Comparing Songwriting to Drawing

I like to think of a song as a pencil drawing.  It is the most important part of the drawing, because it defines what it is you are looking at. But with good musicianship and the production, the colors and the frame, it can be made to resemble many different things.  You could draw a picture of a cowboy, but then you could color it in with strange colors and make it a psychedelic cowboy.  Or you could color it is with traditional instruments, make it rustic and dust worn, and it could be a traditional country western song.  You could put it up with no frame or you could put a frame up around it that makes it look as if it should hang in some expensive gallery.  That’s what musicianship and production do, they take that thing that is either great or not on it’s own, and make it presentable to more people.  A great song, like John Lennon’s Imagine, would be great in any form, whether just as a sketch or as the final product, produced by Phil Spector.  Meanwhile, you take something like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, and although there is some song craft going on there, most of the true magic is in the production and the musicianship.  They are taking a simple drawing and making it into a piece of art through attention to detail.  Meanwhile I just looked at the Billboard Top 20.  Most of that stuff is like someone pissing on a canvas, putting it in an expensive frame, and then telling you it is is a portrait of Jesus.

Writing Doesn’t Have to be Complicated

ORWELL

I just started reading Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.  I’m not very far into it.  It’s clear that she has a laser-like mind that is an excellent bullshit detector.  However, one thing that actually surprised me is how simple her writing is.  The ideas inherent in her work are complex, but they are delivered clearly and directly.  Occasionally she will use a German or Jewish word without explanation, and you would need to have at least a basic level of history, but aside from that her work is very easy to read.  It might not be as direct as Orwell, few are, but it’s not far behind. So many times really intelligent academics use language that is impenetrable to anyone outside of their field.  Sometimes, as having written a peer reviewed chapter in a book myself, the form dictates such language.  Often however, I think this is due to the individuals either inability to write clearly, just because you are a genius in biology does not make you a great writer, or because whoever has been in their field so long that they forget that most people don’t understand the basics of what they are talking about. But if you again read someone like Orwell, who said to never use a big word where a small one will do, you understand that extremely complex and powerful ideas can be conveyed with the simplest of language.  If you are writing poetry or some kind of fictional prose that has a poetic element to it, then I understand trying to be flowery with language.  However, if the main purpose of your writing is to convey some kind of idea, then there is simply no need to further complicate things with the kind of language that is used.  In the worst case scenario you are extremely limiting the amount of people that can understand the ideas inherit in your work, and in the best case, you are just simply boring the shit out of someone while they try to grasp whatever it is you are saying.

The Billboard

GOD IS NOT DEAD!
Read the billboard
If He is not dead
I would hope The Supreme Being
Is above cheap advertising
If He is dead
Then the billboard is a lie
And if He never existed at all
Then the billboard might as well have read:
PUFF THE MAGIC DRAGON IS NOT DEAD!
Anyway you cut it
Whoever put that billboard up
Was wasting their fucking time

South Dakota 7/14/14

On a Downcast Sunday Morning

I went looking for a park
But all I found was the ghetto
Buildings that looked like London after the Blitz
A woman with a face so hard
It looked like it was chipped into form by years of harsh winds
A slate gray sky hovers over
Puddles filled with trash
Rain comes straight down
Making it impossible to avoid
I felt beaten by the elements
Was I out on some vicious sea?
Yet despite all of this
A country’s flag flew high and mighty
National pride is a strange thing
I saw and felt all this
On a downcast Sunday morning

Winnipeg, July 13th 2014. 

How Complex Should Your Argument Be?

I have written songs, blog posts, and a chapter in a book.  Many political issues are complex shades of gray,  although many want to reduce them to black and white.  In order to sway people to your favor should your writing be closer to a well formed argument that takes in different ideas and acknowledges that complexity, or should aim for propaganda that elicits attention to your cause?  Of course some of that depends on your aims, but I also think the form matters. 

If you are writing a book or a long form magazine article, you have the space to measure and weigh all the nuances of an issue.  While proving your point you can take the time to acknowledge the complexity of the situation you are dealing with. 

In a blog, which you want people to be able to read at any point in their busy day to day lives, I used to read blogs between calls at work, I feel that you have less space.  I feel as though you may want to acknowledge the complexity of a certain issue, it is better to provoke people to become interested in a topic, and then get them to think and follow up on their own.

In a pop song, which is usually no more than a few minutes, with some of those precious minutes giving time for the music itself, you should write as close to propaganda as possible.  Say something bold and immediate that cannot be overlooked.  You want something that jumps out of the speakers and grabs people by the throat.  Music is meant to be emotional and you should aim to create strong emotions whatever they may be.  Although clearly modern radio would disagree, I still believe it is important to ask of an artist the question, “What do you have to say?”  If someone is interested enough in an artist’s possibly nuanced position, they can spend the time to find out.  In music I love those artists that piss lightning and crap thunder.  Did I just quote Mick from Rocky? 

Vesuvius at Myself

Trying to clip the creek to the bank with a clothes pin
Waterlogged system, rusty spring, faulty planning
Logic squeezed out like mustard at a corndog
Hypertension is not wisdom, chewing the leather straps
Trying to hold the sun still with a bobby pin
Burned fingers. excellent conductor of heat
Private fantasies are not public policy
Christian charity is a doily over my death boner
Busy work is not the Great Wall of China
Vanity bamboo hut out back behind the big house
Pretend is salve for whitey-boy guilt
Furiously slapping at the moon with a cane pole
Trying to prop up the heavens with a fresh flat pencil
Some folks are allergic to rubber
I am trying to stitch this one to all the rest of them
But the seams will split, collide and cleave
Neopolitan ice cream is never truly integrated until it’s too late
Trying to stop the bleeding with scotch tape
Platelets spoil adhesion, fire up the cauterizing iron
It’s a branding of necessity not scarification
Bliss was a pimple that I tried to pop
It erupted up and out on my countenance
Ugly eruption, Vesuvius, ugly eruption, Vesuvius
Ugly eruption, Vesuvius
Vesuvius at myself, Vesuvius at myself

I thought I would start out the Fourth of July by posting the lyrics to the great American songwriter Vic Chesnutt.   He is criminally overlooked.  One look at this or many of his lyrics and you can see why.  He was not one to wince from hard truths.  This is one of my favorite songs by him or anyone.  There are so many great lines in this song: Busy work is not the Great Wall of China.  Almost every line is a vivid image and thought in and of itself.  If not for the fact that his voice was an acquired taste, and possibly also the fact he was in a wheelchair,  he would be on the songwriters Mount Olympus with Dylan, Cohen, Mitchell, or any of the greats.  As far as I am concerned he is. 

Lana Del Rey Ultraviolence Revisited

I have set several rules for myself for this blog.  One of the things that I have promised to do on this blog is to let my writings stand as they are, whether good or bad.  Sometimes I reread things I have written and cringe and sometimes I am quite proud.  I can always change my mind in writing something new, but I will not reedit anything I have written other than to correct spelling and grammar errors.  This way I can be as true as possible in the moment. 

One of the recent blogs that makes me cringe is my recent review of the Lana Del Rey album.  In order to point out the small faults that I found in it I feel that I was too harsh and did not explain in full what I actually like about it.  It is actually writing music reviews that I often feel the least adequate, despite music being a subject that I know a great deal about.  This is because often first impressions of a record are incorrect.  The best albums are often growers and ones that are great initially often wear out quickly. 

I feel and have always felt that the most essential part of any kind of music with a vocal is the vocal.  I could listen to a brilliant singer singing over a Casio keyboard.  Conversely I can’t stand even the most brilliant musical offerings if the singer is singing in a voice that doesn’t register emotionally with me and whose words are full of clichés.  The human voice in song is the best window into someone’s soul.  And whatever criticism one throws at Lana Del Rey, I believe that in her singing she has found her own unique voice.  It is instantly recognizable and it is filled with beauty and pain.  Singing is not something that can be faked.  Although I feel slightly that she could have been done a better service by her collaborators on her new record, this by no means gets in the way of me enjoying the record overall or feeling that it has value as a piece of art.  In fact it is quite possible that as I continue to listen to it I will grow to like the very things that at first threw me off.  I know that this is a record that I will continue to spin for years to come.  It has a damaged late night feeling that sounds fantastic once the sun has gone down. 

How do you articulate that something is lacking, while at the same time making it clear that even with its faults it far surpasses many of the other things on the airwaves?  This is tricky business.  Are the arrangements as well done as a Dusty Springfield record?  The answer would be no.  Are they better than many other things happening in mainstream pop at the moment?  The answer to that would be yes.  Both questions are both fair and unfair.  You want to judge something in and of itself, but it is hard to not compare it to what has come before it and what is going on around it.  When you talk about a piece of art you must try to find that balance between taking it for what it is and also trying to look at it in it’s place in the greater spectrum of things. 

From making records myself I know how many things are out of one’s hands.  A bad mix can take the air out of a good arrangement.   Even for someone like Lana Del Rey who probably has a large budget, there are still budgetary concerns and time restraints.  You are also in the hands of other musicians, producers, and engineers.  You start with an idea in your imagination and slowly reality chips away at it.  Sometimes this can be to the benefit of something and sometimes not.  That is just part of life and part of the process of creating something that involves other people.  One has to fight for things that one believes in and also learn to let certain things go. 

So when I criticize something that I like all of this is weighing upon me.  I write quickly, another one of my rules, to try to get as close to the emotion that I am feeling as best possible.  Sometimes emotions can lead you astray. 

In trying to point out this particular record’s faults I feel that I did not do its strengths justice.  Whatever the perceived media image of her it is clear that she is not playing by any rules other than her own.  The record is dark and murky and displays uncomfortable emotions at times.  This is not the kind of music that is going to get played on morning radio as people try to forget the day ahead of them, unless somewhere there is someone in power that is a fan that slips it in.  It sounds timeless, but could not have been made at any time other than now.  This is the sound of a real human voice that feels the struggle of being alive.  She sounds older than her years and beaten down by the world, but somehow beautiful and fearless despite this.  Even though I feel there are some things in the production that could be better, she was brave enough to make a record that didn’t kowtow to modern recording trends.  Yes, there are some faults with this record, but maybe it is all the more human because of it.  I am sure that I will keep listening to it and as I change so will my opinion of it.  Whatever it is though, it is not disposable. 

Video

The Ecstatic Joy of Bizarre Love Triangle

I try to keep this blog balanced, and not in the way that Fox News means. If I post too many music blogs, I try to find something politically to talk about. If my posts seem to be filled with too much despair at the state of things I try to find something fun for a change. I know that in this day and age one is supposed to niche market, but I get bored talking about the same subject over and over. If you are passionate about something and you do it well, have at it. The world does need people that are focused and knowledgeable about certain issues. It doesn’t necessarily need scatterbrained people like myself that dip their toes in a hundred different pools. But I can’t help but feel that this world is endlessly fascinating, even if it is occasionally like George Carlin said, “when you are born in this country you get two tickets to the freak show.” The last two posts were about the Koch brothers and the sad state of music reviews. I was going jet black for a moment and it is time to temporarily take another course.

I tried to think of something that made me happy. I must admit that a song that has always picked my spirits up is New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle. Although the lyrics slightly betray the music, the music and melody sound to me like pure ecstatic joy. I’ve always felt this is one of the great pop songs. Temptation might edge this out as my favorite New Order song, but this is up there.

It’s the Learning Fucking Nothing that Has Kept Me Young

The following is the entirety of Rolling Stone’s album review for Willie Nelson’s new album Band of Brothers:

A minute into Willie Nelson‘s new set of songs – largely self-penned for a change – it’s clear the man who wrote Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” 50-some years ago has lost neither verve nor cojones. Co-writing with producer Buddy Cannon, Nelson sticks to his wheelhouse: love, heartache, rambling and music-making itself. The vocals remain indelibly creaky against stony acoustic guitar, bright steel whines and dusty harmonica whinnies. “We’re a band of brothers and sisters and whatever/On a mission to break all the rules,” he sings on the title track – a pledge of solidarity from an 81-year-old outlaw that, even at this late date, rings 100 percent true.

Wtf?!!!  There are blurbs on the back of book jackets longer than that!  I picked this review at random, but there are plenty of reviews at Rolling Stone and other places that are this short.  This review tells us absolutely nothing about the record other than Willie co-wrote most of the songs.  A critic’s job is to inform the reader about a work of art.  A good critic can not only help us make informed choices about what art we want to support, but can also enlighten us so that we understand a work of art better.  Criticism is and still is a way in which I have found many of the books, films, and albums that I treasure.  Until he died I used to like to go to Roger Ebert’s website to see what he thought of the latest films.  I didn’t always agree with him, but I came away more informed than when I started reading.  Go to http://www.rollingstone.com and read some of the old reviews.  Sometimes it is laughable how wrong they got an album, but there is at least some kind of opinion.  They are at least grasping for the truth even if they fall far short of it.  This review is just plain lazy.  A little part of my brain died by reading it.  Unfortunately the Deadwood quote, “It’s the learning fucking nothing that has kept me young,” does not apply here.  We can only hope that the writer got paid by the word…

Opening Lines Matter

I really like when lyrics start with some kind of strong visceral image that brings you into the world of the song.  Even the best song writers don’t always write front to back strong lyrics in a song.  There may be a bland line or verse that moves the song along rather than being exceptional in its own right.  Sometimes lines and couplets can be taken out of context and be exceptional and sometimes they are just functionary within the song.  Songwriters, unlike poets, are also stuck trying to form words to a melody, so occasionally they may need to take a dive on a line to serve a melodic hook. I thought I would post a very small portion of some of my favorite opening lines or verses in song.

 

Brandenburg Gate by Lou Reed

I would cut my legs and tits off
When I dream of Boris Karloff and Kinski
In the dark of the moon

Makes me dream of Nosferatu
Trapped on the isle of Doctor Moreau

 

Now My Heart is Full by Morrissey

There’s gonna be some trouble
A whole house will need re-building
And everyone I love will recline
On an analyst’s couch quite soon
Your father cracks a joke and in the usual way
Empty’s the room

 

First We Take Manhattan by Leonard Cohen

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within

 

Lisence to Kill by Bob Dylan

Man thinks ‘cause he rules the earth
He can do with it as he pleases
And if things don’t change soon he will
Man has invented his doom
His first step was touching the moon

 

The Auld Triangle by Dominic Behan

A hungry feeling, came o’er me stealing

 

Black Boys on Mopeds by Sinead O’Connor

Margaret Thatcher on TV
Shocked by the deaths that she sees in Beijing
It seems strange that she should be offended
The same orders are given by her

 

Bill Lee by Warren Zevon

You’re supposed to sit on your ass
And nod at stupid things, man that’s hard to do
And if you don’t they’ll screw you
And if you do they’ll screw you too

 

East by Marah

This evening pigeons turn to bars of gold
In the sun’s last light
Across the river, Camden is a gilded kingdom
On the verge of night


The Naked Ride Home
by Jackson Browne

Just take off your clothes and I’ll drive you home I said
Knowing she could never pass on a dare
And knowing it sounded more desperate than reckless or bold
I just put it out there cold, too far gone to care

 

Satan Rejected My Soul by Morrissey

Satan rejected my soul
He knows my kind, he won’t be dragged down