Friday, 1 February 2008

Five Songs with Strings

Music can often be charged with manipulation and even more criminal, fascism. That is to say, the intended meaning of the song could be executed in such meglomania as to dictate how the the listener feels. Hollywood has made a legacy out of music, our soundtracks is a thinly veiled Art Gestapo not aiding our digestion, but force feeding feelings of self-actualization, contemplation and fear. More often than not, the artillery used is symphonies and principally the string section. This kind of bravado has been optioned by all kinds of music, usually to the same results. Pop and Rock bands add strings in post-production to give sonic and emotional depth. The song often suffers under false grandeur.

The flip-side to this epidemic is the artist that uses symphonic elements not to manipulate but to imagine something different and actually courageous. I have compiled a list of five songs that attempt this very thing.

“Walcott,” by Vampire Weekend

The great disparity between the evocative band name and the crystal thin playfulness of the actual song is an annoying irony. Recently, Vampire Weekend has been able to write their own ticket in independent music because of a similar irony; they are three white young men with no visual distinction, competent musicians influenced by afro-beat guitar pop, the latter of which seems a gimmicky afterthought. Their songmanship is passable, most goofy time signatures and snakey licks are forgiven due to compositional brevity and the amount of fun with which the songs are delivered.

Perhaps the exception to this is the band’s centrepiece, “Walcott,” a student’s sixteenth note escape anthem. A running piano lends a bit of the E Street Band to the song and as the lyrics name drop regional bars and locales, the song is impressive for being the only band to be influenced by Bruce Springsteen and not ape the Arcade Fire’s feverish execution. The production is so dry as to lend meekness and we feel almost weary at its repetition, but the song’s heart comes with the cellos on the second verse. The odd meeting of the already familiar three chord structure and the cold strings is almost a complete working definition of pop music. The band is one step removed from discovering the organic melodies of songs like “Clint Eastwood,” or “Red Right Ankle,” but “Walcott” is delightful and a tremendous contribution to a scene that rarely blends musical proficiency with amusement.

“Hold the Cup” by Aesop Rock

This is the most intelligently menacing first twenty seconds of any song ever. Unlike the bright chamber arrangement of “Walcott,” Aesop Rock employs the cello like the soundtrack to an urban version of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. After the first gun shot snare hits, the beat slows down to a crawl, allowing Aesop’s other-worldly spit to take luminance. This track was featured on the now celebrated rapper’s debut EP, so his edges here are still quite rough; he is froggy and sometimes ineloquent in his failed cleverness, but he succeeds on the strength of his preternatural urban diction.

The cello loops over and over under a skronky saxophone wheeze and the line “I don’t believe we’ve met / My name is Driftwood,” is soul haunting. Independent hip-hop is known either for its extroverted social awareness or gawky humour so its literary catharsis feels all the more inspired and unique. “And the saints go marching in,” croaks the emcee, but the song takes place not on a spiritual battlefield, but in the twilight of a druggy party in the Baltimore projects. The song fades out with the hypothetic refrain “If you’d had only held the cup while I poured,” and though we may be completely unaware of what the song was about, we distinctly saunter, feeling somehow cooler.

“Archangel” by Burial

Just as Aesop Rock sings in urban dialect, so Burial of that environment creates his dub-step. Verbal expression is nearly tangible in hip-hop; the medium requires such detail and sound, but the lyrics in “Archangel” seem like intoning prayers. To think both songs could have been created about the same dank mystery that is the inner city is a testament to the vision and scope of both artists. The slickness of the track allows the mechanical vocal loop centre stage as the vocoder oscillates the pitch, affecting the mood of the song into a resigned sadness. Somewhere in the dark ether of the melody exists the Rice Krispy back-beat, snapping and popping into something danceable.

The real tension begins when the synthesized strings materialize midway through the track. The actual drama of the song belongs there in the swallowing of the caffeinated twitches into the swelling digital symphony. It is at once ominous in its starkness, but tragic in the repeated “Kissing you / Tell me I belong / Tell me I belong.” Burial seems to disregard preconceived notions about how dance music should sound. Though the lyrics seemed to be addressed to someone, assuredly the singer is alone. This is a hushed confessional in the empty metropolis, sombre and pleading for rescue.

"Dilaudid" by The Mountain Goats

John Darnielle is not a man that needs help to be worked into a frenzy. His nasal ferocity pushes the limits of tunefulness and his anxiety shows itself in emotive yelps or angry barks. This track abandons the use of his usual weaponry (acoustic guitars) for the string quartet and the effect is theatrical. This track comes early on his 2005 ├╝ber personal song cycle, The Sunset Tree. The over-affectation and melodrama is excusable because at this point in the album, our narrator is still adolescent and oblivious.

The strings make buzz saws instead of willows and Darnielle takes on a special snarl inspired by the aggression and fury of the emotional climate. The lyrics “If we ever see the other side of this / I will remember your kiss / So kiss me with your mouth open,” is an example of the moody angst made popular by the hateable My Chemical Romance, but as the tension builds in the frenetic arrangement pretensions drop. When Darnielle shouts “Take your foot off of the brake / For Christ’s sake,” there is such a sense of chest-heaving panic that the song ultimately succeeds in stressing us out and we collapse as the song ends quickly and furiously.

“Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles

This could be the best song ever. Perhaps all the previously mentioned songs owe their creation to “Eleanor Rigby.” It is not unthinkable this could be considered high art. It has been anthologized so universally that it seems impervious to commentary or criticism. Perhaps why this song remains in our psyche is because it is impossible to enhance the song by putting words around it. If anything, the more we say about it, the less it becomes. So we are left with the phantom of this pop song that barely crest two minutes and we try to understand it by mimicking or absorbing it. But it remains pristine, untouched by our affection. It sees not signs of age or wear, but bares the aura of eternality and the sublime. It has long stopped being about the people it was written for, the people who wrote it and even the people who hear it. It belongs to some collective landscape, some unexpected natural beauty much larger than us. It is nearer to Egypt’s pyramids than a pop song. We examine it from all angles and attempt to model after its design or intended purpose. That kind of appreciation is epically missing the point. The true gift of this song is to be cosmically vexed at its magic.

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Sunday, 27 January 2008

John Keats
John Keats
John

Please put your scarf on.