More bare songs

The bare song is not inherently linked to a folk or acoustic style of arrangement. One of the first songs that comes to my mind when I think of a bare song, where the song itself draws the listener’s entire focus, is the Outkast song “A Life in the Day of Benjamin Andre (Incomplete)”:

The song consists of a single extended verse which moves from one digression to the next. The beat is relatively static; a meandering melodic element providing variation doesn’t impose sections or divisions onto the song. This song feels bare to me because it doesn’t have the elements of a typical Outkast song – a melodic hook, pop song structures, multiple vocalists performing verses, often with contrasting approaches to the song’s themes. “A Life in Day…” suggests (unsurprisingly) that, if you want to look for the complexity in an Outkast song, the verses are a good place to start.
Listening more closely to songs and their possibilities doesn’t have to mean listening to simple arrangement or acoustic songs. What the constitutes a bare or unobscured song varies dramatically based on the way that songs are created and conceived. But many genres of music do have a performance mode that, in contrast to more typical or elaborate modes, attempts to present a song in an unadorned way. Another example might be Coleman Hawkins’ “Picasso”, an early solo saxophone recording:
If the sax solo is where the meaning of Hawkins’ music is concentrated, isolating it does more than just focus the listener’s attention. It liberates the solo to follow its own logic, rather than that of a pre-determined arrangement.
Do songs need this kind of liberation? I think that in some cases they do. I know that I often fall back on or restrict myself to familiar song structures, ignoring possibilities that might produce something surprising and new, but which might also make the song more difficult to listen to, perform, or record. But the reason I am interested in writing about songwriting is to look for ways to embrace and really listen to these more difficult songs.

Arrangements, bare songs, and idioms

Arrangements often nail down aspects of a song’s meaning which are productively ambiguous in the song itself. An arrangement can take a complex song, which can be heard in any number of ways, and tell the listener to hear the song in particular way, to focus on certain resonances and ignore others. An arrangement can dramatically simplify or even obscure a song’s meaning. 
In this performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire”, Judy Collins and her band make a decision to arrange the song as a gospel number – if you’re not convinced, listen to the piano part. This arrangement has a few effects on the way the song comes across:
  1. A spiritual/religious interpretation of the song’s lyrics is foregrounded over an interpersonal/relationship interpretation. In the first B section (“If I have been unkind…”), the speaker could be justifying himself to a lover, or asking forgiveness of a supreme being; the gospel interpretation puts a heavy thumb on the scales.
  2. The performance starts to overwhelm the song, making it more difficult to listen to the lyrics. This softens the blow of some of the more surprising images in the song (“a baby, stillborn”; “a pretty woman standing in her darkened door”).
  3. The meaning of the song’s lyrics may even be mingled, for the listener, with the meaning of the gospel standards the arrangement suggests. While this kind of interpretation – enhancing or changing the meaning of a song through an unexpected arrangement – can be wonderful, I’m not sure that it works that way here.
Here’s Collins, followed by a version of the song Cohen performed in 1979:
For me, the Cohen version allows the song to mean more – to express more ideas, to resonate in more different directions. It allows us to hear the song. Perhaps that is an obvious observation, but I thought this was a particularly clear example of what I mean by listening for a bare song. The arrangement doesn’t have to be acoustic or minimal for the song to be heard, but an idiomatic arrangement – one that strives to ensure a song is heard as part of an established idiom – has the potential to limit the meaning of a song by priming listeners to only hear a limited range of themes or ideas.
This is a problem for most popular forms of music, because idiom or genre is an important part of any record’s sales strategy. Fitting songs into an idiom dramatically effects the way they are heard and makes it easy for the listener to ignore surprising or unwelcome ideas. Think of “Born in the USA” or “YMCA” – these songs might be subversive for sneaking unwelcome narratives into pop culture, but they became hits because the meaning of the underlying songs are themselves subverted by the resonances introduced by their accessible arrangements.
The idea of idiomatic and non-idiomatic arrangements is derived from Derek Bailey’s concept of idiomatic and non-idiomatic improvisation, though he would certainly object that, in his use of the word, all of these arrangements are equally, which is to say completely, idiomatic.

James Blood Ulmer

One of the musicians who most inspires me is James Blood Ulmer. Ulmer played guitar in Ornette Coleman’s bands in the 1970s and has gone on to record many records as a band leader and frontman since. In 2005 Ulmer released Birthright, a record of solo performances which included new songs, blues covers, and solo guitar and flute. One song, “Geechee Joe”, narrates the life of Ulmer’s grandfather:

The distinctive elements of Ulmer’s songwriting are brought to the surface in this performance. His music uses Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic concept, but it draws ideas and elements from blues, country, and other American “roots” musics. The song structure is what we might expect from a folk or country song, and the improvisatory feel of the guitar arrangement simultaneously suggests (to me) the loosest front porch performance and the most sophisticated jazz interpretation. That the song shares its title with a Cab Calloway number is probably not lost on Ulmer either.
The bare arrangement helps the song achieve or suggest a variety of musical ideas in a short time. In this case the bare song is like a simple poem that lets the reader fill in the details – it encourages a form of active listening and engagement with the music. A bigger arrangement demands answers to questions which the bare version leaves productively ambiguous. Is it a folk song, a country song, a jazz song, or a blues? What are the chord changes? How many bars is that solo? How should we feel about Geechee Joe? Is this an anthem or an elegy?

Bare songs and hearing songs

I wrote in my last post that the way the music industry structures and delivers music can make it difficult to hear songs. The song may come to us as a framework for a powerful arrangement or performance, or even as a piece of a larger narrative about a particular celebrity. But, given that context, what possibilities arise when songs are presented in a bare form?

For very popular musicians, presenting bare, often acoustic, versions of popular songs has become a familiar gesture, meant to rekindle a sense of immediacy or authenticity around songs that have been heard dozens or hundreds of times. This tactic may have peaked in the ’90s with the popularity of MTV Unplugged, but it is a standard element in the pop star playbook.

Another familiar mode of presenting the bare song is as a deliberate choice for a particular song – that is, for a performer who normally uses fuller arrangements to present a particular song in a simple way to highlight something about that song. This is the mode that I am most interested in because it seems more likely to be focused on the song itself, rather than the performer’s persona. The two modes can also overlap or one mode can masquerade as the other. What I am interested in is not particularly authenticity, but a performance mode that lets the listener hear the song better as a song. Pining for a truly authentic performance is a little like visiting the location of the first McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts.

What (else) can songs do?

Songwriting is poorly understood, if at all. Take a critical look at songwriting advice and it becomes clear that the advice-givers are almost exclusively concerned with popular and industry success and have little regard for or awareness of the possibilities of the song itself. One popular advice listicle, for example, explains that music industry executives, who fancy themselves as song experts, can’t recognize the quality of a song unless they hear it in a slick sounding demo, because they listen to slick sounding demos all day. But how can it be that our song experts are actually unable to hear songs?

Songs are undertheorized. We don’t know what they are. I have read reams and reams of music criticism, journalism, and history, and the amount I’ve read that was actually about songs could probably fit on a few dozen pages. We understand the records, the recording process, the industry, the personalities, the costumes, the packaging, the tours, the TV appearances, but what about the songs?

In the music industry, songs are raw materials, like uncut diamonds to a jeweler or cows to a butcher. One of the music industry’s activities is the transformation of songs into industrial products. A record is like a sausage – there’s a song in there, but it’s usually been mixed up with a lot of salt and spices and wrapped up in its own intestines. I don’t intend that as a criticism – I love sausage and I love records – but I do think that this practice, of turning songs into records, blinds both listener and musician to other possible uses and lives that songs might have.

There are several assumptions about the lives of songs that go unstated in nearly all songwriting advice:

  • Songs are potential records. The goal of songwriting should be to write songs that make good records.
  • Songwriting is a craft. There might be some arty bits floating around it, but they are slightly embarrassing and best discussed in hushed tones or not at all.
  • A song on its own – without a record or an arrangement – cannot make its way in the world.
  • Songwriting is a commercial art. Regardless of genre, success is a meaningful concept.
These are observably true facts about the world, but it’s possible to ignore them and create something different in the world. What if songwriting were not a commercial art, but whatever the opposite is – a fine art, a pure art, an art for art’s sake, any of those romantic concepts that cynics say are outdated – what they don’t know is that they’ve always been outdated, always been laughed at and dismissed, and always stuck around, like the awkward party guests you keep inviting because they’re the only ones who bring good booze.
And if songwriting were truly an art, and not a craft or a raw material for commerce, wouldn’t a song be enough? Couldn’t a song stand on its own and speak in the world? Couldn’t a song say all of the crooked, asymmetrical, complicated, unknowable things that a record just isn’t the right place for? And what would that look like? How do we sit and listen to pure, bare songs?

Now that you know – more reissued music

Another old record, on the internet for the first time! Going in chronological order so far, I recorded this one in Murfreesboro, TN. No drum machines here, but some samples and other interesting touches. I think this record has a dreamy feel for a folk record – loose performances, hazy keyboards and electric guitars. Some decent songs, too – Crying in the night might be my favorite thing here, but maybe other people won’t think it’s as funny as I do.

she hate the war – old music from 2003

I’m putting my old records on the internet, where a lot of them have never been before.  This is the first one, and the first record I made by myself on a computer.  I started working on this right after moving to Nashville in 2002, recording in the small nearly furniture-free apartment I shared with a roommate.

I still like some of these songs a lot, while others are a little hard for me to listen to.  I won’t say which are which, though – maybe you’ll like the ones that I can’t handle.

There are about eight more records where this came from, plus Hotel Universe records, and maybe some others, so keep an eye out.

Noise folk – is it a thing?

Sometimes I think of the music I want to do as noise folk, but is that even a thing?  I spent a little time today listening to the noise folk tag on band camp, just to see if other people think it’s the same thing I do.  There’s some intense stuff there, but I wanted to draw what little attention I can to two records that are pretty great, and have a real connection to what I think noise folk might be.

Red Wasp by Victor Florence is sweet and easy, with an edge that feels unforced.  The songs walk the line between worn-in and familiar, and the production style is forceful without being abrasive.  Florence has some other records that push harder against traditional forms and feel more collaged, and those are worth checking out as well.

Tucker Theodore’s To Make the Sun Hurt manages to be more noisy and more folk at the same time. Released as a cassette by Antiquated Future, the record oscillates between lo-if and destroyed, with feedback threatening to overwhelm the sound of acoustic guitar and vocals. Really strong finger-style guitar manages to push through the mix. Field recordings are an obvious point of reference, but the record doesn’t devolve into a genre exercise. Like finding a letter from your great-grandfather under the hood of your car.

Grab bag reviews: Fairweather Currents

So I’m going to try something new: record reviews!  Starting with something I’m going to call grab bag reviews.  Once a week or so, I’m going to go look at the new records from Boston in Bandcamp, find one or more thing that I like, and do some kind of review.  I’m going to write out my ground rules here, since this is the internet and that seems to be the kind of thing people do:

  • Positive reviews (why write about things that aren’t good?)
  • Focus on genres I care most about: home recording, singer-songwriter, hip hop, maybe some experimental or electronic stuff if I’m in the mood
  • Local!  Extra points if there are songs are about Boston, because that will make me like them.
  • Obscurity.  If it feels like no one else will review the record, that is a good reason to review it.

Five wordy, hushed, self-conscious, charming, home recorded songs.  The narrative that emerges is of one more college student new to Boston, trying to make sense of a new environment,  The cover is the Huntington Avenue Y.

Dylan Citron sings in a voice so gentle it can seem androgynous and strums on a dry, thin, acoustic guitar.  Crowd noise from parties, distorted drum machines, vocal samples, and slow, melodic piano lines all take their place in arrangements that are familiar but not stale or derivative.

The last song, “The Times Are Never-A-Changin'” drifts slowly over a piano arpeggio, punctuated by the crunching up and down of the piano’s sustain pedal.  The lyrics suggest a young narrator grappling for his own relationship with the violence in the world around him, and the song ends with a brief sample of a gospel recording.  As the title suggests, it’s a protest song that doesn’t know quite what to say, and it’s one of the highlights of a really nice EP.