Posts Tagged ‘music time’
I wrote about “Higher Love” by Depeche Mode for Cool Practice. A band playing to its strengths and obsessions, hard.
(I used to call all fast-paced electronic dance music “techno” — was that a common thing, like how all non-punks used to refer to all punk and post-punk people by shouting “DEVO!” at them?)
I wrote about a memorable live performance of “Sex Type Thing” by Stone Temple Pilots for my music tumblr, Cool Practice.
I hope you like it.
In its original version, which I think is the ’90s dance-industrial act Lords of Acid’s single best recording proper, “The Crablouse” was already one of the sleaziest songs I owned. What can you say about a paean to the erotic and orgasmic potential of pubic lice? The lyrics, barked by a female vocalist in a mic-distorted Euro-rap that gives way to a reach-for-the-heavens ululation in the chorus, don’t actually, you know, make any sense, but they didn’t need to. The point was simply “THIS IS A DIRTY SEXY SONG ABOUT DIRTY SEXY DIRTYSEX,” and the music flung a gigantic beat and huge guitars and synths and snarling raging panting jungle-beast vox at you to reinforce the point. (The immortal album cover by friend of the blog COOP didn’t hurt, either.)
Much as I like that original version, though, I think I like this remix by Carl. S. Johansen even better. I like it for its focus. Instead of the frantic, distortion-laden industrial instrumentation of the original, this is just big glittering washes and skittering snakes of synth, the kind of beat that always sounds like you’ve turned the bass up in your car too loud to be properly heard, and seven words’ worth of lyrics (not THOSE seven words, but you’re not on the wrong track) that boil the Lords’ entire dirty-dance project down to its barest and most goal-oriented essentials. (The EP it came on had a pretty great cover of its own.)
Maybe I’m overthinking it now, years later, but looking back this song must have hit me at just the right time. It’s loud, scary, heavy, danceable, utter anathema to square notions of taste, futuristic, weirdly lovely at times, and hyperbolically sexual in a relentlessly pleasure-seeking and bluntly honest way. A terrific fantasy version of adulthood for someone just becoming an adult! It didn’t all work out quite that way for me, I suppose, but you know, I did alright.
On Watch the Throne, the new collaborative album by Jay-Z and Kanye West, the title phrase or a variation on it is uttered nine times over the course of sixteen songs. Meanwhile, a recurring orchestral sample — its nervous energy evoking the spooky bits of Magical Mystery Tour, sinister ’60s children’s movies, and the shifty-eyed rhythm of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” — shows up in looped form as an unofficial theme at the end or beginning of four separate tracks, including the opener “No Church in the Wild” above.
Did this remind anyone else of George R.R. Martin’s character mantras/catchphrases from A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones? “If I look back I am lost.” “Where whores go.” “It rhymes with…” “She’s been fucking [names redacted] for all I know…” “Kill the boy.” “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” “Valar Morghulis.” “Weese, Dunsen, Polliver, Raff the Sweetling…” In each of these cases, these are phrases that wounded, worried minds keep circling back and back and back to, obsessively. They’re phrases they cling to and phrases that haunt them.
Can you think of a better way to describe what the the repetition of the words “watch the throne” might mean to two men whose unquestioned position at the top of their field means, as Jay-Z puts it, that the only place they can find an opponent is in the mirror?
I’ve been writing a post comparing Watch the Throne to ASoIaF/GoT since my first listen, but when you play the game of Game of Thrones comparisons, you publish or you perish. Oh well! I actually don’t mind that other people have gotten there first, because it means that the initial, incorrect critical narrative about the album — two rich people rapping about how rich they are, which is bad because of the debt deal and the London riots or something — is falling by the wayside. It’s as if the pressure to turn reviews of an important album around in 24 hours (due to the record’s unexpected, exclusive, leak-thwarting midnight release on iTunes) led critics to forget that anything ever happened at any other time. If it’s not okay to rap about fame and wealth to a struggling audience, then flush the last two decades of hip-hop, including multiple chart-topping critically acclaimed albums by Jay-Z and Kanye West, down the toilet.
But not only is the thesis ridiculous, it’s not even accurate. Obviously Kanye and Jay rap a lot about their money and the stuff they’ve bought with it on this album, and obviously the names they’re dropping are high-end and/or highfalutin’ enough to stand out to critics under deadline pressure. (I bet the Museum of Modern Art didn’t expect to have almost as much of a role on this record as Frank Ocean does.) But you’d almost have to purposefully ignore the rest of the lyrics, and most importantly the sound of the thing, to think that’s all there is to it, to characterize this album as a less forceful-sounding Rick Ross record. For all the talk about life at the top, they seem about as comfortable there as Robert Baratheon, Eddard Stark, and the stained knight Jaime Lannister. The music is foreboding and paranoid, minor-key prog samples, witch house synths, and soul legends chopped and pitch-shifted into demon shouts and banshee wails. The lyrics describe difficulties — from Jay-Z copping to depression, to Kanye’s R. Crumb-like dissections of his sexuality and misogyny, to overcoming the obstacles of a racist society to “make it in America” only to discover that the higher they go, the fewer people like them they find — that go a lot deeper than the usual litany of complaints about haters and biters. Both aspects of the record are embodied by those repetitions — that cycling, recurring, uncomfortable theme music; “watch the throne, watch the throne, watch the throne,” over and over again. If they were comfortable on the damn thing, they wouldn’t constantly be telling themselves and everyone else not to take their eyes off it for a second.
When my baby daughter gets fussy, which usually happens every night around 7:30, the one thing guaranteed to calm her down and cheer her up is for me to pick her up and dance around with her. So every night for about forty minutes or so we have a Daddy Dance Party, also known as Family Funky Time when my wife joins in. An undisputed highlight of the DDP playlist is this live version of “Cold Sweat” by James Brown from 1968, which over the course of its twelve minutes has exposed my daughter to more funk before age 2 months than I heard before age 20.
Virtually everything great about James Brown is on ample display in this recording. For starters, the man’s skills as a bandleader, even outside the studio and in a less controllable live setting, are quite simply astonishing. Listen as he and official bandleader Pee-Wee Ellis lead the group through an airtight version of the song, through minute after minute of vamping and solos, and back into the song again: Every note, every beat is hit hard enough to draw blood. As I listen to the thing, I marvel at his rapport with the band as they turn on a collective dime time after time — they seem linked almost at a telepathic level, where no cue comes as a surprise to anyone except everyone in the audience. Meanwhile, Brown’s charisma as a frontman is equally astonishing here. Those shrieks and yelps are really quite something, if you can try to forget you’ve heard them a million times and appreciate their ecstatic insanity afresh. But beyond that, his banter with both the band and the audience is funny and effortless, making cool-dude nonsense like “Excuse me while I do the boogaloo” or “If you ain’t got enough soul, let me know and I’ll loan you some — I got soul to burn” or introducing the latest dance move by challenging the band to guess its name (spoiler alert: it’s “the Detroit Pimp”) sound inspired, like a template young fans can apply when they want to be awesome.
But best of all, especially for those of us who’ve heard rock bands of Brown’s funk era stretch songs out into double-digit running times to enervating effect when performing live, there’s never a dull moment. The solos — fiery saxophone by Maceo Parker, follow-the-bouncing-ball bass from Alfonso Kellum, and most impressively, a double drum solo from Clyde Stubblefield and Nate Jones that ends with literally the funkiest break I’ve ever heard, driving the audience totally batshit — feel vital and exciting, an integral part of the performance, rather than a self-indulgent opportunity for the given player to show off while the rest of the band sneaks off for a cigarette break. And you never know when a lengthy vamp will be punctuated by Brown saying something funny or badass, or leading the band through snippets of Allen Toussaint and Lee Dorsey’s “Ride Your Pony” or Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man,” or quoting “my friend Sammy Davis,” or eliciting wild cheers from the audience with some unseen but undoubtedly crazy dance move, or god knows what else. The song is simply packed with pleasures I’m still discovering and delighting in after innumerable listens.
My friend Matthew Perpetua is fond of pointing out that beneath the gauzy haze of shoegaze is sex, at least when it’s done right. The formlessness and distortion isn’t just an anti-mainstream distancing aesthetic, it’s an evocation of sex’s obliteration of the self, the way the boundaries between you and your lover, your conscious and unconscious, your conception of the present as a step toward the future and a present that envelops all of existence, all blur. There’s more to it than Kevin Shields blowing Alan McGee’s money on the perfect guitar tone, and a bunch of lesser lights ripping it off.
If the maligned alt-pop subgenre commonly called chillwave can accurately be described as bouncy beats and bubbly synths subjected to a shoegazey sheen, then it seems to me that Washed Out has always been the act that acknowledges that heat beneath the Hipstamatic filter. I think people looked at the cover of his debut EP, Life of Leisure, and came away thinking it was the usual amorphous hat tip to summer and beaches and nostalgia, but I always thought something crucial was being conveyed by the fact that it’s not just any beach scene, it’s photo of his wife swimming in the ocean during their honeymoon. There’s an erotic component to it that goes beyond making the music sound like your synthesizer was left out in the sun to melt a bit before you started playing it. That’s what I get from “Before,” the standout track from Within and Without. (And hey, you wanna talk about a cover that tips the album’s hand?) I say this even though I can’t understand a word Ernest Greene is singing, even though I can’t even make out the two-syllable sample that recurs every fourth measure. That last bit is sort of the barb on the end of the beat, the part that hooks you, makes the beat exciting to listen to as it cycles through the song (itself the most beat-driven on the album, in a sort of trip-hop sense). It’s what keeps you moving through showers of sound that ebb and flow in intensity: high-pitched cascades, low pulses of synthesized strings, tinkling melancholy melodic lines where the chorus might go, texture provided by live percussion. In other words, for all its shimmering softness, it’s actually quite a pressure cooker of aural information, designed to create an intensely sensual listening experience — not background music, not hey-remember-when nostalgia. It is a super sexy song. Listen to it with someone you fucked on your honeymoon.
When last I checked in with Drake he was sounding like Everything But the Girl. In “Marvin’s Room” he’s sounding even more like Everything But the Girl — specifically “Single,” in which Tracey Thorn engages her ex in a bit of extraordinarily bitter concern-trolling over a hotel phone, accompanied a shuffling beat and ghostly synths. Voila, I’ve just described “Marvin’s Room” as well. But what Drake lacks in Thorn’s luscious vocal instrument he more than makes up for in a level of lyrical candor that is either really exquisite artistry or the complete lack thereof. This is a guy who’ll lilt “Fuck that nigga that you love so bad” like it’s the most romantic thing in the world, who’ll say “After a while, girl, they all seem the same / I’ve had sex four times this week — I’ll explain” in a song whose sketch of a chorus revolves around chiding his ex “I’m just sayin’ you could do better.” I have no idea if he knows what a leap it is to expose his assholishness to the world like this and is consciously making that leap, or if he’s simply so fascinated by himself that he’s sharing this information because he’s his own muse. In the end I’m not sure it matters if it makes for sad, lovely, disturbing music like this. Bonus points for repeating the ex’s incredulous “Are you drunk right now?” like it’s one of those Houston-to-Apollo transmissions from The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld.
4 is the first Beyoncé album whose slow, serious songs I don’t automatically skip. Good thing, too, because it’s mostly slow-ish, serious-ish songs, as opposed to Dangerously in Love, which dumped them at the back end of album; I Am…Sasha Fierce, which gave them their own disc; and her best record, B’Day, which nearly excised them altogether. The up-tempo “Countdown” is getting a lot of attention right now, with its Franken-pop construction and inspired gibberish like “ME and my BOOF and my BOOF BOOF ridin’” (thus joining “Ra-ra ah-ah-ah, roma ro-ma-ma, gaga ooh-la-la” and “Mama say, mama sa, mama ma coo sa” in the annals of great pop nonsense), but the album’s undisputed highlights for me are the aforeblogged lovesexy scorcher of a ballad “1+1″ and this song, in which Beyoncé addresses a lover’s indifference by attacking it with the nearest weapon to hand, her voice. Listen to the way she shouts “IIIII CARE!” in the chorus, or just plain screams at the end of it — it’s like Chris Cornell wailing into the abyss of Andrew Wood’s heroin overdose in “Times of Trouble” by Temple of the Dog. Sonically the two songs aren’t even all that dissimilar: state-of-the-art production that creates a nice melancholy purple cushion of air around the instrumentation, in “I Care”‘s case the tumbling drums in particular. Hell, in a world where Bey’s mashing up Prince and Kings of Leon and having freaking Tricky do the Sean Paul part in “Baby Boy” at Glastonbury, I wouldn’t be surprised if I woke up tomorrow to find out she’d covered it. It’d be a fine outlet for the sort of skill and conviction she displays here (like the way her voice warbles when she says she’s been “deserted” or the way she sings along to the guitar solo like she can’t bear to stop pouring out the emotion she’s feeling), and for her ever-sharpening taste for interesting arrangements (“I Care” and “I Miss You” are mostly synth tones and spare percussion; the latter just sort of disappears rather than ends the way proper commercial pop songs do; even the Diane Warren-penned “I Was Here” has some weird spectral Interpol guitar stretching out from the end of the chorus). She’s taking the sort of stuff that usually made for turgid one-listen mom-radio bait and making it lively and engrossing. Frankly there’s not much she can’t do at this point.
Played from start to finish, WU LYF’s debut album Go Tell Fire to the Mountain comes across like a music-nerd Mark Millar Idea: “What if there was the most uplifting anthemic indie rock album ever…but the lyrics were GIBBERISH?” And like most Mark Millar Ideas, real and imagined, the joke gets old quickly. The formula is simple and adhered to with minimal variation: Cavernous production (the album was apparently recorded in a church; the ever-present pipe organ’s a tipoff too) plus chiming guitar plus glossolalia screamed at the top of lead singer Ellery Roberts’s lungs. Slow songs, fast songs, quiet songs, loud songs, every song on the album gets the same treatment. By the time you reach track nine or so, the initially bracing effect of the approach, this sense that you’re witnessing something that’s half-hymn, half-howl at the moon, is diluted through repetition and general lack of imagination. No amount of Captain Caveman hollering is going to distinguish the umpteenth life-is-beautiful, we’re-all-in-this-together Joshua Tree legacy-character record.
But everything that makes WU LYF a lousy place to live makes it a terrific place to visit for the five minute, thirty-five second duration of the album’s concluding track, “Heavy Pop.” An admirably lengthy, virtually ambient organ introduction sounds like the world is slowly waking up, and when those first guitar notes hit, it’s like rays of morning sun, and Roberts is like a man screaming right back into the sky, greeting the dawn with defiance. It’s another answer to a goofy unasked question, in this case “What if the problem with Bruce’s vocals at the end of ‘Jungleland’ was that they sounded insufficiently committed?” At album length this doesn’t work at all, but for a single song it’s epic, genuinely so — it’s huge, it sprawls, it conjures images of great vistas and lone heroes and everything. There’s no need to press your luck with the other nine tracks. Unless you’re an Arcade Fire fan, I suppose, in which case go with God.
I admire how few concessions this song makes. I figured that after a few introductory measures they’d clean up and smooth out that guitar triplet, but nope, it stays fragile-sounding and rough around the edges the whole time. The expected “TICK two three TOCK two three” 6/8 slow-jam drum never really materializes, requiring you to lean into those rich-sounding chords, which are themselves constructed largely from a subtle interplay between piano and bass. Synth strings and a watery organ sound and a snippet of piano played backwards are sketched in here and there, but you really have to wait for them. Beyoncé’s vocals, to paraphrase her lyrics, pull you in close and won’t let you go — there’s simply no ignoring those big whooping “OO!” sounds at the end of each line, nor a chorus structured around the simple phrase “make love to me,” nor a final verse that sets this lovemaking up as an alternative to a world at war. And when the climax finally comes, all that pent-up energy isn’t diffused into a dully loud full-band finale with a full-fledged beat or whatever, but poured into a reach-for-the-sky guitar solo. Everything surrounding it stays relatively restrained; the guitar does the shouting. Then it all just kinda disappears. “1+1″ is, fittingly, more than the sum of its parts, all of which are astutely selected and intelligently, unapologetically deployed to transport you to a more beautiful place for four minutes and thirty-five seconds at a time.
The other day my wife told me how glad she was to have come of age, culturally speaking, in the early to mid ’90s. We’ve had this discussion several times, because every time it becomes apparent how easy it was to have really terrific music placed right in front of you by the paltry-by-today’s-standards number of outlets geared toward putting music in front of teenagers, by god, it’s worth talking about. A case in point for me is this, the concluding and title track to the album that “Detachable Penis” came from. I still think “Detachable Penis” is very funny (“He wanted twenty bucks, but I talked him down to seventeen”). But what I couldn’t have known when I brought home the CD in its giant cardboard longbox from Tower Records was that the album that surrounded that novelty classic was stuffed with really first-rate alternative-rock musicianship. Some of it was pastiche of genres I really didn’t have any experience with yet (“VulvaVoid” is shoegaze! “Trapped” is mid-period time-to-rock-happily R.E.M.!), some of it was spoken-word weirdness and wordplay draped atop roiling hard rock I had no problem appreciating (“Sink,” “Ed”), and a lot of it is just crushingly morose songs about complete failure. “I’m Sorry” and “Heaven,” the third-to-last and penultimate tracks, contain lots of imagery of crushed birds and breaking things that can’t be repaired, all delivered with John S. Hall’s twerpy speak-singing to undercut the heaviness. No such undercutting takes place in “Happy Hour,” a dirge I put on to this day when I want to feel unremittingly awful. Funereal organ, some kind of electronic reverse-tape effect that sounds like something shuffling into a grave, lyrics that conclude with the lines “While the flesh fell off our bodies and we lost our limbs,” so fuzzy and distorted you can’t make it out without the lyric sheet, and on top of it all a melancholy, briefly beautiful piano chords and, finally, a guitar that sounds like it’s bleeding to death. Back then you could stumble bass-ackwards into shit like this all day long. You had it so easy you weren’t prepared for a time when you’d need a song like this.
Because we absolutely, positively need more art-pop that sounds like T’Pau’s “Heart and Soul.” It took me forever to place what I was hearing in this standout track from Gang Gang Dance’s engrossing, energetic new album Eye Contact but even before I struck upon what I think is the most direct influence, this song’s project of rehabilitating big sky’s-the-limit mostly English alternative pop sounds from the ’80s had my full support. Everything about it makes me feel like I’m sitting in some teenage bedroom I never had, playing it at full volume and sharing some secret delirious joy with myself. That stop-start beat, with its synth stabs and big flat reverbbing drums, is just made to dance to in your mirror, awkward and uncaring, while Lizzi Bougatsos’ vocals run the impenenetrability of Liz Fraser (another icon of rhapsodic interiority) through a strange Bollywood filter. Which works perfectly, because to me the appeal of all the Big ’80s bands was just how far away their world felt from mine, like these were transmissions of heartache and happiness and emotions too intense to filter down to me as anything but pure excitement, in a secret language of adult glamour I was lucky enough to understand for three or four minutes at a time.
King Crimson- Lark's Tongues in Aspic Part !!
I’m a sucker for supervillain team-ups, but I’m particular about them as well. Conventional wisdom holds that supervillains’ villainy will always undermine their collaboration in the end: Megalomaniacal master-planner types will spend as much time maneuvering against one another as against their mutual enemies, the more dignified types will clash with the real wild ones, and before long the team-up’s either in pieces or at each other’s throats. Fie, I say. Reality is little more than a constant stream of examples of horrible people working together quite effectively to advance their agendas, and I see no reason to believe that evil men and women of sufficient means and motivation couldn’t pool their resources and crush the resistance of their do-gooding rivals, scattering broken Avengers across the Eastern seaboard and erecting enormous matching statues of Doctor Doom in New York Harbor and Magneto in the San Francisco Bay.
This is the feeling I get when I listen to this live version of a ’70s King Crimson instrumental, performed by the band’s “double trio” incarnation twenty-odd years later. Robert Fripp’s the mad scientist in this model, bespectacled and seated quietly on a stool as he makes his guitar sound like it’s actually capable of biting your head off with those first few notes. His fellow avant-guitar legend and collaborator-with-everyone-interesting Adrian Belew is a jaunty Joker-like presence by comparison, bouncing around as he draws out soaring, piercing sounds from his instrument. Two drummers pound away, laying down a suppressing fire of time-signature changes, percussive miscellany, and ear-smacking loudness; they include math-rock monster Bill Bruford (late of Yes) and session guy Pat Mastelotto (late of everyone from Mr. Mister to …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead – he’s kind of like the jobber who gets tapped by one of the big boys and surpasses everyone’s expectations) . Every good supervillain team needs a bald guy, so there’s Tony Levin, supplying the low end for one of the band’s bass-heaviest compositions, and teaming up with Trey Gunn, who compliments Fripp’s already science-fictional-sounding Frippertronics by playing instruments with names like the Warr Guitar and the Chapman Stick. The song itself is like an assault — impossibly loud from the start, like many King Crimson tracks it relies on repetition, crescendo, and melodic lines that rise ever higher in pitch to create the impression that it’s somehow getting louder and more urgent still. The constant rhythmical shifts, nearly impossible to predict unless you’ve heard the song a million times, make the riffs feel like they’re jumping out of the grooves to try to get to you as fast as they can. It’s just a sinister, angry-sounding song, and it ends with the band basically burning it to the ground, the sonic ashes a monument to their triumph. Everyone worked together to make something awful and awe-ful.
Wonderful though the trimmed-down video version may be, I’m posting the full-length album version of this song instead. It’s in this version, with its leisurely intro and extra lines and lacerating instrumental section before the third verse, that you get the full effect. It’s a different feeling than the usual “quite verse/LOUD CHORUS/quiet verse” altrock model, mind you; it’s not so binary, so on/off. Each time the loping groove nears the end of a verse, it kind of shakes out and tightens up and only then turns up the volume — it grows into the loud chorus, and you feel that potential contained within the rest of the song. Overall it radiates a sense of lazy coiled menace, like a big dangerous animal dozing in warm weather that suddenly opens its eye when you get too close. I like a song that can surprise you like that, a song that does its thing for a while but eventually says “alright, fuck it” and rears up and punches you right in the face.
The lyrics to this song really couldn’t be simpler. With haiku-like precision, Hayden Thorpe’s falsetto sketches a succession of rapturous nights with a lover, all of which head inexorably to the same conclusion: the end, come too soon. That premature end — the ends of things we wish would never end are always premature — ends up overshadowing all that came before, so that where Thorpe started by singing of “blessed” and “divine” nights, he ends by saying “your skin looked waxen in the fading light.” Loss, whether through death or separation, colors everything in the same dreary gray. Once that point is reached, the music’s gently pulsing beat and cooing backing vocals take a break, as do the high plucked guitar notes and endlessly cycling piano, giving way to ambiguous electronic tones. It’s as if the band collectively pauses, draws a breath, and then lets it all out in an enormous wave of grief embodied by Thorpe’s wordless, repetitive cry, the highest and loudest notes he hits in the whole song, sung over and over again. He ends by repeating the title phrase over and over and over as well, eventually just shortening it to “too soon, too soon, too soon,” like it’s all he can think to say. As the finale of the band’s astonishingly cerebral, subtle, sensual, and controlled new album Smother, it’s an overwhelming moment of anti-catharsis, and it gets my vote for song of the year so far.
XL, May 2011
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I’m not a lyrics person, not up front anyway — my initial experiences with a song are almost always going to be solely music-based, perhaps with an assist from the song title. So when I arrived at this standout track off the second album from the shiny-sounding English dance/rock group Friendly Fires, saw the title, heard the galloping beat and the soaring synth wash during the chorus and that little birdlike noise that keeps repeating, I figured “Okay, cool, it’s a song about being in Hawaii and being awed and amazed by the beauty of it all.” Everyone loves a good “transformed by the beauty of my vacation destination” song (what’s up, “Tahitian Moon”?) especially one with as openly hedonistic a beat as this one, so hey, no problems here. Then I finally listened to the record enough to pay attention to those lyrics, and lo and behold, singer Ed McFarlane never gets off the plane. He’s not singing about the water and the volcanos and the trees and the hula and such, he’s singing about feeling someone’s knees in his back and getting stuck in his seat due to turbulence and “watching a film with at talking dog.” The “Hawaiian Air” of the title isn’t the oxygen, it’s the airline. The realization made me chuckle, but beyond the lulz, what a warm, humble, relatable thing to write a big, soaring, epic-sounding dance track about. McFarlane’s voice already manages to pull off the trick of being simultaneously ultra-(R/r)omantic and also really intimate and friendly-sounding; this song doubles down on his preexisting appeal. A real treat.
Prog rock is lambasted for its bombast and excess, but at its best restraint is its true hallmark, along with an ability to lock into a groove and do it to death as much as any of the funk bands that were the monsters of prog’s contemporaries during their mutual heyday. One of my all-time favorite classic-rock radio jams — it counts as one, since like “Sgt. Pepper’s (Reprise)/A Day in the Life” or “Time/Breathe (Reprise)” or what have you its two halves segue together and are never played separately — the combo better known simply as “Long Distance Runaround” puts both qualities on ample display. The first half is all about holding back: After faking us out with a squiggly guitar filigree and rhythm-section churn, the song settles down into a main section characterized by a softly jaunty keyboard part, complemented by the broken-up phrases and clipped delivery of Jon Anderson’s vocals and a joint guitar/bass line from Steve Howe and Chris Squire that drops in a few notes every so often and then cuts off almost as soon as it begins. It’s a restrained approach well suited to Anderson’s lyrics, which sing of the frustration of opportunities squandered and expectations never met, and it creates a refreshing amount of space around each instrument, if that makes sense — you feel present in a room with various musicians contributing every so often, then holding back, content to let things linger in the air. Lyrically, the second half of the song may consist only of nonsense — the taxonomic name of a fish chanted as though it contained the secrets of the universe — but the instrumentation seems to house all the angst lurking beneath the pinched and placid surface of the first half. Essentially a drum and bass duet with Squire overdubbing a rather extraordinary range of approaches to his instrument and future King Crimson behemoth Bill Bruford providing a tight percussion backdrop, it seizes a 7/4 rhythm and exploits it, introducing new and increasingly menacing bass elements every few turns of the screw. It’s difficult for me to hear it and not nod my head along, leaning into the music as it barrels forward.
I’ve probably listened to this song more often after catching it by chance while flipping around my car radio presets than on my iPod, and in that context it shines even brighter, I’d say. Music on the radio often comes through as a wall of noise, filling every available sonic space, sounding emitted rather than performed and recorded. “Long Distance Runaround”‘s dynamics give my ears empty spaces to dart into, and I can “see” the rest of the music from that vantage point as it plays, instead of merely sitting there and letting it blast over me.