Category Archives: Music

O Felix Serpens

Daniel posted his Mountain Goats talk, so I’ll join in with mine (as distinct from the longer article on tMG from several years ago):

O Felix Serpens
Genesis 3 in Recent Songs of John Darnielle

A K M Adam
St Stephen’s House
Oxford University

Whereas in many popular interpretations, the Bible figures as an oracular repository of sacred law, or as a textbook of science and metaphysics, or a sourcebook for general spirituality, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats has developed a repertoire of songs that draw on the Bible as an utterly human expression of how the world is (and will be), even in the face of appearances that suggest otherwise. In so doing, the Mountain Goats make the moral and theological ambivalence of the Bible audible again without resolving that ambivalence into cloying pieties, defiant blasphemies, or historical criticism.
Darnielle frequently invokes the crisis of Genesis 3 — without, however, focusing on “man’s first disobedience.” Instead of telling tales about temptation and fruit, Darnielle parses the effects of the primordial transgression: exile, alienation, labour. The serpent in particular draws his attention. In the lyrics of “Cobra Tattoo,” “How To Embrace A Swamp Creature,” and “Supergenesis,” Darnielle draws out ways in which the snake of Genesis 3 not only shares the curse that falls on humanity, but shares, and expresses, some aspects of humanity as well.

The earliest of the songs, “Cobra Tattoo,” narrates at the same time three interactions — perhaps more. In one setting, the song follows a scene of courtship and flirtation between two human contemporaries, a singer and a tattooed woman. At the same time, a figurative reading may regard both characters as snakes; the singer self-identifies with the serpent of Genesis 3 (“You will bruise my head, I will strike your heel”), and the girl bears the totemic tattoo identifying her with the cobra. Or one may finally see the scene as an interaction between the Genesis serpent and Eve (marked by the serpent’s prior seduction). On this last reading, the snake imagines wooing the marked woman from a position of celestial authority — Darnielle cites from the Daystar/Lucifer passage from Isaiah 14 in the second verse — “Higher than the stars / I will set my throne” — but then adds to it John the Baptist’s warning to the crowds, “God does not need Abraham / God can raise children from stones.” The serpent of “Cobra Tattoo” patiently awaits the time when he will be transformed from his reptilian condition to the dominion to which he aspires; he urges the girl to “dream at night,” in which dreams he may communicate with her (“Try to let these garbled transmissions come through”).

On a more recent album, Darnielle returns to the serpent’s longing for transformation with the song, “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature.” As in the earlier song, the most prominent aspect of “Swamp Creature” concerns two ordinary humans (in this case they’re ex-lovers who meet one another and embrace in a perhaps-spontaneous encounter after they’ve broken up). Here the refrain makes explicitly impossible what “Cobra Tattoo” leaves undefined — that the two lovers, or would-be lovers, belong to two different species (“I’m out of my element / I can’t breathe”), as in comics and films that portray male aquatic monsters who lust after, and ultimately kill, human women. Thus the resonance with the third possible dimension of “Cobra Tattoo” — the singer again identifying himself with the reptile aspiring to a relationship with a human woman — comes to the fore. Although in the first half of the first verse he knows himself accursed with serpenthood, the second half reflects the perspective of the human visitor who stands in a doorway with his arms at his side. In this song, then, Darnielle invokes the myth of the Swamp Creature to characterise the situation of an ex-boyfriend, neither stranger nor lover, simultaneously human and reptilian. As in “Cobra Tattoo,” the singer is ultimately barred from the connection he longs for; Cobra Tattoo’s invocation of Isaiah 14 foregrounds the snake’s aspiration to be a star, but neglects Jehovah’s implacable determination to stymie any such transformation; in Swamp Creature, the way back into the Eden of the lost relationship is barred by the flashing swords of the cherubim. Although they may for one night fulfill God’s command that they be fruitful and multiply (“but not in those words,” as Woody Allen said), no more good can come of this liaison than did women’s unwilling encounters with the Swamp Creature. He’s out of his element, he can’t breathe; he panics and flees.

The transfigured serpent reappears in “Supergenesis,” although in this song Darnielle sticks solely to the snake’s longing to regain use of his lost limbs, so as to mount an attack against the forces that hobbled him. He “tries] to hoist myself up right / Again, try again,” because “someday, someday the call will sound / We all, we all are gonna get up from the ground.” (Darnielle also refers to Genesis 3 in the most recent Mountain Goats album, The Life of the World to Come, but this song (“Genesis 3:23”) concentrates solely on the expulsion of the human occupants from Eden: “See how the people here live now / Hope they’re better at it than I was / I used to live here….”)

Though the serpent in these songs looks forward to a rebellion, indulges in ill-planned sex, and imagines a battle for revenge, none of the songs vilifies him for these actions as do traditional interpretations that ascribe to him diabolical evil. But neither does Darnielle present the snake as the wronged victim of an unjust judge; “in the twinkling of an eye, my sentence gets passed” (“Supergenesis”), but the snake doesn’t protest that he was innocent. Darnielle describes how it might be to be the serpent, perhaps eliciting sympathy, but mainly opening up a rich imaginative connection to serpentine existence (and specifically to the existence of a Genesis serpent). In contrast to biblical scholars’, and most popular interpreters’, determination to prove a point for or against God, Darnielle doesn’t damn or praise his subject. He listens for the serpent’s voice, and finds the serpent in very human predicaments.
In so doing, Darnielle defies the binary mania of the recording industry by refusing both the controlling embraces of categorically Christian music (on one hand) and the defiantly secular (and in many cases “anti-ecclesiastical”) mainstream rock marketplace. The Mountain Goats’ presentation of biblical tropes is generally sympathetic, even when it’s contrarian; the frustrations and challenges that characterise The Life of the World to Come remain as steadfastly within the ambit of the biblical world as do the Psalms and Lamentations. Nonetheless, Darnielle’s qualified fascination falls far short of the norms expected of official, Gospel Music Association-certified Christian rock (even more so when one considers the catalogue of Mountain Goats’ songs with Vedic and Meso-American religious themes). The Mountain Goats sing of a more ambivalent sort of faith — steadfast and wounded, sin-soaked but hopeful — and instantiate it as a standpoint their audience may recognise, and may identify with.
They also exemplify a way of reading the Bible that doesn’t comport well with the sorts of distinctions that conventionally inhabit the interpretive discourse of professional biblical criticism. One would seek in vain for Darnielle’s lyrics to suggest that a historical reading of a particular verse legitimates his exposition. Neither, of course, does he back up his interpretive approach from creedal or magisterial authority. The standing of the Bible relative to Darnielle’s compositions derives from the extent to which he and his audience sense that he is telling the truth about the world in his (biblical) idiom.
As we theological professionals range from smoky concert venues and solitary mp3 players to the fluorescent lights of seminar rooms, lecture halls, and conference panels where we propound our own interpretations, we do well to bear in mind the limitations that arise from excluding middle terms. The texts we study provide ample grounds for complementary and contradictory readings, historical and theological, social-scientific and liberatory-political. Our best, most enduring interpretations derive their power to convince not from overheated claims about bias, ideological correctness, or methodological legitimacy, but from reading carefully and well, and from attending well to the myriad ways of heartbreak and hope in this world, for men, women, and serpents.

On A Lighter Note

I commend to your attention the Hebridean Celtic Festival BBC webcast of live performances by Admiral Fallow (if you don’t know of them yet, pay special attention so that you can out-hipster your hipster friends) and the Proclaimers, among others. (As far as I can make out, there’s no embedding, alas.) Just two days left to watch it, before the BBC relegates the video to their dusty archives.

Well, Alright

This morning I opened an email from someone who professed admiration for and interest in my blog — which is a good start, although that’s often the sign of a request for a link exchange, ‘maybe this would be of interest to your readers’ (as though that were more than a bedraggled few), and a website with a name such as ‘Things you should know about universities’ or ‘My herbal remedy for administrative bloat’ or whatever. I delete ’em pretty fast.
The message was lightly personalised, but it introduced me to a band — Wayfarer — whose repertoire draws mostly from less-well-known hymn lyrics set to freshly composed arrangements (not just new arrangements of old tunes, but new tunes altogether).

I was sufficiently intrigued to listen and watch (except the ‘eating a fried cockroach’ clip), and I’ll be adding them to my library. I suspect I may recognise more of their hymns than they do, but I’m old and enthusiastic about pre-contemporary hymnody. I’m not sure whether they look authentically like Seatlle hipsters, or ironically like Seattle hipsters, but I’m not looking at their pictures while I listen, so it probably doesn’t matter that much. The field for theologically-interested hip alt-folk is getting a little crowded; I wish these guys the best in their endeavours, and will keep my eyes open for what comes next. Don’t be strangers!

What Makes It Good: The Beat

As Mattie Z. said in the comments to my previous post, ‘rock is all about the beat’. Can’t argue with that — both the authority of one of my oldest longest vintage music-arguing-friends and the compulsion of the beat brook no contradiction.
Instead of arguing aye or nay, let’s make some distinctions. First, there’s the beat that rock inherited from r&b and jump blues (among other sources) — the hip-pumping, lascivious beat that triggered hysteria when rock ventured to put its head above the parapet, the beat that Elvis siphoned from Wynonie Harris, Big Mama Thornton, Louis Jordan, Hank Ballard, and their colleagues into the pop mainstream. That’s the beat that made dancing fun; it separated whatever came next from whatever was played before.* The beat catapulted Elvis and Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis into currency, and made possible the ascendance of Buddy Holly and the wave of rock and roll whose crest was the Beatles. There’s a beat that sets rock and its [precedent and] antecedent musics apart. When I think of music that I count ‘good’, I’m with Matt.
That beat I love can get big and funky — for which thanks be to James Brown, the Meters, the Stax-Volt Big Six, Sly Stone, and George Clinton — in a distinctive way. A just right funky beat can justify a song almost all by itself, a phenomenon that generations of samplers have discovered and benefited from. A rich, prominent, resonant rhythm riff is an evocative, primal, irresistible thing.
The beat criterion also applies to higher-adrenaline urgency, and even rhythmic violence of some rock. Anyone can just play it faster, but some songs, some styles, some performers demand a greater intensity of themselves and their listeners, and repay that intensity with interest. The Stooges album Raw Power names much of what’s at stake: louder, faster, more insistent, and worth the extra sweat.
So I love rock and roll (‘I Love Rock and Roll’ — not coincidentally, a huge beat), I love funk, and I love the frenetic urgency of uptempo music. Yup, it’s the beat. But over and above the criterion that the best sets, I love music that plays with the beat — syncopated, or hesitating, or withholding the beat that the music seems to promise us. I’m a total sucker for that ploy. When a performer can make the compelling case that everything hinges on the upcoming beat, and then defer it (convincingly), that’s genius.
A few years back, when Pippa and Si and I were living together I think, the topic of ‘great rhythm sections’ came up. I know the names I’m supposed to know, and we agreed on a few, but it was surprising how few really stood out once we were listening for just that. The outstanding, amazing exception we heard was Keith Moon and John Entwistle, who could not only deliver a tremendous beat, but could play with it, nuance it, fill, run, and then wallop it back into shape. Matt won’t be surprised at that conclusion, since he and I and our friends had pretty much decided that years ago. But over the years, my jaw-dropping admiration for Moon and Entwistle hasn’t abated.
Matt says ‘uninspired drumming or overly simple rhythms usually prevents something from being categorized as good, or great’, and a lot hinges on ‘uninspired’ and ‘overly simple’ — but these are areas where professional beat-keeping rhythm sections can function mostly as a more decorative metronome, and with about as much appeal. A lot of very popular music treats the rhythm section as a functional necessity, but not as anything that should be allowed possibly to distract record-buyers from a star vocalist or lead guitarist, and the group’s tight trousers. Wrong move. In the immortal words of Lee Dorsey, ‘Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky (From Now On)’.


* That’s not a strictly chronological claim, of course. People still made un-rocking music after Elvis broke out, and as I just said, people had been rocking before Elvis. Once mass audiences, which is to say ‘white audiences with disposable income’, discovered the beat, Elvis’s predecessors seemed to belong with him and the future, while performers who neglected the beat belong to the insular past.

What Makes It Good

About a year ago, maybe more, our friend Rich pressed me to articulate the grounds for my music snobbery. ‘If,’ he reasoned, ‘you are going to sneer at my taste, you at least owe me an account of why your taste is better.’ [Editorial note for the sake of Truth: Rich did not say that, nor did I actually sneer at his taste. I just don’t share his fondness for most of ELO’s or the Eagles’ oeuvre, and I did perhaps eyeroll or arch a brow at his playlist. OK, that’s the rough equivalent of a sneer. I’m sorry.]
Rich suggested that I might like or dislike music in an inverse proportion to its popularity, but that’s not it. I like plenty of popular artists, and haven’t acquired a taste for lots of acquired tastes.
At the time, I felt sure that I must be able to sketch some criteria for my taste, but every time a candidate occurred to me, I thought it sounded hollow, and I tallied a number of counterexamples from among my favourites. I decided to let the matter rest for a while, and as time passed and I compiled a list of grounds for admiring a particular selection, the composite list looked more reputable. It is not rigidly consistent; some songs hit one particular characteristic brilliantly, but only that one characteristic; others combine several characteristics, though none extraordinarily. And none really hit all the different points I’ve thought up, in part because some of my desiderata are contradictory.
But it’s time for me to begin speaking out in public about what makes music good (as far as I’m concerned, and that’s not just a pro forma qualification — though I think I have good taste, mostly, I really firmly believe that other people, you for instance, may have strong grounds for reaching different conclusions than I). So with that, I’ll being by stating the obvious: Good music can be identified, most of the time, by good musicianship. Skill, technique, precision, virtuosity, all contribute to a performance I might admire.
OK, counterexamples first: Much punk rock, and a lot of old-timey music (to name just two genres) place little emphasis on technical musicianship. ‘Anarchy in the UK’ as performed by John McLaughlin and Buddy Rich would… lack something. They might bring something else to it, but I’m not saving my farthings for their cover version.
But at the same time, the cult of the great guitarist (or the ‘general admiration for other musicians’) symptomatises something pertinent to my theme. When Eric Clapton and Duane Allman dial in to the same musical wavelength on Layla, something happens that you just don’t mess with. Intuitive musical gifts are not antithetical to technical musicianship; some extremely gifted musicians intensify the quality of their work with trained musicianship (though others rely principally on their casual understanding of music, to very great effect, and some attain greatness from sheer diligent determination). OK, now I’m just sounding pedantic and dull — but you take my point.
So, some moments where stunning musicianship carries the day? I suspect that most of what sustained the brief incandescence of jazz-rock fusion was musicianship*; certainly the roster of noteworthy performers associated with fusion included some breath-taking musicians. The Jeff Beck albums Blow By Blow and Wired have a lot going for them, but musicianship might be the albums’ leading quality. Whatever else one might say about Frank Zappa, he upheld the very highest standards of musicianship for his bands. Mark Knopfler’s work in Dire Straits really stood out for its distinctive, right, guitar lines (even when the other bits didn’t interest me so much). Carlos Santana’s work, especially his early work, demonstrates stunning musicianship, sometimes overshadowed by the distinctiveness of his Latin-rock synthesis. I’m a big admirer of Phil Manzanera’s solo albums, again exemplifying fine technical performance. Josiah reminds me to include the Roots, to which point I assent though without feeling that I really have lived into their recordings enough to say so on the strength of my own observations (though when we saw them in New York a few years ago, the musicianship in their performance was staggering). Andrew Bird, maybe?
One of the besetting problems of musicianship in popular music is the sense of formality, sterility, that sometimes attend it. One of the afflictions of popular music in the 70’s came from the sense that rock musicians were trying so hard to prove their worthiness that many of them adopted painfully over-serious, over-technical styles that just didn’t rock (and often didn’t satisfy the serious audiences they were trying to impress). Musicianship blends over to ‘professionalism’ (in the pejorative sense) and commercialism, too. When Rich caught me out for disliking music for being ‘popular’, much of what he was right about involved my lack of interest in bands that struck me as so professional that I didn’t feel especially drawn to them. ‘Commercial’ generally tastes bad to me.
That’s plenty as a starting point; I’ll put up another criterion sometime, and eventually develop it out into a whole series. There are lots of characteristics of the music I love, so it’ll take time to get more than a narrow slice of them written out. But now I’m at least beginning to pay the world hat I owe for my snobbery, and now to listen to the feedback from friends who know their stuff better than I do, or who remember artists and compositions I’ve neglected.


* And jazz, and ‘classical’ music, of course. They’re not the focus of my inquiry, perhaps as much for reasons of my taste and the limitations of my understanding as for any other reason, but I’m just not going to think first of Mingus Ah Um when I write on this topic even though I love that album.


Reading this piece from Language Log brought back memories of my semesters studying/practicing electronic music as an undergraduate. The studio had an ARP 2600, two two-track tape machines, and was coated in a film of splicing tape. That was the assignment I was trying to slide under my professor’s door (late) when the 17 April earthquake hit Maine in 1979.
Those days heightened my fondness for musique concrète, minimalism (I think I annoyed dozens of my friends by playing Music For Eighteen Musicians), doing things myself, and manipulated tape and digital signals — but not in time, or at the right place, or among the right people, for me to make my way into a music scene. By the time I was hanging around with musicians at the photo lab/graphic arts house in Pittsburgh, those aspirations ebbed away.
It was cool, though, when the kids discovered the old cassette tape onto which I had uploaded my compositions, and Si blurted out that I was like Moby, only ten years earlier. It’ll be interesting to see whether that particular archive item survived the radical downsizing of our worldly possessions; if it did, I’ll find a way to digitise some of those clips, and will remember hours in the studio trying to make clean, synchronised edits with a razor blade and splicing tape.

One Way In, No Way Out

For other fans of the Mountain Goats only: One of the members of tMG forums started a blog with review-essays about Mountain Goats albums. At first it seemed as though that would be an ample category definition, since John “New Father” Darnielle has released about 3,158 albums, EPs, supplementary collector’s item cassettes, and one-off fundraiser recordings. But I’m complicit in an overlap already — forum colleague Fever and I both offered to write about We Shall All Be Healed. Fever’s essay is more of classical a song-by-song analysis, a kind of essay I specifically didn’t want to write because I feared that I’d make it boringly didactic (a danger Fever deftly avoided); Wild Creature (the sponsor of the enterprise) has in turn now posted my contribution over at Sad Young Cardinals”, and if I hit the correct note, it’s more of a free-prose impression of the narrative world that the album’s songs populate. Anyway, if you like the Mountain Goats, or are just curious to see what my reflection on the world of WSABH (and, for good measure, of Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly looks like, the link to my piece at Sad Young Cardinals is here.

Kinesthetic Preaching

(You will not be surprised to note that I am simultaneously working on tomorrow’s sermon and listening to my iTunes DJ playlist.)
People frequently comment on the physicality of my sermons, the extent to which I preach with my full body. That comes in great part from having been taught to preach by the congregation I served in Florida, at St James’ Church, Tampa (before it merged with House of Prayer). A good part of it, though, comes also from my fondness for r & b and rock’n’roll music. While I’m devising a sermon, I typically have an implicit soundtrack — sometimes just one song, sometimes two or more — playing in my imagination.
This morning, the playlist brought up the Dream Academy’s “Life In A Northern Town”, which illustrates and intensifies my practice. As I was listening along, I awaited (and mimed, I confess) the signature double-drumbeat that comes at the beginning of the “Ah hey a ma ma ma” refrain, and noticed that as tremendously powerful as that drum figure is, the arrangement reserves it only for the beginning of the refrain. One could throw it in at several positions, but it arrives just once at each iteration of the “Ah hey” in the first refrain. After the first verse, the refrain is sung only once; in subsequent verses, the refrain is sung twice through (each time with the double-drumbeat on the first two “hey”s). As the song develops, the drummer (Ben Hoffnung) leads into the drumbeat with fills that heighten the anticipated duh-dum.
OK — that might satisfy one the “Great Moments’ posts I’ve written before, but the point this morning is that the drum track defines an acoustic and affective space for the song. And our sermons are not categorically distinct from this sort of musical composition. The double-beat in “Life In A Northern Town” contributes a point of orientation to the song; it signifies by accenting the chanted refrain and by contrasting with the relatively quiet arrangement of the rest of the song.
When putting together a sermon, we may well ask ourselves “What’s going on in the drum track?” or “How are we heightening the crescendo to which this repeated motif is leading?” For many sermons, the answer is all too easy: there’s no drum track, there’s no crescendo, there’s only a relatively monotonous meander. There are no ornaments, no hooks, only time passing slowly. Preacher: if your sermon were a song, would you willingly listen to it more than once? Would you even listen to it all the way to the end?
Churches often devote vast amounts of individual and institutional energy, money, and time to figuring out why people don’t come to church. Here’s a very quick, but demanding, tip: if the worship and the sermon don’t affect congregants and visitors, then the clever poster campaign, the cool-ly ironic name of the congregation, the bare feet or the coffeeshop ambiance or the incense or the elaborate planning will probably not enliven, perhaps not even sustain, the congregation.


(This is not to say that every sermon should be bombastic: no, no, no. “Life in a Northern Town” is actually a relatively subdued number, and one can imagine meditative sermons that work in the ways a minimalist composition does. But if you haven’t even thought through the ways that the sermon involves a great deal more than the cognitive work of “thinking something up and saying it”, or “looking up a cute, or touching, or striking, story to illustrate [what you take to be] the point of the Bible reading”, I’ll lay heavy odds that the sermon is missing a great deal that could strengthen, deepen, and extend the impression that the sermon leaves. Or doesn’t.)

Mind Flowers

The great Amy Morrison (that link isn’t working right now, but it might start again so I’m including it anyway), two decades ago, in the context of an Honours Seminar at Eckerd College, reminded me of the classic Schoolhouse Rock quatrain,

As your body grows bigger
Your mind grows flowered
It’s great to learn
Cause Knowledge is Power!

I bring that up today partly because it}s fun to remember Amy, and partly because the other day someone on a Mountain Goats webforum asked what I had to say about John Darnielle’s bonus track “Enoch 18:14,” which he played several times on last year’s tour (and in the movie/DVD of his play-through of the songs from The Life Of The World To Come), though it wasn’t included on the main CD release. Darnielle has said any number of times that the song grows from a line in the concluding cut-scene of the game Odin Sphere, in which one of the characters speaks the line that forms the refrain of the song: “You and your brother, you both escaped the curse. You can’t comprehend what that’s like.”
I hadn’t written about “Enoch 18:14” — “The angel said: ‘This place is the end of heaven and earth: this has become a prison for the stars and the [rebellious] host of heaven.’ ” — in my article, so I gave a rough overview of the verse in its literary context and history and observed,

I take it that the point of reference is “the curse,” which with reference to Enoch would refer to the damned angels and stars, and with reference to Odin Sphere to the game-curse, and the interpretation of the song as a whole with the sense that some people (the song’s spokesperson) have been afflicted in unchosen, arbitrary ways, whereas others go about unaffected by “the curse.” Too often, perhaps always, people who have escaped the curse figure that the afflicted are just gloomy, negative personality types. They can’t understand what it’s like, so they treat the accursed as though they were really just the same, only insufficiently optimistic. JD knows, and the accursed character knows, that there’s a real curse, that there’s no just opting out of it by being perky and glib (cf Romans 10:9 or Philippians 3:20-21), and the pain of the curse is only intensified when people like you and your brother try to reach beyond the green-grass sunlit world into the dry-ground, black-sun world to say, “Cheer up!”

But the reason to post this all here, in the context of Amy’s Schoolhouse Rock quotation, is that while I was poking around the interwebs for research material on the pseudepigraphal passage, I learned much more. For instance, I had assumed that Enoch was venerated as a saint (as numerous other Old Testament figures are), and it turns out that he is indeed venerated by Armenian Christians. I didn’t know, though, that he is customarily given the name Idris in Arabic; that intrigued me because the previous Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway is named Idris Jones. Moreover, in Glasgow (where Idris/Enoch was bishop), there’s an subway stop named St Enoch Station on St Enoch Square, adjacent to a very posh shopping mall, the St Enoch Centre.
But — this is not the same Enoch after which the song, the saint, and maybe even the bishop are named. Contrariwise, this St Enoch is not even male! It turns out that the St Enoch of Glasgow was in orthographical actuality the mother of St Kentigern (a/k/a St Mungo), St Teneu. (We have friends named “Tenev,” but it would just be too eerily uncanny if they were somehow connected to Glasgow and St Enoch.) In years of transcription, her name apparently went from being “Saintteneu” to “Saintenoch”; improbable as that may sound, I’ve marked enough student papers to find it quite within the bounds of my imagination.
Anyway, that’s a whole planter of mind flowers, all come from looking into the background of one simple pseudo-biblical verse.

Great Moments in Popular Music 2

I have some of the ambivalence about Graceland that many politically-concerned listeners have expressed. I admire Paul Simon’s New York craftsmanship in composing infectious, compelling pop melodies, arrangements, and lyrics; his work isn’t always to my taste, but it’s always well done. And I don’t begrudge him the brilliant contribution that his African colleagues made to the album; that would be a weird form of racism (“no, you may not record with African musicians, white man”). Nor do I want simply to indict him of exploitation or inauthenticity. I gather that the performers all appreciate the Western audiences’ attention that he brought to their work, and I haven’t heard that any of them grouse about working with him. The album is a stunning gesture of incorporation; it’s a Paul Simon album, but it’s an African-flavoured Paul Simon album, and that’s just kinda weird.
And he pulls it off, by and large. As I get older, I remember a smaller and smaller proportion of the tracks I hear, but Graceland has impressed itself on me, track after track. Well done, sir!
Simon being a consummate musician and craftsman, the album abounds with compelling touches, but there’s just one that makes my heart gasp every time I hear it (and I’ve gone back to listen several times over, to make sure of what I’m hearing). “You Can Call Me Al” wins much of its audience, I suppose, with the whimsical-nonsensical lyrics playing over a bed of rich pop hooks (“bed of hooks” — I’m going to remember reuse that phrase), or the charming video with Chevy Chase cheerily miming/lip-synching the lead vocals as Simon sits dolefully beside him, pushed to the margin during his own song.
The melody prances blithely along, with the African contributions held in the background: a few “Aaa-ohhhms” in the vocal tracks, and the irrepressibly funky rhythm tracks. Over the top, though, the horns and synthesisers and guitars sound mostly like an ordinary, jazzy Paul Simon number, and the very Manhattanite lyrics affirm that familiarity of the most prominent instrumental tracks. At the first bridge, the recording introduces a pennywhistle break to great effect — that’s fine, but it’s at the second bridge that the arrangement makes room first for a drum break (is that Isaac Mtshali, or Ralph Macdonald, or both?) and then the marvellous moment when Baghiti Kumalo tears off a breath-taking lightning-like bass line. Oh, my goodness! The last few notes sound as though they’re going backwards, presumably through studio manipulation, but that short break recast the whole track for me. I loved going back and hearing it several times over, alone and in the full context of the song, in order to write it up for the blog. Mmmmm.

Thanks For All The Goats

I finished my article on biblical interpretation in the songbook of The Mountain Goats a couple of weeks ago, and since a couple of people from the tMG web forums had been very helpful and interested, I contacted one of them — Nigel — and asked if he’d like a squint at the final product. He liked the essay a lot, and suggested that I share it with the rest of the forum; I was a little abashed about putting up a post that said (to a longstanding forum constituency with a core group whose strong sense of mutual affiliation sometimes risks generating in-group vs out-group dynamics), “Hey, everyone, come read what I wrote.” Nigel thought it still ought to be shared with the forum, so he wrote a positive summary of my essay and suggested that other forum members contact me for a copy.
Since then, a steady stream of forum members has followed up with requests for copies, many more than I expected. I’m glad of that not just because I like it when people read my stuff, but also because “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”: I don’t know the tMG corpus well enough to survey all 500-600 of the songs in their repertoire, and some forum members have been listening to tMG since before their first recordings in 1991 — so by running the essay past a number of forum members, I could be spared the embarrassment of overlooking some important (but neglected) fact. Thus far, no one has had a complaint more problematic than noting the misspelling of the street name in one quoted portion of lyrics. Whew!
The forum’s approbation is all the more comforting to me because I’ve spent twenty-plus years learning how to write fluently as a biblical scholar/hermeneutician, but I’ve never publicly written a piece of music criticism. Having seen numerous occasions when academics produced articles or presentations which did little more than say, “Here’s a band I like ”n” I think this song is really good. You should listen to it. Oh, and this one too. Listen, she mentions Jesus in this one.” Since I’m fierce with my students about composing papers that make a real argument, I fretted a lot about whether my tMG paper would amount to much more than “You may not have heard of the Mountain Goats, but I think they’re really good, so there.” Again, the first readers have affirmed that the essay has a real argument and doesn’t fall into “Look, here”-ism.
Now I’m thinking about stretching out to cover some other topics — but not till after I finish the James commentary and begin, at least, to write out my most recent argument about hermeneutics. But it]s fun, as always, to have think-y thinks going on, and to sense an area where my observations can enrich a discourse by a little bit. Oh, and if you’d like a copy of my final draft, I’ll be happy to share it with you, too. (You know: my nickname at, or akm dot adam via gmail).

Great Moments in Popular Music

And by “moment,” I really mean “moment” — those transient little gestures that make so much difference. For instance, this morning, consider the piano roll-into-chords at the very beginning of the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” (I love the Stones’ cover version too, but I’m concentrating on the Temps right now). The at the end of first three lines, the piano rolls into supporting chords with a perfect seductive delight that counterbalances the voiced desperation of the lyric — and then that figure disappears from the rest of the song. Once the full arrangement kicks in, the bass (if I’m hearing correctly) strikes the notes of this supporting motif, and the piano recedes into the mix. But those first shimmering rolls are the kind of exquisite moment that I love about this music.
(In the Stones’ arrangement, the piano — Ian Stewart, or Billy Preston, I assume? I don’t have the album cover with liner notes here in Scotland — keeps the supporting motif and stands further forward in the mix. That works for me too.)