Wednesday, May 20, 2009

An Experiment: Shuffle 'n' Write for 5/20/09

I tried my hand at reviewing music for my college newspaper only very briefly before I realized I wasn’t cut out for it. (True fact: I own zero albums by Bob Dylan and almost no hip-hop or rap, which probably ought to have instantly disqualified me). Basically, I realized I just wanted to listen to music that I would like, and that is absolutely not an attitude a proper critic can afford to have. Really, I'll have to admit I'm not even all that “knowledgeable” about music and the critic's canon, I just think music is awesome. So I never looked back.

I like reading about music, though, but I’m more interested in how people relate to music -- their personal relationship with certain songs, albums, and artists -- than analysis and critique. So here’s what I’m gonna try: You know that meme from a couple years ago where you hit shuffle on your iPod and list the first ten songs that come up? (Back when that was a thing, I had neither a blog nor an iPod.) It’s like that. I’ll write a little something about each one -- what the song means to me, or why I like it, or where I heard it, or whatever comes to mind -- as I’m listening to it, in real time. That’ll prevent me from overintellectualizing, hopefully. And if this turns out well, I’ll start doing these every so often.

Here goes. The actual first ten songs when I hit shuffle, even if it repeats albums or artists, and no matter how lame or embarrassing they may end up being.


1.) Elvis Costello – “Let Them All Talk”: I’ve really dug EC ever since my wife introduced me to him. This is from Punch the Clock, and the sound is extremely dated. That horrible synthy piano and thin, processed drums. But it’s a good song, despite all that. I really like the melodramatic opening with the driving horns even if it is goofy.

2.) the pillows – “Instant Music”: From the Japanese OVA FLCL/Fooly Cooly. I don’t watch much anime, but I love Cowboy Bebop and FLCL, and not coincidentally, both rely on music heavily for emotional resonance. I’m never quite sure how to describe the pillows. It’s 90s guitar-based alternative rock by Japanese people.

3.) XTC – “Helicopter”: From Drums and Wires. XTC is something else my wife introduced me to; she was into them casually, and I latched onto them and am now one of those obsessive fans who has all the albums and knows all the behind-the-scenes stories (I stop short at tracking down all those demo albums, though; there’s like a dozen of them). Oh, the song, right. When people say someone is “influenced by XTC” they usually mean XTC from this period, not the later, more pastoral kind of stuff. I probably prefer the latter, but their early herky-jerky stuff is infectious and charming where a lot of bands doing the same thing can just come off as annoying to my ears.

4.) Coldplay – “Yellow”: Man, I am telling you, Coldplay used to be a cool thing to be into. My friend in high school told me about this little British band that sounds like the lead singer’s a puppy that’s been kicked down a flight of stairs and it’s great. So I bought this album, and soon after this song took off. I still like this song and this album, no matter what anyone says. It’s just so earnest, is what it is, where everything from A Rush of Blood to the Head on just seems calculated; trying too hard. I still like listening to this on rainy days; in college it was great music to listen to on headphones and get all self-indulgent (I am not too proud to admit).

5.) Paul McCartney – “Another Day”: The first word that comes to mind to describe this song is “pleasant,” but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. McCartney was probably the solo Beatle my dad listened to most when I was a kid, so there’s a strong nostalgia association with this. Sometimes (in contrast with Coldplay) I feel like McCartney doesn’t try hard enough, but this song has a few nice little idiosyncratic things to keep you hooked.

6.) XTC – “Boarded Up”: The acoustic guitar is really beautifully recorded. That’s all I really have to say about this song. Kind of boring. It’s about an old music venue closing down, but it doesn’t feel real emotionally invested, just sort of a “Shame about that, huh?” sentiment. Colin Moulding has supposedly kind of lost interest in songwriting in recent years, and I think it shows on all his songs on the Wasp Star album.

7.) Ben Folds Five – “Alice Childress”: This is the version off the Naked Baby Photos album of rarities, live performances and B-sides. This is actually the first Ben Folds Five album I bought (you’re not supposed to buy this first, though, I guess) just because I wanted to buy an album with “Philosophy” on it on my first night of my first year of college, but I couldn’t find the Ben Folds Five album. Anyway, I think this is Ben Folds at his lyrical best. Conversational lyrics without slipping into that sort of immature or lecturing tone he does a lot these days. (Weird how he can be both at the same time, or is that not weird?) I also love the unusual harmonies. They kick in on “Dreh-ehhhsss” on “Childress”. It’s just interesting.

8.) The Hives – “The Hives Declare Guerre Nucleaire”: I like The Hives in small doses, and this is probably my favorite song of theirs. I love the rhythm, but the BEST BEST BEST part of this song is the way it opens. It’s these real villainous-sounding chords and oh this is a short song.

9.) The Beatles – “Dig It”: It’s only like 45 seconds long, so I don’t have much time to write, but luckily there is not much to write about it.

10.) The Cars – “Shake It Up”: I used to love this song as a real little kid, like elementary school. Dancing in the living room and all that. Looking back, I suppose this song inaugurated what was to become a lifelong love affair with the square synthesizer.

Whew. And that’s the first one. The time crunch forces you to be real rough and disorganized; it comes off a bit like drunk writing but with better spelling and grammar, but I like the effect. It’s funny, I really thought listening to the songs the whole way through would be too much time, but I was consistently surprised with how quickly that three or four minutes would go by. Until I got to “Another Day” or so I was talking mostly about the artists and not the songs themselves; I utterly failed to say anything about “Instant Music” at all, and too bad that “Helicopter” did not get the exploration it deserves.

Well, that was either kind of interesting or kind of asinine. U-Decide, True Believer! And if anyone wants to talk about these songs further (Zach, I know you at least would have something to say about The Hives, and if I keep doing these we’re going to come to Trip Shakespeare eventually), we can chat it up in the comments.


plok said...

"Dig It" is more interesting when you hear the whole thing -- in the Let It Be movie they play it, it's basically a jam that goes on...I dunno, a couple of minutes? Billy Preston has a piano solo that's pretty cool.

"Another Day" is another one of those McCartney "made-up people" songs...same problem as most of the rest of them, you wonder just what the hell's so important to him about this vignette...because very often he studiously refuses to offer any sort of round-up to the thing. But sometimes that doesn't matter so much, like here.

I was thinking of listing those songs of his, in descending order from Makes Most Sense ("Eleanor Rigby", probably), all the way down to, I don't know, "Rockshow" or something. But I don't think the pyramid would be too equilateral...

Justin said...

Yeah, it's been awhile since I've seen Let It Be (my dad had it on laserdisc) but some fellow was good enough to put it up in segments on YouTube, along with a list of what songs are where. Cutting just 45 seconds out of a jam is a pretty weird decision, come to think of it; once you're able to sort of lock onto what it's doing it's already started fading out.

That insight about McCartney vignettes is pretty helpful for me; I feel bad knocking his lyrics sometimes because that's how the whole Lennon/McCartney thing is packaged in our collective consciousness, and it's of course really a lot knottier than that, but this really gets at the *specific* problem of some of his third-person songs.

It's kind of like that cliche about writers, "Oh, I just sit in the coffee shop and look at people and imagine what their lives are like." Character sketches are a good exercise, but nobody actually wants to *read* them.