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Tuesday , December 14, 2010
A nogoodforme Magnum Opus: The Men, I Mean Dudes, Behind the Magic
We love doling out little hits of fashion, style, music and other goodness here, but sometimes we like to get a little in-depth and super-obsesso about our loves and passions. Until we get to publish our epic compilation essay collection, which will no doubt be jam-packed with the verve and eccentricity you've come to expect from nogoodforme.com, we decided to start a longer essay series, which we encourage you to print out and read on the subway, at the cafe, at lunch, or when you're at the library and want to look like you're studying instead blowing off your Western Civ paper. (Unless, of course, you're the reckless type who likes to read long essays straight off the computer screen. I know some of you out there live on the edge that way.) Today, Laura Jane will kick us off with a characteristically cynical-yet-saccharine ode to four dudes, four amazing records, and pop music's quadruply magical capacity for getting under your fingernails and transforming you forever. This "hyper-solo essay" is the culmination of a lifetime spent monomaniacally scouring the world for the most dashing, potent, transcendental and euphoric songs ever recorded to tape, and it is dedicated to all you other foolish geniuses who recognize the worthiness of such a pursuit.
Some Preparatory Listening Material:
Roy Wood, "Songs of Praise"
Matthew Friedberger, "Up the River"
Paul McCartney, "Dear Boy"
Van Dyke Parks, "The Attic"
Roy Wood, "Rock Down Low"
Matthew Friedberger, "I Started Drinking Alcohol at the Age of Eleven"
Paul McCartney, "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey"
Van Dyke Parks, "Vine Street"
Part I: A Typically Long-winded Preamble
Once I was sixteen years old in the morning. I think it was April. That morning the sun shone harder than usual, like it shot not shone, or could turn you dirty. My dad was driving me to school in the Volvo. CBC Radio 1 was on and I was half-asleep, listening to a CD-to-cassette tape I'd taped of Abbey Road.
The sweetest sleeps of my life happened in my Dad's Volvo, driving to school. I grew accustomed to them; I banked on them. They were conscious addendums to my last night's sleep, and continued on into first period whatever-the-hell. That day, early spring of sixteen, I soundtracked my morning doze to Abbey Road, and it was accidentally life-altering. I never would have guessed.
The music played and I "fell into a dream." The dream was a cartoon that looked like Dr. Seuss or maybe a cooler illustrator who I hadn't learned about yet. It happened in muted pastel Technicolor; I watched it like it was on TV. In the lower left-hand corner of the "screen" were music video credits written in the typographic lexicon of a Japanese import sleeve. The star of the show was a lavender-spotted dinosaur with a goofy, slovenly smile. Lucid, I thought to myself, "I would like to slide down his neck like a slide," and did. I slid down his neck to "Here Comes the Sun." And I awoke, the sun still here coming, and I thought, "I'd like to do that once more," and did, again. I spent the whole car ride flirting with somnolescence, songs changing, the highway passing, in-and-out sliding down a cartoon dinosaur’s neck. "I want you so bad, it's driving me mad." And sliding. Waking up, hating it, so sliding again.
That morning wasn't the first time I ever listened to Abbey Road, but it was the first time I ever heard, or learned, my Abbey Road, which, in that weird magic way of life, is different than regular Abbey Road, and is also different from anybody else's Abbey Road (if they have one to call their own). The overarching point of the anecdote I just shared, what I really want to stress here, is how, for the rest of my life, I will never be able to listen to Abbey Road, or hear the words even, without thinking of the way the sun looked that morning, of that wacky purple bronto.
The fact that my Abbey Road is eternally synonymous with a cartoon dinosaur stems from the same marvelous property of pop music that makes the Kinks sound best in springtime, explains why I prefer the Monkees to the Soft Machine, like the objectively worse "Only a Northern Song" and "Think for Yourself" a hundred times better than "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," or how listening to Billy Nicholls' Would You Believe the first time I ever hung out with a dude who ended up being really nasty has rendered me incapable of ever hearing it without feeling like I should either hang myself or take a shower, even though I think it's great.
And it is also why I heard Song Cycle by Van Dyke Parks and thought that it was "like" RAM by Paul McCartney and why I heard Boulders by Roy Wood and thought it was "like" the other two. They go together in my head. I spatially sequence them in a straight line in front of my eyes, side-by-side. I file the whole triumvirate in my cognitive databank under "astoundingly detailed hyper-solo albums" and that's a fact, Jack. If I'm talking about one of them, I'll inevitably start talking about another- probably both.
I once shared this opinion with a friend. He said, "I can't see how any of those three albums are alike in any way. I think Song Cycle is "like" The Magic Garden by the Fifth Dimension," which made no sense to me. And the reason why people who care about rock albums can talk about rock albums until they are blue in the face or die is that we're both wrong. And also both right. It really doesn't matter at all. He'll never change his mind, and neither will I. So let's just argue open-endedly forever, Brother. It's what we want.
I started listening to the Fiery Furnaces again a couple of months ago after a five-year long "listening to the Fiery Furnaces" drought, mostly because I felt guilty about how aggressively I promote my own band (See? I'm even doing it right now!) all the while ardently refusing to listen to barely any contemporary music. This was an intelligent decision on my behalf. I played their first couple albums a lot when they first came out, but I listened to them ignorantly. I was young and vapid and shallow (I am only partly exaggerating here). I mainly listened to Eleanor Friedberger's haircut. It barely even occurred to me that there was a dude in the band, or that said dude was the band's creative mastermind- dare I say creative genius?
Oh whatever- I totally dare! I downloaded Matthew Friedberger's 2006 solo record, Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School, which is actually two records, bored while visiting the folks midway through this past March. I burned them onto two CDRs that my Father later badgered me about nicking from him (that's an "aside"). I put Winter Women into my Discman and heard it for the first time wandering around suburbia hell in twilight. So? So: it blitzed the shit out of me. I died twice and flew away into Laura Jane made-in-the-shade heavenly hash perfect pop-song rhapsody rapture. I pushed my ear buds really deep into my ear canals so I could hear it louder- when you are listening to what will eventually become one of your all-time favorite albums for the first time, there is no volume loud enough. There never is. If I died and found out heaven was real, my eternal paradise would be comprised of listening to all my favorite albums the way I think they should be heard, at sonic frequencies that don't exist in real life, that play at you from inside and make no sense. The closest you can ever come to this is shutting your eyes really tight and literally ramming the sound into your eardrums, risking an all-night tinnitus session and potential future deafness- who cares? It's so worth it.
I've listened to both Winter Women and Holy Ghost Language School over and over and over again since that first fateful eve. They are some of the most exciting and complicated, or maybe I mean complex, music I've ever heard. They remind me of how John Lennon said "I Am The Walrus" was one of his favorite songs he wrote because it is "full of a bunch of fun little bits to keep you entertained". But really, compared to Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School, "I Am The Walrus" is about as detailed as somebody playing the same middle C on a piano over and over (I'm not meaning to say that it's worse; it isn't. It's better). Winter Women in particular sounds like a landfill full of turn-of-the-century soda bottles, Mondrian-print A-lines, Orange practice amps, human skulls, Signet paperbacks, "Paperback Writer" 45s, Muppet Babies Happy Meal Toys, or whatever your versions of those cutesy-wutesy little curios I just named are. But I don't even know if I would bother recommending it to anyone else. Maybe it sounds nothing like whatever your equivalent of a plastic figurine of baby Kermit riding a skateboard is. I have no idea. We're both wrong.
It's inevitable that, in the life of a given human being, a handful of rock albums will patchworkishly coalesce and come to represent that person's triumphs and transgressions, deviations and alterations, sickness and health and wealth and weather and whatever. It's hard to know whether the appeal of a certain musical experience is sentimental, incidental, or environmental. But the good thing is: it doesn't matter! There is so little in life that "matters" less than rock music, which, in my classically rapscallion-esque "books" (see: "cognitive databank"), is a really good reason to devote the majority of my time to loving it and listening to it and writing about it and making it and living inside of it.
Something I really enjoy about being alive and being a writer is that you are only ever obligated to write about what you think is true. And if anybody ever tells you otherwise, you should spit in his face and quit. As far as I'm concerned, Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School is totally "like" Song Cycle, RAM, and Boulders. Maybe you'll agree with me; maybe you won't. As I see it: if my stumbling spatial sequence synaesthetic brain has decided to add WW/HGLS to the horizontal plane designating its inventory of "hyper-solo albums," well then, as sure as water will evaporate, it must so be.
Part II: Matthew Friedberger's Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School and Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle Were Both Made by Human Beings
I interviewed Matthew Friedberger, by the way. And for the record, I highly DON'T recommend interviewing the person who made one of your favorite albums at the peak of your obsession with it. I guarantee: you will feel lame. You will devote an unnecessary amount of time to cringing at your inherent stupidity. You will rue the day you ever set up an interview with Matthew Friedberger. Well, I did, at least.
However, if you ever do end up interviewing your favorite "rock star," heed my advice: self-restraint is the name of the game. When Matthew Friedberger tells you that he doesn't think anything he writes has a "voice," stave off the urge to reassure him. He probably doesn't need it from you.
Here's the thing: Matthew Friedberger is wrong about himself. Matthew Friedberger has a voice, and it's a weird one. Good weird. His lyrics read sort of like my Penguin Pocket Rhyming Dictionary refracted through a broken kaleidoscope looking at that landfill of all those things I said before. Matthew Friedberger told me that he rips most of his lyrics from newspaper advertisements, but I think he was being kind of facetious. Still, I see what he's getting at: his lyrics are always concrete and rooted in reality, as though he has scrounged through the vernacular of the day-to-day for words or sounds that are beautifully askew.
In my opinion, the relationship between singing and lyrics is best utilized by vocalists who can sing words or phrases that would be really embarrassing for anybody else and make them sound really cool. Ray Davies is a prime example of this idea in action; it always pisses me off that I can't karaoke "Sunny Afternoon" because I would just feel like too huge of a loser singing the phrase, "Got a big fat mama, tryin'a break me."
Herein lies a significant component of my attraction to the whole "hyper-solo" concept. Matthew Friedberger would probably sound as stupid as I did if he were singing "Sunny Afternoon"; the point is, he's not. He's singing "Big Porcupine lower tongue Keg weeping water cache La Poudre Monona-Harrison ditch," which sounds cool on him, because it's what he's singing. Van Dyke Parks actually might not sound stupid singing those words, but whatever, that's because he's Van Dyke Parks. Ray Davies might sound silly singing "Laurel Canyon Blvd," but I suppose we'll never know, because he never did. He didn't because he didn't because he didn't. Nothing is better or worse. It's all just you; isn't it always?
There are billions of people in the world and everybody is only one of them, even Van Dyke Parks. Like "Where does the Universe end?" and "What do blind people see?" it's habitual to think about that type of thing and have your mind blown. It's rarely a comforting thought to me personally; thinking about all the infinite existences that have or haven't happened in the Universe's history mostly just makes me feel like I'm going to die. But it is also nice sometimes. It is nice when one of those existences happens to be Van Dyke Parks' or Roy Wood's or Matt Friedberger's or Sir Paul's. Sometimes it happens that one of those existences happens to do something completely on its own, and then machines and corporations and people and other stupid mechanisms that aren't interesting to me meet up with them, and then those existences get synthesized down into a commodity that you can go buy at the store, and I did, and now I share them with my own. That's so exciting to me I can barely even deal with it.
What I mean is that the spark of art comes through clearest and strongest when examined through the lens of "person-to-person transmission." I can't believe my argument for "Why Winter Women and Song Cycle are "like" each other" ended up being, "They are alike because they were both made by a human," but when it comes right down to it, the idea of a person making an album and giving it to the world and then the world dividing into a million Ones and listening to it, is probably the most beautiful thing there is about being alive. The Beatles made Abbey Road and a billion people heard it, but for only one person did it become synonymous with a hazy cartoon of a purple dinosaur. That person was me, and maybe it's pathetic, but it gives my life a lot of meaning.
I have wasted a lot of time in my life thinking about what Van Dyke Parks' daily life was like when he recorded Song Cycle. It's one of my go-to things to think about, when I'm waiting for a concert to start or in line at the ATM machine. Thinking about how things were for VDP circa '67 is cool to me because things were probably not very glamorous at all. Maybe he lived in an apartment. I think he was married at the time. Maybe he woke up in the morning and smoked his first cigarette of the day; maybe he didn't smoke cigarettes. If he did, maybe they were Marlboro Reds. Then again, maybe not. Did he wake up and go eat breakfast at a coffee shop? Did he take his coffee black? Did he eat his toast with jam? Did he drive to the studio, or take the bus?
I found out that Matthew Friedberger has a roommate. It blew my mind for a second- I naively assume that anybody who ever recorded an album must be filthy rich. Matthew Friedberger's having a roommate is as likely as Van Dyke Parks losing his bus ticket and having to fumble through his pockets to make the fare, that is to say, very. In a perfect world, the ability to make Song Cycle should really afford one the right to swim the days away in a pool full of fifties. But I guess the fact that somebody made Song Cycle at all is what makes a wholly imperfect world seem at times flawless. That illusion, I think, is good enough.
You don't need to be on a psychedelic drug to fully fathom how everybody in the world is really, when it all boils down to it, "just a guy"- although it does aid in grasping the intricacies of what could be looked at as a pretty banal assertion. I wanted to figure out if somebody's art is more of them than they are themselves. It isn't. The separation between them and me has more to do with time and space than anything else.
In Holy Ghost's "I Started Using Alcohol At The Age Eleven", the most uncannily autobiographical song I never wrote, Matt sings "I drank six Diet Cokes and got ready to leave after lunch." Talk about "We're all just a guy"- I totally do that! Every single day of my life! You know:
Stars- they're just like us.
Part III: The Wall of Scrap as Utilized in Paul McCartney's RAM and Matthew Friedberger's Holy Ghost Language School
To be cute, I asked Matthew Friedberger his favorite word in the English language. He said something that starts with "s-k-r," and then decided upon "scratch," which starts with s-c-r, but whatever- I'm looking at a dictionary right now and apparently the only English word beginning with "s-k-r" is Skryabin, an alternate spelling of Scriabin (the last name of a Russian composer, so it isn't even English).
While Matthew Friedberger was thinking of "scratch," I was thinking, "Okay, Laura Jane, come on, think of a cool word that starts with s-k-r, I know you can do this, come on, you're awesome, you like words..."
There is no word in the English language as important to me as "scrappy." It is the apex of existence in my books/cognitive databank. And I couldn't even think of it- see? This is why you should never interview your favorite "rock star" at the peak of your preoccupation with said rock star's solo double album. Because you forget the word scrappy.
Scrappy the way I mean it when I always say it means sitting in a shopping cart with ripped jean bruised knees pulled up to your chest eating stolen sour keys. The inability to cut in a straight line or not get glue smears all over everything; the way everybody looks better when they have a black eye. I use that word to explain the magic of imperfection and how it can be charmingly a hundred times more perfect than flawlessness.
Holy Ghost Language School is one of the scrappiest albums there is. To me it sounds like what would be playing as the soundtrack to a merry-go-round at a haunted death carnival where all the merry-go-ponies are zebras and camels and three-legged dogs and burning trash cans- Scrap Heaven I mean. It sounds tore up and black-eyed and for bad children. Like listening to it would be used as punishment at an Industrial Revolution orphanage, but if you were bad enough to be receive said punishment, you would probably like and it would only make you badder- in the good way.
RAM is another classic scrapper. I thought that HLGS sounds like a merry-go-round of three-legged dogs before realizing that RAM's "3 Legs" is all about the many virtues of the three-legged dog- I'm always right about everything. Paul brags, "My dog he's got three legs, your dog he got one," and in theory a one-legged dog would be scrappier than a three-legged dog, but in practice, the three-legger takes the cake/doggie biscuit. A one-legger is just tragic. It should be at the ASPCA, not my living room. What I mostly mean is that, if you could choose between a purebred pedigree Golden Retriever puppy bred at the Royal Dog-breeder of Nottinghamshire, or a three-legged tortoiseshell mutt with a flopped-down ear and two different coloured eyes, you should choose the mongrel. You'd love him way more. You'd look at the scar where his missing leg was once affixed, and your heart would swell up and you would feel so grateful to have rescued this poor thing.
That is something key about both RAM and HGLS- I love them like I'd love a three-legged dog. Loving them makes me feel really good about myself, like I'm helping Matt and Paul out, giving back to the community, doing something rather than nothing (which is always preferable). Paul McCartney is Paul McCartney and I'm sure RAM sold a hundred billion copies in its day, but still. For a record put out by the most prolific ex-Beatle, it is contextually unappreciated. And sometimes I wonder if I am the only person in the whole world who has ever heard Holy Ghost Language School more than once straight through.
RAM and Holy Ghost seem to be dependent on what Steve Jobs would call "planned obsolescence." Matt and Paul are both what I would call "hot shot melody boys," but each record goes out of its way to distract its listeners from the presence of hot shot melodies, which remodels them into something experiential, something you have to dig through. You have to work for your pleasure ("A man must break his back to earn his day of leisure," after all). I am highly in support of burying one's A-game beneath layers of scrap- it implies the presence of a higher concept, and in my opinion: the higher the concept, the better the end product. When RAM came out in 1971, Paul had already demonstrated to the world that he was capable of writing "Hey Jude," and thusly had nothing to prove to anybody. Objectively, RAM is more chill than brilliant. I usually play it when I am looking for some sort of alleviation of pressure- RAM sounds best after an especially long nine-to-fiver followed by errands of the most boring sort followed by a tense telephone conversation about fiscal responsibility with Mom or Dad. On this one, melodies are overshadowed by a general vibe of breeziness and serenity: mud-stained Eton collars, chipped teacups on mismatched saucers, that fundamental essence of England that Paul always comes back to- also, let's face it: RAM sounds really good stoned.
Anything and/or everything can afford to be sacrificed in the name of a tight concept. And if writing a rock opera about a man opening up a Chinese-language school for definitely non native-Chinese speakers isn't a damn grand concept, I don't know what is. Holy Ghost Language School has a faintly antagonistic quality to it, something Matt Friedberger is consistently slammed for by loser rock journalists across the continental United States. I'm not one of them. I've read back a lot of reviews of WW/HLGS over the course of writing this article, and many of them frame Matt's propensity towards the concept-driven as if he is somehow abusing his right to make music, as if experimentalism taking place outside of a singularly avant-garde context is confusing or wrong, as if this is some sort of problem he has, as if with Holy Ghost Language School he was trying to write the new Bright Eyes single, but lost his way and failed miserably (this irks me in the same way as when US Weekly puts Bjork on the Fashion Police page as if she was attempting to look like Kelly Ripa but oops!- just missed the mark).
If there's one thing I learned from my overpriced design school education (besides that Faber-Castell 0.4s are best for doodling), it is that constraint and limitation breed the most successful design. The relationship between art and design is something that I struggle with defining or comprehending within myself, but you can't really argue with the fact that all "art" is "designed" to some extent. And so if music is art which is also kind of design, how could the relationship between music and design be any more germane than within a concept album? A definitive concept is a massive restraint without trying to be; I think if you're working within one you most likely lose sight of this and forget that a world exists outside of it, which, conversely, is freeing- thus proving the whole point.
There is this one wonky guitar riff that permeates HGLS, coming in and out at a number of points throughout the record, sort of like how a person comes in and out of your life and it is just the way things are. I wish I knew anything at all about guitars so I could explain it in proper guitar vernacular, but I don't and can't, so take my word for it- it's sexy. It's killer. It's one of the best sounds I've ever heard in my life. I would be more than happy to listen to one "Psychotic Reaction"-y hit based entirely around its repetition, but now that I am grown-up and mature and require more than the barest bones of junkshop proto-punk spirit to satisfy me musically, it is considerably more thrilling to sit through all of the tinny piano and backwards vocals and Chinatowny gong hits and Friedberger mad scientist bubbling beakers business, waiting or not waiting for that one transcendent moment of guitary perfection. It is thrilling like how a rollercoaster is thrilling. Which is apt, tying together my whole "death carnival" metaphor rather nicely-er than I would've anticipated. The Holy Language Ghoster-Coaster. Whatever. I give up.
Here is something Matthew Friedberger said:
"If you're making music to communicate a specific thing to people, you're better off just going out and telling the people what you think, and not bother to make a guess at it through this convoluted medium; wrap the pill in something sweet."
It's very convenient for me that Matthew Friedberger said that because it concisely sums up the dichotomy between RAM and its evil twin, John Lennon's Imagine, way better than any "blank-meets-blank-on-blank" comparison I could muster up. I was wondering to myself why John Lennon's Imagine didn't make the cut for my synaesthetic "hyper-solo album" line-up- and it's because John Lennon never wraps the pill in something sweet. On his solo records at least, John says everything he wants to say, no metaphors necessary: everything is spelled out, and therein lies the raw, sensual, animalistic genius of John. Imagine is actually a really low-concept album, and I mean that in the most loving way possible; high-concept is great, but well-executed low-concept tends to pack a punchier punch. And as for well-executed "no-concept"? That shit is most definitely on the syllabus for the "Psychotic Reaction 101" class I'm teaching next autumn.
It surprises me that I prefer RAM to Imagine in every possible way. Really, I should, or would, like Imagine better. Part of it is because of the way my life has happened to accidentally unfold- I never had an initial "being in love with Imagine" phase like I did with RAM. I have few associations with Imagine specific to days, hours, or minutes of my life- some songs of course, but it conjures up little besides visualizations of John Lennon recording it. Whereas, for five whole months once, if somebody had asked me to explain who I was to them (but unfortunately, nobody ever does that), I would have just burned them a copy of RAM and shrugged indifferently. But really, it all boils down to taste, concept and taste for a concept. I love RAM because it feels like everything I "imagine" Paul wanted it to feel like. You listen to that record and you are there, thickly inside of it, all senses attunted to the day-to-day days of this magnificent McCartney dreamworld: living in the English Countryside with the love of your life, an English Sheepdog named Martha, butternut squash, elderberries and marjoram. That's all I want. The English Countryside, interspersed with occasional visits to Six Flags Scrap Heaven Language School.
Here is something else Matthew Friedberger said:
"My own personality comes from greeting cards and Paul McCartney lyrics."
I don't know. I just think that's a cool thing to say.
Part IV: At times, Roy Wood's Boulders and Matthew Friedberger's Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School Make me Blush
I bought a copy of Boulders with a couple corners ripped off two Mays ago. I had no idea it was considered a classic album. Mostly I just liked The Move (though nowhere near as much as The Idle Race), and was in the mood to spend money that day. I fell quite direly in love with it, and played it every single morning of Finals Week '05 while blow-drying my hair in my tiny humid bathroom. Its exultant opener, "Songs of Praise" wins my personal prize for "Best First Song On Any Album Ever." It is one of the only pop songs I would deem entirely perfect, and its specific brand of imperfect perfection can best be summed up by my old roommate Lexy's take on it: having been jarringly awoken by it every single morning that May, she initially found it "annoying" and "embarrassing" but, with time, grew to love it as much as I did- okay, maybe not quite as much, but somewhere in the same ballpark at least. It grows on you. Like coffee, black licorice, and Campari, Roy Wood's sonic sorcery is an acquired taste.
I love Boulders as much as I do largely because of Roy's relentless and unapologetic commitment to saying or playing whatever the hell he feels like- the odder, the better. I often lack clarity about this aspect of Boulders; on occasion, I've put it on when people are hanging out at my house because I think it might be more accessible than other music I listen to, and then "When Gran'ma Plays the Banjo" comes on and my guests think I'm more bonkers than ever.
All four of the albums I'm talking about have their embarrassing moments: I physically cringe when Paul over-enunciates the word "can-ta-ta" in RAM's "Monkberry Moon Delight"; Song Cycle on the whole reeks of an intangible prissiness shared only by my mental perception of what Truman Capote must have been like as a four-year-old; the image of a grown man growling "I know you'll win" re: the fate of contestant number thirteen in the Miss Chinese Cosmos Pageant (Winter Women's coltish "I Love You Cedric") in fevered whispers makes me feel almost voyeuristic for partaking in its awkward earnestness.
But Boulders really takes the cake in its shameless ability to shame- sometimes Roy's mad-genius noodlings pay off a hundred-fold; is there anything in this world more transcendentally gorgeous than his use of a water-drip as percussion on "Dear Elaine"? Yes, but no. On the other hand, Boulders is Boulders is brilliant because of all the moments when its forthright battiness sounds mostly just lame. Would the jaunty "Woke up/Got out of bed/Dragged a comb across my head" chunk of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" sound anywhere near as good as it does if it hadn't been preceded by a minute of that orchestra-orgasm shit? You already know the answer to that question. We all do. It's implicit. It wouldn't.
Every great album has an embarrassing song on it. It's like a rite of passage (for the record, Tomorrow's "Three Jolly Little Dwarfs" wins my all-time most embarrassing embarrassing-song prize). Matthew Friedberger cited The Clash's Sandinista! (fittingly, the exclamation point in that title has always mortified the living hell out of me) as one of his favorite records of the rock-and-roll canon. Sandinista! is a thirty-six track triple-album, consciously unedited, often described as "sloppy" or perhaps "White Album-esque." In Matthew Friedberger's opinion, "it is always more appropriate to put an extra song on the record than to take an extra song off the record,” which I obviously agree with. It's common, though deplorably narrow-minded, to react to such a stance as though it is implicitly hostile or inimical. But it isn't. It's fun.
When I think back to the best moments of my short but ever-volatile little life, they're always ones spent laughing hysterically. I like laughing. I like jokes. I like people who make jokes. I like movies with jokes in them. I like songs with jokes in them. Holy Ghost Language School is funny in a real way. Not like comedy-rock, but like life, like the moments when you are making small talk with somebody who you don't know very well, and you spout off one-liners in lieu of bothering to try and communicate. On the title track of HGLS, Matt delivers the lyric, "Jesus H. Christ, what the frick" in a speaking rather than singing voice, and if I'm passively zoning out, that line always snaps me back into the song: it makes me laugh, even out loud, once or twice. That lyric is probably about exact equal funniness to a dumb aside I'd make while chattering mindlessly to my ex-boyfriend's older sister's husband's brother's nephew in line at the grocery store. But it's not acquaintances standing in line at the bank, it's in a song, something which is supposed to be sort of "serious"- and that makes it funnier. Matthew Friedberger apparently laughs at moments of musical pleasure that are in no way comedic; rather, the consumption of something so wholly positive articulates itself viscerally, through laughter. Which is an interesting counterpoint to his ability to make his audience laugh through a plainer approach.
The application of humor, whether it's funny or not, is rife in all four of the albums I'm talking about; if I were writing up a definition of "hyper-solo album" for the Encyclopedia Brittanica, I'd surely note its prominence as a rule. Remember that condescending hack who told me Song Cycle was like The Magic Garden? While he never gave in on the Song Cycle tip, he ultimately ceded to my point that RAM and Boulders are similar at least in their being definitive reactions to the absence of a domineering "JL" (John Lennon; Jeff Lynne). All these records seem to exalt in their independence; their respective "embarrassing parts" celebrate the absence of any authority, like how a nine-year-old might run around the house screaming in jiberish when left home alone for the first time.
What feels worse than telling a joke you think is really funny and having your audience stare dully back at you, blank and unaffected? Probably nothing, except for sharing an idea with a creative equal and its being met with a grimace and a pitying "Uh, I don't really think that would work." Boulders, RAM, Song Cycle, and Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School all revel in their own solitudes. Their best moments are also their worst, but they are also those that any collaborator who wasn’t in love with you (as in the case of Linda McCartney) would probably crinkle his or her nose at.
The difference between how humans act when they are alone vs. how they act when they are among others is chasmic, akin to the contrast between two entirely separate people. There is the Laura Jane who claims in job interviews that she is detail-oriented and responsible. And then there is the Laura Jane who hops around like an amphetamine-amped ragamuffin between mascara applications while listening to "Psychotic Reaction". I know who I prefer.
I never want to listen to music made by phonies trying to convince me of how terrific they are. I want to listen to music that sounds like absolute and unabridged freedom. I want to listen to music I can hop around like an amphetamine-amped ragamuffin to, and never, ever feel like the person who made it would think I was lame for it.
Part V: And To Conclude
I'm cool with how nobody else really cares that much about whether or not these four records are "like" each other. The amount that I care about everything I've just written is enough caring to go around. I'm happy to share my caring with the world. I've got it in droves.
In writing this article, I am actively trying to ignite a surge of interest in Matthew Friedberger. To put it bluntly: his music is really cool and people who make a big deal out of listening to cool music should be more into him because he is cool to like. I think that Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School is going to age really well. I think everything Matthew Friedberger does will age inordinately well. I think that his contributions to the ceaselessly dreary terrain of contemporary pop music are both un- and under-appreciated. I think that in thirty years, people who are into hearing cool relics from a bygone era will find Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School and it will take on the same "lost classic" property as the other albums I've been talking about.
Sometimes you get a better idea of what a word means from looking at a thesaurus rather than a dictionary. It's easier to grasp what something is by figuring out what it isn't, or what it kind of is, instead of what it actually might be in ever-unsatisfying reality. In boring life, Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School is merely a bunch of notes and noises and words organized in a way that sounds alternately "pleasant" and "interesting". Same goes for Boulders and RAM and Song Cycle. But for me, these four stupid albums that four men, I mean dudes, made in whatever circumstances they happened to make them in, have made my experiencing of unsatisfying reality not only more tolerable, but also more my own.
What would I have done the morning after I cut my foot open and required ten stitches, spent my night sleeping next to a junkie in a Bushwick emergency room and had just taken the bus home at 6 AM, deliriously pain-killed, if I hadn't have had RAM to put on? How would I remember what it felt like to sit on my fire escape in summer with my best friend, shirtsleeves rolled up, drinking extra-large Dunkin' Donuts iced coffees and Song Cycle-ing, if I couldn't play it back and know exactly? And however would I have danced for four and a half hours straight in the name of conceptual art if Roy Wood's "Rock Down Low" hadn't been there to get me through the home stretch?
Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School by Matthew Friedberger feels like that first night I heard it on headphones at my parents' house. It also feels like three Thursdays ago, when, after an incorrigibly harsh Montreal winter that damn near killed me, I got to wear shorts for the first time (!!!!). It feels like being curled up into a tiny little ball on the New York-to-Montreal Greyhound bus at four AM, blasting it into my brain to drown out the incessant preachings of a religious zealot seated to my diagonal right.
But the coolest thing of all is that, for the rest of my life, whenever I listen to Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School, it will feel exactly like this. I'll hear it, and I will be right back to where I am at this precise moment, in the months of April and May 2008, tirelessly twenty-two, when I discovered that this album existed, adored it like madly, scored an interview with Matthew Friedberger, and then wrote an article about how it is "like" Song Cycle and Boulders and RAM. It will feel like the night when I interviewed him and chain-smoked Marlboro Reds 100s and wondered if I sounded stupid. It will feel like realizing that GarageBand fucked up most of my recording of the interview and I couldn't hear a bunch of things he said and then felt guilty for wasting his time. It will feel like all the days I sat at the blank white table where I am sitting right now, typing away, stressing out about length and my overuse of the word "significant" or my tendency towards the hyperbolic, drinking six Diet Cokes, tugging on my hair, wondering what I'm going to eat for dinner. Forever, even when I am eighty years old and dying of lung cancer, I'll be able to hear Winter Women/Holy Ghost Language School by Matthew Friedberger and remember exactly what is happening to me right now. And that will only ever be true for me.
Laura Jane Faulds
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