Eyes That Can See in the Dark

a music journal


May 28, 2001

10:02 PM

Holy crap. Maybe this is old news -- after all, it's been on Slashdot. But still, I find this stuff (about which you can read more here) to be quite mindblowing. I've always been fascinated by mysterious radio signals, for they represent all that is elusive, transient, and nameless. Static, like darkness, makes everything seem veiled and ominous. Even on the simplest level, listening to the radio is often the act of hearing music whose origin you don't necessarily know; more than once I've heard something I liked, but never was able to identify. Beyond that, there's the otherworldly quality of distant broadcasts of unknown origin, barely intelligible, like fragments of another world briefly coming into view before disappearing again (I'm reminded of an episode of Twilight Zone or something similar where a ham radio enthusiast tuned in an alien broadcast on his set); or the random, but often involving, sounds one can find when browsing inactive sections of the AM band; or, also on the AM band, the mysterious blips of Morse Code, whose meaning is unknown to all but a few, that one can find every now and again; or something like these "numbers stations", the discovery of which feels like blundering upon the existence of some parallel universe, run by spies and robots who speak in encrypted, numerical tongues. Somehow, I can't picture people behind these things; I can only imagine faceless, crude anthromorphs, like the figures painted on road signs or bathroom doors. Or I picture one of those scenes from The Martian Chronicles or The Stand where, everyone having died or left, the machines continue to perform their daily routines, some with relative normalcy, others with slowly encroaching irrationality as their function becomes more and more irrelevant to the environment at hand: they talk, but no one is listening.

I actually put together a cassette tape of radio-based musique concrète when I was in 8th Grade, taped over a Mick Jagger solo album that my well-meaning mother picked up at a thrift shop with me in mind. Hence its title (the concrète album, that is), "Mick Jagger". I subjected one of my sisters, and her future husband, to about half of it once on a car trip; it drove them nuts, understandably. (I often forget what a little avant-gardista I used to be! I wrote a few computer programs composed entirely of sound effects; messed constantly with the reels of my tape deck, and my turntable, to make oddities like "Mick Jagger"; and so forth.)

Anyway, bits and pieces of it have made it into several of my collaborations and compositions. Inasmuch as it is rather rich source material, I really need to put the whole thing on CD.

6:37 PM

Recent listening has included:

  • High Llamas - Hawaii (V2)
  • Movietone - S/T (Planet)
  • Isan - Beautronics (Tugboat)
  • Hrvatski - Oiseaux 96-98 (RKK)
  • Macha/Bedhead - Macha Loved Bedhead (Jetset)

Thumbnail reactions:

High Llamas: after reading that they heckled Low on their joint tour, and repeatedly hearing reports that Sean O'Hagan is an arrogant asshole, I was already inclined to hate them, but I thought I'd give Hawaii a fair chance. Well, the way this guy feels about Snowbug is basically the way I felt when listening to Hawaii. It's fake, fake, fake -- a bunch of ironic and uninspired crap with no substance of any consequence. Smug background music. I'll give it another listen or two, but I don't expect to much change my mind. (Unlike that reviewer, though, I do like Stereolab -- at least Emperor Tomato Ketchup and Dots and Loops; the rest I can mostly do without. I know, I'm a heathen.)

Movietone: after one listening, it seems to fall far short of Blossom-Filled Streets.

Isan: not bad, and a bit reminiscent of the better moments of Boards of Canada, though not quite on a par with them. Some tracks seem more richly composed than others; I wonder if this is a consequence of the stylistic differences between each half of the duo -- they apparently produce the tracks completely independently, so that Isan is essentially a shared moniker for separate artists.

Hrvatski: I can appreciate the craftmanship of this album, but to be honest, a lot of the sounds are too strident for me to really enjoy. I'm just not big on crackly-distorted IDM. But there's plenty going on here -- it's just not an album I can imagine wanting to listen to for any substantial length of time.

Macha/Bedhead: Do you believe in life after love? Apparently Matt Kadane does, and their cover (of "Believe") is surprisingly plausible as a straight-up Bedhead song. An enjoyable little EP, though not it's not going to replace anyone's favorite Bedhead album (mine being Transaction de Novo, oddly enough, though I don't know Bedhead's catalogue well at all).

(Comments for May 28, 2001)

May 26, 2001

10:22 PM

So the follow-up thought to the below is: golly, how much there is that we (I and all of us) must think we know, that we really don't know. Counterpoint, for instance -- how many people, how many musicians, think they know counterpoint, but really don't have a clue what it actually entails? Or jazz -- how many people really understand jazz, have really internalized its language and signifiers and history and culture in a way that enables them to make a reasonable critical evaluation of it? How many people who claim they "hate" a particular genre have really done the above with the genre in question?

I know, I'm mixing my metaphors here, in that what I described myself as not knowing below is a horse of a completely different color than what I'm describing here. And I also know that we can become preoccupied with trivialities by immersing ourselves in their seeming nuances -- although perhaps a good litmus test here is to gauge the ability of the things we learn, while in deep study, to form connections with other areas of knowledge, or to be somehow extensible. Learning a foreign language deeply allows one to internalize things about language construction and grammar that can easily be applied to other languages, and to linguistics in general, whereas I suspect a comparable investment of time in the subtleties of the TV show "Friends" would not pay the same dividends. For that matter, learning Tandy Color Computer BASIC as a child helped me to understand programming in general, and made it easy to pick up Javascript, which in turn has been a gateway to languages like Perl (or, should I choose to learn them someday, Java and C++). Had I spent that time on INTERCAL, or even Logo, I doubt that my knowledge would've proved as useful.

I guess I'm running into the old conundrum -- not to mention running far, far afield of what I originally wrote below: how can we be sure that we know enough about something to determine whether it's of interest to us? Intuitive affinity only goes so far -- there's a lot that can only be made comprehensible through study and understanding. If you doubt that, consider the music of other cultures; something like Indian classical music might initially appeal to us on first hearing because of its exoticism or its resemblance to music we already know, but the truth is that it has a complex set of signs and signifiers, just as Western classical music does, and a listener who is ignorant of those things is missing out on a great deal of what's going on, and can easily misunderstand the structural function of a given musical event. (And that's far more true of more quote-unquote "alien" music [alien to Western ears, that is], like Chinese opera, where what we might think is going on may well have nothing whatsoever in common with what the music signifies to an educated listener.)

This isn't to say that the intuitive-immediate is valueless -- far from it. But it's not supreme. I do agree with what Mayer wrote in Emotion and Meaning in Music -- music is not a universal language, though it has an element of universality in it. Every kind of music has its own distinctive set of signifiers and key elements that make it what it is, and to understand that genre we have to learn those signifiers and their function. The subtlety and complexity of those signifiers, and the way that they function and change over varying scales of time, helps to determine just how much time we need to invest in understanding the language of a genre, or even of a piece of music, before we can fairly dismiss it as being uninteresting, or irrelevant, to us. Being able to grasp intuitively how much is "there" to be understood in a piece of music we don't yet understand ourselves is, I think, one of the cornerstones to having good taste.

9:26 PM

Sweeping generalization of the day: there are many things in life, I suspect, that we think we "know", can converse about intelligently, and could probably even pass a test on. Yet sometimes they just need to walk right up and hit us in the face (metaphorically speaking) before we really understand, or before we internalize the knowledge we thought we had.

Case in point: three or four years ago I bought a pair of Bose speakers from a good friend of mine, as my old ones were starting to rattle whenever I played any CDs with a lot of bass. Initially I was happy with my acquisition, but after a while, I started to find them a bit flat and lifeless. Over the past year, they'd been driving me particularly batty; I was aware that the placement I was using (quite close together, on a dresser at the back of my room) was suspect, but I've never gotten around to getting speaker stands, and I believed that the problem was essentially Bose's gimmicky design -- the tweeters splay out at odd angles, and the documentation claims that they have to be placed at certain very precise distances from the wall in order to make the treble reflect off the wall properly. All this may sound trivial, but it's incredibly frustrating to have much of the music I listen to, and love, sound shitty and canned; it's felt like it was coming from a point over on the far side of the room, rather than all around me, letting me swim in the sound. It was particularly detrimental to classical music, which I've hardly been able to listen to since moving into my apartment.

Today, for some reason, I was particularly gung-ho about the notion of somehow building or getting speaker stands -- perhaps because I recently mixed a song and really noticed that the current setup just wasn't working. My girlfriend was kind enough to lend me a pair of stands that more or less fit the bill; since they weren't tall enough to raise the speakers to the height I'd wanted (four or five feet off the ground, on either side of me as I sit at my computer), I decided to just use them to raise the speakers off of the dresser (still only a few inches apart from each other, remember). But both of us agreed that, if anything, it made them sound worse -- clearer, perhaps, but overly bright and less subjectively pleasant.

Then, in a moment of what I would call brilliance if it weren't so blatantly obvious in retrospect, I decided, "What the hell -- let's try putting the stands on the ground, and moving the speakers to either side of the room, inconvenient though it is." So I moved the stands about five or six feet apart, and popped in Low's I Could Live in Hope, which is a great disc for getting a feel for a stereo system, I think.

I was astonished at what a difference it made...it was breathtaking, really. It sounds so trite, but it really did feel like, for the first time in ages, a CD could fill my room with sound. Instead of feeling like the music was coming from two little boxes nestled together on my dresser, I could literally pick out the locations in the room, and between the speakers, from which different instruments were coming -- for instance, that the drums on Stereolab's "Miss Modular" felt slightly left-of-center. I was able to hear details in Spool's "Ebo" that I'd never noticed before -- little chirping, moving noises, spread all across the soundstage, and made discrete by their careful placement in the stereo field.

It's really inexcusable of me, having worked as an audio engineer off and on for many years, to have been so stupid about this. I obviously thought I "knew" was stereo imaging was, and if you had asked me where to put speakers in a room, I probably would've told you to do more or less what I did (though a bit higher on the wall). But for some reason, I never connected my dissatisfaction with my stereo system, and especially my need for a fuller sound, with my speaker placement; I think I just thought that, if I spread my speakers apart, I'd be able to tell the difference between left and right better. It didn't dawn on me that my failure to place my speakers properly was the direct and primary cause of their failure to create a soundstage, even though I knew it was true "in general".

It just seems like there are certain things that, no matter how many times I read or am told about them, and no matter how much I "know" them, just don't click for me unless I blunder upon some situation or train of thought that makes me really understand them. Another example: I lost about forty pounds towards the end of high school; since then, whenever the weight would hint at coming back, I'd always maintain that I wanted to keep it off through dieting alone, no matter how much people told me that I ought to exercise. The notion of exercising in some small, compartmentalized time, three or four times a week, seemed like a horribly bourgeois substitute for leading a genuinely active life. (In some ways, I still believe that; we live in a culture that eats portions whose size was dictated back when people did manual labor for a living, and needed all the calories they could get. Now that we're a largely sedentary and well-nourished people, for most of us those portion sizes are absurd. Similar arguments apply to fat content, and so forth...)

If you had told me, "But, P., muscle mass helps to burn calories and makes it easier to keep weight off", I probably would've said something in the yeah-of-course vein, but still maintained that I'd rather diet. Recently, though, I read a statistic that said something like "Every pound of muscle in your body burns 50 calories a day", and suddenly it clicked: build muscles, and you can eat more, because just having them burns calories. A simple one-to-one correspondence -- nothing complicated. Maybe it needed to be quantifiable like that for me to internalize it, just like I needed to actually hear the difference today in order to grasp what "stereo imaging" really meant. I have a tendency, too, to think that people are full of shit whenever they describe a partially or entirely subjective experience that I've never had. For instance, before I had my first anxiety attack, I believed that panic attacks were practically abstract notions -- whenever you felt unusually scared or worried, well, that was a panic attack! Indeed, I went so far as to tell a friend, "Oh, yeah, I've had a panic attack", thinking that it was little more than a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach upon realizing that I'd forgotten to turn in a paper or somesuch. Little did I know...!

(Comments for May 26, 2001)

May 25, 2001 (link)

10:29 PM

Scroll down for idiocy.

8:57 PM

I've been listening to some Cannonball Adderley (Best of: the Capitol Years), the Movietone album I already mentioned below, and some old shows by my band We Miss Felix. The Cannonball album is all live, and varies wildly in quality. The opening track, "Work Song", is excellent except for Joe Zawinul's solo, which is one of the blandest things I've ever heard -- it utterly lacks profile, as though someone replaced him with a copy of Band-in-a-Box. Other tracks are marred by slightly silly arrangements or horn patterns, especially "The Jive Samba", which has a chromatic backing riff that just seems stiff and square. And I haven't been able to enjoy Adderley's rendition of "Why Am I Treated So Bad?" as much I used to ever since I heard the original, by the Staple Singers, which is pretty fantastic. (Do people still listen to the Staple Singers? I really enjoy some of their stuff. Absintheur, it's not really Old Time, but it'll do in a pinch.)

Otherwise, though, I dig the Adderley album. "74 Miles Away" is a great song, even if some of the soloing isn't as focused as it might be. And Cannonball was such a great player; he's a bit neglected when people look back through history, but at his best he was as good as just about anyone.

I had a question that I meant to pose to my reading public at large, but now I've completely forgotten it. So in lieu of that, I'll post a brief list of some things I consider musical Holy Grails -- although that term will be more justified in some cases than others: some of these are recordings that I know exist and could probably get if I wanted to try hard enough; others almost definitely don't exist, but just might; and some are somewhere in between. I'll also try to limit myself to the specific -- in other words, "soundboard recordings of every early Pink Floyd show" wouldn't really work. So, here we go:

  • A recording of Low, live at Mama Kin Music Hall, Boston, MA, March 29, 1997. This is the big one. I've been looking for a tape of this forever; I recently discovered a site that had a picture from the show, so that's a small step in the right direction. Anyone?
  • A song in A minor, dating from the late '70s or early '80s, with a lot of piano and high, Romantics-esque voices singing "Love is Life". This woke me up late one night when my father's alarm clock went off prematurely, and I've always wondered what it was. It's not that I particularly liked it, but it's somehow stuck with me. And it's definitely not the Earth, Wind and Fire song by that title, nor is it the one by Hot Chocolate.
  • The space-blues music (in B-flat) that played over the ending credits of a 1980s episode of NOVA about quantum theory. This one should be easy to find; I know at least one person (my high-school physics teacher) who has a copy. They talk about the Grand Unified Field Theory, and symbolize the four forces with stone sculptures of Roman numerals.
  • Two bits from pre-1990 Sesame Street:
    • A bouncy 6/4 theme in C major played behind a kayaker travelling down a river. This one shouldn't be too hard to find, I think, if only because I can remember the visual so well.
    • A slow 3/4 theme in B-flat minor, with bassoon and glockenspiel. I can't remember what this served as a background theme for, unfortunately.
  • A decent recording of a 1969 Pink Floyd show with Sysyphus in the setlist. I'm fairly sure this exists, though it certainly hasn't been let out yet.
  • A recording I made of an untitled bit of music in E-flat minor, with my friends Chris, Steve, Jake, and Morgan, back in 1994. This probably doesn't exist (lost or taped over), but someday I hope to regain it. It was actually the second time we'd played it; it was the first time that was really beautiful, but only the second time got taped.
  • Freddie Hubbard, live at the Regattabar in Boston, 1991, with Christian McBride, Louis Hayes, and possibly Benny Green and Javon Jackson. I'm not sure about the last two. It was perhaps the greatest jazz-rock set I've ever seen; no one knew who Christian McBride was yet, and he was on fire. Freddie was in the middle of what was probably his last golden period. It was a hell of a show. This show featured what, for me, was the definitive version of "Red Clay" -- much funkier and more powerful than the studio track. Maybe a tape exists?
  • Charles McPherson, live at One Step Down in Washington, D.C., 1992. I don't remember the sidemen -- a pianist named Reuben something? I'm sure no tape was made, but you never know. One of the greatest bop sets I've ever seen; McPherson was phenomenal, and they were playing straightahead jazz like it was meant to be played, like Bird played it -- with fire and aggression and risk and insanely fast tempos.
  • Transona Five, live at Bennington College, May 1997. I was completely blown away by how good they were live. Maybe someone taped it -- I wasn't smart enough to do so, I'm afraid.
  • Ida, live at the Middle East Café, Oct. 28, 1997: complete show. This exists. I taped ten minutes of it to DAT (I had to save room for Low and I only had a 94-minute DAT), but I want the whole thing. It was a beautiful show.

That's about the size of it, at least for now. If anyone has a line on any of this, please contact me.

(Comments for May 25, 2001) (1 comment so far)

May 16, 2001

1:58 AM

On a completely unimportant but vaguely interesting note, the internal CD player on my Mac managed to play "L.A. Woman", from the end of my Doors soundtrack disc, in its entirety without skipping or making any interpolation noises at all. Considering that big chunks of aluminum are just plain missing from the perimeter of the disc, that's a pretty impressive feat.

(Comments for May 16, 2001) (2 comments so far)

May 15, 2001

10:56 PM

I was listening to the Doors yesterday -- specifically, the official soundtrack album to the Oliver Stone movie, which I picked up seven or eight years ago. (I could say that I picked it up solely because An American Prayer wasn't out on CD yet, but actually, I also wanted the Velvet Underground and Orff tracks...) Listening through it reminded me of how much I like the Doors; I had been thinking too often of their schlocky/tacky side lately. They've been running a clip of "Light My Fire" live at the Hollywood Bowl on VH1 lately that starts out with the "Celebration of the Lizard" intro, and I must say that the Doors' forays into drama are pretty hokey. Ray Manzarek's organ ends up sounding like the soundtrack to a B-grade horror movie, and the whole thing tries to have a "freak-out" quality but ends up sounding precious and affected. And a lot of Doors tracks are marred by clumsy renditions of other idioms; "Love Me Two Times", for instance, is a decent song, but damned if the bad-jazz, rinkytink aspect of it doesn't make me think of Dr. Teeth from the Muppet Show. Manzarek is the most frequent culprit of bad taste in the Doors; some of Morrison's lyrics are clunkers ("take it as it comes/specialize in having fun") or pretentious, and Densmore's jazz-inflected drumming sometimes just doesn't click.

But when they were good, they were very, very good, and most of the songs on the disc haven't lost their ability to impress me. Perhaps "When the Music's Over" and "The End" sound a bit dated, but they have a lot of power nonetheless, and though I no longer think "The End" is the apotheosis of the sinister-in-music (as I did when I was eleven), I still think it's a great song. "L.A. Woman" is brilliant (though it was also the track that led me to discover, when it began to skip irretrievably, that my soundtrack CD is mysteriously rotting from the inside...). Not every lyric in "Riders on the Storm" is perfect, but it's still a great song.

And has anyone ever really written a pop song that was better than "Light My Fire"? You could write an essay on that song alone -- even the key is interesting: when the Doors played it live, they played it in A minor, and all the sheet music I've ever seen for it reflects that. But the original studio recording is most definitely not in A minor; it's in...what? G-sharp minor, or A-flat minor? Because the harmonic structure of the song tends to imply flat keys, my vote's for Ab minor, which is the most remote key in Western tonality, with 7 flats (though actually, it's really Ab minor Dorian, so it's just 6 flats, with the same key signature as Gb major, the opening chord of the song).

But it can't all be resolved in Ab minor; the intro, which walks halfway through the circle of fifths, ends up all the way in G before returning to Ab (with a Picardy third). So the whole song ends up in a chromatic never-never land. Its harmonic structure literally resides in the exact place where the key structure of Western music breaks down. That's hardly revolutionary, true, but it does change the sound of the song -- something about it sounds perpetually new and fresh, in part because these are keys and chord sequences we just don't hear in popular music. The chord progressions are unstereotyped in and of themselves, but when combined with the unusually remote key, we get something magical and elusive.

So why did the Doors record "Light My Fire" in Ab minor, but then play it live in A minor? It's a fast song, and I don't think they slowed the tape speed down like Led Zeppelin did with "No Quarter" -- a song which, by the way, is far better in its "adjusted" key of C# minor than its original key of D minor; the key change makes it darker, and also conjures up pleasant linkages and kinships with Pink Floyd's own epic, "Echoes", which is also in C# minor. Personally, I think the explanation is simple: to play it in the studio, Robby Krieger probably opted to tune down. He didn't want to have to do that every night on stage ("Light My Fire" was no doubt a mainstay of their live set), and Ab minor is an awkward key on the guitar, so they just bumped it up to A minor, the simplest of keys. It survives the transition reasonably well, I suppose; there's still something missing, but it's a something that was perhaps unlikely to materialize in live performance anyway, especially given the rowdiness (and drunkenness) of the Doors' live sets.

As for the rest of the album, it's got "Love Street" (good song, bad jazz), "Break on Through" (it's been beaten to death, but if you can listen to it with fresh ears it's still pretty raw) and a bunch of tracks from An American Prayer, which are hit-or-miss. The "Severed Garden (Adagio)" track is just dreadful, but I like the disco-funk of "Ghost Song", in which Ray Manzarek inexplicably and pointedly quotes a dozen bars from Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid. Manzarek does a lot of that stuff; he quotes "Straight No Chaser" in the break of "We Could Be So Good Together" on Waiting for the Sun, and I've read that he quotes "'Til the End of Time" during "Hyacinth House" on L.A. Woman, though I don't know if that's true (since I don't know "'Til the End of Time").

Anyway, "Ghost Song" gives us a taste of what the Doors might well have been in 1978 if Morrison had lived. The lousy Other Voices, on the other hand, is a heaping bowlful of what they did become after Morrison's death. I once had the opportunity to get a copy of the songbook for this album for free, but stupidly passed it up; seven years later I finally got around to grabbing a vinyl copy I saw at a used record stand. Unfortunately, most of it is bad in an unfunny way (i.e. mediocrity), but there are moments of priceless incompetence, especially lyrically -- "Variety is the spice of life/That's what the judge is gonna tell my wife!" comes to mind. Yeah, Morrison would've written that. Really.

Oh. And Ida's Will You Find Me is a fantastic album (though not quite as good as the Losing True EP). Check out the harmonies on the opening track, "Down On Your Back"...meticulous, rich, and gorgeous.

(Comments for May 15, 2001) (4 comments so far)

May 14, 2001

2:00 AM

Tonight's listening included The Blossom-Filled Streets, by Movietone; Peregrine, by Tara Jane O'Neill; and a few songs from Luna's first album. I enjoyed all three, and I'm finding, upon closer listening, that a lot of Peregrine is quite good (I didn't like it that much at first).

(Comments for May 14, 2001) (3 comments so far)

May 12, 2001

1:52 AM

Some words I didn't know:

palimpsest: 1. A manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible. 2. An object, a place, or an area that reflects its history.

escutcheon: 1. Heraldry. A shield or shield-shaped emblem bearing a coat of arms. 2. An ornamental or protective plate, as for a keyhole. 3. Nautical. The plate on the stern of a ship inscribed with the ship's name.

inkhorn: Affectedly or ostentatiously learned. (Also a small bottle of horn or other material formerly used for holding ink.)

I looked up the first of these because an old literary magazine I was reading (the December 1978 issue of the Bennington Review, actually) described a poem by Keats, Sweeney Agonistes, as "a palimpsest of echoes". The article in question, on the topic of the "atrophy of memory" (that is, the cultural amnesia, and obliviousness to literary allusion, of the then-current generation of readers), is probably even more relevant today than it was 22 years ago, but the author, one George Steiner, has a touch of the inkhorn about him.


(Comments for May 12, 2001)

May 11, 2001 (link)

1:23 PM

It can be surprisingly hard to find a good way to recommend a great piece of music (or a great movie, a great book, and so forth, but I'll use music as my touchstone for the moment). I know from my own personal experience that when an album is "talked up" to me, I almost always have to get over an initial disappointment when first hearing it, as though I have to go through a period of casting aside my preconceived expectations before being able to warm up to it. I have a distaste for superlatives, anyway; I used to know a couple people who instilled in me a permanent antipathy to said superlatives, by referring to nearly everything they liked as "It's soooo good", and everything they disliked as (you guessed it) "It's soooo bad". Add to this the overly-earnest and awestruck demeanor that they would adopt at such times -- eyes widening, boring into you as if daring you to disagree with their pop-culture panegyrics -- and you can imagine why I found it rather pretentious. (Though I haven't talked to either of them in a long time, I've since learned that their favorite movie comedy is the same as mine, so at least they had some measure of good taste.)

Recommendations also have to overcome everyone's innate resistance to listening to "someone else's music"; in some situations it can be harder to develop a strong personal connection to a piece of music when it's already been so thoroughly claimed by the friend who introduced it to you. One of the odd things about listening to independent music is that there are so many opportunities to find these great-but-obscure albums, which no one you know has ever heard nor heard about, and perhaps it's a lot easier for, say, a Cerberus Shoal album to feel like it's "yours" than it is to feel like Giant Steps is "yours" (though the flip side to that argument is named Dark Side of the Moon, or Tapestry, or even Nevermind...).

And last but not least, the wrong kind of recommendation can really rob a person of the surprise of finding out just how good something is. I often have that problem when I'm tempted to recommend Breaking the Waves, a movie which I've felt, at times, is the one of the few that can credibly be described as among the greatest ever made (and, in my opinion, it's certainly a contender for the greatest movie of the nineties). But I think the narrative of that movie depends, in a way, on not knowing how good it's going to be; if I had known just a little bit more about the movie before I'd watched it, I would not have found it as emotionally powerful as I did, and if I talk it up to friends, they too will probably not find it as powerful.

2:39 AM

I should add that Deep Chill Network is definitely among the better ambient groups I've ever heard. They've certainly got the right idea, and if my criticisms seem harsh, it's because their capacity to work on a high level (at least timbrally) is quite apparent, and it's frustrating when I feel the execution falls short of their aims. In a way, it's the same reason that I'm frustrated by the new Low album -- I know how transcendently good Low can be, and it's a bit bewildering to have them shy away from that in favor of something that, to my mind, is not nearly as interesting. If Things We Lost in the Fire were their first album, perhaps I might feel differently.

1:46 AM

A couple days ago I put my ferric oxide where my mouth is, and recorded four or five Deep Chill Network songs to cassette (so that I could listen to them in relative quiet -- i.e. without the noise of my computer's fan). It was intended, as well, as a step towards doing something I'd like to do more of -- namely, reviewing downloadable material from around the net, in an effort to spotlight people who are doing interesting things and garnering only minimal attention, if any.

Unfortunately, I decided to record them in the order in which they appeared on the page, and as I thought I remembered, the better material is down towards the second half of the page. I'll review them very briefly, and with the strong caveat that these are, in my opinion, the weakest tracks of the bunch, and that I plan to hit the other tracks in the near future:

Deep Chill Network review, Part One:

  • "Isolated Depths (edit)": The website calls it "Minimal icy arctic drones and textures." I suppose that's accurate. Lots of delay and reverb, with a subtle drone in E underpinning rapid synth glissandi, reminiscent somehow of AM radio static. Though it's enjoyable, something about it misses the mark slightly -- it seems unfocused, for want of a better word, and the timbres aren't as compelling as I'd like.
  • "Alone": I like the sound with which this starts out. It could go somewhere a bit more interesting, and it all seems a bit one-dimensional. Timbrally, though, it's not bad.
  • "Explorations": Penetrating glassy sounds and F lydian white-key synthpad rambling. I have a particular bias against pieces that stick to the white keys; they always conjure up images of an incompetent randomly hitting white notes because he knows they won't dissonate. I find most pandiatonicism bugsome enough as it is; it's like eating cereal with water instead of milk, or watching Reservoir Dogs on The Family Channel. So much flavor is sucked out of music when you take away its capacity for harmonic tension. (In this context, though, I'm not referring to modality, nor to the nonchromatic pieces composed by people like Satie and Stravinsky.) Sticking to the white keys, when transposition (and thus variety) are so easily had, only adds insult to injury. Anyway, I find this track uninvolving, both timbrally and harmonically. It's too busy and noisy to really succeed on an ambient level, and there's no involving narrative otherwise.
  • "Preliminary Motion (edit)": More pandiatonic rambling and glassy sounds, but this time the timbres are gentler (the glassy sounds are more akin to resonating crystal wineglasses), and it's in D-flat major! Hey, it makes a big difference to have black keys in there, at least for me. Keys have identities, perfect pitch or not, and as my friend Yoshiko and I once agreed, Reflets dans l'eau in C major would be a travesty. Going back to the piece at hand, it's OK, and better than the preceding piece, but it still lacks focus, and falls victim to a few bad-ambient-music clichés. These first five pieces too readily conjure up one of two stereotypes -- the "Oh, I'm an ambient composer and I'm ever so dark and arctic and drone-y", or the "Oh, I'm an ambient composer and I'm ever so lush and consonant and ethereal." Neither does much for me.
  • "Plush Ground (edit)": I ran out of tape partway through this track. However, I didn't find what I heard to be terribly compelling -- just a bunch of fifths, played on an analog-sounding synth, with just about nothing else going on. I went to MP3.com and listened to the whole thing: yep, it's all just fifths. Fifths can be very nice*, but in this case they aren't enough to sustain my interest.

On the whole, these first five tracks just aren't composed enough. Or maybe they're too busy, I'm not sure. But they certainly don't feel as though they've been carefully sculpted, with the possible exception of "Alone"; they feel haphazard and improvised, but in an overly casual way.

Good thing the other tracks are better!

*(like Bill Frisell's great solo on "Resolution" on Marc Johnson's Bass Desires, which is doubled in fifths thanks to a harmonizer)

(Comments for May 11, 2001) (14 comments so far)

May 10, 2001 (link)

1:13 AM

In my senior year of high school I was in a band called the Spiraling Moons, with my friends Chris Scarpino (guitar and vocals), Steve Deschenes (drums), and Jake Hummel (bass). I played keyboards, including what I believe may have been a Realistic MG-1 (a Radio Shack Moog knock-off that has since gotten a bit of a cult following). Chris, the songwriter of the band, was heavily into R.E.M., while Steve was more into Rush and the like, and I was big into Phish, jazz, Pink Floyd, and some of the then-current MTV stuff like Cypress Hill and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. (Jake's tastes were somewhere in the middle, though he was generally less outspoken about them than the rest of us were.) Other than a couple covers (Radiohead's "Creep" and Sting's "All This Time"), we had a set of about 15 originals -- some of which were better than others, I suppose, but all of which were fun to play.

At the end of what was, for everyone in the band but Jake, our last year of high school, we all got together in a friend's basement studio in New London, NH and recorded an album on 4-track, Blue Sugar. The low production values were obvious, we all made mistakes, and Chris' voice was exhausted by the end of the session. Still, it was a lot of fun and I think we were all able to take a measure of pride in what we'd managed to put together. We played a couple shows over the summer of '94, sold a few copies of the album to our friends and relatives, and then went off to college.

A year later, my friends Chris and Steve were dead, killed in a head-on collision with an RV, somewhere in Maine. As far as I know, no one knows why their car crossed the center line. They certainly hadn't been drinking, and I think they were wearing their seatbelts. Steve's girlfriend Katie was with them, and barely survived the crash; I've never heard any indication that she was able to shed any light on what happened.

This year, more than in the past, I've been getting periodic impulses to call Chris or Steve, to see how they are and tell them that I wish them well. These impulses tend to outrun, by a margin of a second or two, my ability to remember that Chris and Steve aren't there for the calling anymore. Nor is my friend Jody, who is gone as well, killed in 1999, along with two of her friends, by a car that ran into them while they were changing a tire.

I spent a couple hours this evening transferring Blue Sugar from cassette to my computer, and playing around with EQ to try to get it to sound better (it was a very muffled recording to begin with, and my copy is not only two generations from the master, but both those generations were high-speed dubbed!). I hadn't listened to it in a long time -- not out of forgetfulness, quite the contrary. I try to listen but seldom to music I love, or that is dear to me in some way. In the past I did so because I wanted to preserve its magic, to avoid losing the special charge it had for me; now, it seems like more often I do so because, in the throes of my depression, I fear it'll leave me unmoved, or that it'll make me dwell on the past.

It was interesting to note how my perspective on the album had changed since the last time I'd listened to it, two or three years ago. I do view it with more detachment than I once did; the mistakes seem more innocuous, and the triumphs somewhat harder to identify with. My own playing is quite a trip, to say the least...though I wasn't nearly as pompous as I had been a couple years previously, I was still pretty full of myself in those days, musically at least. In that light, it always amazes me, when I listen back to this album, to hear just how tacky some of my ideas were. I know that the cheesy keyboards I was playing made it pretty hard to be tasteful sometimes, but still...!

They were very, very sweet kids, and never meant anyone any harm.

(Comments for May 10, 2001) (5 comments so far)

May 8, 2001

12:35 AM

I'm pleased to add Absintheur's journal to the list of links at the right. He's a good friend of mine, he is.

I'm also pleased to note that Josh has returned from his lengthy absence, almost exactly on time, and with a thread about Low. I still think Things We Lost In the Fire is my least favorite Low album yet, though I may warm up to it -- after all, I warmed up to Songs For a Dead Pilot (if you can warm up to an album that cold), which I initially didn't like at all. But if I do, I'll be warming up to it as a pop record, really, and not as the kind of slow-time sublimity that I'd come to expect from Low. Also, Albini's production doesn't work for me, I'm afraid -- give me Steve Fisk any day over him.

(Comments for May 8, 2001)

May 5, 2001

11:26 PM

I've transcribed Claudio Roditi's solo on "Milestones", from the album Milestones (Candid) which I mentioned earlier. Click here for the goods, which include three .gifs and a MIDI file.

While I was doing the transcription, my girlfriend put on a mix CD I had made for her with by The Clientele on it, "We Could Walk Together", which I think is one of the best pop songs of its year (1997), if not its decade. They used to have the whole thing (taken from the Cry Me a Liver double 7-inch, which is apparently hopelessly out of print) available for download on their site, but now only an excerpt is there, and it's running at a different speed, at that. (I'm not sure which is correct, but I like the older speed better.)

2:53 AM

I've made a few minor design tweaks and archived the rest of April's entries. Some actual, new content should follow in the next day or two; I think I'll transcribe a solo from that Claudio Roditi album, and put up a GIF of the transcription, and maybe a MIDI file too.

I've also added a "current reading" field. Lombardo's translation is highly colloquial and sometimes uses anachronistic slang, which is a bit jarring. On the other hand, it's an easy read, and by not getting bogged down in "thee" and "thou" and the like, one focuses more on the tale. It's just a pity that, every so often, a real clunker slips in, like when Telamonian Ajax says that he's "all pumped up" -- or when Odysseus tells Dolon to "get a grip" -- or when Diomedes calls Paris a "sissy, curly-haired pimp of a bowman". I just don't think (with my very limited knowledge of Homeric Greece, and complete ignorance of the Greek language) that those things are in Homer, and Lombardo is very ill-advised if he's somehow trying to be hip. But there is a certain rawness to the translation that's appealing, especially in the battle scenes, and that helps to keep the horrors -- and glories -- of war from getting lost in a maze of archaisms.

(Comments for May 5, 2001) (1 comment so far)

May 2, 2001 (link)

1:28 PM

Whenever I hear Stuart Copeland (of the Police) drum, it reminds me of the way Snoopy dances in Charlie Brown movies. It's just something about the doo-doo-doo-GAT-doo-doo-doo-GAT rhythm he always uses (at least on their first few albums), with the bass drum on 4-1-2 and the snare on 3. Certain drummers just seem like happy dogs.

It's amazing, tangentially, how completely Sting (I initially mistyped "String" there, and was tempted to leave it) has sold out. When I saw him do the Notorious B.I.G. thing, I knew it was going to get very bad with him, and so it has. I don't recall what I saw the other night (do you remember, H?), but it was something that only cemented that impression. The early Police were so good, but in a way Sting was the weakest link, and he was behind what are perhaps the two most abysmal Police songs (the unbelievably craplousy "Born in the Fifties" and the only slightly less awful "Walking in Your Footsteps"). "Tea in the Sahara" would've been a good song if the lyrics weren't so baaaaad -- those rhyming couplets land with a meaty thud* every time.

*(name that quote)

(Comments for May 2, 2001) (2 comments so far)

May 1, 2001

3:36 PM

Wow, I just heard a track by the Kings of Convenience, "Toxic Girl", on the radio (88.5 FM) and I liked it a lot. Pretty harmonies, good lyrics, and all in all, the kind of sound I really enjoy. I guess I need to check them out!

(Comments for May 1, 2001) (3 comments so far)

current reading:

Othello, Shakespeare, trans. Kittredge

just finished:

The Iliad, Homer, trans. Stanley Lombardo


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