moments before the wind.

August 16, 2006

should end this story here

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, country, folk, music, producers, recording, rock, vinyl — alimarcus @ 8:20 am

I am a very lyrics-oriented critic. Most people take this to mean that my opinions on music come from the words, but what it really means is that songwriting, for me, is about the interplay between the narrative of the words and the narrative of the music. And I’ve been saying this for years. I think I finally found words for it when I was studying music in college, and we’d do all those counterpoint exercises, analyze all of the structure and postulate why the composer made it that way. Searching for stories within the music itself was actually one thing that turned me on the most about those years.

Anyways, having paid some, but not enough, attention to this already, I definitely began to be much more attentive to these kinds of details. Over the years they have ceased to be details and actually become just a part of my working way of making stuff. That’s very articulate, I know.

I bring it up today because in the last week I have come across two different experiences that use lyrics as a genre-defining element of song.

First, in the latest issue of American Songwriter (a new read for me, feels sort of like a “welcome to the family” but also wayyyy too obssessed with Nashville and glorification of the Tin Pan Alley process), country music is said to be all about the story. The words tell a story that people can relate to. The Dixie Chicks tell stories that may apply to you or me, as opposed to, say, Nelly Furtado, who these days is not painting a picture in quite the same way.

Second, yesterday my boss, a venerable hip hop expert and fan, said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I’m really all about the lyrics. Good hip hop has lyrics that mean something, and sound cool, but they have to mean something important.” Her hip hop DJ/star producer boyfriend would most likely agree.

Lyrics are part of most all American pop music. The rare instrumental band never does make it so far. Implicit in a person’s lyrical focus is a distaste for long solos, jazzy interludes, jam bands, or unintelligible lyrics. And that’s just not true. People shouldn’t have to defend their preferences from imaginary assumptions about what they don’t like. And yet, in both of these instances, people are defining actual genres based on the lyrical importance of the songs. Isn’t it weird?

I have a very strong belief that a good song cannot have either great lyrics or great instrumental tracks, or a great groove. It’s only a great song when all these things combine. People naturally separate the words from the other instruments because we separate the disciplines, and envision a wall between musical instruments that we carry in cases and play on a stage, and a poem that we write, sitting at a desk, on a piece of paper. But your voice is a musical instrument. And just like a piano or a flute or anything else, judgement of the performance of the instrument is based on not only the tone but the order and the style with which the notes come out. With singing it is just the same.

Production-wise, I believe vocals should be at the top. When they are not, I get frustrated and I complain that I can’t hear them. I also am fairly confident that producers are trying to hide the imperfections of the voice in that way, rather than make it obvious to the world that this person may not have the chops.

It could be jazz, or it could be bluegrass, or it could be grunge, or it could be rock, or it could be metal. Lyrics are important for all of these genres. There is not one or another that valudes lyrics more or less. What is interesting is the way that people spin it in order to communicate a certain point. Shared assumptions, you see, have a lot of power, despite reality.

This was all spurred, I should add, by a revelation I had in the shower this morning. I was singing the Nields’ “The Sweetness”, and when I got to my favorite line, I realized in a flash of shampoo that I’d been singing the wrong lyrics for years:
“The trees are golden thirsty and they need a little rain/ Nothing would ever happen if we always stayed the same.”
is not right. Common sense has always gone against that particular phrase, but that’s why I love it. It all of a sudden occured to me though that it’s really that “the trees are cold and thirsty…”

Changes everything. 



  1. my beer is fuzzy and tired…my tires are screaming for pies…the sky is falling and I’m falling behind…my lumps might be cancered if they don’t get some sleep…blah blah…ali, sorry, but by what you’re saying, you wouldn’t be able to enjoy nor say a song is even good if you don’t understand the language, and you can’t dismiss something becuase it’s in spanish or french…most lyricists, or “musicians” who rely on lyrics don’t even know what the hell they’re saying anyway…it’s just to hide the fact that there’s not much going on musically…and when I say musically I mean harmonically, melodically, and rhythmically…conor oberst is an excellent example and the fact that dylan songs don’t come alive until others arrange his lyrics to music with deeper waters is another…also, since hip-hop can be remixed a thousand times and still be the same song, the music is totally secondary (most isn’t even music, it’s just performance poetry…same with folk dun dun dunnnnn)…songs used to be written without lyrics and then the melody would dictate the vowels and consonants and the harmony and rhythm would dictate the tone and subject matter…but alas, nobody does shit right anymore anyway, and we wonder why top 40 radio is almost devoid of any substance or key centers for that matter…and eff you pharrell, mr. i don’t even use chord progressions nor chords…well, we live in a world where you can wear black pants with brown shoes, to which most would say, “whatever, those shoes cost $300!” oy-ve

    Comment by Forrest — August 16, 2006 @ 1:30 pm

  2. Wow, someone is more of a purist than me! I see where you’re going, that words are peripheral, but I don’t really agree, because they mean so much to me. Besides, as far as pop music is concerned, music in the mass media, its always been written with words, evolving from stuff like minstrel shows and opera. And as far as folk music, again, English ballads, troubadours, field hollers – it’s all there. And, while I appreciate the Conor Oberst dig, the Dylan one is uncalled for. How can you say that about something like “Ballad of a Thin Man” or “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”?

    Comment by alimarcus — August 16, 2006 @ 11:11 pm

  3. Exactly, but the minstrels and troubadors were story-tellers, albeit very entertaining ones, but they were not musicians in the same sense as bach or any of the other composers…so what do you do with that? And further, what do you do with the chant which was neither expressive nor narrative but all about ambience and imitation of the sounds of heaven (just as stained glass imitates the light of heaven)…and then the stuff in foreign languages or no language at all. A lot of people have trouble with jazz listening is mostly in part to the fact that it’s instrumental, it is not linguistic…but the thing is, jazz songs are not arbitrarily named, there is a lot being “said”, it just requires a very high level of musicianship, a very high level of non-verbal communication (really good improvisors translate their mind through sound to the audience without interference or b.s.) and imagination of the audience. I totally agree that the really good stuff is a combination of things, but it’s not science, they can’t be isolated and pieced together…no matter what mr. big-time producer or a&r guy says. If it’s good it will hit you physically and non-physically, basically it will hit and engerize your whole being. But there are cheap ways of doing this, and your boy Chris Martin is one of those cheap-shot artists…you’re totally in the right to hate on them 🙂 good talks, good talks hermana.

    Comment by Forrest — August 17, 2006 @ 9:35 am

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