28 October 2007

before and after eternity

lot been goin on. you can see by my (just, finally, updated, but already out-of-date) sidebar that i've been doing some diligent collecting these past months - i'll have plenty to say about many of those recent acquisitions (many of them excellent); hopefully i'll get around to saying it, for now the emboldening will have to suffice. i recently contributed what will likely be my last bits of semi-amateur music-scribing for a while, in the form of some blurbs for the styjuke's track-by-track dissection of the radio one. established 1967. album/covers series. not an overly worthwhile thing to write about - forty top uk chart acts covering songs from 1967-2006; even on such a grand scale, with a nearly limitless wealth of implied possibilities, these kinds of things seem almost guaranteed not to produce any music of lasting value - but an enjoyable project nonetheless.

stylus magazine and most of its satellites, including the singles jukebox, are shutting down after this wednesday. i've actually known this for a couple months from certain inside sources, but it seems to have been a successfully kept secret until very recently - quite an accomplishment in itself on the 'nets, which i take (maybe fancifully) as just a small indication
of how beloved and respected stylus was, by loyalists inside and out. to join the cortège of eulogists who will doubtless continue to fill the commentboxes (also here) for the next two days and beyond...i too am certainly going to miss stylus sorely - it has meant a great deal to me in the past three years or so, even if my tenure as a writer - first as staff reviewer, more recently an occasional jukebox blurbist - there was fairly undistinguished. [eh...well short anyway; re-reading my handful of contributions now i'm reminded that i can in fact write a pretty damn decent record review, in fine stylus style, when i can actually be bothered to take the time. this is probs the best thing i did for 'em, although i made it into their farewell roundup - to my surprise - via my rare, impassioned, lone comment on this piece. heh. i'm sort of touched.]

but as it happens i'm moving on to, i guess, semi-pro music-scribing, for the only outlet that rivals stylus for my attentions and affections...well actually, in case you haven't already guessed/don't know (and, er, if "you" care), i'll hold off on telling you where for another minute, 'til i'm actually published. though it did occur to me today (not entirely for the first time), that if i couldn't make a decent go of it as a music writer in an environment as welcoming and open-minded as stylus (albeit uncompensated), it's probably just not something i'm sufficiently compelled to do... eh, but here i am. so here i go.

more i wanted to say about folk and songwriting. it keeps coming up - maybe one of those october things. was gonna eta that devon sproule piece below (which ended both before i'd gotten everything out and long after it should have) but better to just keep it flowin'. anyway the night after i wrote that i discussed those ideas, and extensions of them, with a friend who almost uncannily predicted several comparisons just before i drew them - the magnetic fields as exponents of what i'm calling classicist or formalist songwriting, and more interestingly joni mitchell as an analog/precedent for what devon does: as a songwriter/lyricist, but simultaneously as a vocalist/guitarist, because point being that their musical creations don't fit neatly within those lines; the elements all combine in idiosyncratic, virtuosic constructions that, though they could certainly be performed by others, would lose something integral in the translation.

we (my friend and i) mostly meant the joni of blue, i think, specifically - even as soon after that as court and spark, the music had moved well beyond what could straightly be called "folk," i think (and her writing was if anything less classicist, despite perhaps some literary formalism.) her earlier days of course had their share of classicism, or, at least, classics, in the trad-folk, campfire-sing sense. (not that even these entirely fit the straightforward, economical model of formalism i've been hawking.) (ok, i'm actually pretty ignorant of mitchell's music beyond those two albums and mingus, so i'll stop talking about her, and try to rectify that.)

it's not like devon's work is entirely lacking in formal structure, either - "let's go out," particularly, stands out as an excellent 32-bar aaba (one reviewer rightly pegs it as 'her own jazz standard.') and that's not to mention her earlier work either, the two albums she released, under her first name only, back we (she and i) were in our teens (i like how the amg reviewers point out that she's more like ani difranco than britney spears), in the immediately post-lilith era, when she was hanging with the likes of dave matthews band and, yknow, being a teenager - albums she seems to have (rather adorably; also understandably) attempted to bury. [a little bird told me that although she claims they're "out of print" to any prospective buyers, there are in fact has stacks of them in her mom's basement.]

i haven't heard them, so i don't know. but do i gather that one thing which sets her later "mature" [=early 20s] work apart is also the thing which most markedly separates it from blue-era joni: a pronounced rootsiness. which can be a stripe of authenticity, general speaking, but more specifically and germanely sets it up as folk music in a way that is more ambiguous with, e.g., blue (which could be called folk, but doesn't signify it nearly so overtly, and really oughtta be labeled "singer/songwriter" if anything should, since it practically originated s/s as we know it.) funny thing about that, actually - a modicum of country/blues/hillbilly/even jazz (in dev's case) signifiers (instrumentation, vocal stylings, general ramshackleness, what-have-you) helps to establish something as folk(s)y (those being musics of the people)...but too much of those things and you're already off in a different direction: genre. (i wanna say something like folk isn't so much a style as a mode, but i don't even really know what that means.)

and that's the thing about dev - she's got, if anything, more of that backwoods, ol'-timey flair than you could ask for (and with nary a hint of affect; lilith-pop closet-skeletons notwithstanding), and her songs fit beautifully into that aesthetic, in lyrical and musical content, but structurally they seem to be something fundamentally other - more in the realm of a artsy-poppy literary mitchell or newsom or will sheff (okkervil river) or maybe even springsteen (?) than a traditionalist/lyrical-minimalist like lucinda williams or patty griffin or ryan adams or perhaps loudon wainwright or ron sexsmith. which seems like something a little unique. at least i'm struggling to come up with parallels. erin mckeown comes to mind (as sharing a lot in common with devon), though distillation leans more formalist, grand is rockier, and i haven't heard her last couple.

what else? i'd come up with some other examples for the kind of songwriting i was and have been describing, in addition to stephin merrit, andrew gregory, carsie blanton, and perhaps john hiatt (whom i don't know well at all):
• edith frost (particularly her most recent album - but: she does a poor job of conveying that crucial 'folk' intimacy/rapport in concert - she just seems like such tentative a presence)
• much of beck's sea change album (in such marked contrast to most of his lyric-writing before or since as to arouse suspicion - which is partially why i've given him so much flak for it over the years...even though there are admittedly a couple gems. actually, his failure to connect convincingly live is probably more of the reason.)
• well john darnielle, indeed - albeit in style more often than substance (which is often more abstruse, but get lonely, especially, peels back those layers to become, by contrast, shocking in its starkness. and he certainly delivers the personal-magnetism goods live. he supposedly denies being "folk," but he can suck it.)
• some of will oldham's stuff. loudon, probably, but in a clunky/sappy way (eh, i just don't like him much.) maybe some early billy bragg (but i doubt it.)

but it's hard. none of these are stellar examples, and frankly what i'm getting at is something that probably happens pretty rarely, and probably never consistently across a whole body of work. i want to set out this dichotomy [succinct/effusive, structured/fluid, perspicacious/evocative, pithy/poetic, direct/discursive, universalist/idiosyncratic] that speaks in theory to my sense of what traditionalist folk writing, rigorously defined, wants to be (viz., the first of each binary in that list), but of course in practice most songwriting falls in between most if not all of these pairs of poles - a majority of good songwriting draws from both strains, intertwining as necessary. so it's hard to single out examples, particularly without actually discussing specific lyrics. and i'm thinking it's particularly hard to stick entirely within either column in a way that's both engaging (not boring) and effective (not pointless.) which may be why it's so impressive to hear either done well.

i've been djing a bit. did one party last weekend (the night before mine), where there wasn't a whole lot of dancing, but what there was was enjoyable: first a cute couple grooving to motown; later the predictable whooping it up for madonna and prince - but they disappeared back into the kitchen when i slid that into some peppy italo; finally a bit of h.c.g.d.a. to harder-edged club pop and jungle/d&b schtuff - a guy who clearly knew told me i was "too good for my own good." awshux. it was one of my more fun, fluid, flawless recent sets if i do say so.

on saturday, the second of three costume parties this weekend (i barely noticed the music at the first, except for the romantics' funky "walking in my sleep" downstairs and old 97s upstairs), i djed what i knew would be the most rollicking dance-party since...the last time i played at the walton house - the dancers didn't disappoint. one of them asked me what the soul songs were that i played, so i e-mailed her this list:

laura lee - i need it just as bad as you
tyrone davis - can i change my mind?
tommy roe - sweet pea
stevie wonder - signed sealed delivered
temptations - i can't get next to you
sharon jones and the dap-kings - tell me
candi staton - i'd rather be an old man's sweetheart (than to be a young man's fool)
dusty springfield - lost
katherine mcphee - love story

which was one entire set (i think that's all of it) - i tended to stick with one genre at a time that night more than i often like to do (from there - roughly - to chart-pop to massive dance jams to some electronica then roundabout to some '80s favorites and then more recent uk/scandinavian stuff, and even a little set of rock at the end.) some very good requests, and i think i played all them, usually right away (sort of a challenge/point of pride): "sweet pea" was a request (that was pretty leftfield - glad i happened to have it with!), later the roots, justice (i played a different cut than i'd intended so i played two more later), "challah-back girl," "cock-rock," and michael jackson. several people asked that, and i was a bit hesitant, but i'd kind of known all along that i was going to play "thriller" - so i did, and it was undoubtedly the pinnacle moment of the party. so, excellent.

[strange as it may sound, i don't really know michael jackson, outside of the obvious singles (of which there are many) - i don't have any of his albums, even though they're always around and are very manifestly both good and important. i suppose i've sort of been holding them in reserve them for those very reasons - no reason to hurry, really. at the third party of the weekend i chatted with a longtime mj fan who helped convince me that the time may be soon...]

"thriller" went right into rjd2's "the horror," which went over quite well. i was also very happy to play "frankenstein" (edgar winter - not the whole thing), adult.'s "nausea" (just got 12"!), "like a pen," cerrone's "supernature," black box's "everybody everybody" (thrift store pickup), and two tracks each from blackout (which went over v. well) and in rainbows (which didn't exactly - thought "bodysnatchers" might work as a dance jam but no dice; "reckoner" was my last song, and they did some nice improvy things to it.) i specifically bought a dennis yost and classics iv greatest hits lp that afternoon so that i could play "spooky," but of course i forgot to play it...oh well.

stalled out on the mixtape front - which is cool, for now. i do want to upload an existing dj-mix or two but have been having trouble finding a frustration-free way to share 'em. am more or less waiting on making more until i get some kind of laptop set-up worked out - have been playing around with traktor but it's going slowly. most of my cd collection is in boxes now - save 400 in two binders for djing, and 96 i guess in another for home listening. and of course the fifty or so that i've bought or otherwise acquired in the last two months (and if the sidebar is to be believed only sixteen of those were in september, all in one fell swoop on a brilliant a.k.a. day.)

actually, i don't think i've bought anything at a.k.a. since - in well over a month that is - though i have stopped in there. branching out, then - finding some excellent stuff at long in the tooth (on 20th and sansom) which has a tremendous amount of character despite an odd layout - definite focus on true-blue (for want of a better word) rockist tastemaker territory - punk, vintage indie, pedigreed country, jazz, '60s garage/psych and folk-rock... got some girl-group comps there too, which seems to fit in as well. prices not too bad either. have also made some cautious stops at th!nk music, the new a.k.a. only in that it's next-door to my new work-place, which has an equally bad layout without the redeeming features (they even sort used records alphabetically with new, ew), but managed to get some nice indie gapfillers. finally, i redeemed all my volunteer credit at the marvelous for a grab-bag of whatsit. otherwise, did some carefully plotted 'net shopping in the weeks leading up to my birthday (that's allowed, right?), among other things, expanding and consolidating various recent explorations in genre, and prepping my self for my new writing gig.

hm, how 'bout i stop talking about buying records? maybe i'll get around to talking about the music on them. or maybe i'll at least talk about the new britney and radiohead albums - those are pretty much the big news of the month, aren't they? since i'm all about being relevant. both are about 43 minutes long - bit too much for them to fit on a cd-r together, which is too bad b/c blackout rainbows has some good artistic possibilities. also both are quite good, but i'll give you a hint: one's better than the other. and it's not the one dave bedbug thinks. oh yeh, speaking of, teenpop is finally starting to perk up for '07 - save hilarity, rihanna, and ashley t., there'd been precious little action up until a month or so ago. and i may just be ready to listen to some more of it. digital-wise, i've been processing a handful of enjoyable things recently, one of the better of which, in case i don't get to mention it again, is tmbg's cast your pod to the wind. what the christ. what the devil.

one more recent obsession: "one sound" by knife in the water. dusty semi-country minimalism. nine minutes plus. same progression just repeated and repeated, sometimes with verses. organ harmonizations just so-slightly off, never quite resolving they way they should, but growing familiar enough that you almost don't notice - the unsettling rendered inconspicuous through desensitization. "i want to fall right back to sleep/to dive back in the sheets." hypnotic. hmm now.

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