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Posts Tagged ‘music’

The “Layla” IQ Test

May 15, 2015 | by

layla

Beloved of dads everywhere.

In 1992, Eric Clapton released an acoustic version of his 1970 Derek and the Dominos classic, “Layla.” Inspired by the Persian epic The Story of Layla and Majnun—and, of course, by Clapton’s personal life—the original was ubiquitous at the height of album rock. But the relaxed, dad-friendly “unplugged” take made an instant sensation, too: it was an inescapable part of the soundtrack of the early nineties. To this day it’s a Lite FM staple—just try to visit the dentist’s office without hearing it.

When it came out, I remember hearing it was everywhere. In stores; on MTV; in the local salon, Visual Difference, where tough young women gave me terrible haircuts between cigarettes. And whenever that live cover came on in our car—as it did in the cars of countless boomers across the nation and the world—my mom would go on the same tear.

Recall, to start, that the set was recorded in front of a Brixton audience. Unlike the rest of the world, the crowd captured on tape was presumably hearing this cover for the first time. 

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Behind the Music

May 6, 2015 | by

The lost art of hidden tracks.

Photo: D-Kuru/Wikimedia Commons

Nearly everyone who came of age in the nineties remembers hidden tracks, those Easter eggs of the CD era. Artists embedded secret songs or demos after a disc’s final track; listeners combed through the silence to find them. For me, growing up in a small town with plenty of time to kill, sitting in silence and waiting for music to appear was an ideal way to spend an afternoon. The less patient among us, I know, would fast forward through the quiet. I didn’t.

The hidden track was born of the LP age, with the Beatles’ “Her Majesty”—which appeared uncredited at the end of 1969’s Abbey Road, following fourteen seconds of silence—serving as a kind of urtext, though Paul McCartney has claimed its inclusion was an accident. In 1979, the Clash added “Train in Vain” to London Calling at the last minute, after the album’s packaging had been printed. When vinyl was music’s preeminent medium, though, there were analog clues to an album’s secrets: you could examine the surface of a record and watch the needle make its way through every groove. It was when the CD, that tesseract of a medium, flourished that hidden tracks did, too. Read More »

Testimony of Simplicity

April 13, 2015 | by

diana-ross-upside-down-motown-4

Quaker in disguise?

“Personal pride does not end with noble blood. It leads people to a fond value of their persons, especially if they have any pretense to shape or beauty. Some are so taken with themselves it would seem that nothing else deserved their attention.” —William Penn

Upside Down” was the lead single on Diana Ross’s 1980 disco record Diana. The song, written by Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, topped the charts for a month, and it’s one of the great late-era disco dance hits: catchy, unexpected, propulsive, feisty. 

The plot is simple. A boy is turning her upside down, inside out, round and round, et cetera. And then: Read More »

What Are Songs For

March 20, 2015 | by

Willard Cummings, Barracks Concert (detail), ca. 1942.

This was not quite what I’d expected.

I’d come to the psych wing of Butler Hospital, in Providence, Rhode Island, to present a music seminar or, more properly, a sing-along, as part of a community service requirement for my college. This was in the late seventies. I was in a brightly lit dining hall that smelled of tobacco and medicine. There were twenty-five or thirty folding chairs but only thirteen or fourteen patients, all of them sad and doughy, middle aged or older. I sat facing them on a gray wooden stool and looked out at the assembled not-quite crowd. They looked like retired firemen, metalworkers, or lunch ladies; men with mustaches, pensions, and bad habits; women with secrets; people who rode the bus, who stood in line and then stood in the same line again. I’d read The Bell Jar, some Randall Jarrell, and I had a vaguely romantic, if ill-defined, sense of life on the other side of what passes for sanity. But this was not a good advertisement for crazy. Read More »

Bolaño Hits the Powerball Jackpot, and Other News

March 17, 2015 | by

Illustration by Hache Holguin.

Illustration by Hache Holguin

  • Chicago’s Goodman Theater is mounting a five-hour adaptation of Bolaño’s 2666. The production is underwritten by a grant from “an actor and stage manager turned Episcopal monk who pledged last year to give away much of his $153 million Powerball jackpot” to support the arts.
  • Are you tired of suffering through novels rife with profanity and cussing? Try Clean Reader, “the only e-reader that gives you the power to hide swear words”—it’ll change bastard to jerk, damn to darn, and presumably render most David Mamet plays unreadable. And here’s a winning slice of the Clean Reader philosophy: “Will some authors be offended that some of their consumers use Clean Reader to pick out most of the profanity in their books? Perhaps. Should the reader feel bad about it? Nope. They’ve paid good money for the book, they can consume it how they want.”
  • For the literary critic F. R. Leavis—who was, by the time of his death in 1978, totally out of fashion—great books were judgments about life, and “when a great novel or poem is used to support some generalization about culture, the qualities which make it worth reading tend to be ignored.” Leavis abstained, dogmatically, from the pleasures of pop: “Leavis declined ‘intellectual slumming’ of any sort. If he got winded, he put Schubert on the gramophone or read a neglected classic.”
  • How music hijacks our sense of time: “In 2004, the Royal Automobile Club Foundation for Motoring deemed Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie the most dangerous music to listen to while driving. It is not so much the distraction, but the substitution of the frenzied tempo of the music that challenges drivers’ normal sense of speed—and the objective cue of the speedometer—and causes them to speed.”
  • On getting a start as a critic: “I drew on a quality—a resource, a tool—that is very dear to me, and, I’d venture to say, very dear to most people who write reviews: arrogance … There’s good arrogance, too, just like there’s good cholesterol: arrogance that bolsters you, that allows you to feel that your judgment might be sound, that it might—and this is when the reviewer’s mind starts warming up, starts humming—be even better than sound.”

Sublime, Subversive Sappho, and Other News

March 9, 2015 | by

Sappho_and_Erinna_in_a_Garden_at_Mytilene

Simeon Solomon, Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864.

  • How does contemporary literature derive meaning in the age of big data? “The rise of corporate capitalism, and the astonishing, almost exponential rate of its recent acceleration, I would argue, present a huge challenge to the writer, forcing him or her to rethink their whole role and function, to remap their entire universe. There is no space outside this matrix … Western literature may have more or less begun, in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, with a lengthy account of a signal crossing space, and of the beacon network through whose nodes the signal’s message (that of Troy’s downfall) is relayed—but now, two and a half millennia later, that network, that regime of signals, is so omnipresent and insistent, so undeniably inserted or installed at every stratum of existence, that the notion that we might need some person, some skilled craftsman, to compose any messages, let alone incisive or ‘epiphanic’ ones, seems hopelessly quaint.”
  • “KAYO IN THE LUNA PARK / FREEZE FRAME ON A DRUNK IN THE PIAZZA / THAT’S WHAT WE HAVE FOR PIGEONS / LUMBERING ON ASPHALT FACEDOWN / LEAPSICKNESS THE LAW OF LIQUIDS.” Basquiat’s notebooks “variously sound like song lyrics, slogans, mantras, fragments of scenarios, of ‘routines’ like those of William S. Burroughs.”
  • Mark Rylance, the former artistic director of the Globe Theatre, said that he’s sometimes cut “unfortunate anti-Semitic things” from Shakespeare—should we censor plays like The Merchant of Venice?
  • Who was Sappho? Scholars and readers have been bickering about her for the better part of three thousand years: “about her work, her family life, and, above all, her sexuality. In antiquity, literary critics praised her ‘sublime’ style, even as comic playwrights ridiculed her allegedly loose morals. Legend has it that the early Church burned her works … Even today, experts can’t agree on whether the poems were performed in private or in public, by soloists or by choruses, or, indeed, whether they were meant to celebrate or to subvert the conventions of love and marriage.”
  • Part two of John Jeremiah Sullivan and Joel Finsel’s essay “on Texas, old newspapers, race music, and two black lives that shaped the history of civil rights.”

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