Saturday, November 8, 2008

Sentences on Sounds

All texts © DG

Excerpt from “Beyond Category: Gnarls Barkley's The Odd Couple and St. Elsewhere"

Most of the songs on St. Elsewhere are short, which is shrewd—there is not enough time to grow bored beyond one’s initial fascination. Light, textured instrumentation is married to a soulful—big, expressive—voice, that of Thomas Callaway (Cee-Lo Green)… Thomas Callaway’s voice, in which I hear traces of Sam Cooke and Al Green, is not the kind one would expect to be heard and appreciated in a culture in which so much excessive and false masculinity is celebrated; and yet it has been heard—and it resonates in the hearts of many: androgynous, clear, dramatic, soulful…Charity Case” is the first of thirteen songs on Gnarls Barkley’s The Odd Couple. “If I help somebody, maybe there’s mercy for me,” says the narrator in “Charity Case,” which does seem a continuation of the music and themes of St. Elsewhere, in its mixture of style and passion, dance and dread. More direct, less ambiguous, is the plaintive questioning of “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” (“Who’s gonna save my soul now? How will my story ever be told?” “Is it possible you are hurting worse than me?”)… The Odd Couple and St. Elsewhere deepen the pair’s value: each project is an expansion of skill, vision, and authority; and an artist’s authority increases with his or her ability to engage broad, diverse, significant human experiences.

Excerpt from “What One Young Man Made of His Freedom: Liam Finn, I'll Be Lightning"

Finn achieves what seems a personal voice—not the voice one speaks in but the voice one thinks with, the voice that is changed when one feels, the voice others usually do not hear: a voice of sensitivity and serenity, a voice of imagination and investigation.

Excerpt from “Energy, Honesty, Intelligence, Tradition and Possibility: The Clash, London Calling"

“Death or Glory” conflates crime, domestic violence, rock and roll exploitation, market research, and sexual violation—lives of immorality and greed. Listening to the song, I actually thought of Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen, also 1970s contemporaries of the Clash (I thought of the Jackson Browne of 1977’s Running on Empty and the Springsteen of 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, and their attempts to marry musical momentum and meaning, their attempts to sound naturally observant and particularly insightful). However, the ambition (an ambition as political as it is artistic) and the anarchic energies of the Clash are probably closer to those of Patti Smith, androgynous, impassioned, and intelligent, she of the large voice, literary references, rock star heroes, and shamanic manner—the principal force and visionary of Horses, Easter, Dream of Life, Land, and the tribute album Twelve, a woman who understood that art is both discipline and revelation.

Excerpt from “Where the White Boys Dance: The Killers, Sawdust"

The collection, Sawdust, is mostly a lot of fun, and is better than I expected it to be (I liked Sam’s Town, but its earnest quality limited the sense of sensuality)… It does not take much guessing to identify the band’s influences (the band is reaching up over the heads of many of its contemporaries to touch the rock tradition: a form of respecting the parents that kids do not frequently like, when they recognize it).

Excerpt from “The Ordinary Lives of Intelligent People: Bell and Sebastian's If You're Feeling Sinister"

The clichés of romance and success, the usual clichés, are not the themes of the band’s songs: instead, the small moments, the found moments and objects, of the ordinary lives of intelligent young people are those that are featured: moments involving contemplation, flirtation, withheld secrets, modern technology’s use, mundane institutions, news media, simple homes, promiscuity, self-regard, the observation of others, social class, sexual complexity, lost chances, official power, age and time, madness, unfair retribution, violence, cinema, alienation, sports, music, tall tales, suicide, betrayal, guilt, and more: and, suddenly, the ordinary lives of intelligent people no longer seem that ordinary.

Excerpt from “The Lasting Icon: Elvis Presley and his 30 #1 Hits"

Hearing Elvis Presley’s songs again, I become aware that a song can break your heart—and it’s not always the song you think it is going to be or for the reason you expect. A song can remind you, as it has me, of a time when you were younger, when you took much for granted, and you can weep at that kind of innocence, even though innocence—or ignorance—came to cause you so much pain.

Excerpt from “Howlin' Wolf and the Blues, Then and Now"

A favorite song of mine, “Who’s Been Talkin’,” was written by Howlin’ Wolf, and it is about a relationship break-up told through a woman’s plans to leave and travel, a leave-taking partly inspired by gossip about the male narrator’s behavior. Who has been telling his secrets? Wolf sings “Goodbye baby, hate to see you go” and “You know I love you. I’m the causin’ of it all.” Another song is full of characters, and it’s a party song, but one in which excitement seems the equivalent of aggression—in which there is little difference between partying and causing trouble—and that song is “Wang Dang Doodle.” (Maybe fighting is a pleasure you allow yourself if you do not have the social space to confront your most vital issues.

Excerpt from “Traditions, Transformations: Leela James, A Change Is Gonna Come"

In the collection of songs A Change Is Gonna Come, Leela James is attempting to cover a lot of ground. One can only speculate about what will become of her. Often the establishment—the musical establishment, the critical establishment, any establishment—does not know what to do with someone who isn’t a blank slate, easily manageable: someone who is not coming to be shaped by others, but has her own ambitions. What helps or hurts a career can be a matter of impressing the wrong people in the right way or the right people in the wrong way. Modern bureaucracies—companies, institutions—seem to say, “We’re not here to help you. We’re here to get from you what we require, to make you of use to us.” Sometimes the achievement of public identity is a triumph of image or rhetoric, not being. Of course, free and questing people are the most interesting kind. One wants a lifelong conversation with such people.