Eyes That Can See in the Dark

a music journal

"How'd They Do That?"

Herein follows my review of How'd They Do That? Note the spiffy, DVD-style cover art and disc art, which includes a jar of hot pepper sauce, a computer-generated woman of some sort, and a charming poodle motif -- though I must say that the noble Waldo was most certainly not that kind of chi-chi poodle: he was something a little closer to this, but without the tail (that's right, they chopped off his poor little tail, so all he had was a little stump to wag!). (By the way, go here for J.'s original notes to the set.)

  1. The Ballgame Bag - "Ballgame Two" (0:35)

    When I first heard this, I thought to myself, OK, J. is playing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" on the keys while J. works the pitch bend wheel (almost wrote "pitchblende wheel"): cute, but no "What It Means On Sinai". But this is a great example of a song (?) where knowing the story behind it enriches the experience. Now that I know what's going on, too funny! (Notice how I didn't specify which J. was which? Clever, no?)

  2. Sheila Chandra - "Speaking In Tongues II" (3:08)

    She's a human tabla! That's definitely reverse reverb, which is easy to achieve in either the digital or the analog domain -- in the latter case, just by playing the tape backwards.

  3. Add N to X - "You Must Create" (4:05)

    This is a perfect example of a song that gains a lot from being placed in the context of a mix CD. I have an Add N to X album (Add Insult to Injury) on MP3 somewhere, but I've scarcely ever listened to it, partly because their idiom is one that tends to grate on me before very long -- I just can't get through an album's worth of it. I'm pretty sure this track comes from the album I have, but it only sounded vaguely familiar, if at all. It's much more memorable here, thanks to a combination of contrast and good sequencing, and I enjoy it. I like "Fred's" singing, especially when it goes up high; I'm not sure exactly how they did it, but my guess is that they either used a vocoder (i.e. imposed Fred's formants on another tone generator), or more likely, found some way to control the pitch and duration of the signal supplying Fred's voice box. There may even be a publically available spec or API for Apple's speech stuff -- it rings a very vague bell, but I'm too lazy to look.

  4. The Helio Sequence - "Just Mary Jane (Calypso)" (4:47)

    Nice song -- it reminds me of the Apples in Stereo, but with a spacy touch that opens things up nicely. And yeah, I think those are synths -- juicy analog ones, I'd assume.

  5. The Smiths - "Rubber Ring" (3:49)

    I'm not sure that I'd ever actually heard anything by the Smiths before I received HTDT? I mean, certainly I must have at some point, and of course I've heard Morrissey. And then there was Chris H., a fine guitarist who recommended the Smiths to me sometime around 1992 (and was, I'm told, last heard from while jumping up drunk at a University of New Hampshire party, yelling "Bisexuality is the answer!!"). But ask me to sing a song of theirs, other than this one, and I'll draw a blank. Anyway, short answer is, I like this song -- good performance, good production, good melodies -- and I think I'll make a point of checking out some more of their stuff.

  6. Pinback - "Tripoli" (4:30)

    I've written about this one before, of course. It's remarkable how well this song holds up to repeated listening; I can play it over and over again, and I never get tired of it -- if anything, I find myself appreciating it more and more (at least up to a point). And there are so many layers in this song! Listening to it over headphones, I can pick out lots of overdubbing and double-tracking that I don't normally notice. And yes, that's definitely vinyl scratching, albeit of a particularly minimal/off-hand sort.

  7. My Bloody Valentine - "Swallow" (4:53)

    I've also written about this one before. I'd definitely have a tough time guessing what that sound is -- I'd normally think it was a sarangi or something similar, but listening to it now, thinking "Could that be Bilinda Butcher's voice?", I find myself hearing things that suggest it might be. If it is, though, it's a very long sample, or one that's been treated in some Boards of Canada-esque way, because there are some shadings of intonation that don't conform to the equal temperament of a typical synth/sampler.

  8. His Name Is Alive - "Universal Frequencies - Beech Boys" (3:22)

    This song doesn't sample "Good Vibrations", it's a complete recomposition of it -- every bit of it has a specific analogue in the original song, and the form is almost identical. (Only the ending is different -- it ends earlier than GV does.) Most of the timbres and rhythms of the original are kept, as well as some of the harmonies and melodies; as such, it's an interesting (and entirely self-conscious -- I'm surprised you didn't pick up on this, J.?) exercise in creating a sort of "fraternal twin" to an existing song. That's something I've actually wanted to do for a while -- i.e. write a pop song/piece of composed art music/etc. that conforms more-or-less exactly to the form of an existing one, and/or write one that consciously draws heavily on the motifs and timbres of an existing song, but that manages to have its own identity. I think it goes nicely with J.'s idea of the "living song", and it also connects interestingly with the notion of the arts as a discourse, or a conversation: I hear this song very much as Warn Defever's response/reaction to "Good Vibrations". (I wonder if he listened to the 3-CD set of outtakes that I mentioned a while back?) I actually don't think that's a theremin -- it sounds like an analog synth to me, probably played with a ribbon controller.

  9. R.E.M. - "We Walk" (3:01)

    As I wrote to the Waldo club:

    I don't know whether I like the R.E.M. song, but it gets stuck in my head really easily for some reason. It sounds like Michael Stipe's we-walking in the Swiss Alps, yodeling about the French Revolution. And what are those lyrics about, anyway? I was surprised to find out that I was hearing them correctly, or almost (I thought it was "Take Oasis, Marat spade" or something, so I only missed the last word). I used to be in a band with a guy whose favorite band was R.E.M., so it's surprising that I'm so ignorant of their early recordings.

    Scott schooled me on this one:

    "Take oasis, Marat's bathing..."
    The song was inspired by a neighbor, or an acquaintance of the band who frequently uttered/sang the majority of the lyrics while walking around his abode.

    And I replied:

    Aha! See, just like with the "Ballgame Bag", knowing a bit more of the story helps to make things click a bit more. (I still think Stipe sounds a little yodel-y, but maybe it's exactly right for the song.)

  10. Lemon Jelly - "The Staunton Lick" (5:21)

    What a nice track! It does two difficult things very well -- first, it manages to present itself as a genuinely happy song (which is tough to do), and second, it manages to use samples in a way that enriches and adds to the music, rather than merely providing a comic/ironic commentary. I like the high-strummed acoustic guitar, which has the kind of bright tone you usually get from using a capo (cf. "Here Comes the Sun"). I like the way this song uses rhythm a lot, too -- there's something happening on every beat and just about every fraction thereof, but rather than seeming cluttered it just sounds joyful and ebullient. The speed changes in the voice could be done with tape, or digital signal processing, but I think it's probably just fingers on the turntable.

  11. The Ballgame Bag - "Ballgame One" (0:35)

    It's such a beautifully hideous thing, especially the ending, which compresses the melody into a sort of faux-chromatic Atari-ism.

  12. Rahzel - "If Your Mother Only Knew (Edit)" (1:05)

    That's amazing. I did a little checking around, and I figure he's using some combination of breathing techniques (including singing while breathing in) and trompe l'oreille tricks, where he combines the beat syllable with the start of the melody -- something like "BB-if your PFF-mother BB-on-PFF-ly knew-BB-naah." But analysis doesn't take anything away from it -- he's pretty unbelievable. (By the way, Humanbeatbox.com is a nice site that has many beatboxing samples on MP3, including this track and others by Rahzel. I didn't realize just how good some of these guys were, or how many of the sounds I've registered as drums or samples have probably actually been beatboxers.)

  13. Led Zeppelin - "The Song Remains The Same" (5:29)

    Sometimes I think this is my favorite Led Zeppelin song, though it has some stiff competition (mostly tracks off the same album -- "No Quarter", for one). Did you get this one off CD, MP3, or the Houses of the Holy tape I gave you so many years ago? It sounds a bit different from my CD -- a little duller, somehow, or less clear. That glitch in the middle is strange and surprising, as though Page, Plant and company were suddenly if briefly attacked by a high-powered lawn sprinkler.

  14. Tapani Varis - "Fanitullen" (2:10)

    I assume the "arrow sounds" are just his mouth opening very wide and then closing quickly, and the "drum" is actually his foot tapping on the floor.

  15. MC 900 Ft Jesus - "Gracias Pepe" (3:44)

    What is this, 13/4 or something? I never noticed this was in an odd meter before. Listening now...hmmm...yep, it's in thirteen, 13/8 actually (two bars of it). No, wait, it's actually in 13/8 for two bars, then 6/4 for two bars. That's a neat rhythm! It'd be fun (if risky) to try live. I like the production on this song, on its own terms -- there's something about the combination of the different elements, even down to the 808 cowbell, that rises above the level one would expect of stock synth sounds. That background sound is definitely a synth, but I can hear what you mean about the resemblance to a bullroarer/sonic whip.

  16. Grenadine - "Snik" (4:00)

    That opening sound definitely sounds like a fragment of guitar to me -- probably a couple clicks and thumps fed through a digital delay or tape loop, I'd guess. I like what they did with Jenny Toomey's voice; part of it I assume is just cut-up -- maybe even in the analog domain? It's nice to think they might've taken a reel with her singing (improvising, maybe?) and chopped it up at semi-random, like the Beatles did on "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite". And yeah, a couple of those tape squeals sound analog to me. (That'd be a fun thing to do -- I wish I had a 2-track reel machine. I wonder why the prospect of analog cut-and-paste feels so much more enticing? Stravinskyian self-limitation, or something else?) At the beginning of the song, and a few other times, it sounds like they're feeding her through a tremolo, or possibly a Leslie -- either way, it's a nice effect. The non-linearity of the vocal line is probably this song's strongest suit; I'm not sure if there'd be enough going on, instrumentally, to hold my interest if it weren't for the wild-card factor of the vocals.

  17. Labradford - "David" (6:33)

    The first of three long pieces (plus a Ballgame Bag) that end the disc, this is a typically slow, attractive piece from Labradford, with a tinge of the Western-movie-guitar that I'm told shows up on their later releases. The synth is typically gorgeous -- their keyboard player has great taste in timbres. (I remember being frustrated when I first heard "SEDR 77", the closing track on A Stable Reference, wanting the static/noisy sound to get out of the way so I could listen to the gorgeous sounds underneath it.) Unlike Add N to X, I have a somewhat tougher time getting into Labradford outside the context of the respective complete albums; their soundworld is one into which I gradually transition, though I enjoy it once I get there. This track is from their recent Fixed::Context, which I've not heard; I can't say I'm as taken with it as I am with the tracks off A Stable Reference or E Luxo So (which are my picks of the 4-5 Labradford albums I've heard), but I enjoy "David" nevertheless, and it's welcome when it arrives. The high-pitched hissing noise sounds to me like an analog synth of some sort -- either a tone being modulated so fast that it turns into white noise, or white noise being shaped and colored by a bandpass filter. (Man, you really hate "glitchcore"! It's a bit of a straw man, though, as I haven't seen much of anyone using that term, and in any event glitch as a trend is I suspect more or less past, though its vocabulary is likely to remain part of the laptop scene. And truth be told, there's at least some good music in there: though I'm as disinclined as anyone to listen to music that makes my ears feel bad, it's definitely worth seeking out the handful of ace releases.) (Don't ask me to come up with any names right now, though!)

  18. Fayman & Fripp - "A Temple In The Clouds (Edit)" (8:54)

    I have a hard time getting access to this one. The sounds are all very potent and well-constructed, but it doesn't quite have the palette that tends to draw me in -- it's too loud to be the kind of ambience that puts me in "slow time" mode, but as a wall of sound it doesn't surround me in quite the way that, say, "Séduction Froide" does (but only when you play it through speakers at high volume -- through headphones it's a tough listen).

  19. The Ballgame Bag - "Ballgame Chorus" (0:35)

    Why, look there -- it's the most dreadful canon ever made! "Take me out to the ballgame" indeed: if electronics could be retarded, well, there's a pair right here. Despite having been warned by J. ("Take Me Out to the Ball Game. That's track one. Like you've never heard it before."), when I first saw "The Ballgame Bag" written on the CD case, for some reason I thought it was going to have something to do with scrotal violence of some kind. Boy, was I wrong...(?)

  20. Jim O'Rourke - "Eureka" (9:11)

    Speaking of glitch! One of those sounds at the beginning is, I think, an analog synth whose filter is being governed by a sample-and-hold function (similar to the guitar at the beginning of The Who's "Relay"). But there's probably some digital chopping-up at work, too. A fair number of people really seem to dislike Jim O'Rourke, but I have no reason to, nor any particular opinion of him (and at least part of the anti-O'Rourke sentiment seems to come from some belief that he's "ruining" bands like Stereolab and Sonic Youth, which is a little questionable). This certainly wasn't what I was expecting from him, regardless -- a pretty, reflective song, delicately crafted with pleasant vocals and some nice production touches. Its long, meandering analog synth coda, slightly reminiscent of Seamonster1 and a track or two off Tsunamin Audio Prism, is a good way to end the CD, trailing off into a contemplative silence.

But wait, there's more! (Special Hidden Bonus Character!)

Also included in "How'd They Do That?" is a data disc, which features some original recordings and miniature compositions by J. (His notes about those tracks are here.) So let's review those, too:

  • "Don't Ever Go Over My Head" (3:40):

    Some great sounds in this one, ranging from the reverbed elongated backwards guitar, in something like E minor, to the sudden explosions of time-stretched noise (this from the man who rails against glitchcore?). Its soundworld is very original, and I'd love to hear more like it -- it's an idiom that would lend itself nicely to program music or a subtle dramatic subtext, like the excellent "Witness to Natural Invention" off Füxa's Very Well Organized. A shame it's only at 96kbps, in light of the fact that several of the original ProTools files apparently went missing...

  • "e lux, e vox" (1:05):

    Another good one. Very minimal: just a simple, but insistent, bass riff, paired with a well-struck djembe. There's something almost martial about it -- I'm reminded a bit of certain riffs from Miles Davis' electric period. It's quite attractive, and it'd make a great ground for a bigger improvisation, but it also works quite nicely on its own, though I might think it'd be too powerful/rhythmically driving for a bodywork session (but maybe not). And it starts with reverse reverb on the djembe, too! Since the djembe comes in two bars after the bass, the tail of the reverse reverb is underneath the bass when it starts playing, and sounds a bit like tape hiss; between that, and the slightly compressed sound that the bass had anyway, the acoustic at the start of the track reminds me of bootleg tapes of old radio broadcasts. Non-tape-collectors might not agree, but to me, it's a good sound. Nice track.

  • "Funny Bounce" (6:14):

    I don't connect with the first four minutes of this at all, though it sounds like it was fun to make (shades of "What It Means On Sinai" again, with the pitch bend wheel!). It'd probably be a bit more of a laugh if there were more going on, but there's only the one line, and since it's always the same rhythm and played on the same synth preset at roughly the same volume, it gets monotonous pretty fast, particularly given that the pitches are pretty much random. If the whole track were like that, it'd be pretty forgettable, but unexpectedly, four minutes in, the synth drops out and, for the last two minutes, we're left with this totally gorgeous sound -- one which had been gradually emerging in the background for a while, but which you don't really notice until the eighth-notes drop out. The sound is a bit like what you might get if you were to record insects at nighttime -- crickets and the like -- but then took each individual chirp and stretched it out to thirty times its original length, and then played the result back in the ventilation system of an abandoned building. It's an unearthly whistling, metallic and spooky and darkly beautiful. How'd you make it -- or, to paraphrase the CD title, "How'd you do that?"

  • "September Bounce" (5:18):

    An early-morning improvisation for acoustic guitar, well-recorded and attractively performed. Very coherent for an improvisation, too -- it maintains forward motion and interest from beginning to end, and throws in a few meter changes on the way. Do I detect a hint of Jethro Tull in the early section? (No specific quotes or anything -- just the vague feeling of a common thread.)

  • "ting cha" (0:44):

    Just a few bell tones, ringing out clear and delicate. Very nice. (And well-recorded: those AKGs capture a good, clean sound, assuming that's what you used!)

  • "Unfinished Business" (4:35):

    This is a lo-fi track recorded by a collective of Mississippi musicians, one of whom is a friend of J. and who gave him this tape to clean up. If this is the product of the techniques described here, I must say you did a pretty slick job! I can't hear the seams at all, and the recording sounds quite respectable.

  • "Wild Idea" (1:14):

    Three cryptic little self-consuming guitar figures, layered on top of one another, in a shifting meter (4/4 + 3/4 + 3/4 + 4/4, or 14/4 if you prefer). It might make an interesting part of a larger song, but on its own, it doesn't have enough melodic profile to really sink one's teeth into it, and I suspect the combination is a bit too cluttered. The individual unmixed tracks are also included, and one of them ("low lead bounce") -- but oddly, only that one -- suffers from some nasty hum. Another track, "rhythm idea" starts up with a weird, surprising noise I can't place: is it the sound of a tube amp powering up?

    And that's it. Overall, a fine mix from Spherey J. -- not a duff track on it!

    (Comments for August 16, 2003)


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