Relating to or Resembling a Peacock

There is perhaps no working musician in whose case the asymmetry between critical accolades and actual musical content is so steep and acute, and so misleading. Stephin Merritt’s music is flat, gray, unmemorable, and “melodic” only in most contrived sense; his melodies seem to scream “I am writing a song in a usually disposable medium that is usually meant for mere entertainment but I am smart and special and this is meant to be real art.”

Recent and not-so-recent music

Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros, RIP

A decade before Brian Eno began sermonizing about the recording studio as an “instrument,” Pauline Oliveros, who died last November at the age of 84, devised what she called an Expanded Instrument System. The concept was one in which “any instrument can be processed . . . whether in live performance and electronic manipulation.” While at the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960s, she began exploring the link between music and cybernetics, specifically the role of delay, bound up with the principle of “feedback.” Every musician who’s ever recorded in a digital environment takes for granted the bundled delay algorithms that may be dropped onto any track. Oliveros was interested in delay as a principle of acoustics. In her 1969 article “Tape Delay Techniques for Electronic Music Composers,” she explained how speakers placed at different distances will create delay effect as sounds reach the ear at different times, as will microphones picking up a signal from different positions in a room. It’s the same principle as the Doppler effect: an ambulance racing by seems to emit a warping sound because the frequency of the siren is continually stretched by the vehicle’s approach and departure.

In the interview with Oliveros included in Robert Ashley’s Music with Roots in the Aether film-opera, she discussed her move in the ’70s from thinking about musical ideas to “working on her consciousness.” The move from composition as willful decision-making to involuntary or “intentionless” composition became part of “an ongoing search” that began with this self-described “radio kid” putting microphones in her open window in the ’50s and capturing whatever happened to show up. “Listening” has a whole different meaning in experiments like this; in the Ashley interview, Oliveros speaks about listening going in toward consciousness as well as projecting outward toward the world. She was also an accomplished accordionist, and would often incorporate the instrument into her tape pieces, such as Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato (1964). During the piece, the live bird obligingly answered the instruments on occasion, but sometimes wouldn’t sing: hence the “possible.”

Black Box: The Complete Original Black Sabbath (1970-1978)

The evolution of the electric guitar broke along two paths in the 1970s. One followed Hendrix into pentatonic virtuosity, reaching its shredder endgame with Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen. The other, stemming from the Kinks and the Velvet Underground (both paths ultimately arise from Chuck Berry, God rest his titanic soul (see below)) was the negation of technique in favor of heaviness. Black Sabbath’s guitar sound—in part the result of Tony Iommi’s tuning the low E string down a whole step, a trick devised in part through his having lost the tips of two fingers in an industrial accident, making it less painful to fret a string of lower tension—is the iconic instance of the second tendency. The pummeling force of the first four Sabbath records has as much to do with Iommi’s strangely elastic and molten barre chords as it does with the Geezer Butler and Bill Ward rhythm section. Along with Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” and Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” “Iron Man” is part of the novice rock guitarist’s practice regimen. The main riff—seven ascending chords played on the two lowest strings of the guitar—has resounded from hundreds of thousands of suburban bedrooms, and countless garage band tryouts. I myself played “Iron Man” on a cheap electric six string which I plugged directly into my stereo’s auxiliary channel and remember being miffed that it didn’t sound as cool as the record (it was only months later that I discovered the magic of distortion pedals). The intoxicating feeling of playing the riff stems in part from the way something so easy to play can come out sounding so wicked and cataclysmic.

The lyrics to “Iron Man” merge a science fiction disaster scenario with horror in a way that puts us partly in the world of H.P. Lovecraft (“he was turned to steel / in the great magnetic field”). Many of the songs deal with traumatic mental breakdown or psychotic episodes (“Paranoid,” “Electric Funeral,” “Hand of Doom”). There are also odes to weed (“Sweet Leaf”), cocaine (“Snowblind”), and uncut psychonaut frontline reportage (“Fairies Wear Boots,” “Embryo”). Sabbath weren’t uncritical celebrants of violence or cataclysm for its own sake. The overtly pacifist “War Pigs” from their second record Paranoid condemns “generals gathered in their masses / just like witches at black masses.” The other indispensable piece of Sabbath’s sound is John “Ozzy” Osbourne’s voice, which at its best has a desperate, frightening intensity. On the song “Supernaut” from Vol. 4, Ozzy sounds positively transcendent singing lines like “I’m gonna climb up all the mountains of the moon.” The later records have their moments (Never Say Die!from 1978, tentatively introduces synthesized textures, but it sounds like they’re holding the synth with tweezers), but nothing comes close to the first four records. The remasters are not (thankfully) what so many remastering jobs have become: volume increase and bright EQ boost, leading to the sort of digital loudness that can feel like its loosening one’s teeth from their sockets. These are warm, musical remasters. And yes: it all sounds really heavy, even at low volume.

Pavonine Kate

One of the few true auteurs of ’80s new wave, Kate Bush wrote, sang, played, engineered, and produced all of her records, most memorably The Dreaming and Hounds of Love, two great masterpieces. Bush was a studio hermit since 1979, so the announcement of live shows in 2014 sent sectors of the music world aflutter. The audio document of the shows—a lavishly packaged, three-CD Before the Dawn—arrived in 2016, full of grandly reimagined versions of early faves like “Cloudbusting,” all the way up to her 2005 album Aerial. From what I can tell from the CD packaging, the live show appears like a mash-up of Cirque du Soleil, The Wizard of Oz, and those early Genesis shows when Peter Gabriel (incidentally a past Kate collaborator) would dress up as a flower.

While the live set is a document of her undiminished dedication to getting a vision realized in sound, story, and image, the controlled environment of the recording studio is Kate Bush’s real medium. It’s the fanatical clarity of the multi-tracked records that gives them their unique dimensions and topography—something missing from the live sets. She has always been on the more literary end of the pop spectrum (she has a song called “Wuthering Heights”), and some of the new material features collaboration with novelist David Mitchell on a poem and a story (“Astronomer’s Call”; “Helicopter Pilot”). Mitchell had signaled his fandom in a 2010 piece in the Guardian, in which he confessed to being a “deranged fan.” “Her musical vocabulary is vast,” her lyrics are like “scenes from short stories,” and “it’s hard to think of a novelist, let alone another songwriter, who tackles such diverse narrative view points.” Mitchell rounds up his ecstasy about the Great Kate with a rhapsodic list of adjectives: “literary, intimate, ground-breaking, comic, sinister, idiosyncratic, pavonine, pastoral and bonkers.” I had to look up “pavonine” in my Webster’s Third International. It means, “relating to or resembling a peacock.”

The Phony Stephin Merritt

There is perhaps no working musician in whose case the asymmetry between critical accolades and actual musical content is so steep and acute, and so misleading. Stephin Merritt’s music is flat, gray, unmemorable, and “melodic” only in the most contrived sense; his melodies seem to scream “I am writing a song in a usually disposable medium that is usually meant for mere entertainment but I am smart and special and this is meant to be real art.” His latest release, under the band name Magnetic Fields, is 50 Song Memoir—one song for each year of Merritt’s life—a concept-gimmick comparable to his earlier 69 Love Songs. It has been described, by promotion machines and critics and Merritt himself, as an intriguing “constraint,” but is in fact a convenient opportunity to discuss something other than the music.

50 Song Memoir opens with a song called “’I Wonder Where I’m From,” with Merritt’s phlegmatic baritone accompanied by a plunky ukulele. One can already hear some journalist or critic comparing it to something it sounds nothing like. (A recent reviewer called Merritt a “pop descendent of Bacharach and Sondheim,” which, given the colorbursts of melody found in the former and the razor-sharp, never muddled verbal wit of the latter, is truly baffling a thing to consider as you actually listen to a Merritt recording.) One song from his earlier record Showtunes, “What a Fucking Lovely Day!” (again, the lapel-gripping title is meant to get you to pay attention to something other than the super-boring music), like much mediocre or half-baked art, always keeps one foot in something jokey or some kitschy conceit. Merritt is the master of this hedge. When you consider some of the heights song form has hit over last forty or so years—Costello on Imperial Bedroom or Andy Partridge on Skylarking; Paul McCartney on Ram; Todd Rundgren on A Wizard, a True Star; Joni Mitchell on The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Laura Nyro on Eli and the Thirteenth Confession; Stevie Wonder on Innervisions; the two Kate Bush records mentioned above; Prince on Sign o’ the Times . . . one could go on and on—it is nothing short of surreal to be told that Merritt’s music makes any kind of contribution to the form. To be told that this lumpen, formless, cloying music could be some kind of atavistic Tin Pan Alley genre-smashing art pop is to realize you are in the midst of the emptiest marketing hyperbole.

The Man Who Invented Himself

Journeyman psych-bard Robyn Hitchcock played a set for the ages in February at Rough Trade, in Williamsburg. He tackled his first solo LP Black Snake Diamond Röle (1981), played start to finish, with solid accompaniment by Yo La Tengo of Hoboken. “The Man Who Invented Himself,” “Brenda’s Iron Sledge,” and “Acid Bird” are all vivid examples of Hitchcock’s unique swirl of Lennon-Dylan-Barrett phrasing and imagery. From I Often Dream of Trains (1984) he whipped out “Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus,” a song I first heard as a teenager in a Replacements cover version from a bootleg of a 1984 performance in Oklahoma; from Element of Light (1986), the Bryan Ferry-ish “Airscape”; and a very rare Soft Boys gem, “He’s A Reptile,” which, following some remarks about elections and democracy, seemed aimed at You Know Who. Encores included a cards-on-the-table cover of “Lucifer Sam” from the first Pink Floyd LP, Syd Barrett at his most sinister with a Peter Gunn spy riff grafted onto an elliptical tale about a floating Siamese Cat and other London apparitions. Hitchcock has always spun out surrealist narratives between songs, as he did on this night.

Legendary Hearts (et cetera)

The last serious work Lou Reed did before he died of liver failure in 2013 was spend six months in a New York mastering studio overseeing the reissue of all his RCA and Arista records, from Lou Reed (1970) to Mistrial (1986). Despite the received wisdom of Reed during these years as a sociopathic meth freak (mostly true) he was also a serious, even fastidious, audiophile. The guitar rig he assembled over the years, which required four roadies to haul around and assemble, was approximately the size of a Volkswagen. The mastering work here is nothing short of stunning; the mixes have an almost hallucinatory detail (see especially the horn arrangement on “Sally Can’t Dance” and all of Legendary Hearts).1 Raw, untutored directness was Lou’s way of being “literary,” perhaps in memory of his mentor Delmore Schwartz, who had warned the Syracuse English major to avoid rock and roll as a medium unsuited to his talent.

The move from the first solo record to Transformer is the defining moment of Reed’s solo career and the closest he came to playing the game of the rock business, with a glam look inspired by the recent successes of David Bowie and Marc Bolan. Bowie produced, along with Mick Ronson, who came up with the amazing idea of arranging the folky “Walk on the Wild Side” for doubled upright and electric bass, strings, and the “doot-de-doot-de-doot” back up vocals; Bowie also sings background vocals on “Satellite of Love.” But the deeper story in these reissues is the endurance of Reed after the glam bubble, into the late ’70s and ’80s. The Blue Mask marks a turn into a new solidity and vision; the ephemera of the music business is in the rear view, and what you get is an individual person in a recording studio doing whatever the fuck he wants. Predictably Reed ran into problems with label execs, and the story ends here with Mistrial, the last record he did for RCA, before Warner Brothers subsidiary Sire picked him up and he made the surprise hit New York in 1989. The Don Fleming-Laurie Anderson curated archive may now be viewed at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Take that, Delmore!

Chuck Berry

While revising this essay I learned that Chuck Berry died, at 90, at his home in Missouri. Chuck Berry is as close to defining what rock and roll is as anything or anyone. He codified the mythology of a country boy who “never learned to read or write so well, but could play the guitar like ringin’ a bell” and who walks into town “carrying his guitar in a gunny sack . . .” and eventually will walk all the way into the big city (Main Street, Oz, the Death Star), where he will find glory as a guitar player. It’s a story as old as the Celestial City from Pilgrim’s Progress, but Berry brilliantly streamlined it for the milieu of teenagers, jukeboxes, drive-ins, transistor radios, and car culture. As for his marvelous playing, it was marked both by his licks and his tone, which was bright and cutting with just a swish of dirt. It’s what Keith’s been trying to copy all these years, and you can hear it on the first few Velvet Underground records, too. His signature riff is a striking double-stop figure, where you bend the G string up a whole step so it forms a unison with the B and E strings played simultaneously. It’s a nifty little device that’s not too difficult to pull off if your hands are big enough. I can remember the first time I got it to click, around the same time as the bedroom “Iron Man” sessions. I called it “cutting wood.” (Jon Pareles incorrectly calls it a “2-stringed lick” in his Times obituary of Berry; you need the top three strings to do it.) “Johnny B. Goode” is on the Golden Record sent out with the Voyager satellites. There’s no music more lively and likable; it’s good to represent our species to the cosmos in this way. 

  1. An earlier version of this piece referred mistakenly to the horn arrangement as part of “Coney Island Baby.” 

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