Jesse Jarnow

Archive for September, 2003

bitchin’ idea for an article

Fifth graders draw interpretations of Radiohead songs.

new articles

Out of the Aeroplane Into the Sea. My debut. A fairly navel-gazin’ stab (ostensibly) at The Decemberists’ Her Majesty, The Decemberists.
A review of Yo La Tengo at Southpaw, 2 September.

“baby boy” featuring sean paul

#2 this week, #4 last week, 6 weeks on the chart.

My first collection, at least that I can remember, was baseball cards. I loved completing sets — getting a sequence of card numbers, getting a few cards of the same player, of the same team. As far as my pop collection goes, “Baby Boy” is officially a member of a set. It’s part of two sets, actually. At least this week, it fills in the hole between #1 (“Shake Ya Tailfeather”) and #3 (“Right Thurr”), both of which I’ve listened to and written about. It’s also my second Beyonce song (with “Crazy In Love”). So I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice. And which also means I can start generalizing/theorizing a little more. Yay.

On “Crazy In Love,” Jay-Z’s rap made a weirdly literal interpretation of craziness (just as bizarre as those Greil Marcus descriptions of What The Songs Really Mean). Here, instead of “crazy,” the concept is “fantasy” — as in the chorus of the song: “Baby boy, stay on my mind, fulfill my fantasy.” So, again, there’s this literal undercurrent to it, as the song brims with cool escapist cues. Frickin’ sitars, for example. They’re awesome — squiggly and completely weird during the intro, dropping curiously into the verse, but then they kind of just morph into the instrumental bed of the track until they’re completely indistinguishable (though brought back for a short solo/fill during the outro).

Then, there’s Sean Paul, who toasts through his breaks and does vocal fills throughout that add reggae off-rhythms to Beyonce’s lead. As a musical trick, that’s cool, but it also works with the fantasy conceit of the tune. Amidst dance pop (and especially atop the sitars and other noises), Paul’s vocals are exotic, the singer’s fantasy, and the subject of the tune.

All this connects back to Greil Marcus again, oddly. I read this quote when the article first came out, but a post today on RockCritics Daily reminded me. Anyway, Sir Greil posits, “I really used to believe, and I haven’t any reason to think differently, that in the ’50s and ’60s, with clear exceptions that you find out about later, for the most part the best records did break through, did get heard. There were exceptions to that, but the cream did rise to the top–I think that’s true. Nobody can make that argument today. You simply cannot make an argument that the top 10, the top 20, the top 40 on the Billboard charts of any given week represent the most adventurous, the most challenging, the most creative, the most surprising music being made today. It would be a ludicrous joke to try to make that argument today. It’s been a long time since the most striking work was showing up in those kinds of charts.”

There’s certainly some grumpy hippiness to what he’s saying but, for the most part, he’s right. The most adventurous music isn’t on the pop charts. But, that’s not what the pop charts are for. That’s not what pop is for. It can be, and it’s exciting when it is. But, for the most part, that’s what the avant-garde is for. And that’s not to separate the two, necessarily. There is an important correlation between them, as experimental ideas begin to infiltrate the mainstream like applied, functional research. So, “Baby Boy” by Beyonce has some shit going on it that wouldn’t be possible, even in the ’60s: a typical pop tune, fused with Indian melodies and Jamaican rhythms. Likewise, within that, there are all manners of experiments: big block piano chords (hints of Cage?), fractured electronics, irregular handclaps. Yeah, good stuff. I like Beyonce.

“three short words” – josie & the pussycats

(“If I could go back in time, I would want to meet Snoopy.”)

I watched Josie and the Pussycats tonight, which I like maybe more than I should. Whatever. It’s a great movie, and it reminded me that I should post to this thing more often. But, before I get to that, I just wanted to exult (briefly) about “Three Small Words,” one of the Pussycats’ tunes. It’s great. Go download it. It pretty much perfectly adheres to The Residents’ Commercial Album theory: that most pop songs can be boiled down to one minute — a verse, a chorus, and a bridge/solo. Sho’ nuff, after exactly a minute, “Three Small Words” jumps to its second cycle, and it’s hard to think the songwriters don’t know. Anyway, great song, catchy-ass chorus. A good, simple way of getting around the obvious phrase, never actually speaking/singing it. Two minutes and fifty-three seconds of goodness. Now, on with the countdown.

“right thurr” – chingy

#3 this week, #2 last week, 19 weeks on the chart.
(meant to do this last week but never quite around to it.)

Not quite as good as “Three Small Words,” but what can be, eh?

Mmmm, instant handclaps. My roommate has me well attuned to that. Again, right into the chorus/hook. Before downloading, I was sorta wondering what “thurr” was. A southern drawled “there,” apparently. Thoughts of Josie and slang-coining. Yeah, the use of “thurr” is totally jerkin’, indeed.

Like pretty much all pop songs, the song is built around the chorus. But, in this case, the chorus isn’t particularly triumphant, nor is it really a release from the rest of the tune. After a short prelude (introduction of handclaps and the various production tricks that run through the song), the tune jumps right into the chorus. For the first minute of the song, there’s virtually no variation in the arrangement, and the vocals stay rhythmically close to the chorus. Thus, there’s always an expectation that the tune is about to return to the chorus, but one doesn’t particularly yearn for it.

At around 1:15, a vocal solo begins. The arrangement stays almost the same, but something drops out. I can’t really tell what it is. I think it’s the big distorted kick drum. At the very least, I’m pretty sure it’s big distorted something. Anyway, it’s a rap that cuts out the sing-songy stuff of the chorus, and we have our first little moment of tension. Gratification comes thirty seconds later, when it resolves back to the chorus. Then another verse/solo/rap, and even more stuff drops out, starts to fall back in during a second verse/solo/rap, and then back to the chorus. A neat structural trick.

The song basically exists to drive the chorus home. The components of the music behind it that I can pick it up: handclaps, kick drum rhythm, almost accordion-like synth, subtle fireworks-like whistle, occasional white noise whooshes. I can’t make out a bassline, though that could be due to the inferior quality of the mp3. Meh, doesn’t seem too exciting to me, though the chorus is catchy enough to keep it afloat.

I just read the entry on Chingy, from which I learned a few things worth considering. He “boasts a Southern dialect,” according to the description, which I don’t particularly notice except for the chorus, and there it seems like a forced caricature. “The party track blew up in the clubs first, especially throughout the South, and quickly infiltrated urban radio in the midst of summer.” Which means, I guess, that there still is some regionalism in American music — something I’ve long wondered about. That said, to my ears, that only applies to the song’s reception. It doesn’t sound like it came from a specific region, and the lyrics don’t seem so either (short of “hit me with what you got fo’ a po’kchop,” which – again – seems like caricature, though maybe it only becomes so when I point it out). Maybe I’m missing something. Wouldn’t be the first time.

Anyway, I’m gonna listen to “Three Small Words” again. Goddamn. Word. G’night.

a righteously amusing article by chuck klosterman

Twenty-four hours of VH1 Classic. Check it.

“crazy in love” – beyonce featuring jay-z (part II)

A tactic I frequently try to take when I write about music is to try to imagine what an imaginary listener with no foreknowledge of the group (or maybe even of the genre) might think. What would stand out? What would be puzzling? Usually, the reason to do that is try to force myself to listen with a fresh ear, and ultimately be able to communicate what it is that I love about a favorite track or band that I take for granted. Here, I find myself being genuinely naive. Here that comes to bear with the way I parse “Crazy In Love” without much knowledge of who Beyonce and Jay-Z are.

Given the nature of the song (R & B/pop-style love tune), Jay-Z’s appearance in the middle, rapping about stuff that has little to do (upon first inspection) with the rest of the song, which is a fairly normal set of verses about being (not to sound too stiff or nothin’), er, crazy in love. Slowed down with the horns playing live, these parts could basically be an early Motown side (and a good one, at that). Jay-Z’s rap, then, is a far more literal interpretation of “crazy in love” might mean, hinging on the “crazy” part. “Crazy and deranged,” he sings. “They can’t figure ’em out, they’re like ‘hey, is he insane?’ Yes sir, I’m cut from a different cloth, my texture is the best fur, of chinchilla.” (Or, of course, this could be totally bunk. Me trying to figure this shit out reminds of that Bloom County strip where Michael Dukakis, George Bush, and Bill The Cat present their versions of the “Louie, Louie” lyrics.)

The two sections – Beyonce and Jay-Z – are vastly different. How is this meant to be read? As (like above) a literal embodiment of crazy, via the sudden shift from a sultry slice o’ R & B/pop to a rap? Or, does it hinge on the listener’s knowledge of Beyonce and Jay-Z? I dunno much about ’em, but her All Music entry refers to Jay-Z as “her man.” Okay, so we’ve got that. Whether or not one knows that, though, one is likely expected to know a bit about Jay-Z, which would then contextualize his appearance. (Though if one is expected to have background on Jay-Z, is he also expected to know that he is/was in a thang with Beyonce?) Can it be both? If one knew what Jay-Z normally sounded like, and even knew what was going on, would his appearance then be jarring and crazy-sounding? In this case, I don’t think one can have it both ways.

It’s not a matter that’s likely to be given much thought, nor should it be. That’s the nature of pop, and that’s why I’m probably more inclined to go with the latter explanation, even if the producers are going for the former. (Does it work, in my case, then, for the wrong reasons?)

The All Music Guide is a great resource, but it is unable to account for things going on now (again, that’s fine, it’s not what it’s designed to do). For example, much of the impact of “Crazy In Love” probably has to do with extra-musical things — bits of “news” about the musicians not conveyed by/through the medium of recorded music, but through culture at large: star gossip rags, websites, etc.. To me, that’s a very big element of pop music. For a listener who knows about Jay-Z and Beyonce’s history, that would add an amount of pleasure (in the form of expectation) when listening to the track for the first time. Star power, in other words.

Maybe that can be simplified into saying that it’s music that very much relies on its place in current culture. In that sense, content aside, pop can always be considered relevant, can always be considered “news” of a sort, in a way that more insular/consciously art-minded musicians (like, say, Phish or Yo La Tengo) never could be.

phish dialogue, cont.

I made the decision today to include other stuff in the blog that don’t really fit anywhere else. My and I have been talking recently about Phish and politics. A few weeks ago, he made a post to his blog, in response to an email I sent him (which is included in his post). Below is my response. I always feel like a bit of a dolt writing about politics, so hopefully he’ll be able to hammer me into shape (bloody politics major).


I’m gonna start somewhat away from Phish, with a passage I read this morning in (huh-huh) that Susan Orlean essay in the Best Music Writing book. It’s called “The Congo Sound” and is about music from Congo/Zaire.

“Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who ruled the country for 32 years, was aware of how directly music communicated to the Congolese. When he took power, in 1965, he demanded that the country’s musicians write songs to celebrate his achievement, and then arranged for them to receive generous state sponsorship as a sort of insurance policy against future songs that might question his actions. When he introduced his Authenticité campaign, in 1971, with the aim of ridding the country of foreign influence, he designated the great soukous orchestra O.K. Jazz the official musical medium for conveying his doctrine. He traveled throughout Zaire with the orchestra; after each of his speeches, O.K. Jazz performed, both to sweeten the medicine of Authenticité and to use its lyrics to lecture the crowds, however gorgeously, about Mobutu’s programs. It would be like George W. Bush giving a series of speeches about why he wanted to go to war with Iraq, accompanied by foreign-policy songs by Bruce Springsteen.”

(Which, of course, is in itself an amusing idea.)

So, this is obviously an extreme example of what happens when music gets politicized. Of course, it doesn’t have to happen like this. Orlean points this out. In fact, the bulk of her article is about how so many Congolese musicians ended up in Paris. They were expatriates there, self-exiled because a particular leader would jail them for speaking/singing out against him. Amusingly (sort of), said leader actually was a big music fan, and repeatedly pardoned the worst offenders so they could play concerts. Hopefully, that wouldn’t happen in the United States, but it’s worth considering.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Howard Dean manages to convince Phish to join him on his campaign. They could play before his rallies, and tens of thousands of Phish fans would flock to him. Hell, I’d go. I like Phish. And let’s also say, for the sake of argument, that Dean won the election. Finally, let’s imagine that, somehow, a buncha electoral wonks derived some formula that proved, without a trace of a doubt, that it was Phishheads who put Dean over the top. All of that would put Phish in a mighty weird spot. Howard Dean is President. He knows Phish can help sell his policies. Then what? Does music then become a part of the government process, ala Zaire? Does Dean go mad with power? Okay, yeah, so that’s a paranoid fantasy played out to the extreme. But it leads us to another question, which perhaps we can use to reverse-engineer some interesting stuff: what is the ideal relationship between government/politics and music?

Now, there’s surely a difference between government and politics, which you can probably better define. Here’s the one I’m going to work with: government is decision-making body, politics is the mechanism that allows the decisions to be acted out.

What is the most ideal? A band that (only) allows themselves to be used to attract potential followers to a politician? Or a band that does this, and then uses their music to amplify the politician’s policies? The latter is mighty close to advertising. But, again, it doesn’t have to be. Newspapers who report on political decisions certainly don’t implicitly endorse what they’re covering. There’s no reason why a band couldn’t, y’know, intelligently critique policy decisions through their music. But what politician wants a band following him around like that? We’re then left with the model of the band as independent arbiter, functioning autonomously (again, like a newspaper). They, too, would make policy decisions. Just as the New York Times can make a show of their endorsements, so could Phish. At the beginning of each campaign season and/or Phish tour, they could write songs summarizing the issues, pointing out where everybody stands (a verse for Dean, a verse for Kerry, etc.), and present their conclusions at the end
of a climactic 40 minute jam. Dude, it’d be phat.

But who wants to do that? That’s hideously close to didactic Schoolhouse Rock – educational music and stuff – and not particularly what Phish are trying to achieve artistically. So, let’s keep on looking for ideals. We’re getting closer to the reality of the situation now. The most workable midway point would simply for Phish’s lyrics to become more socially conscious without
delving into the specifics. But, without an outright politicization, the impact on politics would be mostly unquantifiable. Nonetheless, I think that would be the ideal: socially conscious (though perhaps still abstract) lyrics, coupled with a political endorsement (or an active attempt to make
people go out and vote). One of the things that I value about Bob Dylan’s mid-’60s work (especially John Wesley Harding) is its ability to be completely socially conscious without losing an iota of emotional impact. “All Along The Watchtower” has been covered badly so many times by now that its meaning is mostly gone, but the lyrics are powerful:

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief,
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”

“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke,
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

I can’t say exactly how that’s socially conscious, but simply through its use of language and character (businessman, joker, thief), the world it puts my imagination in is a real one. Phish, by contrast, puts my imagination in a very fantastical place. Their lyrics have always been vague — or, at least, obscure. Again, this is an artistic choice, for the most part. And I’d even argue that it’s a valid one. Or, at least, it’d be disingenuous if they suddenly became politicized now, 20 years into their career.

They have always been somewhat progressive, but only in small ways. For a long time, they had a Greenpeace table at every show. When Greenpeace discontinued their touring program, the band replaced them with the Waterwheel Foundation. Every show, they raffle off backstage passes, signed posters, etc., in return for donations. The donations are channeled to local charities — homeless shelters, safe houses for abused women, and the like. They are, like you said the initial post, safe political bets — Good Things by anybody’s standards. In that sense, Waterwheel isn’t too different from the philanthropic arm of any small corporation.

That leads to something else I’ve been thinking about: we assume that Phish’s fans are progressive, but why should they be? That’s not what the attraction of the music is. There’s a sense of exploration, for sure. But, it’s a safe kind of exploration. The Dead lived communally. Phish never did. While it might be said that Phish’s fans are of a lifestyle, it’s not the same thing. Most of Phish’s fans are college-age. The people who go out on tour with Phish, for the most part, aren’t (mostly) not doing so at the expense of their broader lives. Like college, Phish tour (and especially Phish festivals) is a liminal space, a sorta morally autonomous zone where
kids can try different things (usually drugs, but also living on less money, etc.). While the act of entering a liminal territory is a sign of some liberalism, it only is to a degree. I think it’d be more fair to say that it’s part of growing up. Of course, one can also look at Phish tour as a breeding ground for budding capitalists.

In terms of actual musical qualities, what brings Phish fans together is a sense of musical adventure, but only a certain kind of musical adventure. Medeski Martin and Wood are an interesting example, to this end: after Trey endorsed them in 1995 (they opened some Phish shows, and Trey wrote in the Phish newsletter that they were “music that makes [him] want to drive too fast”), Phish fans began showing up at their shows. Now, MMW are from the NYC scene — came up playing with Zorn and Ribot and that bunch. As was vogue in the early ’90s, they were also into Afro-Cuban rhythms, old funk, etc.. It was music that was danceable. There was a big spike in their popularity. A year or so after that, the band moved into a deeply atonal
period. The Phish fans hated it. While Phish frequently is atonal, it’s mostly as a counter-balance to their brighter stuff. There’s always brightness at the end. With MMW, they’d stay dark and discordant for entire sets. While they surely gained many new fans anyway, it’s clear that the
mass audience wasn’t into the weird stuff. (Their last album, FWIW, was a return to the groove-oriented material of yore.)

What brings Phish fans together, then, is an idea of whimsy. This doesn’t imply a liberal fanbase at all (nor does it exclude one). You wrote of Phish (and others) distrust of power, which I think is definitely true. You conclude by saying “But people need to be organized, and telling them what to think is different than identifying a bunch of people who think the same way and getting them to all speak together to get something done.” I agree, but I’m starting to wonder: do Phish fans really all think in the same way? Would there be some way of finding out? It’s possible that their fanbase is more democratic (as opposed to Democratic) than it might first appear. Even so, I’d still wager that – given the average age of Phish fans – that most of ’em would vote Democrat. However, whether they would do so as a result of the same thing which made them like Phish… well, that’s another question.

some more articles.

Here’s the current crop of my articles on the web:
A review of Mike Doughty at North 6, 21 August.
A review of Bob Dylan at the Hammerstein Ballroom, 13 August.
A review of the soundtrack to Bob Dylan’s Masked and Anonymous
A review of Solomon and Socalled’s HipHopKhasene.
A column about .
Also, a review of Masked and Anonymous (the film) is on the San Diego Fahreneheit’s website, but it’s impossible to link directly to. Blargh. That’s it for now, I think.

some fab articles

I think John Darnielle is an amazing writer. Everybody should worship at the altar of Last Plane to Jakarta. Word.
I mentioned this the other day, but Sasha Frere-Jones recently wrote a wonderful article called “When Critics Meet Pop.”

notes on pop

Over the past few days, I’ve tried to describe the blog to a few people. One of the reasons I came up with is that, to me, a lot of Top 40 pop music sounds like it was made on Mars. That’s not exotify pop specifically, so much as all music. Every genre has the potential to sound this weird, whether it’s from Bali or Hollywood or Des Moines. There’s so much crazy music circulating out there that there’s no reason why any one kind of music should sound any blander than another. (Whether or not one wants to listen to it is another question.) So pop is ubiquitous. Big deal. Just listen to less of it. It’ll sound way cooler. I’ve listened to more gamelan music over the past four years than Top 40 pop. Gamelan hasn’t lost its magic, but Top 40 sure has gained some.

“crazy in love” – beyonce featuring jay-z

#2 this week, #1 last week, 16 weeks on the chart
Ooh, I like this one very much.
It begins with just this fucking joyous horn blowout, grabbed from the peak of some other song. I swear I’ve heard it before, but it could be from anywhere. My brain is pulling up all kinds of explanations for where it’s from, which range from the Five Stairsteps to one of the horn arrangements from John Henry by They Might Be Giants. Either way, it comes in full-force, then drops into this sly “uh-oh, uh-oh” vocal, alternates very quickly back to the horn loop, then right back to Beyonce’s lead. It establishes the pattern for the rest of the song: alternation between Beyonce’s sexy/playful vocal and the horn chorus. Like the intro to “Shake Ya Tailfeather,” it’s got bumper elements to it — in this case, Jay-Z introducing the track. Again, that notion of performance.
And, since the horn is an obviously repeated figure, introduced first, it becomes the song’s chorus before we even get there. During the verses, we spend the whole time just waiting for that part to arrive, expecting it. And, yippee, it comes back reliably. The “uh-oh”s return, too, like a repeating riff separate from the chorus. When they return, they loop like the horn figure.
After the second chorus, instead of “uh-oh”s, we get Jay-Z. Sure, it’s a slight frustration, but it’s okay — they come back towards the end of his segment, just before the penultimate chorus rides in, which leads to a short gospel rave-up, which – in turn – is a prelude to the finale. The song, of course, ends with the horn part. Indeedy, indeedy, a fine slice o’ summer fun.
Tomorrow: do we have to know about the performers to dig the tune? Do I have to grasp Beyonce or Jay-Z’s characters to appreciate the collaboration? (Same question could be applied for “Shake Ya Tailfeather.”)