Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Pick-up lines

It occurred to me recently that with some music it's all about what happens in the first (say) twenty seconds, and that it takes a special talent to figure out how to grab someone in that short space of time, and to keep them involved to the end of the tune, even though nothing much better is going to happen after whatever initial burst of brilliance occurs. (Of course, it's even more difficult to sustain this sort of interest-without-development for more than four minutes or so.)

Is this a definition of pop?

Case study #1: Warren Zevon: "Lawyers, Guns, and Money." One of the most intriguing openings in modern rock: "I went home with a waitress / the way I always do / how was I to know / she was with the Russians too?" Does the tune go anywhere after that? Not really -- the groove and melody and lyrical punch all lead off, and everything else is just reinforcement or repetition. That sounds like a criticism, but it ain't -- this is one killer tune, and that fact that it works in spite of the frontloading is a testament to the fact that WZ is still underappreciated, even after all the drama surrounding his death.

Case study #2: Flaming Lips: "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots." It starts off like this: "Her name is Yoshimi / she's a black belt in karate / working for the city / she has to discipline her body." My only thought at the end of those four lines: "What the fuck is this song going to be about? No really, tell me!" As a jazzer, I know I'm not supposed to like these guys (who don't even seem to think of themselves as "real musicians") but I do. They've got the "lead with the strongest bit" thing down pat. It's impressive in four lines, but check it out in two: here's the opening from "Race for the Prize" (from their best album, The Soft Bulletin): "Two scientists were racing / for the good of all mankind." Okay, you've got me. Where we goin'?

Case study #3: Ween: "The Mollusk." "Hey little boy, what you got there? / Kind sir it's a mollusk I've found / Did you find it in the sandy ground? / Does it emulate the ocean's sound?" Another band that doesn't exactly fit the profile of "the music a jazz composer is supposed to listen to" (these guys never seem to write anything but 2- and 4-bar phrases), I love Ween in spite of myself. This tune (from the album of the same name) isn't quite as good an example of what I'm talking about as #1 or #2, but it's the same idea -- about halfway through, the momentum peters out -- but the tune persists, because the opening is so, well, forceful and bizarre.

Frontloaded, forceful, static, persistent: some music just works this way.

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