This morning, prior to work, I watched the bird at our backyard feeder. I especially like the purple martin, who was less interested in seed than in finding insects.
Today I worked on interesting projects until day passed in to evening. When I went outdoors to drive to lunch, I noted that once again we had an August day in June. Glorious Spring days without rain lead to drought Summer days in this part of Texas.
Tonight we had dinner with our friends Scott and Donna. We spoke of the parlous state of current politics and family matters. I recapped "our day in music". Scott and I had recorded "Robot Breakfast", which won a weekly award for "best melody" (a rather small accomplishment in the "industrial" category) and a rather more appropriate award for "most original". Although the public reviews we had been getting prior to today ran roughly 2 parts "I don't get it at all" to 1 part "ah! real industrial!", today's reviews were uniformly of the former category.
My own purely solo song, "Bethany Lakes Park", also was a featured song today, but I cannot imagine why, because everyone hates it with reasonably good reason. While "Robot Breakfast" has 2.3 stars out of 5, a good score considering its narrowcast intention, "Bethany Lakes Park", intended to be more accessible, has managed only 1.4 out of 5, abject failure considering that I wished it to appeal to people. I admit that I was genuinely surprised that "trance" no longer means "doom-slow ambient", but apparently has something to do with dancing. My Tyrannosaurus-ness knowns no bounds.
Blushing, though, with the fun and relative success of this "my song won awards" silliness, I posted our kazoo song, "Gladiator Song", in the Comedy section. I hoped its novelty song nature would help it win through, but the reviews so far run about 9 to 2 in favor of this "this is inhuman torture! stop it!" camp instead of the "cool! this is moronic in a good way!" camp. My real goal, though, of winning the weekly prize for stupidest song in the genre, may be achieved. I think that my favorite low point was when the musician whose song was undoubtedly the worst I have heard in some 100+ reviews, a ten minute organ loop under the worst political rant I ever heard, gave a review that said "This is not music!". I tend to agree with him, but I had hoped it was novelty. When the worst musician on a website tells you that your work is worse still, and is right, then it's amusing,in a way.
In the meantime, my real passion for the site, reviewing other peoples' songs, continues unabated. I manage to pass out a wide variety of reviews, good and bad, and yet get rated 109% out of 110% by the folks who review reviews (one third party and the artist him/herself). I do not believe I cannot keep that near-perfect statistic up, but it is not difficult to see why so of the other folks' many reviews fall so short. I take each song bit by bit, and review each element. I do a kind of freewrite while the song is playing, and then revise for finality, sometimes spelling a word or two correctly. I say what works for me, and what does not work for me. This is different from the average review, which seems to be someone putting as few words of initial impression down as they can get away with. Why do this do this? Because they earn 1/15th of the right to post their own songs that way. They don't love the songs they hear--they see the reviews as a means to an end of posting their own music.
This, I find, happens quite often in artistic endeavors. The world is full of poets, musicians, artists, and novelists, but desperately short of readers, listeners and viewers. My own view is that everyone can and should participate in making music, painting and writing. I have no patience with the kind of elitism some show about participation and skill--and I politely ignore the hectoring and unkindness that even otherwise kind people display when they want to tell you quite earnestly that although nobody "gets" their work, they are truly wonderful, while nobody gets your work because you are not wonderful at all. I do not live by a world in which being "wonderful" at arts things matters to me. I follow my own credo, having fun my way despite lacking any skills, and revel when I meet kindred spirits on my journey. But I do not harbor any illusions but that the best service I can provide in the arts line is to read, listen, and view. I am the person who buys the book, CD, concert ticket and even the stray affordable art work or craft. I am a consumer, in a market that needs consumers.
I have encountered some wonderful tracks on garageband.com. I've reviewed dozen upon dozen, in a host of genres. I find that my electic musical tastes serve me well, even if I am more likely to think that a witty lyric is like a wonderful band called Squeeze rather than like an equally wonderful band called Spoon. As the reviews are all blind, I love that I can hear a song and in my review often spot what bands influenced the artist--particularly that I know more modern bands' sounds than I thought I did. Kind artists write me thank you mail, even if the review is not adoring.
It's inevitable that some music I hear is not to my taste. I frequently marvel when folk singers have great instrumental technique and voices but sing banal lyrics, since in music as a whole, and folk in particular, lyrics are to me a huge part of the equation for sung songs. I listen to a lot of instrumental work, but it, too, has a "lyric" of a kind. Ambient music, for example, has a lexicon I find very free and liberating. The cocktail lounge jazz artist Him & the Drinks (www.himandthedrinks.com), for example, who, by the way, is a good guy with an interesting life,
does purely instrumental songs better than almost any lyric sheet.
But the thing that I think is a big revelation for me about hearing dozen upon dozen of songs by strangers I have not met, and about whom I have not read any blurb, explanation or expression of intention, is that I find that I now have a set of credos about songs, and in particular pop songs.
I am intrigued by some of the "rules" I have developed, because I would have considered them counter-intuitive (others have been obvious to me since age 14). Here are but four:
The Rule of Length
"Each pop, folk, country or r & b song shall be no longer than three minutes in length, and rock or electronica songs no longer than four". This rule surprises me, because I spent my teen years listening to LP-length "songs" such as "Thick as a Brick", songs with "impressions" such as "Karn Evil 9", six minute rock jams, and half hour electronic and avant garde pieces. Now I buy a lot of ambient artists, who think three minutes is a very short time indeed. But when I hear a song for the first time, I find that I want the song to be 180 seconds in length. I will cut a little slack for rock bands which need a guitar solo, but 180 seconds is it. If you can't say it in three minutes, it could go unsaid.
The Rule of Lyrics
"The Lyric Need not be Clever, but Better an Instrumental than a Trite Lyric"
My teen years involved a lot of glam rock, art rock, power pop, prog rock, pure pop, and even show tunes. In my 20s, I can add to that list folk, usually "new folk". On garageband.com, I hear some of the cleverest lyrics. But I also hear many a wonderful band conquered by sentimentality. I heard one poor fellow lately who sounded like Leon Redbone without a sense of humour and a sense of satire. I regretfully advise my readers that if you strip Leon Redbone of humour and context, you are pretty much out of Leon and out of Red, and down to a kind of elaborate soup Bone.
As ever, the best bands break all the rules. I hear a lot of virtual artists--kids who can produce songs rangings from heavy metal to space opera with the use of a Cubase computer recording studio, the program Fruity Loops, and either softsynths or a Korg synthesizer. This is not at all bad, as I do not have the prejudice against computer music so chic in some over a certain age. I love the machines, but do not worship them.
Yet so often I hear songs that are "I'm going to do a virtual version of the riff from "Immigrant's Song" because I can!". It's a bit like those Agatha Christie novels, though. You might be fooled the first mystery or two. But after a dozen or so, you know instantly the solution to the mystery, as if it seeped into your pores by osmosiss. This can, in the song context, render virtual songs very cloying.
The drum track, for instance, features no rests, imperfections or variations. This irritates me, because someone smart enough to do that intense programming can be smart enough to syncopate and add the appropriate flaws to the work to simulate reality. Brian Eno understood this in 1972, which I guess explains why he is Brian Eno and not a kid on garageband.com. But Eno himself once was a kid, who learned this at Ipswich, England in the hippest music school in that alternate reality. Why can't kids learn that today, when so much is written about it? I'll answer my own question--because nobody reads. They are too busy posting songs. That's not all unhealthy. It's a kind of punk ethic in some ways.But things have a context and a meaning, if one just bothers to understand them.
Paradoxically, though, the very best "band" I have heard on garageband.com (other than two artists there I knew before I first visited there) is a one man virtual operation. The "band" is named the Poseurs. This fellow virtually creates letter-perfect, very original 70s style "hard" power pop. If you love power pop or art pop, as I do, I recommend that you go to garageband.com and use the search engine to find "The Poseurs". The sound is like the Sweet crossed with the Records crossed with Squeeze crossed with the Raspberries crossed with a dozen great Brit powerpop bands. The lyrics are extremely witty. Yet this is a "virtual" guy, doing it all more or less in the ghost in the machine. Amazing.
The Rule of Guitars "There is a reason why guitar gods are guitar gods. They take their influences and show them off while making something new. There is a reason why home-studio soloists are not guitar gods. They take their influences and try to copy them, sound for sound, with extreme ineffectiveness". I will never understand why some people do not get that virtuoso guitar is about more than gymnastics and having Yngwie's tone and pedal style. A guitar solo is an art--perhaps the second highest art in proper rock next only to lyrics. Studio guitar solos are not about the explosiveness--only live performance can communicate that. They're about mood and wonder and soaring into the stratosphere. If you think about studio-recorded guitar, the multi-track process makes it more like championship wrestling than live performance. Guitar solos, therefore, are about more than live chops.
I was paying my check at that diner in Farmersville Saturday, when I noticed something on the wall was singing at me. It was an animated plastic deer's head, huge, but much like those singing bass fish who sing California raisin songs. This deer was not a Motown fan, though. This deer was, somewhat inexplicably singing ZZ Top's "La Grange".
I must confess that I adore "La Grange". It is perhaps the only song I like about a south Texas house of ill repute, and on paper, the somewhat smarmy lyrical content of "La Grange" is not to my taste. But "La Grange" has wonderful guitar work. Yet this is kinda my point. "La Grange" is great because it has a style and grace all its own--it loses a bit when being intoned by a deer on the wall. Some folks who do slavish signature styles of other artists are that proverbial Top-slingin' deer. Besides, the deer could not get the hang of the wonderful, leering "hunh, hunh, ha, ha", a fairly essential lyric in context.
The Rule of Modified Originality
Like the zillionteenth Star Wars prequel, rock songs and folk songs are never really new anymore. Folk songs never should sound new, but should sound topical yet timeless. But any way you slice it, a great new song "sounds" new, even though you can recognize as 30 years old every inspiration for the song.
I think I'll stop now, as I have so much more to say, but I've exceeded my three minutes by thirty or so, and I'm still working on Sibelius' 2d Symphony in my head, when a "Finlandia" would have suited my purpose better. But I love that pop songs exist, and still redeem. I love that people try, and create music with no hope of fame or fortune. I love that a few people I hear are gifted enough to win fame, fortune, and to leave a lasting record of good work. But mostly, I love rock, pop, and folk. This is what reviewing songs of strangers reminds me. I love it all so much.