My Month In Sound: October 2023
A monthly roundup of discoveries, oddities, songs, and sounds.
Stop Making Sense vs. Sphere
Sphere is here–not the Sphere, just Sphere (“we just say ‘Manager’”) [except the URL has “the” in its name?]. It is a large, spherical structure built to the east of the Las Vegas strip aimed at “immersive experiences.” U2 opened the Sphere this month with a series of thirty-six shows.
The images from the shows depict an IMAX-like space with a spherical screen arching high over the space, which can seat about 18,000 people. And on these screens, dazzling videos and images. They’re truly astounding. But what’s not astounding is how small and sad U2 seem in the background. They’re quite literally upstaged by a large movie screen.
“Immersion” is the PR word du jour in live events right now, as if being physically in a space isn’t “immersive” enough. But how immersive can the Sphere “experience” be if nearly everyone in the crowd seems to be watching it through raised phones? Isn’t the point of “immersion” to fully melt into the experience, not stand at arm’s length, taking a photo or video for later? To live now, not later.
It depresses me that a band that’s so intent on human connection, whose concerts are spoken of in almost religious-like tones, would mistake spectacle for substance. Yet U2 has always had a flair for the ridiculous and the ego-centric. Perhaps they belong in Vegas now.
Steven Hyden wrote an excellent article on the Sphere, its oily history (it came from a billionaire’s misreading of a Bradbury short story–you can’t make this stuff up), and what it means for the music industry. I’m struck by a far simpler and quainter vision. Earlier this month, Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert film on the Talking Heads, was re-released into theaters. Somehow, I’d never seen it before, despite being a Talking Heads fan and lover of well-made concert films. And this is a well-made concert film: it’s strange, silly, simple, and remarkably captivating. It’s the one with David Byrne’s big suit, yes, but that’s only for a few songs towards the end. For most of the film, we’re treated to vision: the unfolding narrative of connection. Byrne enters alone, playing “Psycho Killer” to a backing track. Each band member then joins him one-by-one, song-by-song, mounting platforms or sharing the stage with him. Soon, it’s a nine-piece band, and they’re killing it. The mass of sound and well-oiled machinery of the thing reminded me of jazz’s Big Band era, where the individual players turn into this extraordinary organism all pulling in the same direction.
Demme doesn’t show the crowd’s reaction until the very end, but he doesn’t need to. We, the viewers, are also the audience, and at my screening, people whooped and some parents stood up and danced with their kids in the aisle. They’re reacting to the music, as well as the sheer joy emanating from the band: Alex Weir’s high kicks, Steve Scales’ infectious cheerleading, Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt’s “backup” singing (they practically steal the show with their electric grins). We could feel the space that Talking Heads and the live audience are co-creating, even transmitted across the intervening four decades.
As for spectacle, David Byrne’s dance with a $30 floor lamp is more compelling than anything the Sphere could ever hope to achieve. It’s compelling because it’s funny and odd in that Byrne-sian way of his, but also because it gets at the irrational side of music. Music makes you do some funny things. It makes you feel the unspeakable, the unshowable, until you have to dance with a lamp to express it all.
The Sphere does not have space for this. The crowd must sit and consume the spectacle placed before them, like a Vegas buffet, and in return they get the experience of being at the Sphere. But no one will be moved, because that’s not the Sphere’s business. The Sphere is the entertainment. The music is secondary.
Nick Cave & Seán O’Hagan // Faith, Hope &
Really loved this book of conversations between the musician Nick Cave and the journalist Seán O’Hagan. Cave points out how interviews are one-way, extraction-based, whereas conversations can be nuanced, deep, and wandering. The latter form allows Cave to be astoundingly vulnerable about the death of his son Arthur, his immense grief, and how it’s transformed him.
Cave also talks openly about the spiritual dimensions of his art-making. For him, inspiration and the craft of songwriting is akin to “Mary waiting at the tomb”–an act of faith. I’m not of Cave’s religious persuasion, but I find that image to be very moving, and pretty true to my own experience. For years, I used to beat myself up anytime a creative project was taking longer than expected. I felt like it was my fault: if only I worked harder, or faster, or more efficiently, inspiration would spill out of my fingertips. I’d scream at myself internally like some asshole drill sergeant. And when good ideas wouldn’t magically appear under all this stress, I’d collapse and think it was all over for me, like my creativity had “failed.”
With therapy and time, this intense self-hatred loosened. I realized how that bile was leaking out into my daily life–even the hard-edged distinction between “real” life and my artistic life had to go away. They had to work together, or die together.
It’s disturbing–though not surprising–how much a business-like mentality has warped creative practice these days. Self-help is full of disgusting words like “optimization” and “crushing,” words that turn creativity into a masculinized, industrialized fetish object. Making art is a lot more of an act of faith. It’s making surrender into a craft. It’s an active form of waiting by that tomb for something to emerge.
I think spirituality and creativity are a lot more intertwined than we’re willing to admit in the secular West. They can still teach each other something. Frankly, I’m envious of Cave’s ecstatic spirituality, how it swirls within his art. It’s what makes his art so undeniable. “Music can be a form of active atonement,” he says in the book. “It can be a way of redressing the balance somehow by explicitly putting good into the world, the best of ourselves. And, of course, that requires the participation of the world.”
Chuck Berry // “Deep Feeling”
Looking up Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross,” I didn’t know of the song’s (possible) connections to this Chuck Berry instrumental. I’ve never heard him play slide before–it’s probably a lap steel guitar–and I love how raw he sounds. British slide players like Peter Green or George Harrison have a smoothness. On this, you can still hear the metal touching the strings.
R.I.P. Dwight Twilley
Dwight Twilley died a few weeks ago. About a decade ago his music meant the absolute world to me. I was a power pop obsessive, just learning how to write songs, and I wanted so badly to have written Twilley’s “Looking For The Magic.” It’s such a perfect song, that power pop formula of mixing the achingly sad with the sweetest melody. Michael Chabon once called it “tragic magic.”
Twilley “performed” the song on some Tulsa TV show–it’s that ’70s era when performances were just self-aware experiments in mime. Freaking Tom Petty is the bassist in the band that day, and Twilley’s mix of rockabilly echo and piano cool accidentally invented Spoon a few decades too early. Such a gem.
Weird synths // Northern soul resurgence
Some articles I enjoyed this month: this one on some truly weird/creepy/funny synthesizers, and a look at a resurgence of Northern soul among connection-hungry Gen Zers. There are always old ideas worth rescuing.
Spotify’s “scarf season” playlist
Recommended to me on an October day of 97 degrees with 90% humidity. You’d think with all of Spotify’s data surveillance, they’d be able to sync it to a damn weather app before they recommend things to you.
My Month In Sound: September 2023
A monthly roundup of discoveries, oddities, songs, and sounds.
Susan Rogers (with Ogi Ogas) // This Is What It Sounds Like
Currently reading this book by Prince’s longtime recording engineer and now a neuroscientist. Some thoughts:
*In analog recording, sound waves sink into the storage medium (i.e., tape) the same way light waves saturate the emulsion of film stock. Rogers points out how drum cymbals smoothly “decay into the whisper of tape hiss or the soft chaos of background noise.” In digital recording—where the sound wave is actually sampled and reconstructed in a non-linear pattern, and where tape hiss is not present—“cymbals abruptly plunge into a blank void of nothingness.” I’m an analog/digital agnostic—I like the strengths of both mediums. Yet this feels quasi-spiritual (and perhaps this is why analog fetishists can be so fevered and dogmatic). In analog recording, sound is social. It’s in conversation with all of the sounds around it and can’t truly be separated from the background hiss because it’s physically embedded in the tape. In digital recording, sound is individualized. Each sound is discrete from all of the surrounding sounds, floating, ghost-like. It’s like looking back at the earth and seeing it suspended in all that impossible blackness. This also helps explain why mixing analog sources can be easier than digital because the sound waves are naturally unified to begin with.
It used to be that performance was the paramount thing in recording: getting a truthful picture of what the band or artist sounds like playing in a room. In modern recording, it’s the idea that’s most important. On modern records, you don’t necessarily imagine the band or artist performing the song in a space. And yet, with all of this sonic freedom, why are so many musical ideas right now so…ho-hum? Why are melodies and song structures still so middle-of-the road, or rooted in winking at past recordings? This leads to the next idea…_
*Rogers writes how calling up autobiographical memories in our heads leads to nostalgic feelings, which actually give us “relief from loneliness.” Years ago, I read Simon Reynolds’ polemic Retromania, about how current music, culture, and fashion was abnormally obsessed with the recent past. His theory pointed to the internet: this vast technology that allows all of us to time travel as a daily existence. But after reading Rogers, the theory is expanded: our addiction to nostalgia is relief from loneliness. The internet has made us all lonelier, and it’s subtly reflected in cultural stagnation. Makes me want to read Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and Kristen Radtke’s Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, two books that I think speak to this.
*On modern recordings, singers’ breaths are often edited out. This art form that is so intrinsically based on breathing is ashamed of the sound of its own breath. Another fitting metaphor/cultural indicator.
*Rogers writes that when she worked with Prince, she witnessed the sackfuls of fan mail he’d receive. She shares the same realization I had a few years ago: the sheer commitment and artistry it’d take to be a fan in pre-digital times. “Today, a fan might take a few seconds to tweet an artist or post a comment on their Facebook page. But back then, every piece of fan mail represented a major commitment. A fan had to track down Prince’s address (no easy feat before the internet); find paper, an envelope, and a stamp; write out her sentiments by hand (starting all over if there were any mistakes); decorate the envelope to help its chances of getting noticed; and physically drop the letter in a mailbox—all without any guarantee that anyone, much less Prince, would ever read it. Someone would put in that much effort only if they felt an unquenchable need to express their feeling of connection to Prince’s music…The authors [of the fan mail] weren’t asking Prince for anything. They just wanted to say that they identified with him—that his words spoke to them and for them.”
Last year, I watched Judd Apatow’s George Carlin documentary, and one of the most striking images was the fan mail Carlin received: handwritten, decorated, collaged, emotional works of art and connection. This is the true legacy and poverty of social media. It removes the unique, personalized element through its “frictionless” design (in the social media world, humans are “frictional” and need to be corrected/avoided/smoothed over). Yes, it took “work” to write fan mail in the pre-digital days, but that work wasn’t valueless. It was the whole damn point! And why else are we put here on this planet if not to make meaning from our lives? To put in that work is a pure human expression of living.
I listened to a few episodes of this podcast when it first came out, but I stopped out of professional and creative jealousy. It’s an idea I wish I’d come up with! And as a songwriter/producer, it was hard not to compare/despair about my own work in relation to the exploded songs.
But my friend Austin Kleon recently recommended this episode to me since we were talking about Jock Jams (there’s a brief mention of how Jock Jams influenced some of the rhythms on “Take Me Out”). Alex Kapranos, the band’s lead singer and co-songwriter, reveals the strange mélange of inspirations that went into creating the song: Jock Jams, a pre-programmed “bluegrass” melody on a midi keyboard, the WWII sniper film Enemy At The Gates, and the music of Howlin’ Wolf. I never would’ve guessed about the Howlin’ Wolf connection, but Kapranos talks about the call-and-response between Wolf’s vocals and Hubert Sumlin’s guitar on songs like “I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline).” You can totally hear that now in “Take Me Out,” the divebombing guitar mimicking the melody line. Good songwriters steal, great songwriters steal from a lot of disparate sources.
The song is also a bizarre smashing together of two structural ideas that the band couldn’t rectify: should it be played fast or slow? Why not both? It starts with all the verses up front, played quickly, then slows down and plays all the choruses and bridges. What an extraordinary song.
It also got me excited again about Howlin’ Wolf and his band. Sumlin was an idiosyncratic guitarist who always sounded off: offkey, offtempo, offkilter. The band follows suit, like on “No Place To Go.” It’s hard to find the downbeat because the drummer is playing the kick only on the four: one-two-three-FOUR. The rest of the instruments are playing these short, repetitive chunks that all interlock in this oddly mechanized way, with accents on the one and four. And yet, the song grooves. I wonder if there was a Chicago connection here, a bluesy way to point at the industrialized rhythms of the city. Thirty years later, house music came out of Chicago, and I’m hearing a primal version of it on this song.
Tirzah // “Promises”
New music to me, from this English singer and songwriter. I was in a particularly long musical rut this month, just wanting some new sound or expression I’ve never heard before. Tirzah delivers. She works with Mica Levi, known for her warped music as Micachu. This entire album uses the same drum beat and these spooky, faraway piano chords. It’s really weird, but really soulful and aching.
Driving home, listening to 102.3 FM, a pop station in Austin. An ad comes on for the station’s big ACL Fest ticket giveaway, featuring a woman’s voice doing that commercial radio “sexy voice” thing: “ACL Fest is back, and it’s in Austin’s backyard—Ziker Park.”
I doubled over laughing. It’s Zilker Park. I mean, if all of your employees live in New York or L.A., at least make sure you know how to spell and say the venue you’re giving away tickets to.
My Month In Sound: August 2023
A monthly roundup of discoveries, oddities, songs, and sounds.
The Band // “Acadian Driftwood”
Maybe it’s that photo: five men, staring down the camera’s barrel, unshaven, tough but sly, sepia-tinted, set against a brown the color of attics, or basements. “Authenticity” gets thrown around a lot with the Band, but there’s not much authentic about them: four Canadians playing American R&B with a former Arkansas cotton farmer giving them cover via his twang. But they did their research. In a Time magazine cover story from 1970, guitarist and (controversial) songwriter Robbie Robertson describes aching to leave his Jewish/Mohawk/Canadian roots for the American South: “I wanted to see all those places with those fantastic names. Chattanooga, Tennessee–wow! Shreveport, Lu-zee-ana–wow! All that good music came from there–Robert Johnson, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Junior Parker–and they kept talking about those places in their music.”
Robbie died on August 9th, so I’ve spent the month revisiting a lot of the Band’s music. He describes wanting to “write music that felt like it could’ve been written 50 years ago, tomorrow, yesterday–that had this lost-in-time quality.” And it does. It’s hard to trace the Band’s larger influence on music culture because of this lost-in-time character. Eric Clapton and George Harrison were famously so inspired by them that they opted for their own back-to-basics pivots. Yet the music they created out of those pivots doesn’t have the same Band thing. Some artists have tapped into the Band’s musical funkiness, but not their structural, lyrical, or spiritual funkiness. Their songs are odd and complicated, yet they sound simple and rough-hewn, found by the side of the road or in some Southern swamp.
I was first drawn to the Band in eighth or ninth grade. The Last Waltz was re-released in theaters, and my mother took me (a thousand thanks, Mom). First scene: Rick Danko’s fretless bass locks in with Levon Helm’s funky-ass backbeat on a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It,” their harmonies pleading, yelping, somehow both slick and raw. I was hooked.
Further, deeper obsession in college, when I wrote a paper for a class on the 1960s, showing how at odds the Band were in ’68/’69 as Vietnam, LSD, riots, and assassinations swirled around them. Here was a band that included a photo of their multi-generational families on Danko’s chicken farm inside their debut album. “Most people are knocked out by younger people,” Robbie told Time. “I’m knocked out by older people. Just look at their eyes. Hear them talk. They’re not joking. They’ve seen things you’ll never see.” Yet even as the media portrayed them–as they portrayed themselves–as part of a “back-to-the-land” movement, the Band never seemed reactionary. Their music is in conversation with history, sidestepping most of the zeitgeist but still moving folk, country, rock and roll, and R&B forward. It sounds timeless because it literally is: rooted in the past, but something undeniably new.
What’s most striking to me about the Band’s music, though, is the sense of place. They build worlds with their songs, specific worlds with a cast of characters that feel Shakespearean in their scope and impact. There’s land, physical terrain in these songs, which I feel like is missing from a lot of contemporary music. The song I keep returning to, obsessively, is “Acadian Driftwood,” late period Band when their albums got flabbier and showier. This song taps back into the collective feeling of their early work, thanks to one of the most heart-wrenching lyrics written by Robbie.
“Acadian Driftwood” refers to the 18th century expulsion of the Acadians from Eastern Canada by the British due to the French and Indian War. Thousands died from disease, starvation, or shipwrecks. Many Acadians resettled in Louisiana, eventually becoming “Cajuns.” Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, and Rick Danko trade verses before coming together on the choruses. It gives the account many vantage points of Canadian and Cajun life, cutting across centuries, families, worlds. Maybe consciously, the song ties the Band’s differing backgrounds together in a more complete way than anything else in their discography, right before the members dissolved the group and headed on different journeys.
The song brings the Cajun influences to the forefront, thanks to Byron Berline’s incredible fiddle playing and Garth Hudson’s accordion and bagpipe. Robbie also had incredible instruments to play with in the Band: the voices of Manuel, Helm, and Danko. Listen: the matter-of-fact hurt in Helm’s voice on the stair-stepping “damn”:
They signed a treaty and our homes were taken
Loved ones forsaken, they didn’t give a damn
Manuel’s desperation laying bare:
Sailed out of the Gulf, headed for St. Pierre
Nothing to declare, all we had was gone
Broke down along the coast, what hurt the most
When the people there said, “you better keep movin’ on”
You can learn more about the world, American/Canadian history, politics, immigration, resiliency, and the trauma of war in these six and half minutes than in entire textbooks or news stories. Songs are powerful, powerful things.
Blake Mills // “There Is No Now”
Another timeless song, quite literally. I love songs that sneak in quantum physics and Buddhist conceptions of time into a tidy format. As a producer and guitarist, Blake Mills has quite the resume, but there’s something so casual about this song.
Silicone Prairie // “Cows”
Silicone Prairie’s album My Life On The Silicone Prairie was a revelation for me when it came out in 2021. Weirdo, jangly, synth-fried punk with a Meat Puppets-like take on country music. The Kansas City band is back with Vol. II, baby. “Cows” is another distortion of twang. Cornfields, cattle, the Midwest in a fun house mirror.
Yellow-crowned night heron
Almost every morning for a month, I’d see this mysterious bird on my pre-dawn dog walks: standing stock still in the long grass, grabbing a snake out of our yard, or shadowed on the walking trail. It was hard to get a good look at it for an ID, but from afar, it looked like Edward Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest. Finally, I saw it in a streetlight: a yellow-crowned night heron which, true to its name, only hunts before the sun comes up. I haven’t heard its call, but what I have heard is its silence–the silence of concentration, of evading detection, of being watched. The silence of a wild animal, which is a different, heavier kind of silence.
Arnold Dreyblatt :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview
Arnold Dreyblatt makes the only minimalist music I know of that can accurately be described as badass. Since the late 1970s, he’s been exploring the endless world of string resonance: hitting or “exciting” the piano strings on his upright bass, kicking up overtones and vibrations and exploring microtones within his tuning system (which has stayed the same for almost half a century). His compositions are droning and deeply rhythmic, and over time he’s added drums to the mix. Listening to Dreyblatt is an energizing thing, more rooted in the body than in the head. His music sticks out in the often-intellectualized experimental world he comes from.
Dreyblatt started as a video artist before diving into the Downtown New York avant-garde music scene of the ’70s and ’80s. He studied with La Monte Young, Pandit Pran Nath, Tony Conrad, Phill Niblock, and Alvin Lucier, and he considers deep listening pioneer Pauline Oliveros his first music teacher. During his time in New York, he played with Arthur Russell, rubbed shoulders with Julius Eastman, and collaborated with Ellen Fullman. Since moving to Berlin in 1984, Dreyblatt has taught workshops, continued his visual art practice, built his own instruments, and performed all over the world with dozens of collaborators. (Check out his amazing website, which is an archivist’s dream)
This month, Drag City released his new album, Resolve, credited to Dreyblatt and his Orchestra Of Excited Strings. Like Dreyblatt’s compositions, the Orchestra has been a steady but ever-changing organism over the decades. First formed in 1979, the ensemble now includes two German musicians—Konrad Sprenger (a.k.a. Jörg Hiller) on percussion and computer-controlled guitar and Joachim Schütz on guitar—as well as Australian guitarist Oren Ambarchi. Across four songs, the quartet drones and dances, testifying that there’s complexity, even infinity, in simplicity. The Bandcamp page instructs: PLAY LOUD.
A few days before the release of Resolve, Dreyblatt chatted with me from his Berlin home base. He’s a fountain of ideas, connections, and inspirations. In this edited interview, Dreyblatt talks about the long-gestating roots of Resolve, coming to music from a visual art background, collaborating with Megafaun and Jim O’Rourke, and the enduring rhythms of Bo Diddley.
AD: What do you look for in collaborators?
Arnold Dreyblatt: That’s an important question. I’ve had these bands over the years. I mean, the moniker Orchestra of Excited Strings [has existed] since 1979, or at least the first ensemble was 1980. And it’s been a lot of musicians that have passed through, with very different backgrounds. Like, really well trained musicians who are trained classically, [as well as] those who are coming from a rock background, [or an] experimental background. But it’s really varied over the years.
I think actually what’s been the most important aspect is a certain kind of sensitivity to the sound. There’s having some experience playing within a minimalist context. It was very important to me, the kind of timbre of each instrument and how they fit together. I like to say that actually the musicians are there to release the resonance in the instrument. The opposite would be like the virtuoso who kind of bends the instrument to his or her desires and makes it do what it maybe wasn’t even designed to do. But I see the role [as] letting [the instrument’s] resonance out.
Read more of my interview with the incredible/inspiring Arnold Dreyblatt at Aquarium Drunkard.
Photo by Jack Aeby
Oppenheimer has spent nearly two hours building to this moment. It’s just before dawn in this desert valley of central New Mexico, a waterless 90 mile stretch the Spaniards called the Jornada del Muerto, “the Journey of Death.” The scientists are gathered, donning protective glasses (and sunscreen, in the case of Edward Teller) to watch the Trinity test unfold, the first detonation of the atomic bomb. A countdown, a flash (“The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun”), and they all witness this fireball mushrooming upward.
Here, director Christopher Nolan and his sound team (almost thirty people, per the credits) subvert Hollywood a bit. We see mushroom cloud, we think: big booming explosion. But sound travels slowly, much slower than light. The camera (and the audience) is a few miles away. This film is going to stick to physics—not just atomic, but acoustic.
So there are forty seconds to fill between the explosion and its sound reaching the observers. The scientists gasp and clap and cheer in the desert silence. Oppenheimer himself, from an observation post, is quiet but transfixed, his eye watching this fireball unfold. The only sound is his breathing: hurried, excited, scared.
Then: an explosive thunder that shook the chairs and walls of the theater I saw the film in, a shockwave that knocked the scientists to the desert floor. It’s a highly effective one-two punch: you’re in awe of that mushroom cloud, and then the full brute force of its violence hits you forty seconds later.
A few scenes later, Nolan underlines this violence with one of the greatest uses of sound design I’ve ever seen (or heard). Oppenheimer is giving a celebratory speech to the assembled Manhattan Project. But how can he just celebrate, given what he knows happened to hundreds of thousands of Hiroshima and Nagasaki civilians? The stamping and clapping of the assembly sounds more like the atomic bomb explosion we heard earlier. When the crowd cheers, the soundtrack substitutes heavy silence instead. Occasionally, the sound designer lets some cheering through, but it’s mixed with agonized screams. Oppenheimer sees flashes of melting faces, flesh seared off, crying people. It’s horrible. There’s a price humanity pays for this feat of science. And the sound design depicts what happens when the atom bomb goes off in the soul.
A few weeks later, I’m in the car, listening to KOOP 91.7 FM. There’s an old-time country music show, and I haven’t caught the setup, but they’re playing all atomic-themed songs from the ’40s and ’50s. It covers the emotional spectrum: joyous (Karl and Harty, “When The Atom Bomb Fell”), religiously opportunistic (Lowell Blanchard and the Valley Trio, “Jesus Hits Like An Atom Bomb”), the religiously-tinged but deeply scared (the Louvin Brothers, “The Great Atomic Power”) the forced metaphor (Hank King, “Your Atom Bomb Heart”). Possibly the first song to grapple with this new invention was Slim Gaillard’s “Atomic Cocktail,” December 1945, a slinky, silly R&B ode to drinking and/or annihilation.
Hundreds more of these kinds of songs peppered the two decades after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They slowly get weirder (“My Teenage Fallout Queen”) and darker (“We’ll All Go Together When We Go”). There’s a dip in the ’70s, then a resurgence in the ’80s as Reagan rattles his sad little saber. Since the end of the Cold War, atom bomb-themed songs have disappeared, but the bombs themselves haven’t. Nuclear holocaust feels distant, kitschy even.
We still don’t know what to make of these weapons. The songs suggest we’re terrified, ambivalent, hopeful, cynical, horny, despondent, a Rorschach test in the shape of a mushroom cloud. Oppenheimer and the rest of the Manhattan Project created something else in 1945: the awful sound of self-destruction. It’s hard for music to compete with that kind of noise.
My Month In Sound: July 2023
A monthly roundup of discoveries, oddities, songs, and sounds.
Burl Ives // “Cowboy’s Lament”
A week before Wes Anderson’s latest film, Asteroid City, hit theaters, filmhouses around Austin were busy showing his old work. I opted to see Rushmore at Austin Film Society. Since I first saw it in college, this has been my favorite Anderson film, but I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen it. (On a related note, I’ve noticed seasonal swings with my tolerance towards nostalgia: I tend to read/watch/listen to old favorites more in the summer than in the winter. Is it Texan seasonal affective disorder? Wanting to hole up in the A/C, away from the scary heat, with something comforting?)
We go to old favorites to see how we’ve changed and to ring the old emotional bells, in an almost ritualistic manner. But there’s a specific pain to falling out of love with a work of art. I could feel it creeping up on me as I sat in my chair, watching the movie: oh wow, this isn’t as good as I remember. Why aren’t these scenes hitting as hard? Boy, the central love story between a student and a teacher—with her boundaries constantly violated—is pretty creepy in retrospect. I left the theater with a strange mix of sadness and joy. Sad at losing an old friend. Sad at all the time that’s passed. But happy to see how much I’ve changed, and what I’ll love next.
The first hint that Rushmore wasn’t as good as I remembered was how I responded to the soundtrack. Hearing these British Invasion classics clash against the film’s preppy background used to thrill me, but now it feels clunky, clever, and purposeless. Anderson and others that followed—Tarantino and Edgar Wright come to mind—used songs in place of emotion and character development. Now the trick is everywhere, in film and TV, as a shortcut. Music should enhance the film’s depth, not shy away from it.
With time, Anderson has figured out a more measured way to use music. In Asteroid City, it’s bright, somewhat corny 1950s country music, and it works. The songs themselves already sound unreal—rural songs revved up by new technology, soundtracking America’s dawning Space Age—so they mix well with the film’s dollhouse-like aesthetic. And there’s less overt needle drops. Usually, the music is heard at an echo-laden distance, wafting from some unseen speaker in the motel’s motor court. (Another related note: my architect father pointed out that there aren’t many shadows in this sunblasted Southwestern city. It’s perpetually high noon, and it’s perpetually being serenaded.)
So “Cowboy’s Lament” rides into this unreal town. I’ve known this song as “Streets Of Laredo,” but I’ve never heard Burl Ives’ version before. An actor (with folksinger roots) singing a ballad about a dying cowboy recounting his story, in a film that’s framed as a play about the writing of the play. This old folk song has the best line in the movie: “Put bunches of roses all over my coffin / Roses to deaden the clods as they fall.”
The Clientele // “Fables Of The Silverlink”
There are lots of reasons to make new art. This is one of the better reasons: “The only concept for me, really, was that I tried to put everything I know into this record. As if it were the last thing I was ever going to make.” A band that started out as a hushed, lo-fi update on ’60s pop has bloomed into something wildly strange. “Fables Of The Silverlink” combines Ableton beatmaking experiments with chamber music and Alisdair MacLean’s shard-like lyrics. More of this energy, please. Make stuff with all of your ideas, all of your selves. Annie Dillard: “spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time…Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
Baby Monitor Whale Song
A 1.5 second-ish delay between my baby babbling down the hall and the baby monitor in my room = pretty groovy whale song.