lyrics

Catching Up On The Week (Mar. 27 Edition)

Some #longreads for those still in the throes of March Madness…

After a relative paucity of reading material in recent weeks, this week saw the publication of numerous worthwhile interviews and discussions.  For those who want insight into older music, there’s the Rhino interview with Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and The Guardian behind the scenes look with The Strokes on the making of Is This It.  As for those who are looking ahead, there is Nate Mendel of the Foo Fighters talking with Consequence of Sound about his upcoming solo album as “Lieutenant” and Death Cab For Cutie revealing to Radio.com the background behind the making of their new album.

For those who are looking for more weightier fare, there is a roundtable discussion about the social context of works like the recent albums from D’Angelo and Kendrick Lamar and a Vox op-ed about the prejudicial treatment of rappers and the double standard that is given to rap lyrics by legal authorities, co-authored by Killer Mike.

Finally, GQ has an extended profile of Adam Horovitz, providing a personal in-depth look at the man you probably know as Ad-Rock, as he transitions into his post-Beastie Boys life and looks back on his career.

 

A Recap of the Time a Music Publication Mocked Me With My Own Writing

Insecurity can spur people to commit reckless deeds, including going above and beyond to lash out at perceived threats.  I can understand the desire to protect one’s reputation and integrity, but I will never comprehend the extent to which it motivates some to create mountains out of molehills.  As you may expect, the stupidity began where you would expect it most these days: Twitter.

Two weeks ago, a few folks I know in Twitter ended up getting into an argument with an online music publication, and upon witnessing their treatment by this supposedly professional organization I inevitably waded into the muck to defend their honor.  Their unforgivable sin was to share a link of a particularly bad review and to comment on its alleged quality; the publication saw their interaction, and proceeded to insult them for their opinions.  What made this a particularly bizarre interaction was that neither party had included the publication’s Twitter handle in their discussion, yet the company decided to interject anyway and express their displeasure.

It is one thing to defend your honor, but it is another to go out of your way to impugn someone else for providing their opinion.  The publication then doubled down on their rude behavior by browsing through the profiles and timelines of these folks to use as fodder for insults.  I was appalled at this trollish behavior, and specifically called out the company for engaging in such petty tactics.  I want to stress that it was not the author of the review that was officially engaging in this behavior at this point, but the person who ran the Twitter account for the entire publication, a person who felt that it was a good idea to drag the name of the entire company through the mood to harass others.  At a certain point, this person then directed some insults in my direction, and condescendingly attempted to explain how internet searches and Twitter works, as they apparently took offense to my acknowledgment of their shady behavior.  Their final reaction was the coup de grâce, as they proceeded to look up this site (which is linked in my personal Twitter bio, for the record), and then spit back to me the first line of the review that was at the top of the page.

Let us review: Company engages in shady behavior, gets called out on it, proceeds to mock person for calling out said behavior, then engages in the very same behavior in order to taunt the critic.  Excellent work all around.

So, what sparked this entire nonsense that took up several people’s afternoons?  A terrible album review.  Rest assured, it was an absolutely awful piece of writing, and as a service, we will provide some constructive criticism.

* * * * *

– Roughly half of the review centers around “cum” and its use in the very first line of the album, and the term is mentioned in all four paragraphs of the review, as if its presence is emblematic of the whole.  Despite the paragraphs dissecting its particular usage, the case is never made why the reader should care that Father John Misty mentions it or how its use represents the album.  In other words, the author assumes the argument has been made merely by bringing it up, but does not make any relevant connections himself.

– Xiu Xiu should never be used as a positive example.  If you are unfamiliar with Xiu Xiu, they are the embodiment of every negative connotation that one has when he/she hears the term “performance art”; creating worthwhile music is definitely not their goal.  Back when I worked in radio, I played one of their songs for our new music show, which deviates from the usual playlists and allows us to temporarily indulge in numerous offbeat tastes, and it was the one time I had a listener call in and say terrible things about what we were playing.  And that guy was totally right.

– If we are to indulge in the comparison of the use of “cum” by each act and look at the reviewer’s argument on its face, it is unclear what kind of distinction is being made.  In both cases it is an attempt to juxtapose the sacred and the profane, and in both songs it is used literally to convey a particular image.  It seems to be merely the author’s opinion that Xiu Xiu did a better job of this, which is fine, but there is no objective distinction in the two cases.

– The reviewer attempts to mock Father John Misty by claiming that the use of the term “Rorschach” was a pretentious attempt to display intellectual superiority says more about his impression of basic psychological concepts than FJM’s.  The reviewer gets this completely backwards, since it is much more likely that “Rorschach” was used not to impress the listener, but as a descriptor that is universally known.  Who is unfamiliar with Rorschach ink blots?

– It is hilarious that the reviewer attempts to call out FJM for his “PSYC101” analysis, when the fact that so much of this review is devoted to “cum” indicates that the author has some sort of obsessive fixation.  Or do they not cover Freud in PSYC101?

– The use of “Bro?” as a complete thought says way more about the review and the reviewer than anything else he has written.

– Hidden in the third paragraph is a legit criticism about irony and the nature of the “Father John Misty” character.  Many can find the different levels exhausting, as it can seem to be an attempt by the artist to always be able to escape criticism.  Tillman walks a fine line, and the fact that some say he crosses it is fine.  Personally, I think he comes close several times, but I am ultimately swayed by the record’s charms.

– The reviewer spends half of the final paragraph completely botching the analysis of a particular song because he spent no time doing any actual research on the record and neglected to include a key lyric in his assessment.  I Love You, Honeybear is a concept album of sorts loosely based on Tillman’s recent marriage, so the fact that he is undercutting himself in the lyrics to “The Ideal Husband” carries more weight than for which the reviewer gives credit.  The author does acknowledge the fact that Tillman is purposefully undercutting himself, but he is clumsy in his criticism by calling out “a dumb lyric about ‘putting a baby in the oven'”, since in the song itself Tillman sings, “said something dumb like ‘I’m tired of running.  Let’s put a baby in the oven.'”  I can see the point the author is trying to make, but when you call out a lyric for being dumb when the singer himself says it is dumb, it makes you look like an idiot.

– As you may expect, seeing “a hodgepodge of Suburbs (2010)-era Arcade Fire strumming” makes me want to scream.  FOR FUCK’S SAKE, ARCADE FIRE DID NOT INVENT GUITAR STRUMMING!  IF THEY HAD A DISTINCTIVE SOUND, THE WAY THAT THEY STRUM THEIR FUCKING GUITARS WOULD NOT BE A PART OF IT!

– “Did you know Joe Strummer got his name when he heard an Arcade Fire song?  He actually came to the future, heard one of their songs, asked ‘what is this?’ and when told it was ‘strumming’, he went back in his time machine and recorded The Clash’s debut album.”  I imagine this is the exact belief of this idiot.

– To sum up, the entire review consists of an analysis of a single line whose significance is never established, and the one reference to the actual music involves a band to which there is no actual resemblance and involves a comparison that sheds no light whatsoever.  It is not as if it is impossible to compare Father John Misty’s music to anyone, but it may involve looking back further than 2010.

* * * * *

I hope that the professional music publication which created this entire mess is now satisfied that it now has constructive criticism as to why its review was completely awful.  I also hope that someone somewhere within that company learned that it is probably unwise to act like a complete dick on Twitter.  But I am also a rational person, and I doubt that either of those hopes will come to pass.

A Lesson In Lyrical Put-Downs, By Japandroids

Before Japandroids caught people’s attention with their thrilling debut Post-Nothing and broke through with the triumphant Celebration Rock, they were just a hard-working couple of guys who grinded away for years on the road.  The wonderfully-titled No Singles compiles the band’s early recordings, and though the songs are a bit rough around the edges, there are some gems to be discovered.  The opener, the Springsteen-referencing “Darkness on the Edge of Gastown”, is probably the highlight of the collection, mainly due to its anthemic chorus, a quality which would become a future trademark of the band.

Musically speaking, Japandroids reverse the listener’s expectations in the initial section of the song by using the guitar part to set up more melodic elements in the drums; Brian King thrashes on a single (but expansive) chord, but tinkers with intricate rhythms by emphasizing different beats, as David Prowse experiments with diverse rolls and fills.  It’s a thrilling combination, and it helps the band ratchet up a certain tension, as the listener continuously anticipates the moment when the band breaks the pattern to dive into the next part of the song.  When the band finally launches into the chorus, the listener feels some relief with the transition; by drawing out this release, the band helps underline the contrast between the hooks of the chorus and the harshness of the verses, making the chorus that much more effective in sticking in people’s heads.

While the majority of listeners would point to the catchy chorus melody as the most memorable aspect of the song, the part that captures my attention every time I listen is a particular line at the end of the first verse.  Amid all the noise and thrash, the song’s protagonist is lashing out (through a third party) at an unnamed woman, launching insult after insult about her wardrobe and physical appearance (“Tell her she wears too much neon, tell her it’s hanging off her bones”).  The third taunt is the most cutting, as the protagonist proclaims, “That’s all she is: just new ways to wear old clothes.”  The juxtaposition of the old and new make the line especially poetic, but it’s the distinct image that the words portray of the person as merely a mannequin built for the express purpose of modelling vintage fashions that makes it an especially devastating and disrespectful rejection; the narrator has completely dismissed all the elements that make his target an actual person.  It is difficult to recall a lyrical put-down dripping with such sneering contempt, and the fact that it takes the listener a second for the insult to register makes the comparison that much more brilliant.  The subtlety of the barb makes its sting even more powerful.

I am sure that there are those that find praise for such a contemptuous sentiment offensive, but consider the line in context with the rest of the song.  The next verse paints a bleak picture of the narrator and of the relationship between the characters, so the narrator is not exactly reveling in the absence of the partner.  The song ends with the chorus, which documents the repeated pleas of the utterly defeated narrator.  The chorus is set up in a way that de-escalates the stakes of the situation, as the narrator begs the third party to tell her 1) “I’m still alive”, 2) “I’m still in love”, and 3) “to come pick me up”.  With this status report, the narrator alerts the listener to his/her most basic condition, then his/her general emotional state, and finally his/her specific physical situation, narrowing down the listener’s potential concern from “he might be dead” to “oh, he needs a ride.”  The fact that the narrator is in such a state that he’s left pleading for a ride from the object of his scorn should indicate who ended up with the upper hand in the disintegration of this relationship, and provide comfort to those who object to the prior insults.  She’s the one with the last laugh.

But you have to admit, Japandroids delivered a pretty sick burn (to use a colloquial expression).

Feats of Strength: Alvvays

Unlike a lot of listeners, lyrics have usually been at most a secondary concern for me.  That’s not to say that lyrics are completely irrelevant or unimportant, but that they are normally rather low on my priorities list when assessing the merits of a particular song or evaluating the work of an artist.  It’s only after the first few listens that I pay attention to the lyrics; melody, rhythm, instrumentation, and interaction between all the parts are all more pressing concerns in my mind.  If a band succeeds with those elements, I tend to view good lyrics as a bonus.  It also helps to have really low expectations for lyrics in general–there’s way too much information to convey in a restricted manner, so if everything doesn’t work out perfectly on the page, it’s probably best to let it slide.

Despite this predisposition, sometimes lyrics can make an immediate impression even on the first listen.  It’s not a big deal if a chorus gets stuck in my head or that I remember an opening line, but the more noteworthy cases are when it’s a throwaway lyric in a middle verse that catches my attention.  Probably the best personal example I can think of is the line “My old portrait heads of Gertrude Stein” from the Olivia Tremor Control’s “Define A Transparent Dream”–it’s a phrase that stuck out immediately the first time I heard it, and after numerous subsequent listens to Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle I was still able to pick out and enjoy that particular lyric, even without full knowledge of its context.  It was a long time before I even knew the name of the song or where it appeared on the album, but sure enough every single time the song played I could jump in and sing along at that moment.

This phenomenon occurred when I listen to the self-titled debut from Alvvays, and something that was briefly mentioned in our review.  In an otherwise rather weak year for newcomers, Alvvays stood out from most with its bouncy melodies and sun-soaked atmosphere, with sugar-sweet hooks that never dipped into saccharine territory.  The album created a compelling marriage between the retro-revival of 60’s garage pop with the gorgeous arpeggiated guitar melodies of contemporaries like Beach House, and was successful in conveying a soothing sense of calm throughout.

But within the general good vibes, there was one lyric that poked through, and it successfully stuck in my mind precisely because of the way it was set up by the previous songs.  The album begins with the playful “Adult Diversion” before smoothly transitioning to the soaring “Archie, Marry Me”, which sets the mood for the rest of the album.  “Ones Who Love You” seems to follow in much the same manner, delivering a slight variation of the breezy summer music that we previously heard.  Then the third verse comes, and it shocks you with the final line “You can’t feel your fucking face.”  This sudden use of profanity from out of nowhere immediately makes the listener reconsider the meaning of the rest of the song, inspiring wonder as to what had been hidden under the surface this whole time.

The rest of the album more or less follows the template of the first two songs, with their wistful nostalgic tones, which makes the “you can’t feel your fucking face” lyric stick out even more and gives the line even more power.  It’s strange to praise a writer merely for using the f-word, but this is proof that when it is strategically deployed that it can have a powerful effect on the listener.  It knocks listeners out of their comfort zones and forces them to reassess their take on the material, even if this wasn’t the intention of the band.

That said, even after going back and searching for meaning in the lyrics of “Ones Who Love You,” I have no idea what the song is about, but rest assured every time I hear it I’ll be singing along with that line.

Catching Up On The Week (Aug. 29 Edition)

Some #longreads for your Labor Day weekend and pieces to look over in between college football games…

As you may have noticed, we are eagerly anticipating El Pintor, the new album from Interpol.  To help you feel the same excitement, we have interviews both old and new.  Under the Radar posted a piece from 2002 when the band was fresh off their classic debut Turn On The Bright Lights, while Rolling Stone talks to the band as they return in 2014.

The AV Club sets their sights on The Stooges’ legendary album Raw Power for their Permanent Records feature, and that fact alone should spur you to read it.  Elsewhere on the site, various writers discuss songs they love despite cringe-worthy lyrics.  I personally take issue with the first selection of “Conversation 16” by The National, whose lyrics I actually enjoy–the shock that comes from the drastic change in tone quickly turns to amusement, and I always enjoy cracking up when listening to the purposefully humorous chorus.

Pitchfork has an in-depth interview with Anthony Gonzalez, the mastermind behind M83, who discusses his early years as the group’s first three albums are getting reissued.  If you’re only familiar with the group because of “Midnight City” and Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, I suggest you pick up these albums when you have the chance because they’re just as gorgeous, though with less of an 80’s influence (which to some may be preferable).

And finally, have some fun with Stereogum as they rank AC/DC’s albums and look back on the twentieth anniversary of Oasis’s Definitely Maybe.  I personally was first introduced to Oasis with their follow-up (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, but for many people their debut still represents the pinnacle of the band’s career.

Beck or At the Drive-In/Mars Volta Lyric?

During last week’s big show, I remembered a bit that I thought would be a fun game for a music magazine or website: Is this a Beck lyric or an At the Drive-In/Mars Volta lyric?  Both Beck and Cedric Bixler-Zavala (singer and wordsmith for the latter groups) are known for their lines that when read in isolation have little to no literal meaning, yet each can still captivate the listener due to their ability to craft a memorable phrase and use of bizarre imagery.  With that in mind, we here at Rust Is Just Right are proud to just go ahead and do the game ourselves.

Here are a few of our favorite lyrics, and while we won’t reveal the artist, we will include a link to a video so you can confirm your guess.  These should be relatively well-known songs if you’re familiar with the artist–we’re not going to try to stump you too hard.

1. “In the company of wolves was a stretcher made of cobblestone curfews; the federales performed their custodial customs quite well.

2. “She’s got a carburetor tied to the moon; pink eyes looking to the food of the ages.

3. “When they dance in a reptile blaze, you wear a mask, an equatorial haze; into the past, a colonial maze, where there’s no more confetti to throw.

4. “This is the pocket-sized edition; rapid sleep through benediction; let’s just paint you a pretty face.

5. “Past, present, and future tense, clip-side of the pink-eye fountain.

6. “Heads are hanging from the garbage-man trees; mouthwash, jukebox, gasoline; pistols are pointing at a poor man’s pockets, smiling eyes with ’em out of the sockets.

7. “Can’t you hear those cavalry drums hijacking your equilibrium?  Midnight hags in the mausoleum where the pixelated doctors moan.

8. “With a noose she can hang from the sun, and put it out with her dark sunglasses.

9. “But have they kissed the ground?  Pucker up and kiss the asphalt now.

10. “He’s got fasting black lungs, made of clove-splintered shards; they’re the kind that will talk through a wheezing of coughs.

Hope that was fun; maybe we can do it again some time.

Missing the Point & Other Disasters

Normally, I’m not the kind of person to go out of my way to trash other people’s reviews.*  No matter how authoritative the tone, in the end, the review is merely the opinion of one writer.  Arguments can be made about the effectiveness about certain tactics or styles, but there is little point in quibbling when there is no single determinate answer to be found.

That said, there are certainly some dumb ways to approach writing a review.  Take the AV Club’s review of Turn Blue for example.  In a three paragraph review of a Black Keys album, the first third is entirely devoted to their lyrics.  To anyone that has ever spent time listening to the band, this is a patently ridiculous approach to reviewing the group (if you look at the review we ran yesterday, you’ll notice that we gave the lyrics only a passing mention).  That of course is not to say that lyrics are unimportant; it’s just that for a blues-rock group like The Black Keys, lyrics are usually an afterthought and are written in more as placeholders than anything (as mentioned in this interview with NPR).  Sure, those that are new to the group may not expect this to be the case, but the writer is reviewing the work of an established band with roots in a genre that doesn’t place an emphasis on the words.  This isn’t true of the blues only; when people listen to a techno or heavy metal song, they tend to not focus on the lyrics (though for the latter this apparently isn’t always the case).  Over a career that spans eight albums, I can hardly think of any significant lyrical turns of phrases or bon mots from the group, outside of a few catchy (and generally meaningless) choruses designed just to get the crowd singing along.

This book may have been used as research in one of the reviews

This book may have been used as research in one of the reviews

Not only are the lyrics unnecessarily emphasized in the review, but they are viewed through a lens that makes no sense in context.  The writer applies half-assed feminist theory in his critique, stating that the band portrays “a view of women that…is glaringly reductive” and that “women are mere caricatures, often painted as temptresses in desperate need of the guidance and fulfillment that can be provided by a man.”  The fact that the band hails from a tradition of the blues is tossed aside, instead of being cited as the primary reason why this would be the case.  One can make it a goal to point out the stereotypes of past generations or go against the perceived boundaries of certain genres, but when it’s clear from the outset that there is no interest in doing so, it doesn’t seem smart to knock a band for failing to engage in that particular fight, especially if one has trouble citing noteworthy examples.  Since in general The Black Keys are not particularly interested in their lyrics (and neither are their fans), it makes little sense to deride them for not bucking against the history of the genre.

This would be bad enough, but from an errant statement it becomes clear that the writer did not do the necessary research before writing this review.  In picking apart the song “It’s Up To You Now”, the author writes “he can’t help but feel exploited by a woman who’s left him,” and then uses that as his conclusion of the band’s foray into typical stereotypes.  Of course, there may be a particular reason why this sentiment may have been present–Dan Auerbach recently went through a divorce, and the tone of the album reflects that difficult ordeal.**  It’s one thing for a reviewer to not know this vital piece of information for an up-and-coming band, but considering that The Black Keys have been the biggest rock band in the country for the past few years (and were well-established in the indie community which is the AV Club’s audience well before then), it’s inexcusable to not know that information.

The other problem with this approach is the utterly reductive notion that if a woman is portrayed in any sort of antagonistic manner in a song, it is a symptom of a serious malady like sexism.  The Pitchfork review runs with this premise and makes the argument explicitly, stating “[l]yrically, the Black Keys’ casual chauvinism has gone from ‘Girl, you look so good’ to ‘Woman, you done me wrong[.]'”  This kind of assertion is troubling on some levels, and utterly ridiculous on others.  First, the idea that noticing the attractiveness of a potential partner is a concept that is inherently chauvinistic shows a total lack of regard for both context and human nature (yes, leering and catcalling is bad, but not all examples of noting attractiveness are inherently evil–without it, it’s difficult to imagine how most relationships would ever start); and second, that if when discussing a relationship one cannot attempt to assess blame on another party without coming off as a misogynist, then we are truly fucked.  Let’s brush aside the fact that this attitude is more paternalistic than anything, that denying the other party any agency and indulging in only the most protectionist of assumptions is a bad approach to any situation.  It’s utterly remarkable that the reviewer has attempted to brush aside the subject matter of 90% of music of the last half century in only a few words; if you take away the joy of falling in love and the despair in falling out of it, you’re not left with much to discuss, and we already had Rage Against The Machine cover politics and The Decemberists cover 19th century literature.***  Also, it ignores the various lyrics where Dan assigns blame to himself, but who cares, it doesn’t fit the narrative.

The entire approach reeks of someone attempting to pass off a superficial understanding of critical theory, as if they learned the vocabulary but failed to pay attention when the class discussion switched to their proper application.  It’s one thing to view cultural trends and their impact, but it’s quite another to expect everyone to suddenly align with the same worldview and create a product that conforms to it.  Merely invoking a general trope is not enough to warrant such condemnation; make your argument when you can cite something concrete and of substance instead of a lazy generality.

Again, this isn’t to say that lyrics are unimportant–it’s just that the people interested in reading a review of The Black Keys generally do not care.

*This isn’t true at all–I’ve been known to trash reviews to my friends on several occasions.  I just don’t write articles about them.

**It’s possible to interpret this as a possible contradiction to my main argument, that in fact the lyrics do matter.  However, I think this information is more important to understand the general tone of the lyrics (and the music as well), and that the individual lines themselves hardly matter at all.

***This wasn’t even my biggest problem with the Pitchfork review.  There were several issues I had with the discussion of the music itself–the clear problem that the reviewer had with Danger Mouse as a producer (a bias that is good to admit to, but then you wonder why if someone comes in with a negative attitude at the start why they are assigned the review), the idea that covering the Beatles is somehow a sign of artistic bankruptcy (and implicitly that nobody innovative ever covered the Beatles), but most of all that the keyboard in “Fever” is…”farty”.  I expressed serious concerns for the reviewers health (and for his ears as well) if he thought that kind of tone was “farty”.  At least Mr. Fitzmaurice had the good humor to favorite that tweet.