Tag Archives: analysis

Punch, Annie

It went down like this: A friend I was going to see in North Carolina happened to mention that Esperanza Spalding was playing in Asheville. I said, Esperanza who? I toggled over to YouTube, and before I knew it the night was old and I was on Amazon, ordering CDs. A few months later, seeing another friend in Baltimore, I played him my favorite track from Emily’s D+Evolution (2016), “Ebony and Ivy.” He noted that her voice, at least on this song, sounded like St Vincent’s. I said, Saint Who? (Cue “ignorance” leitmotif.) He put on “Black Rainbow,” from Actor (2009).*

One thing about friends: they know your taste. They know the chinks in your armor, your Achilles’ heels. They know the things that’ll make your cochlea sit up and beg. I could blame my friend here, either, or both, just as much as I could blame Esperanza, or St Vincent herself; but pretty soon we’d be having a philosophical debate about efficient and effective causes, free will and determinism, and so on, rather than talking about music.

If you don’t know “Black Rainbow,” or Actor, or St Vincent, let me describe the first for you, and use it, as it was for me, as a gateway to the other two. The song is built around a single four-minute-long crescendo, but it feels more like a giant sucker punch. An innocuous beginning, led, as is so much of St Vincent’s music, by her musing, quietly seductive voice, accompanied by a sort of minstrel troupe of string players, and something that sounds like a carny organ. The troupe is only active when she’s not singing, that is, as commentary; when she is, the organ carries the harmony in a fretting ostinato. The chorus, again like much of St Vincent’s music (and many pop songs besides), comprises two parallel phrases and a tag, the whole repeated once. In hindsight at least, one recognizes it as a harbinger: the voice tumbling forward and pulling back, the tag pitched higher, unresolved. But then the whole song looks forward in this way; the sense of expectation has been building from the first note. New sounds appear, multiplying layer by layer: in the second part of the first verse, a peep on every second pulse, tracking between channels before lodging itself in both; a fuzzbox dud on every fourth pulse of the first chorus, every second of the second chorus; and something that sounds like a saw (a theremin, perhaps?) follows the melody through both choruses, and then pursues her into the bridge. The minstrels introduce more and more shades of dissonance into their commentary. And all the while, the dynamic level has been rising almost imperceptibly.

Thus, while the song cycles through a typical verse-chorus-bridge structure, all the other elements ignore it, pursuing their own linear objective. Whatever the garden in which things started, whatever clouds were there to begin with, the day has certainly gotten darker.

The bridge is a small masterpiece of rising tension. Still there is no resolution; the last word, fittingly enough, is “louder.” Had I been interrupted here, I probably would have ended up intrigued, and filed St Vincent away, to come back to at some later date (or not, as so often happens). But oh, that ending, or outro, or whatever. The word “louder” having rung out, the fuzzbox pulse suddenly (and noticeably) steps up in intensity, and the song never looks back. Pounding, ascending absurdly stepwise, the strings getting at once louder and more strident, the bass crunchier, heavier. An analogy I made a few years ago on this blog to try to describe the sound of High on Fire’s early records (see “Arcless,” 12.29.14), particularly Surrounded by Thieves, applies equally well here: that movie of the bridge being shaken apart that so many of us watched (gleefully, it must be said) in our high school science classes. And indeed, while it’s true that metal forms one lens through which I hear all my music, the feint to metal—the reason the sucker punch really connected with me—is hardly out of place: he (my friend) knew what he was doing, though he slunk around the kitchen as though he didn’t, just as much as she (St Vincent) did. To my ear, it sounded like the heavier parts of the bridge of Metallica’s “Phantom Lord,” or “Master of Puppets.” But it wasn’t just the incredibly overdriven sound that grabbed me, or the pounding of it; it was the relentlessness of the repetition, the daring of saying, We’re going to do this for like two fuckin’ minutes, longer than these little songs are supposed to do anything, longer than many pop songs themselves—it’s gonna feel a whole lot longer—and heavier than half my fans might care to hear; and then some, and then some, and then some. It sounded like heavy artillery against pop’s aesthetic logic, in particular that cliché of transposing the chorus up a step at fade-out. Sure, I’ll transpose, just like I’m supposed to; and then I’ll keep transposing, one step at a time, louder instead of softer, until you choke on it. And right when I’d begun asking myself those Burkean-sublime questions—when does it end? does it ever end? were the brownies “special”?—it ends, drops—no fade out—it has to; there’s nowhere else for it to go.

The best musicians, I’ve noticed, have an intuitive grasp of how to manage excess.

My love for St Vincent was born at that moment, in the moment, that is, the song relinquished me. Not just because the first half of “Black Rainbow” is quite good in its own right, but because the second half—the black part, as in sabbath, as in fade to—rewrites one’s expectations about what this particular artist is willing to do with form and sound. When it works, it can make a pinhole in your carefully-groomed generic identity; and, if you fall through it, you find yourself in a wonderful new universe, like one of those sea caves under the ocean floor. All of this is not to say that St Vincent can do no wrong. Rather, because of said initiation, she becomes that rarest of artists: the sort to whom one always gives the benefit of the doubt, and in whose darkest clouds one always looks for the outline of a (black) rainbow.


It’s indicative of the strength of St Vincent’s catalog that I came to this post wanting to write about “The Party,” another song on Actor that I find remarkable, and ended up wanting to write about everything, at least everything I’ve made time to dig (into) so far.

I should begin, as she so often does, with her voice.

It’s a voice that achieves a paradoxical balance between distance and intimacy. Raw, naked, direct; it groans, cracks, gasps, drags; it is half-spoken, breathy, gravelly, and sometimes sounds so lethargic that the music, with its usually static pulse, feels like the only thing pulling her along. She sings as if she had just turned over in bed. It’s a voice firmly lodged in the body, like the slurs and smears of a jazzing horn. And yet, particularly as one moves forward from Actor through Strange Mercy (2011) to St Vincent (2014), it’s a voice that seems to be at its most confessional when it’s most produced: a processed intimacy. You can reach out and touch it … and then again you can’t. A voice that seems unable to exist except in extreme close-up, an intimacy that can only exist because of technology. Think those nature programs where the actions of flora and fauna, invisible to the naked eye, are slowed down and magnified. There is a J.G. Ballard story about a scientist who does what those nature cams do with the audio recording of a kiss: to the colleague for whom he plays it, it is unrecognizable, horrific. So the “intimacy” of St Vincent, the seductiveness of her voice, of her music. Even as she invites us closer and closer, until we can hear every pore, she remains inaccessible; our contact with her always mediated. We never quite feel the eros of the artist who has flayed herself for our delectation and catharsis. The power dynamic runs the other way. (Is this the paradox of pop stardom, of stardom period? Perhaps St Vincent has merely crystallized this.) “Rattlesnake,” the opening track on St. Vincent (2014), is a great example: at once so hooky, so sexy (almost the first thing she says is that she takes off her clothes), and so mocking (the post-verse/pre-chorus). When she says that the only sound she hears (“out here”) is her own breath, it’s hard not to think of her mocking even her own style—here, the choruses (“running, running, rattle behind me”) are half-gasped, or hiccoughed. And yet, for all the anxiety of this frenetic plena, and whatever she might say, she never loses her teasing poise, never allows herself the overwroughtness of a Kate Bush, whom she sometimes seems to emulate, or the tantrums of a PJ Harvey (especially on Rid of Me), who lets us hear the violence her emotions do to her (admittedly rougher) voice. Anyway, unlike PJ, St Vincent doesn’t bring her love to anyone: it’s you—all of us—who have to bring your “loves” to her, enthroned on the eponymous album’s cover.

At the same time there’s something girlish, something sweet and thin and too-pretty about her voice; like the intimacy, it verges on caricature, on the grotesque. This is where the guitar, in all its textures and timbres and odd phrasings, becomes so crucial. Because there’s a danger that such a voice—and sometimes such melodies, as I’ll discuss shortly—could become insipid. But then she’s holding that guitar behind her back like a fuggin’ lead pipe, ready to club the shit out of you. Just one more step. Right there. She keeps it always with her, shadowing her voice, or vice-versa, guitar and voice working in tandem to propel the music, though often running in opposite directions. In this way the guitar reinforces the fractures in the voice, exposing the rough, wounding edge of that “sweetness.” So “Dilettante,” perhaps my favorite track on Strange Mercy, shuttles back and forth between the enormous seductiveness of her voice, accompanied only by alternating bass and snare drums (and those words: “Don’t make me wait …”), and a heavily overdriven guitar riff, cluttering that space, or opening a canyon around her each time it pauses. The guitar follows, commenting, like the minstrels in “Black Rainbow,” and is eventually brought into sync with her voice. Perhaps she’s domesticated it, or perhaps she’s let its roughness possess her—or perhaps it’s a little of both. It’s not just the caricature of intimacy, then, but the danger of it. For the straight male listener, there may be something of the misogynist Rousseau here, the desire to be courted and resisted. And yet, hers is not the fait accompli of affected weakness stroking the male ego, but rather strength masquerading as / mocking weakness—the sucker punch again. I wonder if something of all this is intimated in the images on her records as well: the starkness of the photography on Actor, at the same time that the album title calls attention to a faux intimacy; the cover resembles a head shot, like she is auditioning for our ear, eager (in this weirdly ‘50s way; is it the colors?) for our attention. Or the open (screaming? biting?) mouth teething the milk-white plastic (?) to which it is half-molded on the cover of Strange Mercy

That guitar, is it the violence of the bared soul, displaced from the voice? Or is it the force of recoil against us, the voyeurs who would presume to have access to that soul—presume that the role of the artist, above all the female artist, is just such an emotional disrobing? I think the latter. After all, the guitar is just as artfully crafted as the voice. An unlikely guitar hero to be sure, if only because of the way the label has been traditionally conceived.† There she is, thin as a flapper, coaxing this enormous sound out of her guitar—not to mention any number of bizarre, monstrous timbres, and gobs and gobs of Frisellish noise. A pixie riding a dragon; David with a Goliath strap-on. The list of guitarists bundled into her sound is eclectic and impressive: here Bill Frisell (and John Scofield), there Mark Knopfler (I’m thinking of the fourths and open strings on “Neutered Fruit” vis-à-vis “Money For Nothing”); she has cited Adrian Belew and Mark Ribot, fairly enough (what couldn’t she do with Tom Waits?); and of course Hendrix, Hendrix, Hendrix. For even more than the lovely riffs, St Vincent is about making the guitar sound like anything but a guitar. And yet, just as her voice manages a paradoxical combination of distance and intimacy, so in the guitar, no matter how drowned in effects, we can, in all but a few cases (the very blue fuzzed-out distortion on “Rattlesnake,” reminiscent of Hendrix’s sound in some versions of “Red House,” and maybe “Bring Me Your Loves”—both of these on St Vincent), hear her, hear the contact between body and instrument. Her sound is all attack, a perfect word: the violence inherent in sound-making, the rending of air. When she really unleashes it, when she goes all PJ on our asses, as she does, say, in the second half of “Huey Newton” … watch the fuck out.

It’s to the guitar we owe the dirtiest, heaviest textures; but it’s also just one (albeit the most central) element of her music’s overall density—although with the sounds she gets, and all the layering and processing, it’s not always easy to tell what’s guitar and what isn’t. Amazing, too, how much each brief little song packs in—not in terms of development or melodic fecundity, but in sheer quantity of sonic resources employed, serially and simultaneously; the breadth of her sonic palette, built from deep reconnaissance into music history’s musty warehouse: moogs and wurlitzers (that cheesy run filling out the absurd exotic on “Year of the Tiger”); sequences of tones like cassettes used to make at the end of the lead (“Digital Witness” … analog noise); clicks and beeps and whistles (think R2D2 going apeshit); pings and blurps, chimes, blocks, blips … I’ll stop before I end up sounding like a brawl in the old Batman TV series. Some songs can remind me of standing in the middle of a video arcade circa 1985, as though the music sought to re-create the primitive wonder of the time such sounds became the part of our everyday aural environment, and the property of composers. As my discussion of “Dilettante” suggests, the sense of density also arises from contrast between moments of fullness and emptiness. What has been noted about tempo—that shifts are more effective than a steady pulse for creating an impression of speed or slowness—is as true of dynamics and texture. So, in “Strange Mercy” (again), at that beautiful “Ten Years Gone” iteration of the verse at its climax, the Page-inspired strums, already big, are rendered God-huge by contrast with what comes before and after. It’s just these sorts of contrasts that a “Black Rainbow” or “Huey Newton” capitalizes on; their second movements are rendered that much fuller by the relative thinness of their first. The same thing can happen between choruses and verses: “Save Me From What I Want”’s pause to all but the barest pulse (and a wonderfully unsettling chime) for the second chorus’s prayer; or conversely, “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood,” her voice alone in the midrange, like on “Mercy,” the keys providing intermittent splashes of color, before giving way to a heavy guitar in the chorus. And then in so many songs she appears alone—that is, her voice—wearing only a soft halo of noise: the choral synth accompaniment to her quiet torch-song crooning in “Prince Johnny”; or the ambient, reverberant ballad “I Prefer Your Love,” sung through a haze, her voice set off with pings: the contrast appears not within the songs, but between them.**

The heaviness and noisiness, amplified as they are by contrast, do make a nice scratching-post for this old metalhead. But it’s also the eeriness of her sound that attracts me. In fact, like the guitar and voice, the two often work together to create the music’s dark ambience. If this is, as noted, pop with a (pleasantly) abrasive edge, created and perpetuated in no small part by her cat’s-tongue guitar sound, it’s also some of the most gothic damn dance music I’ve ever heard.§§ Sometimes it’s the synths alone that do it (“Champagne Year”); other times, the keys and guitar work together, even bleed into each other. In “Marrow,” for example, her dissonant, clanging guitar goes hand-in-hand with the grisly textures, overdriven production, eerie synths; a dry bass thuds along at mid-tempo, too heavy to lift your feet to. In “Cheerleader,” it’s the combined keys-guitar snarl of the choruses (but how do you really feel, Ms Vincent?). (The guitar and synths can stand against each other, though: e.g., in “Cruel,” the synths give the song its sail, the guitar its punch.) Her voice, too, can be enlisted in producing this eerie atmosphere, sometimes floating over the music like Miles’s horn, sometimes becoming absorbed in the overall texture: so “Chloe in the Afternoon,” where the throttled, metallic, percussive guitar line and wub-wubbing heartbeat, all the noise of the verses, empties out—that contrast again—in the choruses to just her ghostly voice and synth line, and this other, sludgy, trailing thing. Or “Save Me”: the aforementioned chime as a bass riptide pulls her away, and she cries, teasingly, her voice doubled, “Save me … save me … save me from what I want.” Those four words, like the whip-epigram at the end of a sonnet, are another sucker punch, and another reversal, from the desire of finding something wash-away-able in the verses to the fear/desire of being washed away in the choruses. But the tag can’t dispel the unsettling feeling of that cry; even the top-down cruising of the verses seems infected by it, starts to sound like a bad trip.

Although the shifting, sculpted textures contribute enormously to the appeal of the music, it’s worth noting that she almost never abandons herself to ambience as an end in itself; there’s always a groove, a pulse, just as she always fleshes out that groove or melody with her arrangements. (The sole pulseless example that comes to mind, “The Sequel,” is more coda to Actor than stand-alone tune.) Sometimes it’s the mellow H-band groove and/or slow clop/loop beat/steady funk plus synths of a Portishead, though her range is greater, her voice, as noted, closer-up (“Save Me” jumps to mind, as do “Champagne Year,” “Surgeon,” and “Mouth of Blood”). Sometimes, though, it’s the floored accelerator of “Actor Out of Work,” a song that matches Radiohead’s “Bodysnatchers” for sheer forward momentum. But here, as with “Black Rainbow” and so many others, texture—the “Live and Let Die” feel of the strings on “Actor”—combines with pulse and dynamics to amp up the song. All these elements similarly work together in the crescendos, catastrophic endings, and edge-of-the-earth silences that form the predicates so many of her songs—songs that get thicker and thicker, heavier and heavier, and meaner and meaner, before ultimately blowing themselves apart.

I promised to say something about melodies before moving on. So: particularly in the verses, they tend to be short, constrained in range, and repetitive: music boxes, children’s and campfire songs. But every melody, no matter how slight, is also an opportunity for excursion into noise, for her voice or axe or laptop or God-knows-what serrated tool to hack it up into lit-tle pie-ces, to bleed some darkness from it we didn’t know was there. I’ve made much of contrast and tension as the motor of St. Vincent’s music, and this one—between melody and noise, earworm and Conqueror Worm, pop and anti-pop, nodded to in my initial discussion of “Black Rainbow”—seems to me the generative one, the one that sets her at odds with all the labels to which music critics and customers-who-bought algorithms might unhappily marry her (and that makes of the label “alternative” a sort of basin to catch everything that falls through the cracks). One last example should suffice, from “Cheerleader.” The title, not surprisingly, is undermined in the choruses: over the snarling keys-guitar combo, set off by four hard punches on a stuttered “I” to knock the staid choruses flat, her pouting “I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more.” I love the narcissistic high drama: the world is just as big as her room; her “no” is earth-shattering. This is St Vincent: “Hey, Mickey … Go Fuck Yourself!”


Not a bad segue into “The Party,” if only because the two songs share melodic material in their verses, even as their choruses pull in opposite directions. “The Party” is like “Cheerleader” without the “go fuck yourself”; and, as I’ve noted, it’s the go-fuck-yourself that first grabbed me about St Vincent. But “Black Rainbow” had to grab me because of the way it jives with what I already love. I think that if an artist is to have sustaining power, it’s going to have to be because something about his or her music captures you that is different from what you traditionally listen to, something about his or her own identity as an artist. “The Party” is that song for me. It is comparatively quiet, comparatively spare—compared, that is, to the guitar-driven noisiness I usually covet—yet still very much within the idiom I’ve tried to describe above. Her voice is at the height of seductiveness, delightfully strained, tempo rubato, either dragging a fraction behind the beat, or entering on beat but sliding or cracking to the melody note (think bent guitar strings, false harmonics). How small that voice is, spare, half-spoken, for our ears only; and yet, how much sonic space it occupies, how much of our attention.

As for the melody itself, the verses, it’s in the slight, simple mold of so many others, though with an interesting twist. The 2 + 1 structure is based on a fulcrum note around which its two parts seesaw. The whole sequence is transposed down, and then this whole is repeated once, with the small (but significant) variation of a sharper leap, her voice cracking at the high note.†† The piano then repeats the vocal melody, though only the two higher parts. (I.e., if we describe the vocal melody as A-B-A’-B, the piano plays only A-A’. Interestingly, when this song first subjugated me, I would hum the piano melody, but hear her voice in my head; my brain elided the lower part.) The opening interval is the same as “This Old Man,” and in fact it’s the sort of thing that would sound lovely sung in imitative polyphony (“Row, Row, Row Your Boat”).

Unlike, say, “Black Rainbow,” where the chorus continues the work/walk of the verses, amping up the tension, “The Party”’s chorus provides the answer “Black Rainbow” never does; and the song as a whole is a beautiful example of antithetically-constructed parts joined in a magical synthesis. Where the cadence of the verses is half-spoken (aided by the talky lyrics), the choruses, sung in falsetto, abandon words entirely, and showcase the voice as an instrument; where the melody of the verse zig-zags around a fulcrum, repetitive and playful, the chorus is two long rolling sequences, much more complex and ornate than the verses. There is a parallel shift in the use of the piano: rather than repeat the A-A’ of the vocal melody, in the choruses the keys become a romantic background swirl that further ornaments the vocal melody. Finally, the rhythm of the chorus shifts radically, from an easy 4:4 into waltz time. It’s as if the voice had suddenly grown up between verse and chorus (and then regressed again at the next verse); or perhaps better, had dreamed of growing up. The choruses pull us out of the draggy lethargy of the verses, up, into an ideal haze … precisely the opposite of “Cheerleader,” whose similarly antithetical choruses drag us down into the grunge, negating the verses (“I don’t wanna …”) instead of sublimating them.

Given the myriad differences, how are the two parts made to fit together so well—again as opposed to “Cheerleader,” which quite deliberately leaves a gaping wound between its verse and chorus? I’m not sure, but a couple of possibilities. First, the opening note of the chorus resolves the sequence of high notes of the vocal melody, rising first a step (from A to A’), then a step and a half (from A’ to the first note of the chorus); we are thus primed for it by the logic of the melody in the verse. Second, despite the rhythmic fracturing of the song, even as the rhythm is completely altered, the tempo of verse and choruses is identical: the pulse, as so often in St Vincent, stays even.

After the second chorus the song pauses; a densely-layered arrangement of voice and instruments enters, reprising the chorus, over and over; they are soon joined by a stuttering snare and flubby bass drum, retarding, retarding. “The Party” ends like a carousel winding down, as though we were slowly moving away from it, or it from us; our vision of it seems to become more obscure, or blurred, as though we were looking at it through a mottled pane. This is the slow braking/ breaking of the night, St Vincent’s aurora. Rather than building to that “Rainbow” zero-point, here the density seems to weigh the song down rather than amp it up. Eventually it will stop it entirely, releasing us from the retarding cycle of the choral melody on a lydian #4, a note that seems more to suspend (and does, in fact, only slowly fade) instead of resolve. For once, we’ve been brought gently down; the sun’s come gently up. But where has she left us? And how on earth do we get back?


With 2014’s St Vincent St Vincent seemed to arrive at a crossroads. As per the title, this should have been her coalescing moment, the record that brought together all the elements that make her her. But if my reading is correct, it actually does the reverse: it separates out those elements, foregrounding the dissonances between them; it is an anti-coalescing record, an exercise in self-analysis rather than the intuitive construction of a new whole … perhaps even the sonic equivalent of the sloughing of skin. That is: even as it veers more fully into pure dance/pop than its predecessors, it is also—as if in compensation—the most crunchy, dissonant, distorted, guitar- and riff-heavy of her records. When she is able to synthesize these competing drives, the result is some of her best material. The album opener, “Rattlesnake”: unlike “The Strangers” or “Chloe in the Afternoon” (the opening tracks on the preceding records), it is a dance tune through and through, though, as noted above, an awesomely mean one: frenetic, mocking, seductive, violent, and paranoid. “Bring Me Your Loves” is another dance-floor anthem, complete with breaks (“I took you off your leash”), synthed out, her voice quasi-autotuned … yet once again, an eerie, gothic dance tune, with a hyper-distorted touchstone melody and a Phantom of the Opera organ competing with the dance-floor feel; at its peak, it sounds like an overworked motor flying to pieces. There’s “Birth in Reverse,” with its strummed dissonances, and the much-discussed “Huey Newton,” which a little like “Black Rainbow” analyzes the (in this case) dance-funk and metal elements into separate movements. More generally, there’s an interesting new fracture between vocal melodies and music, which, on the earlier records, tended to work in lockstep, distinguished more via rhythm and timbre (cf. “The Party” above; hear also “The Strangers”).

But then there are a number of songs that seem to delight in pure pop, with little else for the ear, at least mine, to crunch on: “Northern Lights,” “Every Tear Disappears”; “Hysterical Strength”’s Berlin-sounding 80s; “Psychopath”’s warm and fuzzy choruses (the title is the only hint of darkness left, and perhaps the words, but words are always (almost) off the table for me) and any-rock-song guitar sound. Well … okay. Maybe it’s time to move on, or rather continue to mire myself in what I’ve got, and even go back and listen to Marry Me (2006). Maybe, as so often happens when artists move in directions we don’t care for, I’ll find someone to fill her shoes. She did this much for me, after all. PJ Harvey left a gaping hole in the early ‘00s. Is This Desire? (1998) was for me the end of her great period, the counterpart to (though so different from) the ineffably brilliant Dry (1992). (There are a few great tunes on Stories of the City and Uh Huh Her and White Chalk as well; after that I lost track.) As far back as Desire her trajectory was similar to St Vincent’s, into more electronica, dance, and ambient music. So I admit it, STV is my long-awaited PJ surrogate, differences be damned. I’m only sad that, unlike with PJ, whose Dry I got on a tape from a friend the year after it came out, and whose career I was able to follow until we parted ways, with St Vincent I seem to have discovered her at the cusp of her dropping over my aesthetic horizon.

Or perhaps not. After all, the eponymous record has grown on me. They all have. And I haven’t even delved into her new (2017) one … though what little I know (reports, a video) suggests the needle has moved in the direction of the less-Helldriver-friendly material on St Vincent. Here’s the rub: I could have listed “Digital Witness” among those weak tracks … except that it’s not. It’s so perfectly pitched and so grabby that I like it, quite helplessly; and who’s to say but that a track like this, like “Black Rainbow” did a couple of years ago, might be the next pinhole, the cave under the cave under the ocean, the song that pulls me so far outside of my original aesthetic universe that I never find my way back? When do I run out of air? I should add that this is partly a function of age: the older one gets, the more difficult it is to find the pulse of the present (or any pulse at all!); one compensates, I think, by being more reflective, which implies greater and more consistent retrospection. In this sense, the “wisdom” of old age develops not so much as a positive attribute (synthesized knowledge) as something to fill the temporal lags created by a decelerating biology (if I can’t be now, I might as well be then). Then again, this might also be a function of a historical moment (today) when the present seems to have lost all duration, has shrunk to a fleeting instant, and all reality, pace Faulkner, something we watch receding behind us from the window of a train. In such a time, such a moment, the only way (it seems to me) to construct a durable present is retrospectively.

A post like this one is a clear expression of love for a musician, and a labor of love it has been—more than any in recent memory, perhaps because I’m working in a genre with which I am largely unfamiliar, and perhaps because, the longer this blog goes on, the more I feel the need to account for absolutely everything, and so posts bloat like drowned corpses, until the body they once pretended to be becomes unidentifiable. Whatever the case, I bring my love(s) to these musicians by going through the excrutiating, and always ultimately dissatisfying (this one, once again, moreso than most), process of trying to find correlates in words for their persona in sound. It’s similar to a painter painting his or her beloved—trying to find the posture, color, expression, tone, etc. that will speak them—or a poet writing a sonnet. Or perhaps the opposite is true: I love musicians the most about whom I can find the words to speak; about whom, when I listen, something in my (linguistic) imagination is set going; and this sense, a sort of premonition, is what compels both my love for them, and for writing.***

I should probably touch on gender before calling it a day. I’ve written around 90 posts about music since this blog started, many of them idiotically long, with perhaps two-thirds of these about individual artists or bands, and precious few women among them. There’s one about Linda Oh somewhere back there, another about Kazzrie Jaxen; there are a few female classical pianists, such as Helene Grimaud, bundled into concert reviews, as well as mixed-gender ensembles, and one “hidden” woman (in “Dreaming American,” the unnamed jazz pianist is Mamiko Wantanabe). All in all, a negligible percentage of the whole. There’s notes for an extended piece on Irene Schweitzer, and a fantasized magnum opus on Dry … but these are two among myriad prospective pieces, many of which will never be written. And now that I’ve added another actual post about a female artist, it seems I can’t refrain from speaking the language of eros. Not that I’ve ever been shy about expressing love for music and musicians throughout the history of this blog; but I don’t generally resort to such language to do so. In fact, the only other time I can think of that I spoke in such unabashedly erotic terms about an artist, it was … Goatwhore.

Okay. I’m going to call my analyst now. Or a priest?


* My friend disputes this anecdote, claims he never plays individual songs, only whole albums. This sounds like him—the album as integral work. It’s possible he put the whole record on and “Black Rainbow” was simply the first song that caught my ear. Still, that’s not the way I remember it. Anyway, my version makes the better story.

§ Like St Vincent but moreso, Harvey tends to make herself the subject of her album covers, which tend to the grotesque and/or to Cindy Sherman-like stagings.

† But then she seems as radically unfit for the label of singer-songwriter, or, for that matter, pop diva, again, as traditionally conceived. These categories do evolve. Anyway, have these sorts of mismatches become part of women’s alternative today? I’m thinking of Mitski, by the way, who I discovered poking about (me, I was the one poking) on Ben Ratliff’s 2016 top ten list.

** This is perhaps most clear on the eponymous record. Take, for example, the move from the end of “Huey Newton,” which achieves as heavy and distorted a climax as “Black Rainbow” does, to the bubbliness of “Digital Witness.” The feels between the guttural “you know”s at the end of crunching “Newton” couldn’t be more opposite from the leap to falsetto and horns that opens “Witness.” “Newton” is rendered that much more heavy in hindsight, “Witness” that much more bubbly.

§ In case there’s any question about whether this is me projecting something onto her music, watch the horror anthology XX (2015), to which St Vincent contributed the second, and stand-out, segment—too snarky for my taste (though that aligns quite well with her music), but wonderfully dark, and with a memorably horrific ending.

†† I don’t know but that STV would disavow any interest in Pearl Jam, but I have to pause to note some melodic similarities: the A-A’ of “The Party” with “Better Man,” and “Strange Mercy,” less perfectly, with “No Way,” from Yield.

*** I’m reminded of a wonderful moment in a Gary Giddins interview (recorded in the book Jazzing, by Thomas Greenland, which I should be reviewing presently): “Oh, I could really go to town on this!” Giddins is talking about how the decision to write about a particular artist or work presents itself to him. He doesn’t explicitly state that his love for an artist presupposes his ability to access them in language, but the excitement of finding an artist whose music makes the synapses start firing is palpable. His enthusiasm strongly resonates with me.


Jazz music thrives on the tension between composition and improvisation, the planned and the spontaneous. As a listener, depending on the song, or on my mood, or on just about anything, really, I might find myself listing away from the latter and toward the former, impatient with whomever happens to be soloing, anticipating the ever-prodigal melody. There are a few albums that stand out in this regard—albums where the tunes are so strong, or their arrangements are so interesting, that the solos become an extended tease. Jackie McLean’s Jackie’s Bag immediately jumps to mind; so does Wayne Shorter’s Adam’s Apple.

Shorter is a well-recognized composer, and “Footprints” is among his best-known compositions, so I’m hardly going out on a limb by singling it out. But I want to focus here not on the song as a whole, but on the way each section of the melody resolves, or rather fails to resolve, and attempt to analyze how this feeling of suspension is achieved.

The key word here is attempt. Because, honey, I don’t do this sort of thing very often. But “Footprints” is low-hanging fruit, and as Shorter’s album title suggests, I am a victim of temptation. True, I don’t approach the Tree of Shorter entirely naked … but nearly so, armed only with my Harry Dexter’s Harmony-Theory Pocket Book (in which I never made it to the harmony section), and the tatters of know-how that still cling to me from my years of guitar lessons.

In an effort to commit as few glaring errors as possible, I also did some cursory internet research and read the album liner notes. Was that a muffled scream I heard from the librarians? Well, some of the finest writing about music can still be found on the fungusy backs of records, and in those little booklets you get with the now-vanishing media called compact discs. This time, though, the notes didn’t help much. They label “Footprints” a blues in 6:8; one of my internet sources calls it 3:4; to me, that’s six of one and a half-dozen of the other. (Actually, I agree with the liner notes.) They also note that the version Shorter recorded with Miles a year later (on Miles Smiles), actually the first version I heard, “recast the rhythmic terrain.” Then they compare Herbie Hancock’s playing on Adam’s Apple to the John Coltrane quartet. But nothing about that beautiful, tantalizing, troubling cluster of notes and times that haunts me on each listen, and that I am desperate to understand. So let me do what I can, stepping as carefully as I can, making sure to overcomplicate matters wherever I can, as all academics have a duty to do, particularly when one is outside one’s field, or when one doesn’t have a field, as is my case, creative writing being less a discipline than an excuse.


“Footprints” begins with four bars for the rhythm section, in each of which the bass and left hand of the piano (that is, Reggie Workman’s two hands and Herbie Hancock’s left one) play an ascending C minor arpeggio: four evenly-spaced notes ending on the minor third (C-G-C-E flat). After holding the E flat for two beats, the piano repeats the tonic on the last beat of the measure, although higher up on the keyboard. The fact that the third (the E flat) lands on the accented fourth beat brings it into relief, as does the time lavished upon it. In this regard, the tonic feels almost like an afterthought, or a foretaste of the next go-round: that clipped high C is really the first note in a skip down to the opening low C of the arpeggio (C-G-C). In addition, Hancock anticipates the E flat by half a beat with a chord, which, although not entirely penetrable to my ear, seems to include a B flat and a D. It is the D which most interests me: a half-step from that heavily-accented E flat, and arriving a half-beat before it, lodged between the tonic and third of the C minor, the D sets up a sort of oscillation in pitch and rhythm that Shorter’s horn will shortly (sorry) recapitulate, and extrapolate upon. Drummer Joe Chambers also has a role in creating this tension: he sometimes accents the fourth beat, sometimes the half-beat before it, with a strike to the high hat or a cymbal.

Shorter comes in at the beginning of the fifth bar. The A natural in the melody flavors the C minor with a major sixth (which, if I remember correctly, is a legit note in the so-called “jazz minor” scale, and according to Mr Dexter, in the ascending melodic minor … which may be the same thing). Or, if you prefer the relative major, the A natural is a sharped fourth—surely what lends the melody its air of loafing intrigue. The rather insistent A natural, however, suggests that the tune is not in C minor (or E flat major), but rather G minor (or B flat major). Again, what strikes me here is the D, which is where the horn pauses, like Hancock’s chord, before coming to rest on another clipped C. The D-C figure is repeated three times in the first part of the melody, twice in the more extended (and A natural-heavy) second, always with the accent on the sustained D. Rhythmically, Shorter also fiddles with the half-beat discrepancy. The first time he plays the figure, he tends to reach the D at the same time as the bass reaches the E flat, and then anticipates the beat on each repetition. And he loiters there, as if to idly threaten the harmonic terrain around the bass’s E flat. Perhaps the combined tension-resolution I hear is a war of thirds: the D is the third of B flat major, the key of the melody, and the E flat is the third of C minor (the second chord in the harmonized B flat major scale), where the bass remains for six of the opening eight bars of the melody. Interestingly, had Shorter chosen an E flat instead of a D, the melody would sound much more like a traditional blues, clearly walking down a well-trodden C minor pentatonic. But the A natural throws a wrench into this; the D becomes a natural pausing place.

The third part of the melody is interesting for the way it flirts with a new key (although I guess no moreso than the bridge of “Rhythm” changes): a G major triad precedes the reintroduction of the B flat; and, after an exhilirating perfect-fourth leap, the melody slinks down chromatically to an F, which fades from the horn without returning to the D … at least, until the head is played through a second time.

Things get a lot weirder this second time around. First, Shorter adds a trill—one YouTube guitarist who demonstrates the tune nicely calls it a “flutter”—at the end of each of the three parts of the melody. The horn, then, takes up that oscillation between the E flat and D, between bass and piano, between Hancock’s left and right hands, reinforcing the half-step quiver in the melody. Second, and even more thrilling, is the appearance of another trill at the same moment, but lower, quieter. It can only be the piano, but sounds more like a phantom string section. It creates a sort of aura around Shorter’s trill. But it is too entangled with the concurrent sounds for me to fully distinguish it; to the best of my ability, it sounds like a trill between B flat and B natural. Whatever it is, it reinforces and multiplies the overall feeling of hazy suspension.

Finally, in the second time through the third part of the melody, Shorter does not let the F fade, but returns, as if compulsively, to the D-C figure.


I didn’t take my school’s equivalent of Philosophy 101 until my senior year, and when I remember this I can’t help but sympathize with those students of mine who manage to avoid taking Expository Writing until their graduating semester. In my case it was partly because I spent two years as a physics major, and after making the switch to the humanities, I found myself with all sorts of new requirements to fulfill. In philosophy we read Plato, and Spinoza, and Hume, and William James’s Pragmatism. I remember running into the professor on the upper quad one day and walking with him, telling him that had I taken his class in my first year rather than my last, I might have ended up a philosophy major. He took this in good humor, though I doubt he believed me.

In one class, the professor said something to the effect that, while neurochemists could tell us that “love” is what happens when neuron A is excited, and in turn excites neuron B, etc., from a philosopher’s standpoint they would have told us absolutely nothing about love. In hindsight it seems like a somewhat facile point. But it is also a point I probably needed to hear, and hear when I did. And not just me: Here was a university stuffed full of proto-scientists and engineers. We were besotted with the scientific worldview; I doubt that many of us ever raised our heads from our textbooks to consider the ramifications of what we were studying, or the alternatives. By my senior year, my humanistic consciousness, that radically different armature for coming to terms with the world, was just beginning to develop. Probably this is why the idea stayed with me, why I chewed it over for years after that lecture, resisted it, came to terms with it, repressed it, resisted it anew, and on and on.

The connection to this post is probably obvious. I can analyze the music, or attempt to analyze it. Quite possibly what is happening at this moment of “Footprints” is not so theoretically marvelous as I take it to be. But were I to be enlightened, I doubt it would change the way my ear perceives that cluster of notes, timbres and rhythms, all of them slightly off from each other, vibrating in ecstatic equipoise. The transcribed notes, and the card-house of intervals they momentarily erect, cannot reproduce the act of listening (although I am aware that many trained musicians can “hear” a piece by reading a score), any more than these ridiculous little grey marks on the screen in front of you can resurrect that experience.

A colleague of mine likes to goad me by saying that writing about music is impossible. Impossible it’s not, but pointless it may well be. One feels that “about” very keenly: the words circle the music, never landing. By the time I finish a post, the music has receded, the words have risen like a tide to swallow it, and all I can do is close the lid of my computer and go put on a record.