Thursday was my freshman comp/pop music class’ second stab at a kind of data-based Socratic seminar. Last time, as documented here, the youth mostly took Mitski to task–if a tad unfairly, without the preferable amount of supporting evidence–but, in retrospect, I can understand their chagrin. On the pop music spectrum, from the vantage point of young fans, this seems more a time for authenticity and sincerity (for all the traps built into those terms) than ambition and pretension (and I’m not really using those terms pejoratively)–thus the majority of my class having raised their eyebrows at Mistki’s work. I still admire it, as do a handful of women on my roster.
Our discussion of Blood Orange’s Negro Swan seemed to bear this out. The minute I finished blabbing about intro shit (otherwise known as “set induction”), hands shot up in the air: “Can I talk first?” “I’ve got something to say about this one!” “Ooooooh, this is my album?” As I scanned the room, I could see that almost every one of them had taken voluminous notes, and as I called on folks to talk, it was obvious that both the album’s music and content had energized them. Music: “It’s a new kind of r&b for these times–music evolves in its society and this album seems to show that!” “It’s new but it’s old–it’s funky, but it’s also chill, and it’s soul music but it has the r&b thing.” “It has a depressive vibe that I just love–it’s how I’m feeling!” (Think about that one.) “This album’s just got a great flow–” (most of them thought the opposite of Be the Cowboy, though I don’t think musical flow was its point) “–that I could really get into!” “The music made me feel so good I couldn’t concentrate on the lyrics–”
On that last exaltation, I responded. “So, is the music so seductive that it obscures its content? And is that a mark of success or failure?”
Much furrowing of brows. I had to ask it, because I’d experienced it myself. I even told ’em, “Someone [I think it was Zappa…or his boy Varese?] once said that pure pleasure was counterrevolutionary!” So then the boosters became more specific: “No, the spoken parts, the ones by Janet Mock, that’s the content, so it’s so much a big deal that you don’t notice the lyrics.” Most of the students in that camp also made it very clear that they identified with Mock’s commentary, especially when she addresses the idea of building a chosen family, finding a space among others to be yourself and cease performing, and doing as much stuff as you can (as opposed to doing little). I have to admit: I dug that stuff, too. Others pointed to the way the videos dramatized the songs, though they still didn’t quote many actual lyrics.
Finally, a student posited the following: “I found that the spoken stuff distracted me from the music, which I thought was the thing. It kept me from having some continuity thinking about the music, then, after I reflected, it occurred to me that without the spoken stuff, the music isn’t really all that powerful–it isn’t really that dynamic.” Woah. This idea was seized upon; we even came to the conclusion that inserting “spoken stuff” by important humans might well have become a trend (think Solange, Beyonce, SZA), and hit the end of the hour puzzling over if it were a trend, why was it one, and was it a good one?
This ritual is working. The point has been to get them used to talking about music specifically, force them to examine artistic problems, and start them thinking about transferring the discussion to their writing. They have an expository essay on deck (they have to choose from among 10 expository modes the one that best enables them to say what they want about a pet musical concern), with an actual record review in the hole. We’re already past where we were with these issues last year, and on top of that, the students seem less reluctant to criticize model writings I’ve given them: they’ve already pointed out music writing trends such as hive mind, precious little constructive criticism, and celebrity hypnosis.
Also, I’ve turned the artist choice over to students: Tierra Whack’s Whack World is next up, followed by Sophie’s Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-insides. I’m having fun–can you tell? (One thing is, they’re working harder than I am–an objective classroom teachers should always be shooting for.)
On fronts with lower stakes, I simply hunkered down and enjoyed some old records. One was Ray Charles’ Sweet and Sour Tears, an ABC label concept album of sorts (it’s songs about tears!) packed with all the devices that can make this Charles period a challenge for listeners with high aesthetic standards: soupy choral arrangements, blasting brass, and material of very erratic quality. When I was younger, I assumed that these “offenses” had been forced on Ray by the company, but once I learned the music was exactly as the man wanted it, I was forced to re-evaluate them. I’m not adding anything that new to the debate, but with surprising frequency Charles engages in soulful call-and-response with the choirs (who are decisively not the Raelettes), devises arrangements that push that brass to KICK, and invests crap songs with vocal guts, often of a rascally nature, and that resonant gospel-tinged piano, which is mixed up higher than one has come to expect with the ABC output. The reissue of Sweet and Sour Tears includes Atlantic “tear-songs” as bonus tracks, but honestly I don’t hear them sounding any better than the official album. If you’ve somehow skipped this one, give it a spin.
I also took an old standby out to the truck; it’s now on its third repetition, and I’ve probably played it 200 times since I saw the band live. It’s on the long-gone Joaquin Records (named after the great steel guitarist Joaquin Murphy), it’s by a bunch of crazy Canucks called Ray Condo and The Richochets, and it’s called Swing, Brother, Swing. The record just hits my sweet spot with serious juice: call it what you want–Western swing, rockabilly, hillbilly boogie, jazz, blues, rock and roll, hardcore honky tonk–the band just loves all that stuff and mixes it into a stunning elixir. If that isn’t enough to tempt you, they were crate-diggers at least as good as Lux and Ivy, and–as much as I love those two–without the schtick. Billie Holiday, Rudy Toombs, Lew Williams, Hank Penny, Carl Perkins, and–especially, on the above song–Glenn Barber come in for revved-up treatment here, and the next two records they released before Condo’s untimely death were almost as surprising. The band was hot, sharp, and tightly loose (if that makes sense), Condo’s goosed-up “regular guy” vocals, in the grand tradition of Western swing, are sly and engaged, and the man plays the kind of saxophone fans of Don Markham (of Hag’s Strangers) will appreciate. Just great stuff that I can yell myself hoarse to just driving around the block.
And what about the new Prince album?
Let me quote Nicole: “He’s doodling. That’s a genius doodling.” She’d just asked me if she’d heard him sing the word “omelets”–and yes, he does. But that quote is a compliment–you’re hearing a master musician and songwriter in the midst of his process, rolling out some stuff he’s been thinking about for awhile, some bits he thinks (rightly) might have some potential, some O.P.s that he digs the most that he plays around with. Latter case in point (listen for the omelet line):
Also, I should point out that he works a piano, he stomps a bit, and he didn’t just save those eye-popping vocal dynamics for official recording sessions. We’re happy we bought it.