Eyes That Can See in the Dark

a music journal

"If We Celebrate Peeing A Bake Sale Will Disappear"

Scott's new entry in the Waldo club comes wrapped in a custom slipcase made out of black-and-white Hanukkah mats. Mine says sing Maoz Tzur at one edge, while another says while the can... -- presumably "candle": an item that turns out to be an occasional theme on this CD.

So, in we go!

  1. The Microphones - "The Moon" (5:17)

    The first thing I ever heard by the Microphones was a track from The Glow, Pt. 2, by way of Absintheur's Sphereyophonic Sound Spectacular, a few years back; I thought it might've been "Ice" (which Mike V. featured on his own Waldo compilation I Can't Kiss, I Have Germs...), but that track is on It Was Hot, We Stayed In The Water. Either way, even that one track caught my ear enough that I said to myself, "Hmmm, I should check these guys out."

    Fast forward to the present day, and I still haven't bought a Microphones album, though I'd like to. I was in Spaceboy Music in Philly the other week, and nearly picked one up, but Scott had told me there would be some Microphones tracks on his disc so I figured I'd wait. (Oh no!! Mix CDs do kill sales!)

    We hear three different permutations on "The Moon" during the course of Bake Sale. The thing I like best about this first version is the moment when after the song's intro -- a minute of "shambolic" (how I hate that word) and slightly out-of-tune acoustic guitars, cycling in a four-measure pattern that doesn't seem to be heading much of anywhere -- the drums suddenly click one-two-three-four and the song kicks in, with a complete change of color (organ, vocals, drums, saxophones, and more), dynamic (louder and more compressed), and tempo (much faster). The acoustic guitars aren't quite obliterated, though -- they're still subliminally perceptible at the bottom, and sure enough, when the song ends, there they are again, getting the last word in if only for a moment. It's a really nice effect; I'd love to know whether it was premeditated, or just the product of a happy accident or experiment. I'd also love to know how this track was recorded -- part of me thinks 4-track cassette, part of me thinks reels. (If the answer is "Pro Tools" I'll be pretty shocked.)

  2. Sonic Youth - "Candle" (4:59)

    My favorite Sonic Youth albums are Sister and Sonic Nurse, whatever that might say about me; I've given Daydream Nation a listen or two, but have yet to connect with it (to be honest, I can't remember a note of it). The great thing about a mix CD is that it can give you a chance to spend some time with a track in isolation and get to know it well, so that when you come back to the album from which it was taken, you have a kind of anchor, or point of entry -- a way of knowing where you are, a prominent landmark you can use when driving in unfamiliar country. I suppose it's really not too different from the function that 45 RPM singles used to serve, come to think of it.

    I look forward to giving Daydream Nation another spin now, because "Candle" is a great song. The thing I love most about Sonic Youth, and that sets them so much apart from other, "similar" bands, is their harmony -- it never seems stereotyped, there's always something going on that's surprising and fresh and new, and in a weird way it reminds me of Debussy, or at least of the jazz musicians who were influenced by Debussy (and Ravel, Stravinsky, et al.). A lot of that comes from their choice of tunings, of course -- not just the open strings but also the easy availability, finger-wise, of close harmonies (seconds, mostly). Also nice: the extra beat added to the first phrase with the full band (making it 9/8); the way the phrase lengths aren't always predictable, especially at the very beginning.

  3. Sufjan Stevens - "All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!" (4:35)

    Like I said to Scott, and he agreed: if you replaced the piano with a Farfisa, and changed the vocals and lyrics from "male, Christian, understated, English-language" to "female, Marxist, uninflected, French-language (or Eng-LISH ac-CENT-ed strange-LY)"...

    You know the rest of that sentence, or you should.

    ("I need someone / Intoxicating and strong...")

    I do like the 5/4 goodness, and the rhythmic surprise at the 2:45 mark where we suddenly go into 5/4 + 7/4 -- a little lengthening of the phrase reminiscent of Amanset or Stravinsky or "Candy" or, um, "The Legend of 4454" (long story) -- or, for that matter, the Sonic Youth song right above this! (Haydn does that kind of thing all the time too, sometimes to a far wilder degree than one might expect.) It's one of my favorite tricks, partly because it makes me feel like the songwriter isn't on autopilot -- I like it when music has extra stuff in it, little rhythmic tricks that foreground the play of expectation and periodicity.

    Stevens also chooses that moment (at 2:45) to introduce a slight change of key, bringing in a F-sharp that hadn't been there before (taking us from F Lydian to C Lydian). It's worth thinking about the way in which the effectiveness of that passage is heightened by the combination of rhythmic and harmonic change, and what that might suggest about the overall structure of a song like this one (especially for those of us that try to write them).

    Speaking of classical music, there's a melody in the oboe part that sounds a bit like a rip from, of all things, Pachelbel's Canon in D! The difference is substantial enough that plagiarism isn't even remotely an issue, but I still wonder if Stevens was subconsciously inspired...

  4. The Shins - "Saint Simon" (4:25)

    The first umpteen times I heard this song, I had a powerful and visceral negative reaction to that opening line: "After all these implements/And texts designed by intellects/We're vexed to find evidently there's/Still so much that hides". Guhhhhh. Magnet calls it "more-intelligent-than-thou lyrics", which is not quite right (but a hell of a lot closer than, say, this take on them, or this one, or this message board post: "lyrically one of the best bands of all time and i quote"?? Eek). I've written before about how I prefer MCs who use words of mainly Germanic origin, rather than Latin -- lots of "-ification" and "-ization" words rub me the wrong way. My reaction here was based on more or less the same thing -- I mean, to put it bluntly, I thought "What a dumb, pretentious, 'Hello-I'm-a-second-year-poetry-major' way to start a perfectly good song."

    And musically speaking, it is a perfectly good song! It reminds me a little bit of Squeeze, I'm not sure which one of theirs -- maybe "Up the Junction". I probably like the "spooky" section that starts at 1:12 the best, it's a nice surprise and touch of humor, like a momentary sidestep into Edward Scissorhands-land. There are some subtle touches in the song's arrangement/production, too -- a little bit of strings here, a touch of vibraphone (or something like it) there.

    So going back to the first line: after a dozen listens or so, I've gotten used to it now. I took a look at a transcription of the lyrics in aggregate, and at least they make sense -- allowing me to believe that, perhaps, he's not just throwing out multisyllabic words for the sake of sounding literate and oblique (but choosing words that are far too clumsy and commonplace to make that happen). Still, given the choice, I think I prefer:

    I had no idea there was so much stuff down here.
    Those Russians write good manuals.

    (P.S. Mister Shins, don't take it too personally! I think 95% of lyrics are crap anyway, and I like more than a few songs whose lyrics I won't vouch for, so don't feel bad. I'll buy you a drink sometime. Just don't ask the bartender for any "implements" and we'll be cool.)

  5. American Football - "Never Meant" (4:28)

    This song makes me think of my senior year in college, living next to Jeremy and listening to him play his Cap'n Jazz and Promise Ring records. (In the latter case I'm thinking in particular of their first 7-inch, which I remember liking a lot.) What was in the water in Emotown, back in 1997 or 1998? It seems like all these bands suddenly adopted a really cool, unusual sense of harmony -- a very diatonic/modal one, but eschewing conventional I-IV-V progressions, and surprisingly contrapuntal in texture (i.e. a harmony built out of melodies, rather than a melody superimposed on a harmony). I think of words like "ringing" and "open", of songs that go from quiet to loud to quiet to loud and actually make it interesting.

    The only thing I know about American Football is the memory of glancing at a record review that said they only had one album and "weren't really emo". Either way, they seem like they're in much the same camp. I really like the moment when the second guitar and bass come in, and you find out that the first guitarist's pattern, which seemed like an uncomplicated C major, can actually be inflected through several different modes, and quite effectively too. The transition at 2:15 is also nice, a well-timed change in color and texture; if I have any critique to offer, it's that, at about that point, I start wishing for a more convincing lead vocal part -- I'm not sure whether it's the singer or the melody he sings, but there's a certain lack of melodic tension, a need for a greater sense of urgency, that keeps the song from really taking flight in the way that (for instance) the best Cap'n Jazz songs did. Still, I enjoy the song quite a bit, even more with each listen.

    Oh, one more thing: that little intro -- a few seconds of noodling before the song starts -- also totally makes me think of Jer. Especially that last ride-and-bass drum pattern, that's classic J.D.G.G.W.W.R.

  6. Gang of Four - "Contract" (2:39)

    I had never heard Gang of Four, but this is exactly what I expected them to sound like. My first reaction is to say I'm not terribly smitten -- when it comes to post-punk, I prefer bands like Mission of Burma and Wire -- but then again, I've since found this song going through my head at odd times, which suggests that it might be a grower. Certainly, I like the basic formula -- steady beats + uncertain key centers + unpredictable-but-consistent guitar squalls -- so the fundamentals are there. I think I'm in the process of transitioning between "These lyrics are too heavy-handedly political for my taste" and "...but they do describe a particular situation, or mode of relating, rather effectively".

  7. Jason Anderson - "You Fall" (2:14)

    So strange to reconcile my memories of Jason with this music, it wasn't at all what I was expecting -- though then again, I think the last time I played music with Jason, he was probably either noodling in Jazz Band rehearsal, or maybe we were jamming on "Last Dance With Mary Jane" by Tom Petty with Mr. C (!). Either way, by the time we hit high school he'd become a very gifted and proficient musician -- not to mention a complete pain in my brother-in-law's ass -- and when I heard that he'd signed with K Records, I wasn't surprised to hear he'd met with success. I can't tell which of the two voices is his -- I presume the first one that enters.

    I can't tell how much humor I'm meant to perceive in the lyrics -- Stylus calls them "whimsical", and I'm inclined to agree, but Jason is such a fuckin' trickster that I'm not foolish enough to ever be sure about that kind of thing.

    True story -- the last conversation I remember having with Jason, circa April or May 1994, went something like this:

    P: Yeah, I've been listening to more hip-hop, I like some of what I've heard, like Digable Planets, the Beastie Boys...
    J: That's cool.
    P: But I don't really like it when they scratch, it seems silly to me...
    J: You don't like the scratching, huh?
    P: Naah, I think it's dumb.
    J: Heh, yeah. The Beastie Boys would never do anything like that, right?
    P: Totally. (says the boy who's never heard Paul's Boutique...)

    I don't know if he ever made fun of me behind my back for that one -- but you know, if he did, I deserved it. Then again, I'm operating under the assumption that he knew better while I didn't -- wouldn't it be funny if...?

  8. The Microphones - "(Version)" (4:34)

    At first, it sounds more or less identical to the beginning of Track 1, but this time it's saxophones that come in a bit after the minute mark, and sounding vaguely like the sax work one hears on a lot of English prog from the early-to-mid-'70s -- think Third, the Hatfield & the North self-titled, and so on.

    (Digression: why did it seem like every other band from that scene had to have a sax player? And not just a sax player, but an out-of-tune, uninspiring, it'd-be-better-if-he-weren't-there sax player? Actually, that's not completely fair -- a lot of the time the real problem was that the parts written for them were crappy, with a lack of melodic interest that only heightened the timbral out-of-place-ness. Still, the only bands I can think of from that scene that had really satisfying sax work were the loose, jammy groups like Gong and Nucleus, who were already heavily leaning towards fusion anyway.)

    The sax is soon joined by a piano, and the two together establish a faster tempo roughly comparable to what we heard in the first "Moon". (Actually, I strongly suspect that what we're hearing is an alternate mix using many of the same tracks as in "Moon" number one, but with additional overdubs not heard in that version.) Some nice sounds happen; saxes come in and out; we remember the original, and its lyrics, from time to time. I enjoy it, though that enjoyment is strongly connected to my memory of the earlier track -- I have no idea what I'd think of it as a stand-alone piece. In the context of the mix CD, it has a very effective structural function -- in fact, it comes at the exact midpoint of the disc, both in terms of numbered tracks and of length. I like that!

  9. Death Cab For Cutie - "Lowell, MA" (3:28)

    Had I heard Death Cab before? I'm not sure that I had. This is a good, solid track, titled after a place not too far from where I grew up. I don't have too much to say about it, though I like the way the singer leaps up unexpectedly into falsetto in the verses to catch the upper parts of his wide-ranging melody.

    Ha, actually, I just took a look at the lyrics -- what better evidence of my Latin vs. Germanic thesis above? Schtampt, schtackt, as it were. Plus all those juicy compound words like "shakedown" and "newsstand". Not that I'm wowed by the lyrics, but compared to the Shinning above ("That's Willie's time!"), they work a lot better for me on some sociophonetic (!) level.

  10. Sufjan Stevens - "All The Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands" (4:16)

    And speaking of opening lines, this song has one of the best ones I've heard in some time: "If I am alive this time next year..." I'm a sucker for "if"-lines -- "If you should ever leave me..." comes to mind.

    (And if you're thinking what I'm thinking, then you're thinking of a certain band whose name has four Y's and no other vowels, and we can just pass over that in silence, thank you very much.)

    (Though I like that song too. Even the umpteen guitar solos.)

    There's no doubt about it, this guy is the real deal; he has an intuitive ability to match a good lyric to a good melody, which is the hardest f*cking thing in the world -- to do in earnest, anyway: writing silly songs, that's another kettle of fish.

    Having said that, I find this song a bit less interesting than "All Good Naysayers"; it uses its loop, as it were, effectively, but I feel like it could be deeper and more multi-layered than it is. I'm big on that -- when a song's built out of loops, of repetitive figures, then I want to hear a lot of layers moving at different speeds, like wheels within wheels. Amanset are probably the kings of that approach.

    I like it when the drums enter, a bit before the end; it feels like it could be an opportunity for the song to take flight, but I don't mind that things don't go that way.

  11. R.E.M. - "Camera" (5:27)

    There are two things that strike me most about this song. One is the dynamic range -- it's worlds away from the über-compressed recordings of nowadays, and sure enough, checking the R.E.M. discography I find that it was released on 1984's Reckoning. There's space, there's air around the instruments -- I like these things.

    The other thing is the fact that Stipe's vocal melody is remarkably constricted, pitch-wise -- it sticks to the pitch set G, A, B, with the occasional F-sharp and E thrown in, and almost exclusively in stepwise motion. It's only in the final chorus that things start going higher, cresting up to a C, and then a D right before the end. You'd think this would be more problematic than it is -- bumping up against the B over and over again, it must have Knud Jeppesen spinning in his grave -- but I'd rather have a restrictive melody than a leaping, over-emotive one, especially for a song that's apparently in memory of a friend who died.

    I could do without the background vocals on the choruses -- they're a bit too much of a cue, I think: the organ is enough as it is. It's hard to believe this is the second-longest song on the CD -- it doesn't feel that way at all: that's what space and restraint can do, it seems.

    (By the way, is the weird capitalization on Reckoning hinting at some kind of secret code? Do the capitalized letters spell out "SOMEDAY YOU'LL BE ON BOSTON PUBLIC AND HAVE A SHITFIT ON AN AIRPLANE" or something?)

    ("In their continuing effort to maximize their exposure"!!!)

  12. Explosions in the Sky - "Your Hand in Mine" (8:17)

    The very first note of this song makes me think of Yo La Tengo's "Damage" for some reason (also a Mike V. joint, in fact). Explosions in the Sky are another band I'd not heard before Bake Sale; with a name like that, I wasn't sure what kind of music to expect (if I had to guess, I probably would've said "hardcore"), though I knew they had some connection to Amanset. On the evidence of "Your Hand in Mine", easily the longest song on Bake Sale, Explosions seem to be aiming for the kind of sprawling, epic track that one might associate with Godspeed or pre-lineup-change Cerberus Shoal -- ah, yes, "cinematic" was the word I was looking for, thanks.

    Actually, that link says something rather telling: "What sets Explosions In The Sky apart from other instrumental-rock bands, such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor for example, is that the music comes from only four instruments. Their incredible sound is made by only two guitars, bass and drums - the rock basics."

    In fact, I think that's the very reason I haven't cottoned more to this track yet. Not that I don't like it -- as it happens, I do -- but the lack of a fifth layer, something to turn the counterpoint into full-blooded, not-all-its-elements-are-instantly-parseable harmony, is noticeable to me. And if I think about it, a lot of my favorite music in this vein uses that fifth layer: the aforementioned Cerberus Shoal, as well as Bedhead, Amanset, Transona Five (when Chris Foley was in the band). Meanwhile, bands like Pink Floyd used multiple keyboards, as did Amanset when they were a four-piece, and Seely sometimes toured with an analog synth player -- the guy from Prefuse 73, if I'm not mistaken? -- who also played on their albums. And bands like Landing build their extra layers using delay -- which is a different kind of thing, really (though I was already getting off-track when I invoked Bedhead), but still.

    The real point: I'd like to see this live, to find out whether it carries me away, or doesn't. I can't fault it, though -- and I certainly can't blame it for not being what it's not trying to be (i.e. Cerberus Shoal!). I have a feeling I might find myself coming back to this band and really digging them; if so, I look forward to it.

    (By the way, I'm shocked to discover that the placement of the exclamation mark given above in Godspeed's band name is in fact correct! I've no idea how to parse the sentence now.

    "Godspeed you!"
    "Er, thanks, can I go now?"
    "No, you must sit in the Constellation Chair and play D&D with me!"
    "Come off it, Louie -- um, I mean, 'Black Emperor'."

  13. The Mountain Goats - "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" (2:36)

    The thing about the Mountain Goats is, you have to come to them with the right expectations. If you're expecting something that's heavy on the compositional nuance and harmonic subtlety, you're generally not going to get it, or at least that seems to be the case in what I've heard from the MG's so far. But if you accept that the whole thing is basically a vehicle for John D.'s lyrics -- his observations, wordplay, critiques and attacks -- then they're a good time, certainly a few cuts above the usual a-guy-and-his-acoustic-guitar fare.

    Scott was surprised that I like this song, but I do! It works perfectly on its own terms, it keeps things quick and to the point, and best of all is that final chorus, with its fuck-you cry of "Hail Satan!" Takes balls to write something like that these days (though if I were to nitpick, I'd take out that "tonight", which seems extraneous to me), and it's made more fun by having read a thing or two about John D.'s stance on organized religion, which ain't too cuddly.

  14. Half-Handed Cloud - "Tuck Us In, Father" (1:27)

    What a strange little song! The oddball sound effects make it hard not to hear the whole thing as a joke, though I have it on good authority that nothing could be further from the truth -- not that I'm claiming that the track doesn't have humor, for it most assuredly does (or seems to, anyway). And there's certainly no reason why a song can't be both earnestly religious and intentionally funny, or at least playful -- sort of the corollary of all those Christian kitsch records like Little Marcy and so forth. When the vocals give way to ahhhs, I'm reminded momentarily of Robert Wyatt's scat solo on "Sea Song". I've never developed the kind of connection with Rock Bottom that I'd hoped to, but it's hard not to be struck by a moment like that -- its fragility evokes something like the image of a soul ascending to heaven.

  15. The Microphones - "The Moon" (5:24)

    In many ways, this third, closing version is my favorite, in part because we finally get a good hearing of the lyrics, which are surprisingly compelling. The arrangement here is restrained and sparse, which complements the melancholy (and very slightly ominous) story told by the song; when new colors are brought in, however, they're used quite effectively -- the entrance of the piano, at "I went back to feel alone there", is particularly satisfying.

    Beyond that, I'm not sure what to say, though I want to say more, because I really like this song. The repeated use of "lied" bothers me a bit on the page, but not when he sings it. The song captures a particular kind of moment -- or, a series of interconnected moments -- about as well as anything I've ever seen. (I used to live next to a beach.)

    It's interesting that in this version, he omits my least favorite line from the transcription (the one between "It was intense just getting to be there next to you" and "And you trying to get me then"), humming instead. Is it on the version that begins the CD? (checks) No, it isn't! How odd -- I wonder what version does have it -- but it's better without it, so.

    Next to Shooby's closing words after "Over the Rainbow" (not to toot my own horn here, but c'mon, it's like watching Linus's speech from A Charlie Brown Christmas, how can you not get eine kleine Trän' in deinem Augen when you hear that?), I can hardly think of a mix CD I've heard that has a more effective closing lyric:

    I went out last night to forget that
    I went out and stared it down
    But the Moon stared back at me
    And in its light I saw my two feet on the ground.

    The ending is percussive and abrupt -- final, like a sudden revelation, or the ending of a dream.

And so we end, with our two feet on the ground again.

All told, a great CD from a great Scott! I think Bake Sale has gotten at least a dozen plays around these parts already, and I look forward to many more.

(By the way: where does the title come from, and/or what does it mean?)

(Comments for July 23, 2005)


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