the Outkast verses that focused on rhythms-over-words were much easier to comprehend than the RZA verse that focused on words-over-rhythms. I'll get down to brass tacks on the Outkast verse in a blog or two, but just reading it you can understand what they're talking about. But I have no idea what the shit RZA is talking about, except that he's awesome and he will harm me. Perhaps also paradoxically, I like his verse better than the Outkast verses, and I'm not just saying that because he'll break 206 of my bones and watch my ass get blown into a sea of fire and brimstone. His flow's livelier and looser and he covers a lot of lyrical ground. During the span of his verse he is a dapper diamond thief, a cop, a thug, Noah Bean (the actor from Damages? not in '95...), a Klan Wizard, a Revolutionary War soldier, a doctor, and a Genie inside the Bottle that is the Projects. Where Outkast sound kind of bottled by their rhythms, RZA's a total genie on the rampage.

(Not to dis Adam Krims, who seems like the kind of nutty academic I can get behind--and he's certainly researched this stuff more than I have--but take his nomenclatures with a grain of salt. After all, it's not like anyone's done any subsequent research on the subject of flow, or indeed corroborated or refuted his three-fold classification system. At least, not anyone I can find. I plan to contact him once I have something intelligent to say.)

Andre 3000 (percussion-effusive) starts at 1:04:

*i'mFASciNAtedBYthe /
WAYyo'NIPplesPEAKatMEthrough / YO'blouse*.*.*. /
FREAkyMEfreaKYyou-can't / HELPbutBEaROUSED.'SCUSEme /
LORD_LESSforTHINkin'but THATwasthe / WAYweWASbroughtUP.*. /
SNEAKin'toWATCHplayBOYatNIGHTwe / ALLmustBEcaughtUPinWORLDly /
LOT_like -whenweWENT totheWOODSand / LAID_WITHtheSQUIRrelsDURin' /
Pe*.WEbe*ex / PLORin'eachOTHers'PRIvates*. /
AHHH_*.*.*oh / NOWit'sONfromHEREonOUT. /
PUTyo'HANDS intheATmosPHERE. / IFyouKNOWwhati'm TALKin'aBOUTnow /
IFtwoHEARTSdoneWALKonOUT andi / SEEyouONtheNEXTsong*they /

Big Boi (percussion-effusive) starts at 2:03:

*.*.*.PEOpledon't /
KNOWtheSTRESSi'mDEALin'withDAYto / DAY.*.SPEAKin'aBOUTthe /
FEELingsI'MposSESSingFORre / NEE.*.MOPin'aROUNDand /
OTHerDAYiSAY.* butthe / LORDheTAKethaWAYnowGIVEit /
BACKlawd*causeTHAT'SlikeBACKboards / -withOUTtheRIMS_ MEandmy /
AUNTiewasTIGHTlikeSOUTHwesssst-be / FOREthePINKSmovedIN.LIKEthe /
LIVin'upONthisEARTHbeFOREa / NIGgaLIKEdadDYwasBORNbut /
THEYbeMAKin'aSCENE.THATmy / MUSicand CRIMEareaTEAM. *buti'm /
SPEAKin'theTRUTHnotDREAMS. *.so / WHATintheFUCKtheyMEANmyLYRics /

And then, by way of contrast:

Verse Three: RZA, a.k.a. Bobby Steels (speech-effusive) starts at 5:40:

*.*.SOlidGOLD_ /
CROWN_BEshin-in'ANDblind / -in'LIKEsomeDIAmondsIbe /
PINin'THEstyle-inTHEcloud / *withSILverLINingsDOUble /
BREASTed*.BULLET proof--vest / ED.WELLproTECTed*the /
HEARTtheRIB.CAGE.THEchest / -andSOLarPLEXusCASTin' /
STONES.*.CRACKin'TWOhun / DREDandSIXbones-andWATCHyo' /
ASS_GETblownINtoAsea / OFfire-andBRIMstone*. /
*howDARE youapPROACHitWITHdim / -pones-theOVerFIEND_ /
*theGRANDexQUISiteIMper / IAL wiz ARDOH isITtheRYza /
RECtorCOMEtoPAYyourASSa / VISit*.LOCalBIo /
SHOTSatDAvyCROCKett*. / ONtheBIcenTENniALhap /
PYmilLENniumTWOthou-sand / MICroCHIPS_TWO shotsofPENi /
CILlingoesUPyouraDRENalin*. / SONit'sTIMEforBOUTin'
It's a mileage resemblin niggaz who like followin

As I said, that RZA verse was way more difficult, and thus it's fairly impossible to read. My HOPE is that we'll somehow be able to detect the difference between "percussion-effusive" and "speech-effusive" just by looking at the flowtated lyrics--or at least that the flowtation will help differentiate in some way. Before we get to that, though, here's the reasons Krims gives for calling Outkast percussion-effusive and RZA speech-effusive (this is all from his invaluable book Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity):

1. Outkast are percussion-effusive because "the MC(s) rap rhythmic patterns that, if spoken American (including Ebonic) English is taken as 'natural,' could only be called, by contrast, 'stylized' or 'musical.'" (p.77)

2. Also true of Outkast: "The rhythms are rapid, often producing constant alterations between, on the one hand, groups of quick and even attacks, and on the other hand, slower and more differentiated rhythmic values..."
Pe*.WEbe*ex / PLORin'eachOTHers'PRIvates*. /"

3. Outkast are from Atlanta, and, according to Krims, "certain over-the-top percussion-effusive styles could... be said to mark out an MC geographically, albeit negatively as "not-New York." (Not sure where he stands on Busta Rhymes, who's from NYC but to my ears is WAY percussion-effusive.) (Dude, I should TOTALLY do his verse from "Scenario" next!)

4. In re RZA's verse on "Wu-Gambinos": RZA "is capable of engaging in extreme speech-effusiveness with very little percussiveness... his delivery veritably overflows with complex polyrhythms, but in something approaching a monotone." (p.52)

5. On the difference between the two "effusive" styles, compared with the more old-school "sung" style (think Sugarhill, Beasties...): "there is... reason to associate the percussion-effusive with the sung style. The association would then pair off the more 'musical' (for current lack of a better term) manners of MCing against those closer to 'natural' speech." That is, RZA is closer to "natural" speech--his rhythms conform to his words.

Here are my preliminary insufficient findings, on how to distinguish styles of effusiveness by looking at the flowtated lyrics:

1. As Krims says, percussion-effusive lyrics will display more regular rhyme patterns, with fewer internal rhymes, than speech-effusive lyrics. Percussion-effusive lyrics are still more variable in their rhyme schemes than "sung" lyrics, but you can discern some regularity. See, for instance, Andre's "yo' blouse," "aroused," "brought up," "caught up," "girls," "squirrels." All those rhymes fall at roughly the same place in second bars, with almost no competing internal rhymes in the first bars. In contrast, RZA's verse starts off with some fairly regular second-bar rhymes, but in context they're barely distinguishable from all the surrounding internal rhymes and assonances. In the first two bars alone we have "shinin'," "blindin'," "like some," "diamonds," and "I be."

2. This is a little subjective, but it's much easier for me to recite the Outkast verses--in rhythm--from reading their flowtations, than it is to recite the RZA verse. At this point, I can't say if that's true of all speech-effusive lyrics or just this particular (insane) RZA lyric. But the percussion-effusive Outkast lyrics seem to settle in to easily-translatable musical patterns, whereas the RZA lines do NOT. Both verses feature sixteenth-beats and triplets, but maybe it's that RZA tends to have little regard for placing strong syllables on strong beats and weak syllables on weak beats. Other rappers play with syllabic placement, but they often do so for deliberate rhythmic effects that make sense MUSICALLY. RZA's verse, while awesome, makes less sense in conventional musical/rhythmic terms.

More to come, I'm sure--any input is welcome, as this is a work in progress.

Best Thing I Heard Today: Michael Penn doing "No Myth"

Well, I wasn't watching Arsenio, but you get the idea:

This song hit #13 in 1989, which makes me realize that 1989 was a different time, man. It's hard to envision a powerpop song with weird words and complex changes hitting that high today, or even getting any radio play outside Triple-A stations. Which is not to demean today's pop charts, because there's certainly plenty of great stuff and weird stuff that hits--it just doesn't sound anything like this. (Or like the Beatles, in other words.) I wonder when this sort of song was "phased off" the charts? (One thing in common with today, though: the drums on the single are entirely programmed!)

"No Myth" seems to be the definitive example of a debut song off a debut album that represents the peak of an artist's career. There were a couple other good songs on March, but otherwise it was all downhill from here for Mr. Penn! (It's a pretty high peak to start from, though.) The other definitive example might be Quarterflash's "Harden My Heart":

though other possibilities came up in this moderately fruitful ILM post.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Best Thing I Heard Today: Agalloch doing "Falling Snow"

Don't know if snow is falling where you are; even if it IS, I seriously doubt that the falling snow threatens to engulf your pitiful body like some incarnation of your wounded broken soul, the glacier that fills your heart come to "life," if you can even call this barren expanse through which we trudge "life." Me, I just heard it driving home from CPR training with a headache. (Outside the car was dying autumn, sure, but that's a long way from the desolate pix in some of these Youtube videos.) But it still sounded sad and glorious, and subtly changed the makeup of the atmosphere, as though the turning leaves had been waiting for this song to come along. Here it is, an epic beauty:

Friday, October 16, 2009

Best Thing I Heard Today: Yo La Tengo doing "Nothing To Hide"

The state of dadrock in '09! God bless WXRT.

And God bless Yo La Tengo, who could churn out stuff like this until record stores collapsed on their heads, and I wouldn't care. They've got their Clean Farfisa and their wispy vocals and, at 1:30 or so, a very Velvety guitar solo, and it sounds as good as anything. In the same way I could while away the day looking up indistinguishable '70s roots reggae on Youtube, I could completely neglect family and responsibility seeking out little three-minute YLT chugalugs.

That's, uh, not them in the video.

Surfing with Big Youth, Sam Bramwell, and Jacob "Killer" Miller

First up! Big Youth, from '74, thinking with some foreboding about his hair. The dreadlocked mane, you see, is a portent of FIRE:

Once again I lodge my complaint that you can't find lyrix for any of these roots tunes online. This one's a little easier to understand, though. After that awesome high "DREAAAAAAAAAD!!!", Mr. Youth sings about a "lion in the jungle, the concrete jungle," which is Rasta code for a dreadlocked fellow--whose hair makes him look like a LION--in Babylon, the "concrete jungle."

Except there's an interesting difference: lions live in the savannah, yes yes Dr. Science, but are commonly known as the "kings of the jungle." Presumably Mr. Youth is playing off that cliche rather than naturalistic fact when he sings about his "lion in the jungle." But if a lion is "king of the jungle," you'd think it'd feel comfortable in the jungle, part and parcel, like it BELONGS. The dreadlocked Rasta, on the other hand, does NOT feel part and parcel of the concrete jungle, Babylon. Instead, he wants to chant it down (and whatnot), and ride the Black Star Liner back to Ethiopia (or whatnot).

Perhaps Mr. Big peers more deeply into the leonine nature than I initially gave him credit for. Maybe he realizes the lion is a reluctant ruler, uncomfortable in his own domain, if not inside his own skin. When the Rasta cultivates his unwashed mane, is it with some reluctance? Does he take up this mantle of rebellion knowing that capitulation to Babylon would be easier? Is the Dread inna Babylon secretly tempted by a metrosexual Chandler Bing haircut, one that would enable him to land a sweet job in the advertising biz and a comfortable middle-class lifestyle in Kingston, rather than this heavy yoke of resistance? That's something to chew on, brother. (Aside from that gazelle you're working on...)

Along similar lines, here's Sam Bramwell from '79:

--and Jacob "Killer" Miller from Inner Circle, sometime in the '70s:

I and I wish you and you a rootsy Friday, and Jah go with you.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Flowtation Device Presentz: Jay-Z's "99 Problems" (also Best Thing I Heard THIS DECADE) (Watch out for cussing and other offensives!)

Song of the decade? Ahhh, if we must. Somewhat surprising, then, that it wasn't a bigger hit: #30 on the Billboard Hot 100, #10 on Hot Rap Tracks, and only the third-biggest hit off The Black Album, behind "Dirt off Your Shoulder" (maybe understandable) and "Change Clothes" (really?). Indeed, I remember opening my ears wide whenever I listened to '04 radio, trying to catch a glimpse of Rick Rubin's massive beats or power chords. It was like seeking the attributes of some rare bird--a giant redheaded woodpecker, maybe, or a bluebird, amid countless robins and wrens. Amid the Hoobastank. (I remember Scott Seward complaining on ILX, in a now-unsearchable post, memorable for its pathos, that he kept hearing "The Reason" when all he wanted to hear was "99 Problems.") But whether because of its language or because the world wasn't ready, we didn't hear it nearly enough.

Jay-Z himself goes back and forth on the issue: "Got beef with radio; if I don't play they show, they don't play my hits--well I don't give a shit, so..." Which is it, Jay? Beef or not giving a shit? Can we safely say that this is the dialectic that defines the song? Do I even know what a dialectic is? Does that matter? (If a dialectic falls on ignorant ears, does it still exist?) "99 Problems" raises many questions, not least of which is: Is there really a Wilson Pickett sample in this song?

The songs credited for samples, presumably for the drum sounds, are Billy Squier's "The Big Beat" and Mountain's "Long Red," which have been used on 99% of rap songs in the world. (Not sure about the cowbell.) The title and lead couplet come from Ice T's slightly more--shall we say?--pedantic '93 non-hit "99 Problems":

*.*.*.IFyou / HAVin'GIRL_PROBlemsIfeel / BADforYOUson*iGOT_ /
NINEtyNINE_PROBlemsBUTa / BITCHain't-one*

At the beginning of Verse 3, Jay also quotes a Bun B verse:

*.*.*.*once / UPon-aTIME_NOTtoo / LONG_Ago*aNIGga /
NOTaHOE_INtheSENSEof / HAVin'ApusSY.*but(a) /
PUSsyHAVin'noGODdam-sense / -.TRYan'PUSHme*. /

(FORMATTING NOTE: Since underlining appears to be impossible, I'm using unorthodox italics to indicate triplets, as above.)

You can read the title couplet a couple ways: Jay's got lots of problems, but his woman's not one of them (this was during the winky-winky period of his relationship with Beyonce); or, he can easily overcome those "bitches"--foes, critics, radio, magazines, cops, Bun B's "pussies havin' no goddam sense"--who are the cause of his problems. Hence the dialectic: Jay spends the entire song in an extended reverie of beef, but his swagger and humor are such that you never doubt he'll overcome. He ends Verse 2, for instance, in a state of uncertainty--he's got drugs in his trunk and the cop says, "We'll see how smart you are when the canines come." Eek! But we know he'll make it out of the situation, because it took place back in '94, and 10 years later he's a business, man. He's SuperJay! He doesn't have to give a shit, so...

Here's one of two great scenes in Jay's concert movie documentary Fade to Black (the other is when an prancing Timbaland plays beats for Jay, finally arriving at the one for "Dirt Off Your Shoulder"): Jay wants to reconnect with the Old School, so he goes to Rick Rubin's house, raps some Chuck D, says hi to a tickled Mike D (strange to think Jay looking up to the Beastie Boys, but there you go), and lays down "99 Problems." Check out the part 3 minutes in, where Jay imitates the cop's voice, working to perfect his comic pronunciation of "lawyer":

Jay's working method is reputedly this: he listens to the beat, goes off in a corner somewhere, and emerges with a fully-formed lyric that exists only inside his head. (And I'm happy when I can do the Jumble without a pencil!) I can't make too many claims, in part because this is the only Jay song I've looked at so far, in part because artistic intent is a mysterious nebulous cloud of pixie dust, but it seems like such a technique might make him more sensitive to how his lyrics interact with the beat. For instance?

For instance: if you go back to the song itself, at around 2:20 you'll hear just Rick Rubin's basic beat pattern, sans lyrics, guitar, or cowbell. Here's the flowtated beat pattern, without differentiation between the drum sounds (lines equal hits, dots and asterisks equal rests):

-.-_-.*. / *_-_-_-.

Notice that the second bar of the pattern has no downbeat. This drum pattern occurs throughout most of the song, with only a few bars of exception. Now, take a look at Jay's first four lines, flowtated:

*rap*paTROL_ONthe / GAT_PAtrol-.*foes /
-thatWANTtoMAKE.SUREmy / CAS_KET'Sclosed-.*rap /
*criTICSthatSAY_HE'Smon / EYcash-hoes*i'mFROMthe /
HOOD_STUpidWHATtype*of / FACTS_AREthose-.*if /

Notice that, in every second bar, Jay raps a syllable on the downbeat. In lines 1, 2, and 4, he even waits until beat 2 to hit his second syllable, leaving a small (eighth-rest) gap. The effect of this is that, in every second bar, the drum eighth-beats cascade out from Jay's initial syllable. This continues pretty much throughout the song, with only a couple exceptions. Go back and listen, it's beautiful.

Now, remember Rick Rubin's power chords! They hit on the downbeat of every other line (with, of course, some end-of-line pickups and more variation toward the song's end). See above, how Jay avoids rapping on the downbeat of lines 1 and 3? It's almost as though he's getting out of the way of those power chords! In fact, he does the same thing, with only one exception, for every power-chord downbeat in Verse 1. (Verses 2 and 3 are a different story, maybe to increase the excitement, the headlong rush to the end of the song?)

Somebody--Kyle? my wife?--is going to ask me whether I SERIOUSLY BELIEVE that Jay did this stuff intentionally. Well, who cares? I mean, I doubt he anally reasoned out where he was going to place every syllable, and maybe he wasn't aware of the effects he was creating in partnership with the beat. On the other hand, as he has warned me in song, I'd be a fool to underestimate the intelligence that Jay-Z has. He obviously possesses great sensitivity for what he's doing musically, whether intuitively or otherwise. He's a virtuoso.

That virtuosity is further on display in the way he commands some special effects. As I said before, this is the only Jay rap I've looked at closely, so I can't tell you offhand what Krimsian flow he normally uses. (Adam Krims's three flow styles, remember, are sung, speech-effusive, and percussion-effusive.) I suspect he's often speech-effusive because he's from New York and people say he's great, but that's all I got. This song, though, is mostly in the old-school "sung" style. It has regular rhymes on beat 2& or beat 3 of every second bar--same as the title couplet's "son" and "one"--and it doesn't stray too far from that. There aren't even many internal rhymes scattered about. The sung flow sounds--well, like singing, right? It fits a neat beat, it features regular rhymes, and it's not all that much like regular speech. When you appreciate a sung flow--and who hasn't?--I mean, think anyone on Sugarhill Records--you suspend your disbelief. But Jay's virtuosity allows him to break through that suspension in a couple interesting ways.

He uses triplets! The rap is overwhelmingly comprised of eighth-beats, so when Jay whips out the triplet, you know he means it. And basically, he means it to be funny. He's either expressing frustration:

(Verse 1) GOTbeef /
*withRAdiOifIdon't / PLAYthey-show*theyDON'T- /
PLAYmy-hits-.WELLidon't / GIVE(a)shit*so-.*. /

(Verse 3) THISis /
NOTaHOE_INtheSENSEof / HAVin'ApusSY.*but(a) /
PUSsyHAVin'noGODdam-sense / -.TRYan'PUSHme*. /

--or he's imitating spoken dialogue, as in Verse 2, the delicious encounter between him and the Richard Pryor-esque cop:

(Jay:) DOi /
LOOKlikeaMIND_REAderSIR. / Idon't-know*.

(the cop, who gets the best line in the song:) AREyou /
CAR'yin'aWEAponONyouiKNOWa / LOTofYOUare-.

Jay's other tactic to draw our attention from the regular beat is to employ an uninterrupted string of eighth beats. There are only three bars in the song that contain eight uninterrupted syllables. In context, here's Verse 1's, which occurs near the end of the verse, right before the title line (a climax point):

ORun /
DERstandTHEinTELLiGENCEthat / JAY-Zhas

Verse 2's represents some naturalistic dialogue, and also a moment of rhetorical triumph for our narrator:

ANDi /

Verse 3's occurs right when the beat breaks down and somebody screams "Whooo!" It's exciting:

andONly /
THINGthat'sGONnaHAPpenISi / 'MAget-toCLAPpin'

Finally, that carefully worked-over "lawyer" line. It's the only point in the song where Jay deviates from his regular rhyme scheme, of rhyming on beat 2& or 3 of every second bar. Instead, we get this drawled exemplar of naturalisme:

AREN'T_YOU_SHARPasAtack / *.YOUsomeTYPE_OFlaw /
-y'orSOMEthin'SOMEbodYim / PORtantORsomeTHIN'

That's the line that made Mike D, and me, grin upon first hearing. Jay breaks free of the pattern we've come to expect, and for a moment it seems like there's nothing he can't do with a beat. So we grin at his virtuosity, we grin at his impression of a white cop, and we grin at the dialectic of Jay-Z brazenly asserting his rights to a racial profiler WHILE he's got raw in his trunk. He's got beef but he doesn't give a shit. And his performance on this song is a glimpse at how that kind of forceful insouciance--and his career since '94--might be possible.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Best Thing I Heard Today: Hole doing "Awful"

Even though her voice often resembles a vacuum cleaner, I could listen to Courtney Love sing pretty songs all day long. Here's one:

She sounds good on unpretty songs, too, but the contrast of her roar with pop chords is hard to resist. "Awful"'s album Celebrity Skin falls into the category of "Albums that are way better than I remember them." (It's been a pleasant surprise that there are more of those than I expected. I think my tastes have relaxed.) (I just got to the "H"s!)

Below is the same tune on Letterman, if you want to see them performing with a slight drop in sound quality:

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Best Thing I Heard Today: the Stones doing "It's All Over Now"

You should never trust singers. Mick Jagger you can trust though, because he admits the girl made him cry. That's why he has now jettisoned all emotion, his voice turning as hard as his heart, or as hard as the guitar tone in the intro and outro.

First the 45, then live, for some Satanic dancing and tambourine playing: