26 April 2006

f(l)avor[-i{t/c(?)}e] (of the we{e/a}k)

Too much going on here already. I want not to let myself lapse into breathless, flowery, hyper-detailed song descriptions, as I felt myself doing at the end of that last bit. (You know, the part where I was actually talking about the song.) It's all well and good, this picking-apart of songs, at times down to the second (I tend to get compulsively completist about these things.) It is probably interesting, to call attention to the minutia of how arrangements and compositions and lyrics work their magic (or fail to) - and I'm probably pretty good at it. And, to be fair, it is basically what I was doing in that earlier "ten favorites" piece to which this is supposed to be a sequel.

However, it's secondary to what I'm realizing I actually want to do here/now. Which is... not just to say that these are great songs and why (because of course I think they're great, or they wouldn't be on this mix, especially), but to think more generally about how and why I selected them for a favorites mix (also noting that this is a different enterprise from just making a list of favorites - more on that later maybe.) Which is more in keeping with the putative project of this website being to complement my mixmaking activities.

(It is fun to do detailed song analyses, particularly on songs I love, although it begins to feel rote and weirdly chore-like, and I constantly find myself being overly laudatory - like I'm on AutoFanboy mode, or something. But if the descriptions aren't working toward a specific argumentative end, wouldn't you rather just listen to the songs for yourself?)

I do want to at least discuss the individual songs, but let's find a better framework to do it in. What's up with this nostalgia-value vs. intrinsic-value distinction? I'm framing it in terms of context vs. content, but I think that's a bit of an elision, because every song I know has a context in my life, and I'm not sure I can get outside of that so easily - the thing that makes these songs my favorites is absolutely me-dependent. Right?

Or nah? The songs all entered my life at some point or another - so what? Maybe the best case for nostalgia here is "The Fool", which hit me so hard when I first heard it that I actually used an expletive. (!) (read it here if you don't believe me.) It's hard to say how much my abiding love for it rests on the waves of that initial impact (buoyed a bit by its establishment as a favorite night-ending number for particularly transcendant dance parties) - I don't listen to it so often anymore, but it's still got tremendous potency, even when I think surely I must have grown inured to it by now. I'm listening to it now, and I really can't fathom how fresh it still sounds. So... I'm at a loss. Considering that famous power familiar music has to "transport us back in time" to the period we associate with it, I'm finding myself wholly unable to judge what I'm really hearing when I listen to it. Could its semblance of "freshness" actually be stronger for me than for someone listening for the first time? (Ironically, I think maybe yes - it can take a few listens to acclimate oneself to a song enough to truly appreciate any of its qualities accurately, even the quality of newness.)

I still think, listening as analytically as I can muster, that this is an incredible song. It puts me in mind of what I was saying about the Hefner tune: the sense of perfection, (as resulting from) simplicity and classicism. Similar constituent elements (melodic, form-defining bass; minimal, unshowy guitar; lush, textural keyboards); a major difference in that their organization is much more organic - the instrumental parts come together fluidly, in a loose, funkish jam, rather than in a meticulously choreographed arrangement. Lyrically, likewise, it's more of a you-already-know-the-rhyme puppy-love singalong than a pop-poet's clever-clever "modern relationships" lament. There's not much to remark on structure-wise: excepting the song's clear crowning moment - the glorious glorious a capella choral overture of heavenly heavenly "doot doo doo"s (as well as its accompanied recapitulation) - the whole thing pretty much just flows, making its mark through sheer groovey infectiouosity, more sunshine hippy (pl)attitude than true-school down-funk competence.

So basically, it's great. All these songs are great. And, you know, more than just great, but. What else can I say? How would it be different if I wanted to make a list of "the best songs, IMHO"? Take "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard", which has the very specific nostalgic associations of being (1) a song that I always like to suggest for hiking-trip or long-car-ride sing-a-longs and (2) something I've known for so long that I have no recollection of when I first learned it, making it feel sort of ancient and archetypal - but which is far from the first Paul Simon song I'd want to listen to (the majority of his "difficult" early '80s albums One Trick Pony and Hearts and Bones, for example, hold much more musical and artistic interesting for me at this point.) Would something like that be more or less likely to make the cut? (Angela confessed last night that it was the one song on the CD she usually skips past - and I found myself unexpectedly sympathetic to that sentiment.) So... less likely I guess, which would be the expected answer anyway. Well never mind that then.

On a related note though - something worth bringing up here is how a song's widespread familiarity comes into play. Mix-wise, I'm not usually very interested in including songs that are already well known (on any mix, really -or, in the case of a mix for a specific person, songs that I know they already know.) "Me and Julio" may be a good example of why, assuming that Angela's and my less-than-enthusiasm for listening to it yet again has something to do with overexposure. There's a fine line (or at least, so I'm assuming, since I'm having trouble finding it.) I'm fond of saying that I think "Johnny B. Goode" is best and archetypal rock and roll song: how then to take my failure to find a spot for it here (in favor of at least a few rock songs, though maybe no rock'n'roll per se - more tellingly, I even came close to including "Little Queenie" on the forthcoming and/or possibly apocryphal volume 2, mostly on the strength of that couplet I love to quote, but "Johnny" not b good enough. okay i'll stop.)

Does it just mean I don't have the guts to back that sentiment up? Maybe. But that song really is hard to hear divorced from its weighty cultural baggage. It's not just that I don't want to be obvious (we all know that doesn't count for much - plenty of times the obvious is the unexpected and vice versa.) But I do have a harder time deciding whether I really like really famous songs and albums for themselves, because there's so much else (interesting) going on. And I think I'm loath to incur the ambiguity that brings, in situations like this where I'm trying to quantify myself, as it were. (This issue was even more prevalent when I tried to compile my "favorite albums" list - to include or not to include no-brainer London Calling?) On the other hand, "Tracks of My Tears" is pretty darn well acknowledged. I can't deny that I just plain like it more than "Johnny B. Goode". Also, funny of me to pick only, like, the best known song Elvis Costello ever freaking wrote, eh? That's where trying to narrow things down will get you.

(Meanwhile, it's hard to say if "But Not For Me" made it onto the specifically because of its status-by-virtue-of-association [er, with its author] - I think I better talk about that later on, in a paragraph entitled "Tokenism and Taboo".)

Personal/nostalgic context can also function to help disqualify widespread familiarity as a pertinent consideration. I came to "When You Were Mine" basically independent of the song's hit status, which is to say through my own copy of Prince's Hits CD (no that's not contradictory, be quiet). Oldies radio (source of several of these songs) is the music of my childhood, but I didn't especially encounter it in a communal context: my parents; a teacher or two maybe - but basically it was my own voyage of discovery, vastly different from people who grew up when it was actually new and popular music. "My Old School" may be a classic rock radio staple (is it? I dunno. I did recently hear it playing in a desolate and snowed in CVS), but that has nothing to with me, because I learned it from a weird "MCA TWIN PAX" cassette my uncle gave me forever ago. Oh my god I just just realized that the "PAX" there probably means pax as in "packs" and not pax as in the latin word for peace (my 10-year-old interpretation was something like, the record company offers these nifty cheap two-albums-in-one tapes to the record-buying public as a kind of peace offering. like some kind of britishism for "deal" or something... see, it makes sense?) Okay, that was pretty ridiculous of me. I guess that's what happens when your book-learnin' exceeds your common sense, or something. When you're ten years old. Wow.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, right, explaining why I have famous favorite songs, even though I'm not a brainwashed follower-of-fashion automaton I swear I'm not I promise. Well, then, Ross, how do you account for RAYdiohead? OK, computer. sheesh. Well then I will. It's because "No Surprises" is a beautiful, beautiful, lovely gorgeous song. (Besides, come on, it's not that famous a song. it was barely even a single.) Those sweet, consonant glockenspiel arpeggiations! Those high ringing guitars that are made to sound like sweet, consonant glockenspiel arpeggiations! (The glockenspiels here, incidentally, precisely split the difference between glockenspiel as kiddie-toy sentimentalism a la Buddy Holly's "Every Day" and the Glock=Rock revisionism of "Born to Run.") Talk about classicism and simplicity. (okay, or don't.) Or maybe I take it back. This song is Quietly Majestic, and those glockenspiels tower like marble pillars. It's a bloody anthem.

Actually the thing that really gets me about it is that, maybe, possibly, if you squint, you can pretend it's Radiohead being earnest. Wait, they're always earnest - I mean, you can pretend it's really the happy, content, uplifting song it's pretending to be. After all, it's the cheeriest sounding thing on the thoroughly paranoid-depressive OK Computer, and even though the lyrics are technically probably about suicide or something, if you take them at face value it sounds like an ode to okayness; world-weary and resigned but at last at least at peace; a wanly-smiling suburban shrugging-off of life's imperfection. The government doesn't speak for us, work will kill you, love's a wasteland, but at least there aren't any surprises...please? Yeah, I know it's a poor excuse for happiness or even contentment. But this is Radiohead we're dealing with. And besides, nobody ever said you had to listen to the lyrics. Just listen to Angelic Thom, as his ugly-teeth head gets submerged in water.

So there you go - here I was thinking I couldn't possibly say anything new about Radiohead, and then I did it through a neat trick of blatant disregard. By the way, Ok Computer is basically a perfect album - the first time I've used that word to refer to something other than capital-p pop, notice (because that's important - i'll tell you later.) Picking that song was secondary to just taking the opportunity for OKC worship. Did I ever tell you the story of how I got into Radiohead? I will some other time.

What's left, known-entity-wise? Well the Supremes song is interesting in this context because, although I have always loved the group, that particular song wasn't necessarily high on my radar until, for some reason that I don't quite remember, I seized on it in the Spring of my Sophomore year as, oh my god, this is the best Supremes song ever obviously obviously. Back in the day, "You Keep Me Hanging On" was definitely a top favorite, and "My World is Empty Without You" - hell, they really never made a bad single - but now it's just gotta be "Some Things You Never Get Used To". I would really like to do a detailed reading of this song, actually, because it is pretty strange and wonderful. But not right now.

Along similar lines (perhaps?), I have a little suspicion that part of the reason I have taken "I'm Just a Prisoner (Of Your Good Loving)" and welded it to my soul is that, finally, it was a song that fit in perfectly with the Motown and Stax/Volt pop/soul I have always adored, but which I didn't already know so well as to make it a fait accompli. A lost classic, if you will. Just maybe, the fact that most other people didn't know it either also had some effect. On the other hand... it's another brilliant song. Among other things (like, um, Candi's incandescent vocal performance), it's a masterpiece of moments. Again, like the Hefner tune, it's got the entrances-piling-up thing going on, and every entrance and every shift works like a charm. Sometime maybe I'll catalog these too. Or, again, you could just listen...

Why are we talking about this again? Ultimately, I think famousness, like nostalgia, is basically a red herring here. "The Fool" and "I Took Her Love For Granted" may be hidden gems, unluckily undiscovered by the pop-ulation at large, but isn't that irrespective of the qualities (and quality) they share with actual-world classics like "California Girls" and "He's A Rebel", which earn them their VIP passes to shared tracklist space with the stars?

I've got just a few more songs to discuss, which are mostly the less-well-known ones. (Really, why was I using this as a framework again? Well whatever.) But first I might take a deep breath and talk about why I'm so interested in mix tapes in the first place. Or, more likely, I'll write something about this conference I'm heading out to tomorrow. Because that would be the timely thing. Til then then.

No comments: