Out, out

There’s hardly anything I wouldn’t give to be able to turn on music and have the pain go away. When I see people tweeting about how a song turned their day around, it makes me insanely jealous. My reaction to adversity during the day or during a particularly difficult time is to shut off the music.

It doesn’t make any sense to me or to anyone who knows me. People ask me about it – “you’re in a band, look at your music collection, why is it quiet in here?” – and I’m at a bit of a loss to explain that it’s my punishment for when things aren’t going right.

So yeah, basically, when things aren’t quite right in my life, or when they don’t feel right, I put myself off music. And the exact feeling is this – I don’t deserve it. It’s the greatest treat I own, and I don’t deserve to partake until I’ve righted the ship, until I’ve put myself back in a place where I’m comfortable with who I am. The sense has been more pronounced over the last year or so.

Honestly, there’s very little I can do in near-complete silence. I can’t sleep in near-complete silence. I can barely write in near-complete silence. And those are perhaps the two most sustaining activities in my life. So it’s a pretty huge punishment. It’s hard to function once I’ve turned down the volume because the silence descends like an anvil, like a blanket on everything I do, making it impossible to move. And I kind of need to function. A fair amount depends on it.

So starting Monday, the silence is out for two weeks. Out. Music on all the time when there are not other competing interests – phone, meetings, etc. – music on all the time in the car, on walks, at home with the kiddos, everywhere. It’s an imperative for two weeks. No silence. Always music, always noise, always aural activity.

Will it lift the bad habit? I really hope so. Already I feel better. Like the lead apron’s off and I’m free to wander.

The current rotation

My rotation has a traditional structure and a nontraditional substructure. As I’ve described before, I find moments I simply want to put on repeat. Not whole songs but moments. I’ve always done this. I’ll be the first to admit, to my significant embarrassment, that one of the first repeat moments I experienced was the initial Neal Schon solo on “Don’t Stop Believin’.” I got some satisfaction from the staccato-to-glissando transition, and the payoff still isn’t terrible. I was listening to that one evening in my freshman dorm room, got to that point, and rewound the tape to listen again. The headphones must have been up loud – they always are – because my roommate said “but you barely listened to any of the song!” I shrugged and hit play again.

So the list of current moments on rotation?

08 I Saw The Bright Shinies

The three-part theremin harmonies are genius on their own, but at 0:32, 0:52, and 1:13 is where my heart and brain simply melt. The straight E-flat-major takes a full step down in the bottom register, in slight conflict with the theremins that maintain their high pitch – and even reach higher – and then at these moments, the bottom register moves even lower while the theremins cling to their high perches. The result is a relenting to the downward progression that exists in my head as an outcry, an outpouring of emotion against the slide. I once heard Beth Orton’s “She Cries Your Name” described as a cup of tea brewed with tears. I would say that description is more apt here. It’s like teetering on the edge of a balance beam or the blade of an ice skate before rolling off. Probably painful, definitely emotionally powerful.

06 Lasso

Twelve-second stretches from 0:48 to 1:00 and 1:39 to 1:51 – drum roll used to perfect effect. That doesn’t happen very often. These are moments – Phoenix is particularly good at them – where I get the image of walking on solid ground, then stepping onto a tightrope and sprinting over a thousand-foot-deep chasm until the bass rejoins. I always feel almost suspended without any tether – except that thin line of bouncing stick on drum head. Then the ground rushes up to meet me on the other end.

10 Shiner

1:37-2:00 – the music becomes compressed in what I would describe as an audiophile’s worst nightmare – a thin, trebly, distorted spectrum of sound filled with scrapes and crackles that make my whole body tense up. I revisit this section over and over again, imagining the musical experience in physical life, imagining the staging of it with lighting and sound in a live show, and holding my breath for all 23 seconds. Self-torture? I’m just living the moment. Dave Sardy always loved to play with this squashed mono feel; here he does it brilliantly.

Yes, even as I reaffirm my allegiance to the long-form album as my primary love in the music world, I seek out the snippets that shine – and review them and review them for the sheer pleasure of knowing that it’s possible to achieve outsize brilliance even seconds at a time.

A musical response

So, uh, our state was in the news this week. You may have heard shiny new Maine Governor Paul LePage, also known as Archie Bunker, respond to critics upset at his decision to skip Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day events by asking them to “kiss my butt.”

I just have no words at the moment to react to or describe the horrors of being represented by this governor. So yeah, absent any actual inspiration, I will construct a primarily musical response.

Governor, I know this is how you want to be viewed.

When you were inaugurated, a lot of us who disagree with your politics felt a little like this:
02 First Few Desperate Hours

Yet I had hoped that you would get past that campaign image, I really had. I guess

10 That’s Just What You Are

And yet the 62% of us who didn’t vote for you don’t want to be cast as racists or even insensitive louts. So we are begging you to

at the very least. Honestly, I know this job comes with its fair share of

09 Pressure

but you represent all of us now. Seriously. An apology is in order – and not this kind.

08 My Apology

I don’t want to end up as cynical and hermit-like as this:

So try not to embarrass yourself – or, more importantly, us.

Fewer words, fewer bad words

I’ve never felt before like I should back off the negative. My personal view is that tastes and standards are important, and that I am not here simply to praise what I love but also to examine, in some depth, why I don’t like what I don’t like.

But as I sit in revulsion from the actions yesterday, I may be taking a break from fully examining the negative. I know I fully intend to say less about what I hate and more about what I love. It doesn’t mean I am done with the negative. But it does mean there will be less.

So today I present something I love dearly and something I find both revolting and completely beautiful and hilarious. Note that this will be the second week in a row I will have referenced NPR, so I would like my Latte-Sipping Arugula-Munching Liberal Elite membership card IMMEDIATELY.

First the hilarious, first heard on Wait Wait yesterday:

I offer it without additional comment.

And then from my friend Megan, the greatest postcards in the history of postcards:

That’s right, a postcard from Hogwarts.

Covered in Mountain Goats lyrics.

Another postcard from Hogwarts.

Covered with more Mountain Goats lyrics.

Merry New Year to me. Happy 2011. And screw 2010. Right in the face. (Again, not DONE with the negative)

Reverb and what it does

I’m a sucker for heavy reverb. I’ll admit it. It’s probably the easiest and laziest way to obscure musical content but that doesn’t make it any less effective. So it was of some interest for me to hear NPR interns talking about their “songs our bosses missed” and mentioning the brilliantly named Gauntlet Hair:

Gauntlet Hair – I Was Thinking

I can’t get enough of the near complete lack of melody to hang onto here; it’s almost entirely an effect, but it’s a beautiful one, and the discussion among the interns and the commentator in the above link indicates there’s a significant difference among them as to what that reverb evokes. The person who recommends the song, a Colorado native like the band, sees the reverb as a nod to the mountains, imagining Gauntlet Hair playing atop Pikes Peak. Others, including the commentator, see the song as an underground combat anthem, evoking the subway rather than the mountains.

I’m not sure it matters a great deal but it had me thinking about the other artists who use significant reverb as another instrument:

06 China Steps

As with most stuff from Women, here I feel like I’ve been smothered by the reverb, or I’ve been thrown down a sewer grate. It’s nearly suffocating, and that’s partly the enhancement of the monotonous vocals, doubled and perhaps tripled but never among the treble clef lines on the staff, always down below and completely muffled. Perfect for Calgary winter or being buried alive.

01 Beach Comber

In this case, the shimmery high-tone guitar makes the reverb feel expansive rather than constrictive. It feels a little like you really could be out on the beach with your metal detector. It feels like the open water is enough to create an echo effect, though I know it’s not, know it’s more likely to swallow sound than send it back. Doesn’t matter. The combination sets up a shimmery pop dream world for me.

The selective use of heavy reverb on a single percussion instrument can make a difference on perceptions as well. It’s the only track that has ever made me think that more cowbell might be desirable. Because that one element sets the entire song on an unstable corner from the outset, the sinewy synths and glissando bass lines mostly providing a stability the cowbell refuses to provide. And the saxophone “solo” sends the entire track off the rails, another unexpected twist in a great album full of them.

The simple pleasures of the reverb will probably continue to be top of mind for me in the coming year, especially if it continues to be such a prominent part of the best artists’ repertoires. I hope that doesn’t make me overly simple or easily led. I find it delicious.

Barney, Dietrich, and Sarah

You can trace the decline of the television theme song in a straight line from Barney Miller to Seinfeld.

This was my first thought when I heard the news of Steve Landesberg’s death this week. Though I do recognize him first and foremost and frankly ONLY as Arthur Dietrich — a perspective this article thinks is rare, and I think that’s unfortunate — his death reminds me of a time when television shows in general gave a crap about theme songs instead of purchasing the Who’s back catalog and plugging/playing. Capturing a show’s atmosphere and purpose through theme music seems to be in steep decline as an art, though I will honestly say I don’t watch most television and can’t comment on the most popular shows of the day and whether or not they have worthy theme music. I can tell you that the theme of Barney Miller was the last time I got really excited about single-purpose theme music, music that hasn’t been recycled, music that’s been created solely for the purpose of saying “the show’s starting – here’s what to expect”:

Barney Miller

Barney Miller is the first sitcom I remember my dad being completely obsessed with, and though I was still a little young to appreciate the show’s humor at the time, I do remember being taken with the theme music from a time where I was still wondering about the mystery of the bass guitar, long before I picked one up, before I knew what that growl was. (And it’s growlier than I remember on this.)

Even in retrospect, though, the hijinx of the ol’ one-two couldn’t have had a better lead-in. The iconic bass line gets a perfect accompaniment with the grace-note of the organ hopping right into the F7 b10 chord that makes it just that much nastier – a film of grime over the tune that carried over to the visual. That grime was consistently present on set for all cop shows right through NYPD Blue, and certainly on Barney Miller as well. But while NYPD Blue dumped subway sounds over the top of ambient chords, Barney Miller actually used jazz chords to gunk things up.

I have been an ardent supporter of the permanent destruction of the guitar solo in modern music, but I have to say that when it’s used as a tool, as it is here, starting at the 0:11 mark and running essentially as a bridge from the syncopated-snare-and-hi-hat lope of the introduction into the double-time second half. It’s not only incredibly clean technique with just the right astringent tone. It’s also a ladder from one level of the tune to the other. It lingers for a couple of bars, but the direction is upward, and it accelerates especially in the last bar to let you know that, yes, this isn’t just the seamy underbelly of Manhattan we’re talking about – it’s the wacky underbelly as well.

The one-liner rhythm of the show itself can seem at times a pleasant throwback to a simpler time and also a sign of how dated that format became. I think the the “third quarter” of the theme somewhat mirrors that rhythm, regardless of the perceived effectiveness of the humor. What I know is that you have an introduction of the horns, then the bass and horns run together and nearly collide, springing back off each other and back into two more runs of ascending bass and descending horns. That kind of buoyant writing doesn’t occur in 1-minute instrumentals very often, so we should savor it for the delight that it is.

The modulation to A-flat is the only part of this that feels like it’s not moving things forward; feels like they ran out of room and ideas at this point. But it’s not entirely unenjoyable. And they round it out quickly – the whole theme is brief enough to be just right as a preparation for the show ahead.

Nothing’s felt quite the same since. Let us peek into the mid-80s for a moment:

Night Court

Slap bass isn’t my favorite aesthetic, but it’s not offensively slappy here. It is about as legitimate as you can make it, primarily because it provides only a brief percussive attack. But it’s the first sign that we’re in dangerous territory. The next comes at 0:10, with the soprano saxophone.

I am on the record as an ardent enemy of the soprano sax in general. I can’t really understand the prevalence of the instrument or anyone’s attraction to it, but it’s especially abhorrent to try and make it your melodic centerpiece when the rest of your pieces seem relatively solid – including the judicious and appropriate use of bongos to accent bass percussion. Then when you set it off with a five-second alto sax break starting at 0:24, where the difference in the depth of tone becomes so obvious, you do yourself no favors. The soprano sax squeaks its way along the top of the stop-start coda, a fine musical structure but not with this as its top level. Whether or not the humor of either of these shows holds up over time, it’s clear that Barney Miller’s theme holds up considerably better with time.

And then when you stop here:

Seinfeld

it seems clear we’ve just given up on the theme music. Sure, the show is one of the greats of all time, and I can’t necessarily fault Jerry for putting all his time into creating hilarity and ignoring the theme music. But it’s still worth noting — briefly, because I don’t want to analyze this pile of synthesized garbage at length — how little actual instrumentation there is here. Frankly, I think there’s none.

Maybe this is the point – the show’s about “nothing” so perhaps the theme was constructed to be devoid of actual content, of anything resembling an actual structure. Maybe it was part of the broader purpose. That’s a fascinating possibility. But it still, as musical work to bracket a show, represents a real nadir. That is, until people just started nabbing Massive Attack snippets.

(I suppose I could talk about the Rembrandts here but would appreciate it if you didn’t make me do that.)

Steve Landesberg’s death reminded me of the legacy of the Barney Miller theme song as the riff I still use as my “would I buy this bass?” riff. It certainly doesn’t lack for admirers. This guy uses it to demonstrate drum technique – rightly so, I’d say, despite my feelings about having a drum channel on YouTube.

And I have to admit that I include this only because it makes me cackle nearly as much as the Creed Shreds videos did when I first saw them.

In any case, this theme music felt substantial. I miss it as much as I miss Sgt. Dietrich.

Steve Landesberg suffered from colon cancer and had what’s widely described as a long battle with the disease. I don’t know how long he fought, but I know someone else who lost a 4 1/2 year battle with cancer this week. Sarah Lopez was in my class at the U. (the Rice U.), and I remember her being among the last people I would have thought would not see their 40th birthday. (I’d probably have been among the first.) She was a similar age, with two kids like me, and we shared significantly similar political views (something I never knew way back when), and I very much regret that we didn’t communicate much at all after graduation with the exception of some Facebook comments back and forth over the last year or two.

I know that by mentioning her here, I am making the most tangential of connections — cancer — and an almost entirely non-musical one. It would be hard to say I miss her considering how little contact we’ve had. And yet the world is a way worse place without her here, something I’m sure her husband and boys can attest to despite the fact that I’m sure they’ll feel her presence going forward.

Really, all I can offer, outside of the wishes of peace that I’ve (again) only sent electronically, is to post the only song about cancer that has any place in my collection — one that I’ve linked before but that bears repeating because its essential themes — nostalgia, regret, injustice — are about all I feel about this right now.

10 Casimir Pulaski Day

Rest in peace, Sarah.

Strange choices

The selection this week of Tom Waits, Neil Diamond, and Alice Cooper for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame made me feel about three shades less embarrassed to look over the Hall’s site. I am, like everyone else, highly skeptical of all Hall-of-Fame-type structures until they make choices I agree with. In this case, I decided to try and reaffirm that this wasn’t a fluke, that past choices I didn’t agree with were far outweighed by the sheer tonnage of celestial wisdom in evidence, brought down from on high by ethereal, hook-laden forces from beyond the material plane.

I think I was wrong to try and reaffirm that, but this isn’t what I really discovered or affirmed or rediscovered or relearned. What caught my eye was the fact that when you look at lists of inductees (an alphabetical list begins here), there are only a select few that list the names of those who presented the artists, “sidemen,” non-performers, etc. with their awards.

When you’re talking about the Hall of Fame, I want you to be talking about the final resting place for chops and influence and achievement over the long haul. To me, every part of that enshrinement needs to represent the pinnacle of your profession. That includes the induction ceremony. It should be a celebratory but appropriately sober assessment of an icon’s contribution to our understanding of that profession. It should be curated with a sense of what would add the most to the award itself as well as to people’s understanding of the craft through the award, through the celebration of that person’s or that group’s work.

While I would love nothing more than to get into a discussion of the merits (or lack thereof) of selections to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, especially on the occasion of a particularly noteworthy class, I am stuck at the point where I am still talking about presenters. Because there appears to be real hope here at the same time as real need for improvement – as well as a need for more transparency. It’s quiet a fascinating legacy in itself, the legacy of the presenter.

I like that Wyclef Jean presented the induction of Jimmy Cliff, because there is lineage there and I want to believe there’s a clear desire on Wyclef’s part to educate on his musical past.

I like that Jimmy Page presented the induction of Jeff Beck – from their shared legacy as legendary masters of the same instrument to the fact that they were bandmates and contemporaries.

I love the fact that Carole King has had the opportunity to attempt to further the legacy of songwriters through her presentations.

But I don’t like Shirley Manson presenting the induction of Blondie. That’s a gig Shirley Manson never earned. And Debbie Harry should’ve said something.

I don’t like Sting presenting the induction of B.B. King. You can make the case that at least two of Sting’s solo hits (the two that sound nearly identical) are essential jazzy blues numbers with rhythm and blues elements all dolled up for some sort of mass consumption. But what would convince them that Sting’s been either an advocate for or a continuation of the legacy of King, I don’t know. I don’t see it.

I don’t like Aerosmith presenting the induction of Led Zeppelin. Aerosmith wins points for longevity far beyond influence, while Led Zeppelin reverses that equation. It doesn’t make a great deal of logical sense to me. Throw in how lukewarm I am to Aerosmith’s induction into the Hall of Fame and this selection is toxic to me.

I’m fascinated by John Popper presenting Santana’s induction. One virtuoso presenting another for induction -is there something to be said for that? Does it speak to how far Santana has fallen as a prominent Latino rocker?

I’m also trying to untangle Pink Floyd’s presenter – Billy Corgan. It’s a puzzler. Uh, yeah. Puzzler.

Mostly, I want to know why a handful of presenters are mentioned while hundreds of others simply aren’t. Are they embarrassed by the other presenters? Was Meredith Brooks the only one available to present the induction of Joni Mitchell?

Do they really care about the presentation of the induction? Do they really care about the passing on of a legacy, the opportunity to honor and for people living now to educate others about their own musical pasts? I think they do. Still, they won’t say. They won’t show us the full picture.

I want to know. Why? Not just because I want to know how the Hall of Fame presents inductions, but also because I want to know who is doing the hard but necessary work of cementing the legacy of our greatest musicians of the rock era. And I want to know it’s more than just an awards show and a tourist trap. So I want to see names. Names upon names. Of presenters as well as inductees.

But they only show me a few. And that is perhaps the strangest choice of all.