Monday, August 18, 2008

In defense of beauty

Let's just stop pretending now.

This isn't much of a regular jumping-off point these days and, I venture to guess, won't be. There's simply too many diversions and projects out there these days and -- nothing against you, Accidental Reader -- this is not the primary space I'd rather devote my energy.

And yet.

There's been a sort of loss of religion around these parts, if you'll pardon the expression (and you shouldn't). I am a music nerd, as my wall-length collection will attest, and this was before recent ascent/descent into vinyl-hawking. But something has gone missing in our relationship, my music and I. Half of the fun was the discovery, the search for The Sound, that one mix of melody and meaning that would take me somewhere I hadn't been. Since I turned pro at these things over the last couple of years, something is different now. I don't think it's that the act of criticism has sapped the enjoyment of music -- everyone participates in criticism of music, that's why we listen to it, to formulate opinions. I think it's a question of exposure.

Exposure and access to too much music. Exposure to more analytical and "sophisticated" than mine have hung a reflection on my own act of Considering Music, making me feel less committed, like more of a dilettante or hobbyist with my critical ear. Would I like to commit 800 words on the significance of Shwayze, Katy Perry or _____? I would not.

The first point I bring up above I've already addressed, a certain disappointment with how easily one can acquire music these days, a reality that in the wrong hands (mine, for example) can alter the primary goal of music from experience to acquisition. In fact, if you, Accidental Reader (with apologies to Stephen King) are truly here just because of the little link at the bottom of this post I must consider you "a little slow" at this point. Because frankly there are numerous outlets out there now where you needn't bother with filters and advocates such as the spoutings I go on about. You're only a few enlightened keystrokes from accessing and possessing entire albums at a chunk, no matter how much the RIAA wish it weren't so.

But be that as it may, this state of affairs has changed my consumption--and it is consumption at this point--of music. I still relish my trips to Amoeba, but at this point my adventures there rest only in acquisition of known commodities, music I have experimented with already via MP3s and I now seek the artifact, be it through vinyl or digitally encoded plastic (my transition to vinyl has been an exercise in counteracting these tendencies, to make the artifact and the exploration of that artifact More Special). There's little discovery to be done, and if there is, it is generally put back into the stacks for online research before committing my hard-earned dollars -- a maneuver that's as much about space conservation as it is about frugality.

'Little Bird,' by the Weepies

I have lost track of the cardinal rule of music listening -- regardless of the medium, it is an active pursuit. The songs that have meant the most to me in my life, inevitably, are colored by where I was at the time, what I was thinking, what I was putting into it. Whether these feelings were inline with the songwriter's intent was and remains irrelevant (as any songwriter will tell you). I just went for walk with the Weepies on a cool summer night, one such 'discovery' I made in the used pile at Amoeba a few weeks ago that I put back pending further analysis. This walk, with my dear, half-blind dog, was that.

I did not love the Weepies record when I first heard it. I loved the cover and its twee little Patagonia t-shirt-ready design, and I heard 'something' in there otherwise I wouldn't have sought it out from a friend of a friend (so to speak) were that not the case, but initially there wasn't enough there for me to buy first-listen.*

It was too pretty, too straightahead. I was pretty sure it would in time bore me, like Hem, or the newest Iron & Wine record. There were none of the scuffs and weathering I've come to adore in my music as I perused it at the store's awful listening kiosks. No bends, flaws and warping that elevate most art. Who needs simple beauty now? How many perfectly painted bowls of fruit are needed anymore when that bowl of fruit can be altered and otherwise fucked up to reflect the artist and, in turn, you? Likewise how many perfect little three-minute folk-pop songs are needed? Isn't that why the world made CSNY, Jack Johnson, John Mayer, et al these days?

The Weepies will not make you cooler. They will not be reviewed on Pitchfork, will not be part of some kind of Coney Island photo essay on Stereogum, and will probably be profiled in Anthem, Fader or Vice at approximately the same time as Toby Keith. Which may be why you need to hear them most of all.

There is hardly anything ugly in this song, except for a left-field guitar asphyxiation that flashes into view at the 2:10 mark, coming and going like headlights passing on a freeway. All else is simple, inarguable, aching beauty, and on a moonlit walk this evening this song and I crossed paths at just the right moment.

Such walks are built for introspection, something I have no shortage of these days. Change is in the wind, and not just because we're in a leap year. All around me I feel on the edge of What's Next, only what's next isn't yet determined and isn't talking They seem only hellbent on proving only that they could Go Either Way upon one, mysterious and elusive shove. All the while you feel a constant pull in life, a knowledge that after All This you're still not there yet, you're still between potential and failure, but deep inside you keep on kicking, fighting, hoping you haven't lost the plot.

That's about where this song is, but it's chosen a side. Deb Talan's quivering voice, beautiful but not cloying, is full of uncertainty yet a haunted empathy, a sense that she's been right where you are. The lyrics flirt with poetry, but an effortless poetry. There's no sign that such ambitions have been taken on a night on the town in the hopes of charming it into submission, and lines like "We are all buildings and the people inside never know who walked through the door" somehow become natural.

But don't believe me, grab this song and take it for a walk. Forget everything you think you've learned up to now and just remember everything else, everything you need to know that's gotten you right here, looking for something else. Damn. I need to buy this album.

And so should you

*this does not happen, sadly.


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