I'll Know My Song Well Before I Start Singin'

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Oh, you Post-Rockist you!

Wow, why are you here? I haven't updated for weeks. You're loyal. You're a pal. Well, you won't be seeing very many posts here anymore, though. I mean, every once and a while a may slither over yonder, but a new project in the works for a while is now acceptable enough (at least for me) to tell you about, my babies.


That is where you'll find my prose jivin' taking place from now on. With the fantastic T-Bone McK (Todd) and others, we'll be delivering music writing you can read if you are able to or want to. We use words that exist in the English language. And we write about music that is played by people with instruments. For more description, please see our Mission Statement in the "About" section of the website.

With any luck--and with lots of your comments and hits--we can get free CDs soon. We'll totally share.



Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Not Terrific, but Competent

Awhile back, I wrote a review of Paul Whitelaw's book on Belle and Sebastian, "Just Another Modern Rock Story," and did nothing with it. I thought I'd post it to Amazon but as I was about to hit the "upload" button I noticed a clause at the bottom of the page which reads: "All content uploaded becomes the property of Amazon.com." Umm, no-ah-ah. So here it is for you lovely people:

No one writes a book to trash a band. Such books are written by fans for fans. So the question of such books is not whether the band deserves to be mythologized, but what a band’s mythology should be.

In his biography of the Scotland’s Belle and Sebastian, a staple-band for anyone who wishes to describe what “Indie” music is for those friends musically emaciated by the poor succor provided by rabid radio-listening, Paul Whitelaw (music writer and editor for the British daily, Metro, what a Scottish friend of mine called the City Paper of Glasgow) is keen to save Belle and Sebastian from oft-mentioned epithets such as “wishy-washy” and “twee.” Instead, he attempts to establish them as securely “punk,” however un-Ramonesesque their sound may be. Unfortunately for Whitelaw and his readers, the music journalist himself dips his pen in an inkpool of twee far too often even as he successfully does convince that Stuart Murdoch and his band of merry musical hipsters are the kind of anti-corporate magi who can raise a large and dedicated following without giving in to the Man.

The story Whitelaw weaves begins with the humble beginnings of one Stuart Murdoch of Ayr, Scotland, who, after recovering from a rare illness causing severe exhaustion, locates to Glasgow and finds a sense of purpose in music and a knack for playfully ironic lyrics. His illness helps him to forge a will to become a “bard of the dispossessed” and “venerated indie godfather.” Still the artist-to-be in his nascent stages of development, Stuart hones his songwriting genius by playing open-mic nights—introducing himself as the Lisa Helps the Blind--while recruiting the musicians who would soon become Belle and Sebastian. Stuart gets his chance at making a record soon enough by winning an annual contest put on by the student-run Stow College record label, Electric Honey, which functions as a music marketing class’s semester project. Stuart recruits members from local coffee shops, through friends of friends of friends, and at parties, finally putting together the musical line-up that would record in five days Belle and Sebastian’s first record, Tigermilk.

After a few gigs and moderate dispersion of the LP, every record label on both sides of the Atlantic makes bids to sign the barely-extant group of Scottish newcomers. From that point on, the band manages to become the pride of the Indie music scene despite their meager efforts to create a stir. The band signs to the newly-formed Jeepster label, who would give Belle and Sebastian enough freedom to express their anti-corporate attitudes by playing few shows and allowing fewer interviews. For some years and many albums, the group hardly allowed pictures to be taken of themselves, preferring to put on their album covers and promotional matter artsy pictures of forlorn hipster girls on a summer days, gazing aloofly at the sky in-between chapters of a book. Amazingly, avoiding the spotlight and spending more effort making sophisticated pop music (as impossible as this sounds) allowed Belle and Sebastian to have pop prestige haply plopped upon their laps.

The story of the band is an inspiring one for the idealist who believes good music can triumph over good marketing, especially when considering the pop landscape that existed at the time of their inception. Belle and Sebastian’s sensitive yearning and sexual subversiveness cloaked in adolescent wistfulness came about during the days of Britpop, when bands like Oasis and Blur were attracting large audiences with their unctuous bravado. This inevitable juxtaposition may be the reason why B&S have been so often tagged as twee.

One of the most curious incidents in the band’s history is Belle and Sebastian’s win at the 1998 British Music Awards, a corporate back-slapping extravaganza equivalent to our Grammys and MTV Music Awards. Turns out that Belle and Sebastian had even more fans than they knew. The award—-voted upon by the public—-was so unexpected for the group that the British tabloids the next day ran stories that the Brits had been fixed.

A less public aspect of the Belle and Sebastian story is the relationship between Stuart Murdoch and cellist and co-founder of the group, Isobel Campbell. Like much of the book, their amour is conducted through a rock n’ roll mythology: Isobel is the “June to his Johnny, Cher to his Sonny, Jane to his Serge.”

The reality is not so romantic. Although songs like I’m Walking up to Us and Take your Carriage Clock and Shove It intimate the troubled relationship that the two were engaged in, Whitelaw reveals that their relationship—and the effect it had upon the band—was destructive and even malicious.

In Whitelaw’s account, Isobel takes most of the blame. Stuart and guitarist Stevie Jackson are especially open in their blame, but even Whitelaw himself seems to be unable to give a fair account of the breakup. He follows short defenses of her behavior with pointed criticisms that null whatever justifications he has just presented. Some have wondered why Stuart, who wrote most of Belle and Sebastian’s songs after the age of 25, sings so often about school and school kids.
Whitelaw quotes Isobel explicitly saying “I thought it was a bit disturbing,” only to answer the charge scornfully: “no more disturbing than Isobel actually dressing as a schoolgirl, as she often did, or talking like a twelve-year-old.”

Granted, these claims are certainly not untrue; however, the viciousness inherent in these charges speak to Whitelaw’s need to blame the mis-apprehensions about and troubles within the group squarely upon the shoulders of la petite amie.

One of Whitelaw’s ways of rubbing Isobel’s face in a pieful of blame is to turn the “twee” accusations upon her own music, claiming that “her solo output deserves the ‘twee’ criticism more than anything Belle and Sebastian have ever released.” Indeed, Whitelaw goes to great lengths to defend the group from the twee accusation by giving us a dictionary definition of the word, a short history of “twee” music from the eighties, quotes from members who defend themselves against such accusations (including manager Neil Robertson, whom the author claims is “as twee as shite in a pint glass”), and even feels the need to write in full caps that the group “actually LIKE FOOTBALL! AND DRINKING! AND SOME OTHER NAUGHTY THINGS, INCLUDING RUTTING LIKE STAG-BEETLES WITH MEMBERS OF THE OPPOSITE GENDER!”

Suffice it to say, the author gets his point across. Yet Whitelaw—-as much as he wishes to expel that accursed word—-is not himself so free from twee.

Each chapter of the book begins with a kind of prelude, distinguishably in italics, where Whitelaw represents key moments in the group’s history through a third-person present omniscience, using a novelistic perspective that attempts to present the reader with the thoughts of a particular band member during a particular moment in time. These excursions into the psyche are out of place within the journalistic mode in which most of the story is told. As a result, he too often speaks for Belle and Sebastian instead of letting them speak for themselves.

Even worse, Whitelaw feels the need to rename his characters with overly-precious appellations in these preludes: Guitarist Stevie Jackson becomes “Reverb,” bassist Stuart David is cleped “the Space Boy,” Isobel Campbell is simply “the girl,” and Stuart Murdoch becomes “the curious boy.” The preludes represent a group united in the bright-eyed dreams—-kept alive in their heart of hearts—-and their wishes to make these dreams a reality, by gum!

I don’t mean to trivialize or characterize as overly precious the idea that youngsters do have dreams they wish to make true, but Whitelaw tends to overdue such pronouncements and characterizations to the point where you’d like to firmly place your finger down your throat.

Which isn’t to say the book isn’t a pleasurable read. The stories behind the songs and the people who made them—-no matter how wishy-washily they may be told at times-—will be fascinating to those who love the music. It is when he writes about the music itself that Whitelaw is at his best. I find books about pop music most pleasurable to read when they perceive things in songs that I had never noticed or thought about. He writes the following about the song Dog on Wheels:

"The protagonist is damaged, depressed, possibly suicidal, curling up on the pavement in an exhausted attempt to ignore the harsh reality around him, longing to reclaim the dog on wheels which kept him happy and contented as a child. “See my dog on wheels, he seems a mile away,” he laments, before intoning with an air of mysterious portent, as the bare backing rumbles like a Spanish dust storm beneath him, that “anything goes.”

This passage is not only insightful, but good writing to boot. More room for such passages could easily have been made by cutting Whitelaw’s extra-sensory perceptions of the group’s collective consciousness.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Andrew Bird's Nervous Ticking

A fading wave of unconsciousness leaves you.

Overperscribed, soberly and acoustically, under the mister [A cattle farmer from Homerville, OH, has installed misters in his fields so that the cows can continue to graze in the otherwise dangerous heat] we had survived to turn on the History Channel [There is no factual evidence that TV is bad for your eyes, at least] and ask our esteemed panel why are we alive? and here's what they replied: You're what happens when two substances collide and on all accounts you really should have died [The doctrine of probabilities dates to the correspondence of Pierre de Fermat and Blaise Pascal (1654).][A basic idea of chaos theory is the butterfly effect: "The phrase refers to the idea that a butterfly's wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that ultimately cause a tornado to appear (or, for that matter, prevent a tornado from appearing). The flapping wing represents a small change in the initial condition of the system, which causes a chain of events leading to large-scale phenomena. Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the system might have been vastly different."]

Crack, crackle, crack: jangly thunder claps then fades.

A sound similar to when a door would open in the main deck of the Enterprise in classic 60s Star Trek. Drawing figure 8s with a pencil in 3rd grade on a hot May day. Breath pushed through pursed lips. A finger tip lightly circling the brim of a glass filled 1/3 with water.

Tick-ta. Tick-ta. Tick-ta. Tick.

Stretched out on the tarmac, six miles south of North Platte [Glenn Miller lived in North Platte, NE, for many years as a child. Later in life, he died in an airplane crash. "Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the system might have been vastly different."]

He can't stand to look back [Martin Scorcese directed a documentary on Bob Dylan called "Don't Look Back." It ends in 1967 when Dylan was thrown from his bike and nearly killed. "Had the butterfly not flapped its wings..."]Sixteen tons of Hazmat[HAZMAT is short for hazardous materials and is defined as any solid, liquid, or gas that can harm people, other living organisms, or the environment. From the North Platte Telegraph, 01/22/2005: "The train accident in Granitville, S.C., is just a small example of what kind of disaster could happen in North Platte. On Jan. 6, a tanker car ruptured after a Columbia-bound freight train struck a parked train near Avondale Mills plant. A dangerous gas cloud formed quickly, forcing more than 5,000 residents to evacuate. The chemical spill of chlorine gas killed five people."]

It's what goes undelivered.


It's a nervous tick motion of the head to the left
[Autism is often marked by nervous ticks of the head]
Tick-ta. Tick-ta. Tick-ta. Tick.
It's a nervous tick motion of the head to the left
[Obsessive compulsive disorder is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by obsessions and/or compulsions.Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that the person feels forced or compelled into doing, in order to relieve anxiety.]
Tick-ta. Tick-ta. Tick-ta. Tick.
Of the what, of the head to the left
[Tik is a street name for methamphetamine]
So exercise yourself to your bereft.
Tick-ta. Tick-ta. Tick-ta. Tick.
Cause it's a nervous tic motion of the head to the left of the, of the, to the
Tick-ta. Tick-ta. Tick-ta. Tick.
[Ticks are second only to mosquitoes as vectors of human disease, both infectious and toxic. Hazmat may be radioactive, flammable, explosive, toxic, corrosive, biohazardous, an oxidizer, an asphyxiant, an allergen, or may have other characteristics that make it hazardous in specific circumstances.]

The Enterprise door
Tick-ta. Tick-ta. Tick-ta. Tick.
Figure eights
Tick-ta. Tick-ta. Tick-ta. Tick.
Circular motion makes sound.

Splayed out on the bathmat,
[The bathroom is the best acoustic space in most houses and apartments]
Six miles north of South Platte
[Circular motion makes sound]
He just wants his life back
[Don't look back?]
What's in that paper nap sack
[Tik is a street name for methamphetamine]
It's what goes undelivered

It's a nervous tic motion of the head to the left
A nervous tick-ta tic tick-ta motion of the head
Head to the tick-ta left
It's a nervous tic motion of tick-ta the, of tick-ta the, to tick-ta the

It's a nervous tic motion of the head to tick-ta the, of tick-ta the, of the tick-ta head of the head to the

Cracks jangly thunder

Over imbibed Under the mister [Homerville, Oh]
Barely alive we cover the blisters in flannel
[Dr. Scholl's® Molefoam® Padding: Extra-soft, smooth cotton flannel padding]
Though the words we speak are banal
Not one of them's a lie
Not one of them's a lie
You're what happens when two substances collide
["Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the system might have been vastly different."]
And by all accounts you really should have died

Moratorium Schmoratorium

I've got something in the works, folks, but for the time being it's time to start writing again. I try something new.

Monday, May 15, 2006

A Moratorium

Dearest Readers,

As you surely have noticed, I haven't really been turning out the posts as of late. For this, there are reasons personal and existential, reasons that will certainly keep me from writing as punctually as I would like.

Thus begins a moratorium for "I'll Know My Song Well Before I Start Singin'." It won't last long, will certainly be back for sweeps, and will surely be better than ever after its convalescence. It might even get interesting. How can I stay away for too long? Because...

"You made me love you.
I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to do it..."


Sunday, May 07, 2006

I hope we all will remember that we all need Neil Young around, anyhow

In the four years that are left of this decade, I believe that protest music may find a welcome revival. Please check out this link to All Songs Considered and listen to "Let's Impeach the President" by Neil Young. It certainly isn't his best song, but the guts are genuine and the soundbites by Bush are quite incredible.


Saturday, April 29, 2006

Now What Do I Do?

I just heard "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." by Sufjan Stevens for the first time. I was cutting a tomato. I put down the tomato and the knife and sat on the floor, beside the stereo. I sat crossed-legged with my hands in my lap. I just stared at the graphic equalizer as the bars floated up and down, mirroring the contours of the song. The song ended. I turned off the stereo. I sat on the floor, motionless, for at least three minutes. The sound of a loud honking horn from the street outside my apartment awakened me. I stood up. I walked to the computer to write this. Now what do I do?

"I got nothing to say"

I've been a bit lax lately on the blog--apologies. However, I've just posted some thoughts about the Kinks in another venue and would like to share them with you, my babies. If you're familiar with the Kinks, I'd appreciate your views. I am responding to a fellow blogger:

I guess when it comes to it, Ray's music is so complex and multifaceted that it offers many interpretations and meanings. I believe personally that Ray's vision is much darker and more sorrowful. I don't think he honestly favors one time over another--the past over the present--although he often sets his characters in and uses musical forms from bydone eras.

Ultimately, I think Ray finds problems in both the past and the present--that's his crisis. "Walter" absolutely favors the past, but not the past of a bygone era of history; it favors childhood and innocence, now lost necessarily and tragically from the unstoppable nuissance of having to grow up.

Arthur certainly favors the past as well--the main character must leave for Australia to escape the modern world and all of its terrors. But I must say that I think Ray is not only being ironic in "Victoria," but viciously so. First of all, it sucks that "sex was bad, called obscene." And all of us who are feeling the pinch from Exxon making trillions while we're all paying our working wages for gas so that we can drive to work and pay for more gas certainly understand what it is that "the rich were so mean." Things haven't really changed there. Finally, the last verse is the kicker:

"Canada to India
Australia to Cornwall
Singapore to Hong Kong
From the West to the East
From the rich to the poor
Victoria loved them all"

Thus we have the parameters of the British Empire during the 19th century (Cornwall is the western most part of the English island). The Queen held tight control in Canada. Britain oppressed millions in India until Gandhi rallied his people in the twentieth century. Britains were systematically slaughtering the native tribes of Australia as they were "setting up" their colonies and cities. Britain started trading with Singapore (ie. robbing the natives of their resources) officially in 1819 and decided--out of the blue--to "annex" the entire island officially in 1867. When the British realized that China was beating them fair and square in the world tea market (and opium market), it decided to end that problem by invading in 1841.

Victoria loved them all?

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that Ray really does have a fondness for bygone times, but often finds them not only just as problematic as the present, but the cause of our current problems.

To me, Arthur repeats one thing over and over again--the people in the album have nothing to say. They are shocked into silence in several songs and situations. A soldier is so shocked by war that all he can communicate is that he can't communicate. "Nothing to Say" sadly tells the story of a father and son who cannot speak to each other. The lonely little man sits lonely in his Shangri-La. Folks cannot speak for themselves because they are brainwashed. We get only the party line in "Mr. Churchill Says" (which, by the way, uses language shockingly similar to our current "administration"). "Some Mother's Son" is breathtakingly, terrifyingly, and crushingly sorrowful in the context of our current war. The distance Ray presents in the song achieves a closeness to those lives, allowing us to feel the trauma that they cannot enunciate, cannot speak. "Young and Innocent Days" laments losing childhood, carefree and burdenless. Maybe the past is the only thing one can speak about in the vicious world of adulthood.

Maybe that's why Ray favors it.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Problem with Writing about Music

It's just impossible.

How can I describe to you, how can anyone describe to anyone, the feelings one feels when listening to great music?

It's impossible.

I'm listening to A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (see previous "Stuff I've Been Into" blog). How can I describe to you his singing of "It Had to Be You," and how the final lyric "it had to be me" drifts into an orchestral transition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," with the lushness of the strings, taking the listener into the first lines of "Always": "I'll be loving you" (breath) "...always."

Fucking Impossible. Frustratingly impossible. Impossibly impossible.

I wish there was a way to have commentary pop up as a song plays, that commentary using words that equal the feelings the song sucks into and out of the listener, those feelings filtering into your consciousness and your body as the music does, your consciousness becoming one with every pull of the bow, every pluck of the string, every tickle of the ivory, every inhalation, every exhalation.


Sadly, sorrowfully, but also wonderfully impossible.