Saturday, February 27, 2010

Not Since "The Crunge"

I've never been able to count along with Zeppelin's mind-bending funker "The Crunge," have you? I can't embed the tune here, but this might give you an idea why. Like some of the crazy Balkan stuff I've heard (Ivo Papasov and others), which people somehow actually dance to (and I've tried), "The Crunge" somehow creates an otherworldly groove out of its shifting meters, as opposed to, say, the prog-rock of Yes, in which the aggressive time-signature changes stand out jaggedly; they sound calculated, "classical" (not that there's anything wrong with that--I love me some Yes, if only for the junior-high nostalgia).

The Dirty Projectors' brilliant new record Bitte Orca has many pleasures, but the song that continues to blow out my mind's speakers is "Temecula Sunrise." I love the way it builds from a sweet, folky acoustic guitar riff into rafter-shaking art-rock; I love the alternately off-putting and welcoming lyrics; I love the incredible surge of feeling it conveys; I love the Projectors' signature "hocketing." But above all, I've come to love that I just cannot count along with it at all. The harder-to-get this tease of a song plays, the greater my ardor:

Listen how the burst of "aaah...Temecula sunrise" (at 1:16, 1:25, etc.) seems to flood in early, between the beats of the meter that precedes it. My awe only increases when I watch Dave Longstreth in this mellow acoustic version: I can see him grooving to his own internal drummer, and Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian totally keep up, but I'm just as lost without a drummer (probably moreso). You can hear someone clicking and clapping along here, apparently to help keep time, and it's as endearing (and clearly intentional) as those two audible drumstick clicks you can hear in the studio version:

It turns out that Amber and Angel (along with drummer Brian McOmber) are even better than that. They play the bass and guitar parts along with their hocketing. I swear, the collective brain power of this band could power all five boroughs:

Somehow, an anonymous drummer was able to more or less take the song's pieces apart. Just try counting along with him:

I remain in abject awe. While this song may remain too prickly and sprawling too groove quite like "The Crunge" or like Ivo Papasov, it flows as naturally as Debussy, and just as sweetly. This is straight-up composing with rock instrumentation, and to my ears it points the way to bright and glistening musical future--not unlike a Temecula sunrise, I'd say.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Without a Love of My Own

I've always loved it, and I remember it being used very effectively in a scene in John Patrick Shanley's underrated film Joe Versus the Volcano, but I'd never paid close attention to Elvis Presley's gorgeous rendition of "Blue Moon," from his seminal Sun Records sessions, until I was singing along with it recently (it's on a playlist of songs called "Oliver Lullaby" to help my baby son go to sleep). Can you tell what's missing from this rendition?

It's gorgeous--that ticking guitar, the reverb, Elvis' falsetto vocalise...but there's no bridge. To remind you, I'm talking about this part:
And then there suddenly appeared before me
The only one my arms will ever hold
I heard somebody whisper, "Please adore me"
And when I looked, the moon had turned to gold
The moon never turns gold in Elvis' sad, slowly ticking, 1-6-4-5 rendition. This turns the song's title meaning on its head; if Larry Hart's lyrics use "blue moon" to signify a rare and magical evening ("once in a blue moon") in which our singer meets the love of his dreams, Elvis makes "blue moon" mean simply "sad moon." The "you" in "you saw me standing alone" is more clearly than ever the moon itself; there's no other character here, no grand entrance and no happy ending (he doesn't sing the "now I'm no longer alone" lyric, of course).

This illustrates a truism about rock or pop music vs. showtunes: that the former is often best at crystallizing a mood, a single state of mind, and the latter is a more narrative form, with a beginning, middle, and end.

Strangely enough, a show like the current Broadway hit Fela!, in which Afrobeat jams grind along one chord figure for as long as a dozen minutes at a time, illustrates a similar point about how music functions in the theater: A song can build, develop, change, even accompany story, but it's better at conveying or intensifying a feeling, an impression, than bearing a text or having to carry the narrative (in the BMI Lehman Engel workshop, it's called "singing the book"). Lest I seem to be diminishing this incantatory power, the feeling such music conveys is huge, bigger and deeper than words, an end in itself. That much should be clear from Elvis' "Blue Moon," which stands out from other renditions precisely because of the strength and clarity of feeling he gets across. That he's undistracted by the cross-purposes of a story arc seems to make all the difference (compare it, say, to the urban kitsch of his preachy "In the Ghetto").