23 April 2006

playing favorites

Before I go any further, I may as well disclose a major agenda that I have for this website: for it to be, as suggested by the title, a sort of extension of my practice of making mix tapes and cds. For a while now, I've been harboring a plan to create a site to display my mix creations - an online portfolio, if you will - and I'm hoping this will serve that purpose. But I would also like to use it to discuss and explore the process(es) of mix-making and the meaning(s) it holds. I'll have much more to say on this in the future, but first I'll try just doing it, with a minimum of premeditation; perhaps in the process establishing something of a template for how things might go down here.

Here's the tracklist of a recent mix CD, " o« plays favorites vol. 1":

1. California Girls - The Beach Boys
2. Red - Okkervil River
3. He's A Rebel - The Crystals
4. I Took Her Love For Granted - Hefner
5. When You Were Mine - Prince
6. Following Through - The Dismemberment Plan
7. No Surprises - Radiohead
8. Tracks of My Tears - Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
9. Alison - Elvis Costello
10. Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard - Paul Simon
11. A Journey to Reedham - Squarepusher
12. This Must Be The Place - Talking Heads
13. Some Things You Never Get Used To - Diana Ross and the Supremes
14. What Makes You Happy - Liz Phair
15. My Old School - Steely Dan
16. But Not For Me - Chet Baker
17. I'm Just A Prisoner (Of Your Good Lovin') - Candi Staton
18. Anything You Want - Spoon
19. The Sunshine Underground - The Chemical Brothers
20. The Fool - Call and Response

My project for this mix was pretty straightforward - to compile a CD's worth of my favorite songs. Even though it was in response to a prompt from (and made as a gift for) my girlfriend, it was not designed for an overly specific audience, since it was an attempt at an "objective" representation of my musical self, at least with respect to this peculiar matter of "playing favorites". I selected and wrote about ten of these songs a year ago - [here] - so half of the task was done before I even started. Compiling the other half involved launching once again into a reflection on the nature of favorites.

Funny things, favorites. The quantifications of qualifications. (Not sure if that means anything?) They happen strangely: when they're evident, they're self-evident, but otherwise they're often indeterminate. Theoretically, they come one to a category, but this hardly means we have one for each category (not even each category we have a certain degree of mastery over) - for instance, I am quite confident that Figure 8 is my favorite Elliott Smith album, but I can't come close to identifying my favorite song of his. (I tried recently, but - and this is, of course, obvious - no amount of trawling back through his catalog made the determination any easier.)

Why is it easier to figure favorites in some domains than others, if it doesn't have to do with the extent of our exposure? There's more to it than this, but the size of the category is certainly a factor (after all, Elliott has many more songs than he has albums.) Given that, how I could I hope to select a few favorites from the tens of thousands (?) of songs that I know? Well, by being flexible, for one thing. Every list of favorites comes with the implied disclaimer: "this is all subject to change."

Part of this imponderability comes from the fact that favorites earn their status through the interplay of (1) qualities specific to the thing, as we perceive them, and (2) the circumstances of the thing's relationship to our lives. We might cherish a thing because of memories we associate with it, despite considering it to be less than worthy on its own merits; conversely, we might admire something greatly for its intrinsic qualities, but fail to feel a personal connection to it. Perhaps I am simply saying that there are both aesthetic and emotional factors at play.)

This creates particular quandary for ascertaining "all-time" favorites - as I tried to do for this mix. The tendency might be to choose songs that have been favorites in the past - which could be as easy as bringing together "the songs that I always [used to] put on mixtapes." (Somewhat surprisingly, very few of these songs fall into that category - exceptions being the Steely Dan and Hefner tunes, and to some extent Call and Response - although they've almost all been on at least one or two other mixes.) There was a long period when "Get Back" was absolutely my favorite Beatles song, for instance, and I also remember loving "Up Around the Bend" by CCR and "'Cos It Isn't True" by UB40 (not to mention Dave Matthews' "Recently") - but that was then...

Better example: in the period of my most pure and undiluted They Might Be Giants fandom (c. 1990-96), I would have told you that my fave was "It's Not My Birthday", whereas now I find myself much more taken with the emotional lyrical nuance and melodic craftsmanship of "They'll Need a Crane." I certainly knew "Crane" back in the day, but I don't recall having an especial fondness for, and I almost certainly misunderstood it as essentially nonsensical (as opposed to "Birthday", which is essentially nonsensical.) On the other hand, "Crane" has plenty of the requisite personal-historical value - simply by virtue of it having been on that cassette of Lincoln and Miscellaneous t plus a few b-sides (the awesome "Ant") and random assorted Pet Shop Boys and Wang Chung tunes (which I didn't identify until many years later) that Josh Hall-Bachner's mom's friend who was a DJ at WBER taped for Josh and he copied for me... [Meanwhile, "No One Knows My Plan" has made great headway as one of my absolute pets since I realized what brilliant dance track it is and started slipping it somewhat subversively into my DJ sets at college parties - the song thereby accruing a great deal of emotional capital and also garnering an opportunity for me to take note of its lyrical clevernesses and so forth - not that on those strengths I'd rank it one of their top tracks, but on the other hand it's undeniably my favorite TMBG trad-salsa tune!]

But I lose track of myself. Let's take a gander at the songs I did happen to select for this installment. On the scale of pure aesthetic appreciation to total nostalgia value, Hefner's "I Took Her Love For Granted" probably leans the furthest to the former. God, even the title is great - y'see, he doesn't say that in the song; he says "she took me for granted." But we know what he really means.

So yeah, this is the first (maybe only) thing on the mix that I would describe as a perfect song. What do I mean by perfect? It has a lot to do with simplicity. (Which, as we all know, is often deceptive.) It also has something to do with classicism. The song consists of a small handful of simple, classic-seeming components, put together in a way that feels (craftfully yet artlessly) precise and that, crucially, emphasizes their component-ness. Specifically, the way that (almost) every part makes its entrance individually, calling attention to its role (á la the breakdown in "Dance to the Music") while remaining subservient to the total effect of the song.

The bass that enters first, a generous eight unaccompanied expository measures of the line around which the whole song will revolve (a bassline akin to that of the other perfect pop song that first comes to mind: Blur's "Girls and Boys") It's a coolly controlled but undeniably bouncy rhythmic figure that anchors a fresh take on one of pop's oldest chord patterns, achieved by darting all over the place in a curious sort of melody that only just grazingly, as if incidentally, reveals the skeletal outline of the progression. Second of the dramatis personae to appear is Darren Hayman's charmingly unaffected voice, which vaults almost immediately into an unexpected and brief but thrilling octave falsetto. The vocal melody fleshes out a little more of the harmonic content through counterpoint with the bass part (repeated verbatim under his entrance), while the playful innocence of the lyrics echoes the novelty and sweetness orchestration: "soon as I saw her, I wanted to taste her lips...so I did."

Before we can quite recover from the snarky foreshadowing of "I was ecstatic...for at least six weeks", the drums and guitar have hit, in tandem - plunging the song into familiar indie-pop rhythmic/harmonic territory, much as that six week statute of limitations on newfound bliss crashes our narrator back to the imperfection of reality. The organ, meanwhile, saves its entrance for a lone sly stab following the line "she asked me if it hurt" - than backs off until the chorus, when it joins in full-gospel-tilt, creating yet another textural shift. Finally, a horn section entrance marks the conclusion of the first chorus with a single, subtle swell. (I always envision this last, unheralded addition to the ensemble as a couple of sneaky session players gradually peering out, like cartoon villains, from behind a piece of furniture or something.)

Just past the one minute mark, this arrangement has gotten dramatically more cluttered since the single voice of the extended opening bass solo. But (naturally), not for long, as verse two strips back down to the basic rhythm players. And - get this - the horns don't appear again in the whole song! Instead, the second chorus ramps up the excitement by other means: call-and-response backups! handclaps! modulations! contrapuntal vocal layering! each in rapid succession, and each contributing to a truly dizzying outro vamp that gives way by a single, suddenly unaccompanied organ note. My goodness, and I thought this song was simple!

And with all that, it never feels cluttered in the slightest - and all ears are on what I've barely mentioned; Hayman's delicious vocal performance and terribly smart and truthful lyrics. Anyone would forgive it the ever-so-slightly sub-par chorus - the whole of the song is nothing but hooks, so who cares if the chorus doesn't happen to house the best of them. (I still feel like the utter brilliance of the verses and all the rest of it are asking for a little better, though I'm not complaining.) Really, it's just astounding how crisp and fresh this song still sounds after all the times I've heard it. It's hardly worth me trying to defend my allegations of its perfection - I just defy you to hear it and disagree.

So. That's one song down, and there's no reasonable way this entry can stand being any longer, or me up any later. So I'll pack it in here and post, and continue this project at a later (or sooner) date. Just to bring things back around a bit into the larger discussion, I should remark that the circumstances of my relationship with this song have little or nothing to do with my appreciation of it. I first checked Hefner out in high school, downloading a few tracks based on somebody's likening of them to Belle and Sebastian - but I didn't hear this until mid-college, on the advice of a casual friend. That's about all I remember. I probably played it on the radio or something? I bought the album from Half some time later, and it has since found its way onto a large number of mix tapes. And almost everyone I play it for has a similar reaction. (When I told Angela it was one my favorite songs, she said it was one of hers too - this was after she had heard it for the first time!)

Sleep well.

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