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Dancing about architecture

In 2007 I subscribed to a magazine called the Oxford American. It calls itself "The Southern Magazine of Good Writing," and you might wonder why I subscribed to it, bein' a Yankee and all, but that's a tale for another time.

Anyway: The back cover of one issue was a full-page ad with a photograph of what looked like a rock band. The ad contained a two-word phrase—The National—and the word Boxer. Every now and then, I'll buy an album on a whim, even though I've never heard of the band and never heard a single note of their music. So I figured out the band was called The National, the album was called Boxer, and I bought the record.

After listening to it, I bought their previous release, Alligator, from 2005, and next release, High Violet, (in 2010). And people who know how much I love music are not going to believe this, but I can't name you a single member of the band. Nor can I name a single song title. (After a minute, I came up with one song name.)

I really, really, really had wanted to like this band. After all, I learned about them in a magazine that no one I know reads, and I like telling people about great music they've never heard of. And their singer sounds like Jim Morrison would have sounded if he had hit 45 instead of checking out at 27. But I could just never wrap my ears around them to the point that I wanted to know more about the band members.

A couple of months ago, though ...
... a friend asked if I had heard the band's latest, Trouble Will Find Me. I told him I had found the band's music to be dense and dark. He immediately said the new album wasn't like that, and because he and I have ears that are a lot alike (at times), I picked it up.

As had been the case before, nothing from it grabbed me and held on. It languished in the short stack of new CDs on my desk. Last night, though, I plugged in the headphones and listened to the album—and it is unlike anything I've ever heard. And here's the weird part: Word guy that I am, music guy that I am, I don't know how to write about this album.

I guess the best thing to say is that I would play any of its songs on the university radio show that I co-host every week with a college senior. It's a challenge to come up with a weekly playlist to impress someone who is just a little more than a third my age, but I would play any song from this record on our show. In fact, during our first show next semester, I'm going to take the disc into the booth and have her randomly pick a track to play.

But how to describe it beyond that? Here's the best I can do:

• Many songs sound morose or mournful, but in a way that brings the listener into a kind of community of sadness as opposed to pushing the listener further into her or his solitary and increasingly sad corner.

• There is no empty space in the music. I like listening to individual players in a band—the lead guitar, the keyboards player, the drummer, the bassist—but the songs on this record come across as a whole thing, as something the ingredients can't be extracted from. The music fills your ears. It is a big sound, but it's not loud, and the bigness doesn't come from a multitude of different instruments. Forty years ago, I would have said the music is "intense."

• Many of the songs billow up midway into something that is powerful and graceful at the same time—like a whale breaching.

• The music often fogs the vocals, but not in a maddening way. As I lay on my back in bed last night with the headphones on, I remember being struck between the eyes by certain lines, verses or choruses—but I can't recall a single one of them now.

This is not a record to listen to as background music, and it's not a record to listen to if you have a head of tumbling thoughts. But when I finally got around to listening to it with two ears and one mind, I realized that it's art in a way rock music rarely is.

One of those quotations that's attributed to everyone goes like this: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." It took Trouble Will Find Me for me to fully understand what those words mean.

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Wish I'd Said It

Nota bene: “Fear has governed my life, if I think about it. ... I always feel like I’m not good enough for some reason. I wish that wasn’t the case, but left to my own devices, that voice starts speaking up.” – Trent Reznor

“I hate to say this, but not many people care what you do. They care about what you do as much as you care about what they do. Think about it. Just exactly that much. You are not the center of the universe.” — Laurie Anderson

"The path's not yours till you've gone it alone a time." – William Carlos Williams

“Filling this empty space constitutes my identity.” – Twyla Tharp

"My definition of peace is having no noise in my head." – Eric Clapton

"The wreckage of the sky serves to confirm us in delicious error." – John Ashbery

"We are all here by the grace of the big bang. We are all literally the stuff of the stars." – Dwight Owsley

"For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of stars makes me dream." – Vincent van Gogh

"It is only with the heart that one can see right; what is essential is invisible to the eye." — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

"Forget about being a perfectionist, because entropy always wins out in the end." – Darren Kaufman.

"Impermanence. Impermanence. Impermanence." – Garry Shandling

"Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion." – Mark Twain

"There is no realm wherein we have the truth." – Gordon Lish

"Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere." – E.M. Forster

“Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe." – Frank Zappa

“I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” – Elmore Leonard

“The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” – Voltaire

• Journal title and subtitle: Ian Hunter, “Man Overboard”

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