Eyes That Can See in the Dark

a music journal


August 31, 2001 (link)

2:41 PM

If for some reason I ever had to change the name of this site (say, if Eberhard Weber sued me -- which would be pretty awful, considering how much I like his writing and bass playing), "Too Much Damn Treble" would be a definite candidate.

1:45 PM

I rather like Love's Forever Changes album, which I bought a while ago; it's not the exalted masterpiece that some would claim, but it's still pretty good. Their first, self-titled album, though, is pretty tough going at times; Lee's vocals seem very, very affected in a way that I find hard to quantify, but at times is the embodiment of some hippie stereotype -- call it the "tortured-but-dumb-artist", but that's not quite it. You can imagine him saying "You're freakin' me ou-ou-out, man-n-n" in a shaky, strung-out voice.

On the topic of psychedelia, I've also been listening to Paul Kantner's Blows Against the Empire album; what I've heard of it is pretty terrible. At its best, it's like Jefferson Airplane without the verve and "ensemble balance" (i.e. the excesses of the different members of the group managing to cancel each other out and form an effective whole). At its worst, it's godawful hippie-cliché tripe. I need to give it a few more listens to comfortably condemn it, though.

On a happier and less-psychedelic note, I've finally gotten my old Sony speakers back, bought speaker wire to hook them up with, and put them in my living room. It may sound like a minor matter, but it's a really wonderful thing to be able to listen to MP3s and the like without having to put up with the noise of my computer's fan. On top of that, I love the tonal quality of these things. They date back to something like 1960, and give everything that goes through them a close, veiled, and somewhat boxy sound. That may not sound appealing, but I think it sounds great on the right stuff. There's too much damn treble on so many recordings, especially newer ones; these speakers cut the treble in a way which makes everything very easy on the ears. I was about to write that they remind me of listening to the late-seventies records my dad would play, while chilling out in front of the fireplace in our basement (one wall of which had a giant picture of the moon on it!), when I was a child. Come to think of it, though, it's very likely that those records were played on these very speakers, so...

They do give everything a touch of the "seventies sound" (what am I thinking of? Maybe Paul Simon's "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover", I guess, or even some tracks on Abbey Road, which obviously makes the time index look a bit silly), at that, but they also do very well with classical music. The first things I spun on them were Mozart's "Dissonant" quartet, which I mentioned below and which sounded just fine, and Neu's first record. That sounded great -- very warm and rich, and it really accentuated the mellow/laid-back aspects of the album.

By the way, I created a file of test tones to use for testing to see whether my speakers were in phase. If anyone wants them, let me know, and we can figure something out, or I can tell you how to make them. It's very easy -- just use SoundEdit 16, or any program with a tone generator, to create several stereo sine tones at, for instance, 60, 120 and 240 Hz. (Those are the tones I used, anyway.) Then select all, copy and paste, so that the whole sequence happens twice, with a silence of 1-2 seconds in between. Next, take your trusty two-track editor, select the right channel of the second sequence, and invert its phase (there should be an "Invert" command somewhere, although come to think of it, I'm not sure that SE16 had one). Now, assuming your computer is hitched up to your audio system, play the whole thing back through the speakers in question. If your speakers are in phase, the tones in the second sequence should be quieter and less present than the first. The difference can be subtle, so give it a few tries, or, if your speakers are in the same room as your computer, use a program like SoundApp to play the file and rapidly switch back and forth between paired tones (i.e. "120 Hz in phase, 120 Hz out of phase, 120 Hz in phase..."). If the second series sounds louder and more present, your speakers are out of phase. This, of course, is bad -- out-of-phase speakers will suck the life out of nearly anything you play through them. The solution, fortunately, is simple -- just reverse the wires on the speakers in question, so that what was going to the negative terminal is now going to the positive one and vice versa, and you should be all set.

(All this only applies to people with component speakers, of course. Boom boxes and the like are highly unlikely to be wired out of phase -- or, if they are, you're pretty much screwed, unless you're handy with a soldering iron, I suppose.)

Finally, on the topic of phase, it seems my amp will only play from both of my sets of speakers at once if it sends a "surround" signal to the B set of speakers. This surround signal is apparently created by taking both channels, inverting the phase of one, and summing the whole thing to mono, so that stuff that's in the middle of the stereo field gets phase-cancelled and is silent or nearly so, whereas the stuff panned to left and right remains. It's the same principle that's used to make those boxes you see advertised in the back pages of Popular Science and Electronic Musician -- I'm sure you know the ads I mean, the one with a picture of a guy who resembles an understudy for Rob Reiner on All in the Family, holding a mic with mouth wide open, looking disturbingly as though he's about to do dirty things to it. The headline reads: "SINGERS! REMOVE VOCALS" and the caption: "Unlimited, Low Cost, Instantly Available Background Music from Original Standard Recordings! Does Everything Karaoke does...Better and gives you the Thompson Vocal Eliminator (TM)". So, any time I want it, I have that in my living room now. I suppose it could be fun, but I'd rather be able to play the music normally, in both rooms at once.

(Comments for August 31, 2001)

August 28, 2001 (link)

7:13 PM

Though I don't listen to much else in their vein, I like Deformo quite a lot. I've seen them compared to the Violent Femmes with Jerry Lewis on lead vocals, which I suppose isn't entirely off the mark, but there's a lot of other stuff there, too -- I can't pull the antecedents readily to mind, but I'm sure someone can. I haven't heard their EP, but the self-titled CD, which I basically bought on a whim, is great. Unfortunately, I think they may have broken up, and their label (Gourmandizer) looks to have been out of business for a while.

I've still been listening to a lot of classical music -- Mozart and Purcell, among others. Listening to Mozart's "Dissonant" string quartet last night, it was interesting to note the extent to which some parts really engaged my ear, while others I essentially tuned out. I remember being so disappointed, as a teenager, when I first heard this quartet; it was the featured piece on a CDROM my music department had, the rest of which was taken up with sound samples of odd instruments (some of which were very, very cool), and I was hoping it'd be strikingly chromatic at the beginning. Alas, the titular dissonance is just a cross-relation (i.e. a G-sharp, say, in a low octave, followed by a G in a high octave in a different voice), and is very mild to modern ears -- indeed, many Mozart pieces have far juicier dissonances, not least among them A Musical Joke. If you haven't heard that piece, you should -- parts of it are pricelessly funny, especially if you're a composer or are reasonably familiar with the language of classical music. It's a deliberately bad piece, written to poke fun at the incompetent composers by whom Mozart must have felt himself surrounded, and chock-full of awkward melodies, hackneyed rhythms, deadly-dull foursquare phrase structures, and harmonies that alternate between the utterly banal and the thoroughly bizarre. It's definitely worth a listen.

(Comments for August 28, 2001) (2 comments so far)

August 23, 2001

9:17 PM

Back in 1997 or so, long before the Nick Drake "sensation" hit critical mass, my friend Jonathan played me a few tracks off Pink Moon (I think). I remember noticing that they were tasteful and attractive, but we moved on to other things quickly. Soon afterward, Nick Drake's name started to be on everyone's lips, and so, as I often tend to do, I stayed clear of his stuff for quite some time. It's not merely that I'm a contrarian, or tend to be preoccupied with obscurities -- it's more that I dislike being disappointed, really, and when things are talked up to me, I naturally tend to have elevated expectations. I like to be surprised by how good a CD is; if someone's given it lofty praise beforehand, I almost always have to go through a letdown period after first hearing it before I can really appreciate it.

Last year, I finally decided that it was time I got around to checking Nick Drake out in earnest. I don't remember what prompted me, really; perhaps I read something that piqued my interest. In any event, I downloaded the first couple tracks of Five Leaves Left from Napster, and set down to listen to them, admittedly with fairly low expectations.

I was very surprised to find out how good those tracks were. On one level, "Time Has Told Me" would seem a fairly standard singer-songwriter number, albeit a catchy one -- it ended up getting stuck in my head for quite a while, after only a couple listens. But the quality of the lyrics, and especially the harmonic inventiveness, really set it apart. And "River Man" was even better -- quietly beautiful and musically intelligent, with a genuinely lilting 5/4 rhythm and a rather surprising, but entirely effective, chord progression (C minor, Eb9, Abmaj7, C major). After hearing these songs, I was ready to kick myself for having overlooked such a great talent for so long.

And if the rest of Nick Drake's oeuvre were as magnetic to me, that kick would've been very well-deserved. But to my taste -- and I wonder if anyone else feels the same way -- nothing in the rest of his recorded work is on the same level with those first tracks, especially "River Man". The third track on Five Leaves Left, "Three Hours", is pretty good, and comes close to being an excellent example of skilled sequencing -- I find that it's very effectively placed as an "album track", in that it's a track I might not dial up on its own, but which works beautifully as a followup to the first two. But after it ends, "Way To Blue" comes as a letdown; I've never been a big fan of that type of string arrangement. It's not bad, of course, or anything close to bad -- but it's not nearly as compelling as what came before it. And after that, the album doesn't really recover for me -- everything that comes afterward seems much less inventive, much less pregnant with harmonic possibility, and much less possessed of that sense of...quietude?...that makes the beginning of the album so rich.

A couple tracks on Bryter Layter might hook me as completely as the above, were it not for those damned (and much-lamented) arrangements. In particular, "At the Chime of a City Clock" is a great song, but it'd be downright sublime without that sax solo. As for Pink Moon, I enjoy it, but I still don't respond to it anything like as strongly as I did to the start of Five Leaves Left. But I still need to give that album, and Time of No Reply, a few more listens.

The verse of "Time Has Told Me", by the way, is a textbook example of how to write a good melody. The first line sets up a motif (F - G - E - C). The second line takes the same motif and expands it upward, just as Beethoven or Mozart might do (F - G - A - G). The third (B-flat - B-flat - A) hits a peak note, B-flat, which acts as a pivot point for a momentary tonicization (not modulation to), and then suggests the first motif -- that first motif, in a way, being an elaboration of simple stepwise motion downward. (In other words, the first two lines could be analyzed as ornamented versions of F - E, and A - G.) And the fourth motif (D - D - C - B) is also clearly related to the other three, and completes a melodic arch of sorts by ending at the lowest note in the verse. I know there are people who, reading this, will see me as "murdering to dissect" (to paraphrase Wordsworth), but I think it's foolish to be opposed to deepening one's understanding of why, or part of why, these things work. There will always be a powerful intuitive element to music, one that is not articulable in analysis or discussion; that element is in no way threatened by such examinations. Unlike a motor or a flower, the nice thing about music (like any play of ideas and aesthetics) is that, even if you "take it apart", it still works. You don't have to murder to dissect.

By the way, it's always amazed me that the same Sarah Peacock who, on Seefeel's More Like Space EP, rather incongruously sang "Time to Find Me" (on the song of the same name) like something out of My Fair Lady ("toiiiime to foiiiind me"), made such lovely noises on "Ruby-Ha" from Succour. (I'm assuming that it was her who made those sounds?) Absintheur will probably wince to find out that she's now doing "stuff like payroll and administration". And Seefeel was not a small-time band, either!

(Comments for August 23, 2001) (2 comments so far)

August 14, 2001

4:24 PM

I was flailing away at a freelance project this weekend: hence the lack of entries recently. Right now I'm very much enjoying a 3-CD set of Phish, live in Providence (March 13, 1992), that Steve M. was kind enough to send to me. I've never understood the blanket contempt for Phish that so many people seem to have. Sure, everything they've done since Rift was pretty much crap, and even that was rather suspect. And their fans can be obnoxious, especially the casual ones who mainly go to the shows for drugs and such. But golly, when they're good, they're so damnably good! The first set of this show is just an incredible example of a band that listens to each other and takes chances, especially the "Run Like a Furry Antelope" jam, which is electrifying, weird, and wonderful.

What else have I tossed about lately...a lot of WMF live material. And the record we did, There's War in the Head, which I enjoyed more than I have in a long time. When it was first "released" I couldn't stop listening to it -- having a CD full of our work was pretty gratifying, to say the least -- but after a while I tended to hear the album as a compendium of missed opportunities. Listening to a lot of our live material, though, helped whet my appetite to give it a fresh listen -- not to mention that all the live fiascoes made the album seem impeccable by comparison. And taking a break from it helped me to hear it a bit more charitably. In any event, I played the first five or six songs in a row, and found myself liking what I heard, essentially without any serious reservations.

I may've written before about the Low/Dirty Three collaboration, but it's pretty good. It really makes it clear just how much of an effect Albini is having on their current material; in a way, In the Fishtank is the most appealing Low album since Curtain. Certainly, it's probably the warmest.

The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness by Erich Fromm looked intriguing in Borders today. (I didn't buy it, though -- I'm really quite broke at the moment.) Anyone have any opinions on it?

(Comments for August 14, 2001) (4 comments so far)

August 7, 2001

6:52 PM

Last night I finally got my turntable up and running, and spun a few LPs, which was a really nice change. The experience of setting a needle down on good vinyl is such a wonderful thing; it makes me feel strangely safe and comfortable. Perhaps it's associative, perhaps not. I listened to the first side of Gateway (ECM), the Abercrombie/Holland/DeJohnette album from the '70s; a live album by Donovan; and a couple of Haydn symphonies -- possibly Nos. 82 and 83 -- conducted by Leonard Bernstein. I've got about fifty LPs worth of classical music that I picked up last year for a pittance; all are in mint condition, and I feel at my leisure to go through them as slowly as I like. It's a small part of a great collection, and I wish I could've taken even more, but as it is I made out really well -- I've got all the Bruckner symphonies, Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder, tons of Scriabin, Mozart, Haydn, Bach, Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartok.

I burned the first few fingers on my left hand rather badly today! Picking up a hot burner that hadn't fully cooled turned out to be a very bad idea; even though I only touched it for a split second, it was enough to give me some nasty blisters. The intensity of the pain was really quite something, though putting my hand in ice water helped a lot. I found myself reflecting on the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, they don't give anesthetic or anything of the sort to cattle when they get branded. I also couldn't help but think about what I read at this link, too. (Watch out, it's pretty tough going.)

(Comments for August 7, 2001) (1 comment so far)

August 6, 2001 (link)

5:28 PM

Absintheur and I have been trading mixtapes for something like five years now. We've treated each other to a lot of good music in so doing -- Tribe Called Quest, the Ink Spots, Steve & Eydie, Jim White, Pizzicato Five, the Winter Consort, Unrest, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, and the Staple Singers, off the top of my head. It was with pleasure, then, that I received the latest installment, No Need for a Beating -- on a gorgeous black CDR, no less, making it the first one we've done in digital form! So, here's a review of what is, I think, number ten or so in our ongoing exchanges of pain-slurping and ciphered mixes:

  1. "Intro" -- The Jean Paul Sartre Experience


  2. Some thoughts from John Wayne

    It sure is, Mister Wayne. It sure is.

  3. "Try to Remember" -- Jerry Orbach

    Now this was left-field (at least to have it so early in the mix). I did a little poking around and discovered that Jerry Orbach played a character on Law and Order, and that this song, from The Fantasticks, was a big hit in the sixties. Makes sense. He's no Freddy Quinn, though. (And that "Follow-follow-follow"...) But, as my girlfriend said, "It's kind of sweet."

  4. "Envelopment Continuum" -- Flowchart

    It doesn't really make sense that I like Flowchart; there are a lot of similar bands who don't really grab me at all. But there's something in their approach that catches my ear; along with Low, they were the only band to really stand out on the Spacemen 3 tribute I reviewed a while back. Their music feels insouciant and playful, and one imagines that they had fun writing it. Considering their treble-heavy production style, it's a bit surprising that I find them appealing, but so it goes.

    As for this song, I like it, but I think it goes on a bit too long with too little material. The loop near the end doesn't really work for me; I'd rather the song ended thereabouts. It's a good-natured little number, though, and it's hard to hold a grudge against it for long.

  5. "Howard Hughes" -- Ride

    Ride are another one of those bands that I keep hearing about, but never actually check out. I don't like the earlier parts of this song so much, but things pick up soon, especially once the organ comes in. It's timbrally attractive, and tends to get stuck in my head after I listen to it. The overall style isn't of a kind that I tend to seek out, but I think it's pretty well-done for what it is, and I enjoy listening to it while it's on.

  6. "Little Renée" -- Digable Planets

    For nearly a decade, I've held that the DPs are probably the greatest hip-hop/rap group of all time, and I've yet to hear a good reason to change that opinion. Blowout Comb is one of my twenty or thirty favorite albums of any genre; it's a hackneyed analogy at best, but calling it the Bitches Brew of early-'90s hip-hop wouldn't be too far off the mark. This track, taken from the Coneheads soundtrack as I recall, is pretty good, and wouldn't be out of place on Blowout Comb, although it's not on the same level as the best tracks on that album -- "Jettin'", for instance. But it's better than "For Corners", that's for sure!

  7. "Organize a March" -- Appendix Out

    This reminds me, oddly, of the opening track on the When I'm Hungry, I Eat compilation -- "Donut Man" by wckr spgt. It doesn't really engage me too much, although I don't mind it. But it feels a little by-the-numbers.

  8. "Of the Clouds" -- Buddha on the Moon

    Unfortunately, the female singer on this track is not to my taste, which pretty much ruins it for me; I've never been able to get into that high, reedy sound at all. Ah, well.

  9. "Reggae inna Summertime" -- Big Mountain

    I've slowly warmed up to this one. I usually like my reggae on the lo-fi end of things (or at least with a "seventies sound"), and the production on this one is very bright and cheerful, which makes me feel like I'm watching the credits to Weekend at Bernie's 2. But it's a fun little bit of candy.

  10. "Everybody Wants My Fanny" -- Benny Bell

    I like the restraint of this one. "Restraint" may seem an odd word to choose when discussing a song about ass-grabbing, but I do like the fact that they basically play it straight -- except for the lyrics, of course. But I think a Spike Jones-style noisefest would've ruined it, and I'm glad they kept it simple. My favorite stretch of the CD is from here to the Momus track.

  11. An especially peculiar noise

    Hmmmm. That's peculiar, although I don't know if it's especially peculiar.

  12. Polynesian Fertility Chant

    Oh, baby, I've missed this one. I don't know how you found it again, but I'm glad you did. I love the way the woman says "Ooh hee" so nonchalantly and yet pointedly, as though she were calling a kindergartener to lunch, and then the drums briefly drop into a sort of half-time, only hitting the downbeats. I picture the male singer as older and far more stereotypically "exotic" than the woman; he's probably bare-chested, with a bone through his nose and red face paint and longish scraggly hair, whereas she's probably thoroughly Christianized, portly, wearing a big flowery dress and looking a bit bored, like she'd rather be making her children feel guilty about something.

  13. "Denardo" -- Faction of the Fox

    It's so short! I can't really get a bead on it, but it's likeable. I always hear the beginning of this song wrong; it's a tricky little thing that, thanks to something like a bar of 7/8, lands an eighth note earlier than what I'd expect.

  14. "Theme from the A-Team" -- A. C.

    Again, it's pretty short, though not by the standards of this band, whose name I've so prudishly censored. I expected them to use it as a point of departure for a crunchfest, but they play it pretty straight, relatively speaking.

  15. "Guinevere" -- Crosby, Stills & Nash

    You know, it's funny -- I have a tape copy of the CSN greatest-hits collection So Far, given to me by my sister, that I used to listen to constantly about twelve years ago, but have scarcely touched since. I remember liking, and still like, "Wooden Ships" and "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"; I remember disliking, and still dislike, schmaltz like "Our House" and "Teach Your Children". But the only thing I remembered about "Guinevere" is that I would skip over it, time and time again. I think I listened to it once or twice, thought it was boring, and made a habit of passing it by. But what was I thinking?! This is such a good song, one of the best I've ever heard from CSN! My tastes don't normally change so dramatically, but this is as good an example as I've ever had.

  16. "Self-Remix" -- Pluramon

    For me, this song follows an interesting pattern: I seem to like every other element that comes in. The initial drum loop doesn't grab me, but the subtle additions do. The guitar line doesn't grab me, but the bass line does (gotta love those half-noteish fifths high up on the neck, like Jefferson Airplane's "Martha" or Slowdive's "Rutti"). The whole thing's a bit static and upfront for my taste, but the bass line makes it work for me.

  17. "The Hairstyle of the Devil" -- Momus

    I remember reading that this hit #2 or so on the UK indie singles chart. Hard to imagine that happening in the US! It's a nice song -- not as memorable as "Space Jews" or the like, but Nick Currie's pleasant voice, and generally understated production style, carries it a long way. I wonder how intentional it is that he sounds strangely ineffectual and effete when he bursts out "Shut up, don't answer back!" It is to Momus's credit that he doesn't sing "Won't you guess my name", which would ruin the song completely. And I'm not sure what I think of the "chest of drawers/full of hairs" false rhyme.

  18. "Easy on Your Eyes" -- the Aluminum Group

    Ooh, I don't like this one, actually, though I wish I did. It seems to have the proper ingredients, yet it doesn't feel right to me at all. The line about how "he mixes you an absinthe and soda" rings particularly hollow -- both overly earnest and half-assed.

  19. "You Made Me Forget My Dreams" -- Belle and Sebastian

    Belle and Sebastian and the Magnetic Fields are two groups that I can never quite decide how I feel about. It's easy to be put off by their popularity, but they do have some good songs -- and yet the irony and cleverness tend to get a bit much after a while. The false rhymes on this one are clever, too, but I can't decide whether I like it or not.

  20. "Linus and Lucy" -- Vince Guaraldi

    And it's the good version, too! (There's a second-rate one floating around out there.) I will long regret that Transport to Summer never got up on stage and danced to this. I think it would've been priceless.

  21. "Stay" -- Cat's Miaow

    I'd heard this one off Napster. I liked it then and I do now, though I wish the singer were a bit more in tune. The outro with trumpet reminds me of some other song, but all I can think of is Cerberus Shoal and Geezer Lake, and I don't think it's either one.

  22. "On Seeing Off Meng Hao-Jan" -- Harry Partch

    I've always liked getting, and giving, short classical (or "Western art") tracks like this on mix tapes/CDs. Listening to them in isolation, and surrounded by popular music, is a nice change of pace -- you hear them a little differently that way, I think, and can sometimes know them a bit more "specifically", so to speak, than you might otherwise. If I had this track in the context of a whole Harry Partch album, I might have a hard time picking this one out from its neighbors, but here it stands out nicely. The inverted G minor chord is a surprising cadence on which to end, considering that the rest of the song is entirely microtonal, but it works, I think.

  23. "Harvest Home" -- Cordelia's Dad

    This is decent MacFolk, and the 5/8 is a nice curveball. I'd have to hear a few other tracks from these guys to form a more nuanced opinion, I think.

  24. "Beautiful Bastard" -- Sea and Cake

    Unfortunately, some sort of weird audio problem mars this track. It sounds like there might've been errors when it was decoded from an MP3 source. Otherwise, it's not bad, but the glitches detract from the mellow-groove feel. A little touch of pandiatonicism here, too -- the harmonic center isn't always as clear as it might be.

  25. "Swallow" -- My Bloody Valentine

    An attractive closer that wraps things up nicely. As is the case with many seminal bands, though MBV's "sound" and primary signifiers have been thoroughly assimilated by other groups, you can still hear the authority behind the original gesture. Perhaps that's just a euphemism for "MBV were better than the bands that copied them", but that's not really what I mean -- especially since I like All Natural Lemon and Lime Flavors, who are often pegged as MBV clones, more than My Bloody Valentine themselves. Hey, interesting structural point: the mix ends with someone singing a refrain of "Swallow, swallow", and basically started with someone singing a refrain of "Follow, follow". I don't know if it was intentional on Absintheur's part, but I like it!

So there it is! With luck, I'll soon begin preparing my rejoinder, now that I finally have my turntable and vinyl collection again. And another shout-out, of course, to my buddy who gives me such good discs!

(Comments for August 6, 2001)

current reading:

The Odyssey, Homer, trans. Robert Fagles

just finished:

Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
The Smoky God, Willis George Emerson
(from Project Gutenberg)


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