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:

Monday, October 05, 2009

Best Thing I Heard Today: Merle Haggard doing "Cherokee Maiden"

In lieu of the un-Youtubable Merle version, may I direct your attention to this also really-good version by George Strait, live in '99? Thank you.

"Cherokee Maiden," written by the freakishly prolific Cindy Walker, was a hit for Bob Wills and his Playboys in '41, and Merle took it to the top of the country charts 35 years later. (So what would that be like today on the pop charts? A disco or glam revival? Both are easily imaginable, and in fact may have already happened.) The words are cute, nostalgic, and not-at-all racist; the music's straight-up jazz, with a Bo-Diddley-beat for an intro, no doubt meant to recreate in exacting detail a native Cherokee tribal ceremony. No word on whether the maiden's parents approve of this courtship, or why the lovers had to part in the first place, but Merle seems nothing but respectful.

Merle's had a long and varied career, hitting #1 with songs from all sorts of country subgenres: electrified Bakersfield outlaw songs, slow honky-tonk waltzes, even some synthy pop-country things in the '80s. He's got one of my favorite voices, so rich and smooth I sometimes think he'd sound more natural doing the Great American Songbook in supper clubs than songs about prisons and outlaws. But whatever, he's created his own Great American Songbook with all the songs he's written and appropriated, and to my mind his golden voice sounds best singing Western Swing, as popularized by his idol, Bob Wills.

Here's the pinnacle of Merle's slavish Wills obsession, from 1970:

That album makes me as happy as anything. It does NOT, however, contain "Cherokee Maiden," which hit in '76, from this album:

What else can I link you to? Here's Asleep at the Wheel--the New Jack Western Swing revivalists?--doing "Cherokee Maiden" for their second Wills tribute in '99. This unembeddable song got 'em a Grammy for Best Country Song by a Duo or Group. Also pretty good--I think it's impossible to ruin this song--but it doesn't have Merle's voice. Here you go; here's the second best thing I heard today: