Saturday, February 27, 2010



...infrequent posts.

I know. I feel like making a big deal out of it would be something of an ego trip, seeing as there are probably four people who actually read this blog (five tops). It's not like I'm turning my back on a starved and hopeful audience. And yet, I do feel somewhat guilty, if for no other reason than I'm not keeping up with this blogging project. I don't know if I have a good reason, but reasons there are.

The post on M. Ward was not written for this blog. I just wrote it one night for myself as an exercise (is it even possible to describe a song in words?). Then about a week later I remembered my emaciated body of blog writings and decided to throw the "Chinese Translation" piece up here to beef the damn thing up. On the other hand, it's not like I haven't been writing. Au contraire, dear reader, I have been writing more than ever. Most of it has been personal stuff. In fact, all of it has been personal, excluding a preview of an upcoming show here in Z├╝rich that I wrote for a Swiss music blog. Personal in the sense that either it has to do with my development as a human being, or it was not written with an audience in mind.

What have I been doing? Well, lots of reading, lots of writing, and lots of discovering/listening to music. I think I'm probably listening to more music per day than I ever have before, and not just music that is already dear to me. At least a few new albums every day. The amount of music I listen to is a direct consequence of how much free time I have. When I was a freshman in college, I listened to a lot, explored a lot. The next two years...not as much. Having a girlfried -- shit, being in love -- takes up a lot of time. Those hours you used to spend spaced out listening to that band end up being spent in bed with the S.O. You can't walk around with headphones on all the time when you're in a relationship (ignoring your S.O. for extended periods of time is generally frowned upon), but you also can't be pumping experimental music through the speakers 24/7. God help you if the S.O. doesn't like the music you listen to.

But once you're free of the old Ball & Chain, once you've graduated college, once you're unemployed, and once you've got the option to sit around and do nothing, you find that me-time is no longer in short supply. In that time, you consider: just what the fuck am I doing with myself? Now, this could be a really scary question. This could push you into a panic. But I like waking up in the morning. I like thinking about those hours I'm going to have to myself, doing what I want to do, exploring music and writing, considering my next moves. I know this state cannot persist indefinitely, but I am not unhappy in it. Calling a timeout from the outside world, retreating into my bubble -- it helps. It has helped me to re-orient myself, to sew up my wounds and let my cares ebb away, to untangle the knot of pressures that has been oppressing me for the last I-don't-know-how-long.

And now that I'm breathing fresh air, my attention really is turned to the next step. At this point, I find two different paths beckoning. The first is some kind of journalism. I've done a good bit of writing about music, and I think this is something I could be very good at. The second voice is luring me to do some kind of international humanitarian aid. Peace Corps, in other words. I am young, I have some education, and I want to help. I also lack a lot of experience and the practical skills necessary to do just about anything (so it seems to me). Peace Corps, or something akin to it, would give me the opportunity to kill a lot of birds with one stone: go somewhere I've never been (and am never likely to go), help people, learn some skills, gain some experience that can help me in the future, and hopefully open these eyes up to how people live in other parts of the world. Writing might go hand-in-hand with such an experience.

It's funny. I simultaneously have an itch to get up and get doing something, but I also feel a certain amount of contentment doing what I am doing now (read: nothing productive to society). Since the beer is always stronger at the other party, the itch is what I'm really noticing most of the time. When I talk to friends and they ask me what I'm doing with myself, I tell them. Usually, they express some variation of the phrase, "I wish I could do that." And examining my situation from an outside perspective, I suppose I am in an enviable position. Not having to do anything, not being forced to do anything, able to take time out of the world to reflect on things. Not everyone gets to do this. But I'm always surprised when they tell me they feel jealous. I guess I expect them to scold me and tell me to get off my ass. I think most people in this situation would just feel bored. Case in point: my little brother, who wants nothing more than to haul ass back to Florida.

Anyway, that's all I've got to say here for now. I'll try to post more from now on!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Chinese Translation by M. Ward

Reading a book at the table in my mother's living room, I had put on the three albums of M. Ward that are on my iPod. Finally it reached the song "Chinese Translation" from the album Hold Time, which must be my favorite song by him, and certainly the one I have listened to the most. My attention was diverted by the song, both because of my fondness for it and because of personal/recollective associations I have with it, which are quite strong. I actually felt my tear glands come alive, ready for whatever emotional expression might be called for.

I listened to the song intently, wondering what exactly attracts me to it. What are the auditory qualities that make it so pleasing to hear and so evocative of particular mental images and emotional textures? Is it futile to attempt to use words to convey the exact way a sound, a song, makes us feel? I feel a bit daring at the moment, so I think I will try.

The song opens with two guitars going in opposite directions, one up and one down a ladder of notes. Pause for a second. Then comes in the voice and the verse music. There are no sounds too sharp or penetrating. The instrumental and vocal textures are smooth and polished and pillowy, without any distortion but also without much treble, except that which comes from the light drumming. The drumming keeps up a beat which instantly calls up a feeling of movement. A steady chugga CHUgga chugga CHUgga, repeating regularly. The guitars which keep the rhythm are in a middle-deep pitch range, and in the sonic distance you hear a slide guitar. This slide guitar gives the impression of depth. A landscape. You can feel the distance between the guitars, which are in the foreground, and the slide, which gives a third dimension to the song. Little licks from the slide guitar flare up. You can hear quick picking on the guitars, but because the sound is so smooth (a mix of nylon and steel strings) and without rough edges, the song seems to progress both quickly and slowly. At moments, the slide, which has a thicker, more rounded sound, combines with the drumming to evoke the image of a train. The beat of the drums is complemented by the rhythmic tap-tapping of picks and fingernails on the strings of the guitars, offering more sonic intimations of movement and travel, like the patter of a hundred footsteps. The layering of the instruments, especially all the guitars and bass, enhances the perceived depth of the sound. In the last ninety seconds of the song there is a soft, pleasant howling on the air, like a swift but gentle wind blowing through this melodic landscape. The song ends the same way it began -- it is bookended by guitars climbing and descending musical ladders.

The impressive part is how well this conjured musical expanse is harmonized with the vocal work, both in terms of pure sound and lyrical content. M. Ward's voice is light, never overpowering, never harsh. Just like the guitars, it is soft at the edges. Nothing about it is going to cut into you. That Midwestern accent adds to the suggestion of open spaces -- longer, looser vowels. And of course, the lyrics themselves pertain to travels over vast distances, a cyclical, generational search for answers to some of life's big questions.

I'm not saying it's the best song ever recorded, or anything like that. But it is a masterful piece inasmuch as all the parts of the song work in harmony and create a unified impression on the hearer. It makes it so easy to drift away, to be taken in by the lyrics and transported in thought to the scenes that are described.