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I Hear Music…

Issue 141

This is an attempt to describe how I experience one of life’s greatest sensory pleasures – music.

I don’t listen to songs. By that, I mean I don’t really give a (trying to keep it clean here, Frank) rat’s patootie about lyrics, or the meaning of what the artist is trying to convey verbally. When a record review focuses on what the songs are about, rather than what the music is like, it’s pretty much guaranteed that I won’t be interested. My thought is, if the lyrics are that damn important, why not put them in a book and be done with it? From that, you might correctly guess that I’m not big on singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan (in his case, the voice is a factor, as well). I do appreciate cleverness or depth in lyrics when they really jump out at me, but most of the time, I am listening to the tone of the voice, the phrasing, and the rhythm of the words. I could sing along with a number of my favorite tracks, but if you asked me what the piece was about, I’d probably shrug my shoulders and say, “beats me.”

This cavalier attitude about lyrics can really pay off, for example, with a group like R.E.M. Most of the time, I can’t even decipher what words singer Michael Stipe is using, and when I can, they leave me with a “what the – is he trying to say?” Therefore, I choose to ignore them and pay attention to the music. I think that’s a solid approach, in keeping with this quote from guitarist Peter Buck in a 1984 interview: “To me, having a lyric sheet just trivializes the music. Words can acquire a kind of magic meaning from the music that surrounds them; people should listen and find ideas of their own in there.” Unless Fables of the Reconstruction came with a lyric sheet (that album represents a hole in my collection – I need a good vinyl copy), the band never even included a full one until their twelfth studio album, 1998’s Up. By that time, Stipe’s lyrics had become somewhat coherent, but here’s an example from the track, “Lotus” (all punctuation, spelling, and lack of capitalization verbatim from the lyric sheet): “hey hey. I was hell. sarcastic silver swell. that day it rained tough spun. hard won. no ocean flower aquarium badlands. give a hand. honey dipt. flim flam hey hey. hey hey. that cat can walk like a big bad man.”

If you can make sense of that, don’t tell me, I don’t care.

All of that said, one example of an exceptional lyric, in my opinion, is this line from “Warm Wet Circles,” on the Marillion album Clutching at Straws:

“It was a wedding ring, destined to be found in a cheap hotel,
lost in a kitchen sink, or thrown in a wishing well”

Now that is a story in itself!

What I do appreciate is great engineering and production. It’s the overall sound that does it for me. That doesn’t mean I’m one of those audiophiles who only listens to the finest recordings – I enjoy a wide variety of genres, my favorite being progressive rock. (I can hear you now – “well, that explains a lot about not caring about lyrics.”) I also have large sections in my collection for blues, jazz, new age, even classical (although I don’t often pull from that latter category for my listening).

I have a fondness for odd time signatures, especially sevens and fives. I played percussion instruments in high school and college, but never really got sevens until I heard the track “Lucky Seven,” from Yes bassist Chris Squire’s solo album, Fish Out of Water. It was so easy to follow the beat.

 

Another great example of that is the instrumental second half (starting at 5:55) of “The Cinema Show,” from the Genesis album Selling England by the Pound.

 

I’m a sucker for soaring guitar solos played over slow, majestic chords and drums (think of the ending of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”). If that went on for an hour, I’d be there, all the way. Progressive rock seems to feature quite a number of such elements.

I also appreciate fine vocal harmonies. Bellybutton, the debut album by Jellyfish, is a treasure trove of beautifully arranged backing vocals. Someone once told me that they used to practice up to eight hours a day on their harmonies, and I believe it. Check out “That is Why”:

 

(The track that follows that one, “The King is Half-Undressed,” has a very amusing video and more great harmonies.)

Here are my thoughts on a number of musical genres:

Opera

Sorry, but no. I just can’t appreciate an art form that includes people singing at each other (see also: Musicals), especially in the classical or operatic style. I would rather hear Tom Waits singing the phone book. I was probably poisoned against opera at an early age. For some unknown reason, my sixth-grade instructors thought it would be a great idea to take the class to a matinee performance of Verdi’s Falstaff in San Francisco on halloween! We didn’t get back home in time to trick-or-treat. I was scarred for life. Just don’t tell Satan when I get to Hell – he’ll use that.

Blues

Back when I was in my full-on prog snob phase, I dismissed the blues as too repetitive, rhythmically simplistic and borrrring. Since then, I have seen the error of my ways and now enjoy the many styles within the genre, from simple voice and acoustic guitar, to all-out electric blues. For the former, here’s Cephas & Wiggins, and for the latter, Tinsley Ellis and the Heartfixers:

 

 

Jazz

It’s got to be melodic. I have to be able to discern intent, which means I run screaming from “free jazz.” No Ornette Coleman for me – Coleman Hawkins, on the other hand, gets my vote. I am especially fond of piano/bass/drums trios from the likes of Ray Bryant, George Shearing, Gerry Wiggins, and Gene Harris.

 

New Age

True, a lot of it is weak, but I was listening to Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze in the 1970s, so I didn’t have an aversion to synthesizers. Admittedly, New Age is primarily a background music genre. If you’re discriminating, there are a lot of quality recordings out there.

Soul/R&B

I like Motown and classic soul (James Brown, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, etc.), but in the last few decades, overly slick pop/soul leaves me cold. There are still some great voices out there, but the final product doesn’t do it for me.

Classical/Orchestral

On the rare instances when I choose to listen, my preferences in this category tend toward more well-known, popular pieces, such as Gustav Holst’s The Planets, Ravel’s orchestration of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, some Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, and even some of Stravinsky’s works (challenging as they may be).

Country and Western

C&W songs are usually stories, which requires paying attention to the lyrics. Guess what? I’m not buyin’. However, I did get a big kick out of Luke Bryan’s “Drinkin’ Beer and Wastin’ Bullets,” which I heard one time over the PA at a local baseball game:

 

Musicals

I do enjoy plays, but as I said about opera, the idea of people singing at each other is not my cup of tea. Lyrics are very important in musicals, so, again, not my style. There are a few songs from popular musicals that I can appreciate, but precious few.

Rap/Hip-Hop

While I acknowledge the skill required to deliver rapid-fire wordplay, this is a form of music to which I am utterly unable to relate. The musical emphasis on heavy bass and beats, combined with repetitive, often-annoying sounds turns me off. I wasn’t a fan of disco, either, for the same reasons.

Well, now you know where I’m coming from. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

Header image: the band Jellyfish.

5 comments on “I Hear Music…”

  1. Great article, Thank you. I recall a poetry class during my undergraduate years when I complained to the professor that no matter how many times I read a certain poem, I could not decipher the meaning. His reply, just enjoy it for the beauty of the words. He would not give in to the meaning. Later in life I reread the poem and being more mature, was able to get the message, but I never forgot the lesson. Remarkably, I took that class as a fluff course and an easy A. It turned out to be one of my most memorable college courses.
    While I agree with Isaacs assessment of the unimportance of meaning in appreciating the music, it is a special treat when the lyrics convey an idea and the rhythm and pacing of the lyrics enhance the enjoyment of the song. A good example of this is Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride, everything fits.
    Regarding Opera, Opera is such a highly cultivated art form that it takes many years of exposure before it takes you there. But take you there it will. I have gone through that learning/exposure process to the extent that I cannot imagine a world without this art form.

    1. Thanks, forteatwo, for your comments. I do understand that opera is an acquired taste that can bring rewards, but I’m afraid I can’t put in the work required. Hell, it took me decades to actually want to drink beer.

  2. Thank you for helping me understand why lyrics are so bizarre at times. What the hell is a Bytor and a Snow Dog? Never mind, it doesn’t matter.

  3. I’ll never forget a review of an early Duran Duran album. In the review the writer said, “Ignore the lyrics. They are impenetrable bulls*it.”

    On the other hand, you have people like Leonard Cohen.

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