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Conceive It - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
cbertsch
cbertsch
Conceive It
As a result of being tagged by several overlapping memes over on Facebook, I've been thinking a lot about making lists that mean a lot to me, whether they be all-time favorites, current pleasure triggers or simply ones that changed my outlook on music or life to a significant degree.

At some point, I may put together a list I want to share. I might even, horror of horrors, try to get a meme going myself. For now, though, I'm going to start being a bit more voluble when it comes to music, as per the feedback I received from my poll. Because I'm feeling rather inarticulate today, I'll keep this short.

In revisiting much-traveled but slightly overgrown portions of my music collection, I've been paying special attention to those records that I turn to when I need to reinforce a state of mind or -- a more challenging task -- when I need to be transported to a different state of mind. Because we're deep into basketball season, I'm calling these records my "go-to" music, the ones I rely on in the proverbial crunch time.

Like many of you, I've been feeling particularly "crunched" of late, with visions of the trash compactor scene in Star Wars clouding my sight. In other words, I'm finding it therapeutic to go to my "go-to" records right now and also realizing again, as I have long said in jest, that this process of rediscovery is "cheaper than therapy" and pretty darned effective at mood management.

Sometimes an entire album, like The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street or Prince's Around the World in a Day, serves as a "go-to" record for me. Sometimes it's just a song, like Dusty Springfield's "Just a Little Lovin'", Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" or Curtis Mayfield's "Move on Up." And sometimes it's just one part of a song, like the opening guitar part to the Sex Pistols' "Holiday in the Sun" flurry of horns in Otis Redding's "Respect".

Although I love all of the song I'm sharing with you today, it's one that I listen to for a specific part, when the vocals return after a few bars of rhythmic emphasis. I'll leave the details a surprise, for those of you who don't know the song or perhaps even the band. You can download the track here. The moment I'm talking about comes at 1:31 in that album version or 1:13 in this faster, yet longer one from The Year Punk Broke, in which it is enhanced by incongruous shots of a happy Euro couple:
I've always liked J. Mascis's lyrics, although they lack the subtlety and sophistication of my favorite sonic wordsmiths. Even when they are self-absorbed or, to be more precise, despite the fact that they almost always come off as self-absorbed, they convey the sort of sincere detachment that aligns with my own way of apprehending the world. And their simplicity, together with the enormous force of the music, gives their most quotable moments special power.

The note on this CD case dates back to one of the first classes I taught as a graduate student. I used to give a presentation on the aesthetics of noise in which I tried to demonstrate, with the help of examples from popular music, how muddying the waters of experience with deliberate distortion can actually give it more impact than tidied-up presentation. I was fumbling towards explaining the sublime, I suppose, although I was most interested in sharing some of my favorite songs as a way of countering the uncomfortable feelings I would have in playing the role of an authority. And I also wanted, as a corollary to that inevitably flawed attempt to abdicate the master's throne, to make my students like me, not as a teacher, but as someone they wouldn't mind spending time with outside the classroom.

I recognize all too well the trouble to which this approach to pedagogy can lead. Hell, I used to critique it in many of my professors. But it is better to acknowledge our tendencies than to pretend that they have been consigned to the landfill of discarded traits. At least I can console myself, in part, with the fact that I was innocently pushing buttons when I first engaged in this sort of sharing. I'm not sure I'd be comfortable playing this song for undergraduates now, after years of teaching students who do seem to think they do everything, including sins of the flesh, for Christ.

I'm also struck, listening to the song in these troubled times, by the degree to which it can be bent to whatever circumstances the listener requires. I used to think it was a relationship song. I imagine that's what J. Mascis intended, since almost all his songs are either relationship songs or "non-relationship" songs. That said, my favorite line seems perfectly suited to sizing up the global financial crisis. Indeed, I have a hard time hearing it as anything other than a prophecy hurled into a present that, despite the pretty wrapping paper in which it arrived, has turned out to be more curse than gift.

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Current Location: 85704
Muse: Freak Scene - Dinosaur Jr - Bug

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Comments
flw From: flw Date: March 6th, 2009 12:15 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Ahhh! You picked a moment that illustrates one of my favorite things that songs can "do"! Sometimes lyrics are good, sometimes solos are spectacular. But one of the best things you can do is let a solo "speak" for things that are best represented not by words.

Why is the music there anyway? A lot of people really pay attention to the words. These are the people for whom music is poetry with noise attached. I hate those people, because they were always coming up and asking me to make the vocals louder... or requesting it from the stage. This is often impossible, either because the vocals are so fuckin' loud that there's nothing else going on... or because of the natural mix (whisper singer, loud band... DO THE MATH ASSHOLES!)

But for those people, it seems like the lyric stands out in front of the music with the music serving as a background. Aesthetically, I hate these people. I hate how they see the world.

I like to think of a song as a poem that is trying to shed its words.

And Freak Scene has that feeling... What a mess! The only way to go on is a J. Mascis guitar solo (@ 1:45).
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: March 6th, 2009 03:20 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
This is a great comment. Thanks for posting it. But it's also hard for me to respond to. I'm a lyrics man. It's why I love Pavement. It's why I got turned on to REM in high school. It's why Dylan works for me in a way that other musicians of his era don't. And I have a whole riff on why the Simon Frith piece "Why Do Songs Have Words?", admirable as it is, gives short shrift to lyrics.

At the same time, I also recognize the absurdity of trying to pretend that lyrics are poetry. When the primary stresses come from the music and not from the words themselves, they almost always fall flat on the page. It's the music that makes words sing.

This song, "Freak Scene," is a perfect example. I agree completely that the message of the song is that the inarticulateness of the lyrics can only be redeemed by the astonishing fluency of the guitar playing. But the words that set up that point, including my faves starting at 1:31, are crucial to its delivery. They do what Renaissance lyric poets did when they would write about how words couldn't possibly capture their love's beauty. Language hits the mark when it berates itself for always missing its target.
flw From: flw Date: March 6th, 2009 04:02 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Yes! Exactly. I don't actually hate word lovers. I just hate how dominant they want vocals to be on the mix. You should be able to make out the words, but most people want the vocals to come out completely and totally on top of everything, and have it be as if the person is standing right there singing without a microphone. Which I suppose is admirable. It's just... I hate how stupid people are. And then I hate how stupid most sound guys are, as they are all susceptible to fashion trends.

You hear how the guitar takes over as "the voice" of the song after the verse? The guitar solo continues what is being "said" by the song.

The song has another guitar conversation that works very well... (0:39 - 1:02) There are four exchanges between J and the "Freak Scene" girl. He is the distortion she is the chorus response to his clunky-ness... I mean, he probably didn't think of it that way, but the guitars carry the story. You have to be versed in guitar narrative (and cliche) to comprehend a Dinosaur Jr. song.

The live version tells a different story, because of the pressure to have a "mosher"... going uptempo and dumping the angelic tones for straight out flanged fuzz in the guitar conversation... it loses its subtelty. But, you know, he knows what he's doing sort of. I was never a big fan of J as a Virtuoso. He had his own unique voice, but he wasn't broad in his skills. Not like that Galaxie 500/Luna guy.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: March 6th, 2009 04:19 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I agree with everything you say here, so beautifully put. But I do think J is a better guitarist than people give him credit for being. That may seem like a weird thing to say, given how much attention his soloing has received. What cuts that sugar for me with a pleasingly sour cleansing is his use of "freak-outs" that function like a rhythm section. He once said that he learned to play guitar by playing drums. I think those parts, like the ones immediately preceding 1:31, are what gives his playing variety and grit. That said, the sugar is hard to resist in concert. Even when his solos went on absurdly long, I was usually locked into the groove.
flw From: flw Date: March 6th, 2009 05:54 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
For my taste, "having a voice" on guitar is far more important, and difficult than being a "virtuoso". So, what I was saying about J Mascis I didn't intend as denigration. People will be talking about J Mascis' playing in 20 years, but no one will be talking about Nuno Bettencourt... unless he dies in an interesting way or something. J Mascis is a great guitarist and composer and he's a great arranger as well. It is very hard to layer a huge variety of guitars without their eating each other and washing everything else out... and he mumble sings on top of it. I guess in a way, he has virtuoso skills, they just aren't in the realm of weedly-weedly.
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