Fortnightly Music Report

I have for a while reported my recent music listening on The Platform Previously Known as Twitter, but since that’s increasingly barren of my friends (rightly, in my view), I thought I’d begin modulating toward posting the report here. It’s broken into tweet-sized bits, which has the advantage of keeping me from going on and on about random topics, but does incline toward a bare-bones style of reporting. Here we go:

It’s been a while, so perhaps time for my last fortnight according to

1 Elvis Costello [& The Attractions] 15 scrobbles
2 The Beatles 10
3 The Band 9
4 Beyoncé 7
5 Kirsty MacColl 7
6 The Clash 7
7 Frank Zappa 6
8 Juliana Hatfield 6
9 Michelle Shocked 6
10 Steve Earle 6

As always, this omits the Mountain Goats, which always turn up in a high slot in my play count, in part because they release so much music that random shuffle (my default*) will turn up more of theirs.
Sadly, this also misses out a couple of my favourites from the past weeks:

A flashback to ‘Mongoose’ by Elephant’s Memory…

Ed Watson pointed me to ‘Endurant’ by Bloodywood:

(Great as the cut is, this vocal style makes my flesh crawl, as I feel it in my throat.)

The world may weary of my promoting the music of my late friend Mikey Iafrate, but every time I hear his voice I think how strong this or that track is, and then feel the wave of grief to remember that he’s died…

Oh, and I rediscovered in the last week that my memory transposes the lyrics of the Marshall Tucker Band’s ‘Another Cruel Love’…

… with the defining melodic hook from the Allman Brothers’s ‘Jessica’.
(As Dickie Betts plays the riff, just sing along ‘It’s another cruel love, passing me by-y-y…’)

* Actually, I don’t use a strict random shuffle, but an awkward simulation of a weighted shuffle that favours tracks that I haven’t heard recently, and tracks that I’ve given higher rankings (on Apple’s five-star scale). But it’s a kludge, and I’d relish a chance to adopt a music player with a more sophisticated shuffle function.

Hearing Shannon — A Pet Rock Star Repository

The other day my colleague Sarah Apetrei called the attention of our Theology Faculty to the the fact that our hard-working, thoughtful Graduate Studies Administrator Nick Fowler (Sarah identified him as ‘Nick “Growler” Fowler’ but I don’t know if that’s an official nickname) is touring Norway as bass player in Gaz Coombes’s back-up band (keep an eye open for him in these appearances on Jools Holland’s Late night BBC show). No one seriously accuses Theology Faculties of being the centre of coolness, but I’ve worked among (and just plain ‘met’ incidentally) some impressive musicians, from my Disseminary pal Trevor at Seabury (and Tripp there also) to Doug at Glasgow and now Nick here at Oxford; and Margaret had a connection with Thomas Joseph White of the Hillybilly Thomists when she was at Duke).

That reminded me that I was listening to one of my favourite singer-songwriter cuts a while ago, when I though I’d look up her home page to see whether I’d scoured it for all her recordings. Shannon Campbell had let her web presence lapse, alas, but the Wayback Machine has a long memory and I was pleased to see her music archive is preserved in digital amber. Better still, the Archive preserves all the lyrics and backstories she supplied.

My favourite is probably also her best-known recording, ‘Dreaming of Violets’ (with Scott Andrew LePera); her cover of ‘Landslide’ is strong, too, and there are a lot of other recordings here (many that I hadn’t downloaded before). I’m going ahead to download them all, so that if the Archive ever succumbs to entropy, there will be at least a chance that my copies will have survived — so you can ask me if you have any trouble downloading them from Wayback. I promised Shannon to download all I can to save them and pass them along to as many people as I could — she’s a lovely friend, and I’m very happy and proud to call attention to her work.

So listen to and ask others to listen to ‘Dreaming of Violets’; there are tons of recordings that have gotten more attention with less finesse, and it would be a great thing for Shannon to see a fresh wave of people enjoying her gifts again. Download, pass ’em along, and thank you, Shannon!

Without Morbidity

Death seems to be on my mind lately — can’t imagine why — and one of the things about which I muse at such times involves a mixtape, a playlist of music I’d like to distribute, or disseminate via streaming services, for after (so to speak).
My particular flavour of autism involves a generally stolid affect, including at times that warrant more overt expression of grief or stress or elation, of any sort of intense sentiment.
But especially grief.
I am susceptible, though, to upwellings of affect when my feelings are catalysed by particular evocative artistic expressions. Since music provides the most everyday example of these feelings, songs (and hymns) are liable to render me speechless, my throat closed, and my eyes misty if not outright teary. So the memorial playlist would not involve my favourite songs; often as not I can sing straight through those. But the playlist would compile some of the music that bares my vulnerable feelings, the ones I usually can’t sing myself.
And I’d impose the artificial constraint of a dozen selections. The digital world knows no bounds (kids these days!), and a dozen cuts is not a hard and fast limit from vinyl days, but it’s at least a point of orientation.

So, what would be on that list? I’m making a first pass now, throwing possibilities (and either/ors) in, without aiming to winnow it down to a canonical twelve. Here’s where the list currently stands:

Kirsty MacColl, ‘Soho Square’ (almost a lock to make it)
Prince, ‘Thunder’ (very likely, probably as an opener)
Charles Mingus, ‘Good Bye Pork Pie Hat’ (no lyrics, but goes straight to my soul)
Bob Dylan, ‘You’re Gonna Make Ma Lonesome When You Go’ (though it’s from the survivor’s view)
Van Morrison, ‘Jackie WIlson Said’ (or possibly something else from the Band & Street Choir period)
The Band, ‘I Shall Be Released’ (No question, must be Richard Manuel)
George Harrison, ‘My Sweet Lord’ (probably most apt choice from All Things Must Pass)
The Proclaimers, ‘Sunshine on Leith’
Laurie Anderson, ‘Strange Angels’
One of Lou Reed’s elegies; maybe ‘What’s Good’ from Magic and Loss, though several other cuts from that album would do; ‘Hello It’s Me’ from Songs for Drella is too specific to Andy).
Annie Lennox’s performance of ‘Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye’
Talking Heads, ‘Dream Operator’
Iron & Wine, either ‘Passing Afternoon’ or ‘Naked as We Came’
David Bowie. maybe ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’? Got to be something…
Iris Dement, ‘Our Town’ or ‘Mama’s Opry’
One of several terrific performances of ‘Get Away, Jordan’ (but does that then require, or preclude a performance of ‘The Far Side Bank of Jordan’)
the Mountain Goats, ‘Deuteronomy 2:10’ or ‘Matthew 25:21’?
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, ‘I See a Darkness’ (the uptempo version from Now Here’s My Plan, or Johnny Cash’s version)
Last of all, the title theme for the BBC Campion series, written by Nigel Hess.

1989 in [Music] Culture

A couple of online interventions lately have turned my thoughts to one of my favourite schemes, namely a journal that published reviews of books, music, films, and so on from a set interval in retrospect. None current, none still angling for awards or clinging to the last weeks of box-office receipts: all post-hype, based strictly on the staying power of what the work accomplished. Since no one has commissioned me to found the NME of retrospective reviewing, and since it’s on my mind, I’ll devote the rest of this blog post to a few comments on cultural production from the year 1989; if I’m satisfied with how that turns out, I’ll post further retro-views on a more or less fortnightly basis, working backward and forward from 1989. (I did this one time before, and never followed it up, ’til today.) I’ll talk about music today, and film tomorrow (if I remember).

1990 Grammies went to — whoa! — Bette Midler for ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’, Bonnie Raitt for Nick of Time (both Album of the Year and Rock Vocal, Female), the Traveling Wilburys for their eponymous album, Don Henley’s ‘End of Innocence’, Living Colour’s ‘Cult of Personality’, and the Indigo Girls’ first album (Contemporary Folk Performance). 1990 was also the year Milli Vanilli got a Grammy, only for it to be revoked since lip-synching isn’t the same as musical performance. The Village Voice set the top five as De La Soul, 3 Feet High And Rising; Neil Young, Freedom; Lou Reed, New York; the Neville Brothers, Yellow Moon; and Neneh Cherry, Raw Like Sushi. Rolling Stone chose Don Henley’s The End Of The Innocence as Album of the Year, with the Pixies Doolittle, Neil Young, Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, and The Rolling Stones’ – Steel Wheels as their top five.

If you had asked me to name my top albums from 1989 without priming me with the above, I’d have said:

The Pixies, Doolittle — speaks for itself, doesn’t it? ‘Debaser’, ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’, ‘Here Comes Your Man’… That’s a top release from 1989 if anything is.

Neneh Cherry, Raw Like Sushi — I’m a big Neneh Cherry supporter, and ‘Buffalo Stance’ is a favourite of mine.

Lyle Lovett & his Large Band (eponymous) — Lovett’s wry-Texas-swing-country sensibility hits several of my favourite points: his wit, the tight ensemble playing, the outsider/underdog perspective. LL&hLB includes some terrific Lovett cuts — ‘Which Way Does That Old Pony Run’, ‘I Married Her Just Because She Looks Like You’, ‘Here I Am’, ‘The Blues Walk’ (!), ‘Good Intentions’.

The Beautiful South, Welcome to the Beautiful South — And not just because Paul Heaton namechecks our daughters Philippa and Jennifer in ‘Song for Whoever’. Cf. also ‘You Keep It All In’.

Bob Mould, Workbook — ‘Heartbreak a Stranger’, yes, but ‘See A Little Light’ is so wonderful a composition — and the album could only be by Bob Mould, you recognise it a mile away.

De La Soul, Three Feet High And Rising — If you were to play something from TFHaR for me — except probably “The Magic Number’ — I’d have to look it up and say, “Oh, that’s from Three Feet High, too?’ But a great upsurge of originality (in the good sense) from a formative interval in hip-hop.

Beastie Boys, Paul’s Boutique — I can’t single out particular tracks from this, but as a whole they put together a remarkably woven album.

The Connells, Fun & Games — Not just for North Carolina local band reasons, but I relish the Connells’ version of jangle pop, and on this album especially “Hey Wow’ and ‘Uninspired’. Speaking of which…

Trashcan Sinatras, Cake — The Trashcans’ first album, with ‘Obscurity Knocks’, leaning forward into their subsequent brilliant albums. And…

The Reivers, End of the Day — A terrific indie album, top to bottom. “Star Telegram’, ‘Discontent of Winter’, ‘Your Secrets Are Not Safe’, and ‘A Cut Above The Rest’, all very fine.

Lou Reed, New York — OK, it’s not Reed at his very best, but some of the cuts are a good reminder that even his just good enough work does a lot better than most performers’ best. However, his spouse…

Laurie Anderson, Strange Angels — I think ‘Baby Doll’ may have gotten the most airplay, but ‘Strange Angels’ breaks me open a little bit every time.

Indigo Girls, (eponymous) — I don’t hold the Grammy against them. If you can’t listen to ‘Closer to Fine’ one more time, there’s ‘Kid Fears’, ‘Land of Canaan’, and ‘Tried To Be True’ and ‘Love’s Recovery’.

That’s less soul and R&B than I’d have thought, but the late ’80s weren’t a generative time for the soul and R&B I love. Some hip-hop, but there would be more if I included late ’88 and early ’90.

Come On

What makes ‘Come On, Eileen’ great?

In the first place, plenty of people don’t think it is great, and even people who think it’s great can agree that it’s painfully overplayed. Whether you like it or not, it would probably sound better if you hadn’t heard it seventy krillion times.

It’s overplayed for a reason, though: there’s a lot to admire about it, mostly in the arrangement — The lyrics are all right. The repeated ‘thoughts verge on dirty’ (then ‘Well, they’re dirty’) motif provides an ingenious turn on outright explicit candour, or cloying romance, the first time you hear it; but it doesn’t wear well. Kevin Rowland’s singing as a grown-up, and we get what he’s referring to. It might do well as a device lightly deployed, but instead the Dexys hammer it home. The trope of ‘we’re different from those people’ does its usual work, though the song is unassuming enough* that it doesn’t seem too condescending, and ‘beat down eyes sunk in smoke dried faces’ is a fresh way of making this characterisation.

He’s sweet-talking Eileen, but he invites without threatening (in the song; the video shows Rowland and another member of the band grabbing and holding Eileen against her will, though it concludes with Eileen joining Rowland and walking into the distance arm in arm with him). Partial credit.

But the art lies in the arrangement, in several ways. First, the arrangement underscores the lyric’s hopefulness with brightness, but without drama (contrast ‘Born to Run’ — another ‘we’re not like them’ song). Predominantly up-tempo, with prominent hooks in the upper-register fiddle, banjo, and tinwhistle (and a high-end piano part), the arrangement is both full and at the same time airy and light. Langer and Winstanley did their job well.

More important, I’d argue, is the episodic structure of the song. If you count the outro, the song shifts among five distinct portions: verse – slightly slower chorus – verse – chorus — slow, but accelerating bridge – chorus, slightly faster – fade to outro. The very distinct sound of each portion flows utterly convincingly into the next. I’m a sucker for episodic structure in popular song, and ‘Come On, Eileen’ hits that squarely

I can hear out people who don’t like it, but even when I try to be too sophisticated to like it, many subtle touches in ‘Come On, Eileen’ win me over. At the second modulation from verse to chorus, Rowland sings ‘We’ll hum this tune forever’ — I probably will.

* Does anyone think that the role Rowland’s playing really believes that his/their youth and cleverness ensures that they will escape resigned fatalism? The music expresses hopefulness and confidence, but the lyric sounds to me as though they’re self-aware that they’re enmeshed in the same circumstances that beat down their older neighbours. Maybe that’s me as an old, arguably beat-down, guy.

Some Things Are Important

The other day, Toots and the Maytals’ classic ‘Pomp and Pride’ (that image on the video doesn’t look like Toots Hibbert to me — hmmm, someone needs to learn that not all Black men look alike) popped into my memory-worm register, and I’ve been thinking about it and singing along since then. Nothing so surprising about that — par for the course, that a geriatric rocker should recall fondly the music of his twenties. And also not surprising, the non-Reverend Dr Adam rolled her eyes at this, particularly since I didn’t know all the words and was making up gibberish to fill the gaps.

So to satisfy my curiosity and to give Margaret something different to roll her eyes about, I decided quickly to look up the lyrics. Google Play covered all the relatively intelligible (to my time and volume-abraded ears) lyrics, and provided for one of the trickier lines

Is it an opulin, Iceland, calm down

Now, you have to admire Toots’s poetical ingenuity, working Iceland into a song about popular discontent with luminance (‘when they see it, they see it’s not bright’; cf. also ‘Tropical Iceland’ by the Fiery Furnaces). But ‘opulin’? Sorry, that — in the words of another line of the song — that can’t be right.

No worries — a quick look at another database provides

Ease it and happily, nicely calm down

which works well and seems plausible in context. I should also note that yet another source suggests ‘Isolyn, Jacqueline, Everton, come down’ — but mixing football teams with women’s names seems unlikely to me.

This all points to the problems of bridging Jamaican pronunciation and patois with [British] standard English, the classic article on which being Steve Cotler’s ‘Draw Your Brakes — A Jamaican Creole Shout,’ which explains the otherwise opaque

Forward and fiaca
Menacle and den gosaca

(‘Opaque,’ that is, to foreign ears.) Not only are the words themselves puzzling (if indeed those are the words in question), but Scotty intones them with an ominous, prophetic intensity. If we don’t know what ‘Forward and fiaca / Menacle and den go sa-ahkah’ means, how are we to respond to its urgency?

Cotler consulted experts (imagine that! In your eye, Michael Gove!) Peter L. Patrick of Essex, and Kenneth Bilby of the Smithsonian, who explained that

“Forward and payaaka, manhangle (manhandle) and den go saaka.”

In the “youth man slang” of the time, “payaaka” was a verb, meaning “to take away another man’s woman/girlfriend.” In this “slang,” “saaka” meant “to fuck.” So the song’s intro meant, “go and take away a next man’s girl, grab her and then go have sex with her.”

So if this be prophecy, I guess I will fall far short of its mandates (and will not proclaim it so ardently when The Harder They Come comes round on my playlist). Good to know, right?

And while we’re on the topic of difficult-to-parse accent-and-patois expressions, what (you will probably ask) (actually, you won’t have thought of this, but I’m putting my thoughts in your mouth since it’s my blog, so there) ‘But what about the beginning of ‘007 (Shanty Town)’ by the giant Desmond Dekker?’ I applaud your good taste — I too am a great admirer of Desmond Dekker — and I too have had difficulty figuring out what’s going on in the song.

As it turns out once one investigates the lyrics, the song concerns rude boys who have been released from custody (‘them out of jail’ — Dekker pronounces the noun with more of an ‘ee’ sound, as happens in some Scottish patterns of pronunciation), who are obliged to behave themselves as part of the conditions for their release (‘them must get bail’, likewise leaning toward ‘ee’). This also clarifies the ‘weel’ sound at the end of the first line — it’s ‘wail’ — and the line ‘Dem rude boys deh pon probation.’ ‘At ocean eleven’? Well, not all mysteries are easily explained.

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.