"Help I'm Alive"
Metric, 2008

My one-time bandmate Matthew Amster-Burton tweeted on 2009.0508 that "enjoying music has become unspeakably easy and awesome." I have found the opposite to be true. In the '90s I could discover great new bands just by turning on the radio. This wasn't the case in the '00s. For a while I thought that might just be because I lived in the sticks where alternative rock was just a distant rumor, but when I returned to the Bay Area in 2005 and eagerly added Live 105 to my radio presets, I discovered that it was still playing the same stuff it'd been playing when I'd left ten years earlier. On those rare occasions that I did hear something new, it wasn't anything I much cared for, just a lot of high warbles and shuffling gaits that, Matthew's assertion notwithstanding, I found difficult to enjoy.

But that raises the question, what do we enjoy about music? This was something Matthew and I discussed fairly often when our band was still a going concern. Matthew said that what he valued above all else was the overarching structure of the song. That was way down my list of priorities. I listened to songs for the good part. The better the good part was, the more I liked the song. And if the song had several good parts, then it was a candidate for my list of favorites. Since then, however, I've changed my mind.

I don't remember the exact circumstances, but a bit over a year ago I must have been fairly desperate for something to listen to — no lectures on my MP3 player? nothing good on NPR? AM stations all on commercial break? — because I found myself flipping over to Live 105 — which, shockingly, was playing the end of a song that (a) I didn't recognize and (b) sounded like the sort of thing I listen to. By which I mainly mean that a woman was singing. See, one element of music that has steadily moved up my list of priorities as the years have gone by is a compelling vocal performance: these days it's hard for me to like a song unless I think it's sung well by someone whose voice I find pleasing. And while there are certainly exceptions, in general I'd much rather listen to female voices than to male ones. And yet the typical modern rock playlist tends to be such a string of sausages that you'd expect to see it hanging in the window of a butcher shop. So the fact that Live 105 was actually playing a female-fronted band I hadn't heard before had me scrambling for a pen. I quickly jotted down a few scraps of the lyrics and looked them up on Google when I got home. And then I was disappointed. It wasn't a new band after all — I'd encountered Metric before.

My memory isn't what it used to be so I'm hazy on the details, but I seem to recall that it was Pandora that first brought Metric to my attention: it served up "Combat Baby" a couple of times, and that led me to "Wet Blanket," and I remember thinking, yeah, this does indeed sound like the sort of thing I should like, but it's just so... shapeless. And when I listened to the entirety of this new song, which as you've probably guessed is "Help I'm Alive," I came away with much the same opinion. It was full of good parts, yet it added up to less than their sum. And I can explain exactly why, but it requires a bit of synesthesia.

I don't know whether this still happens, but back when I used to read a newspaper (close to twenty years ago now), a lot of the movie ads therein were littered with blurbs that said things like "AN INCREDIBLE ROLLER COASTER OF EXCITEMENT!" and "THE THRILL RIDE OF THE SUMMER!" And there are certain songs — not many, but this article is about two of them — that I experience the same way I experience a roller coaster. That is, consciously I know that I am not actually on a roller coaster, and I'm perfectly aware of my actual surroundings, but at the same time my brain is translating the audio input it's receiving into a visual and kinesthetic experience. And "Help I'm Alive" just isn't a very good ride. Let me escort you through it. First, here's the song:

Now, using the time cues above:

0:02: Song begins.

0:02 to 0:43: ["I tremble..."] Gray, foggy day. Industrial track. Smell of... motor oil?... something darker and thicker than auto exhaust. Our car is moving at a decent clip at ground level. Abrupt 90° turns like Tron light-cycles at some, but not all, of the double-snare hits.

0:43 to 0:51: ["...beating like a hammer..."] First ascent. Pretty steep, maybe 45° upward, fairly slow — the mechanism is laboring a bit to get the car to make this climb.

0:51 to 1:17: ["Help I'm alive..."] Back to horizontal travel, just above the smog layer — feels like you can dip your hand into it and scoop up the little particles of soot. (But please, hands and feet in the vehicle at all times.)

1:17 to 1:33: ["...beating like a hammer..."] Second ascent. A little faster than the first, with a stronger and more assured tug.

1:33: Through an archway—

1:33 to 2:05: ["If we're still alive..."] The first payoff stretch, but it's just another flat section. We're getting some decent speed, maybe 50 mph or so, and some fresh air. Definitely feels like East Coast air... cool, wet, spring started last week in Pennsylvania kind of air.

2:05 to 2:13: ["...beating like a hammer..."] Third ascent.

2:13 to 2:39: ["Help I'm alive..."] The smog layer is now far below, but otherwise this is just like the first time we did a "help I'm alive" section.

2:39 to 2:55: ["...beating like a hammer..."] Fourth ascent. Getting tiresome, but—

2:55 to 3:27: ["If we're still alive..."] Second payoff stretch. This is the big reward of the ride: we're really high up now, and can see the countryside for miles around. Not that there's much to look at — it seems like we're in the prairies now, because it's really just a vast expanse of grassland with a few stands of trees, maybe a couple of water towers in the distance. We are also still moving horizontally rather than down. Straight ahead, maybe 65 m.p.h. now, and there is a bit of a thrill to it because the track is really narrow now, and we're so high up that it's like we're darting along on the edge of a sheet of cardboard. Beneath us is a fairly open wooden latticework in a diamond pattern stretching all the way down to the very distant ground.

3:27 to 3:43: ["...beating like a hammer..."] Fifth ascent, though this one's different because when the backing vocals kick in at 3:33 it feels like the brakes are being applied.

3:43 to 3:52: We reach the top of the fifth ascent, back onto wide horizontal track, and the mechanisms start to spin down. The car slows.

3:52 to 4:00: ["I tremble..." continuing from 3:50] Stopped.

4:00 to 4:24: We're moving again, but in that distinct "ride's over and we're pulling back into the station" manner. Except since we never actually lost any elevation we can't possibly be returning to where we started.

4:24 to 4:41: ["...beating like a hammer..."] A very different ascent: accelerating quickly, the car falling apart all around us until it's just a bare metal frame—

4:41 to 4:46: We're deposited at the top of a cliff. Gray rock, white sky, snowdrifts. This roller coaster was a glorified chairlift all along!

In short, my main gripe with the song — which, I should hasten to add, I still mildly like overall! — is that it contains no fewer than six sections in which pressure is built up, but never is that pressure let off, except for what little gradually leaks away in the horizontal coasting sections. So Matthew was right: this flaw in the overarching structure of the song hampered my enjoyment of it quite a bit.

"Open Season"
Die Mannequin, 2009

Above I intimated that I found it easier to find enjoyable music in the '90s than in the '00s. The obvious inference would be that I like '90s music more than '00s music. But while that is certainly the case where "randomly selected block of KROQ airtime" is concerned, my music collection is actually about evenly divided, and as of this writing my top 100 songs list actually favors the '00s by a 45 to 44 margin. The difference is that discovering music I liked in the '90s was a matter of flipping on 120 Minutes, whereas in the '00s it required active effort: online research, fiddling with Pandora settings, ordering CDs from foreign countries, etc. Matthew would likely point out that the very fact that I was able to do all this with a few mouse clicks illustrates his point. It depends on how you interpret it. Yes, due to the superior technology of the 21st century, it is much easier today for me to learn of the existence of a band that doesn't even have a U.S. distributor. But the superior popular culture of the '90s might well have made the point moot, for I suspect that Die Mannequin would've gone straight into the Buzz Bin, Care Failure would have become a massive star, and I wouldn't have needed to piggyback upon decades of DARPA research and development in order to discover them.

Instead, without a lucky Pandora strike, plus a Canadian girlfriend who could smuggle a copy of Fino + Bleed across the border for me, I might never have discovered the first song in eighteen years to threaten to knock "Smells Like Teen Spirit" off the top of my personal hit parade. It's actually quite similar structurally to "Teen Spirit," in that it's got the same verse-prechorus-chorus sequence, and each component manages tension much as its counterpart in "Teen Spirit" does; but unlike "Teen Spirit," which I generally experience spatially and materially but not kinesthetically, the Die Mannequin song "Open Season" totally has the roller coaster thing going on. So without further ado, here we go:

0:00 to 0:50: The ascent. The car rattles as it goes over the regularly spaced rungs leading upward ("oh-PEN, sea-ZEN")...

0:50 to 0:51: Reaching the crest...

0:51 to 1:05: ["Hold my arms breaking..."] The high flat part, circling around toward the drop. Note that it's a curve and not a horizontal line because of the way the drum beat changes: from 0:51 to 1:01 every third beat is accented, then from 1:01 to 1:04 it's every second beat (turning!), and then from 1:04 to 1:05, every beat (beginning the plunge!). Note also that this section would count as enough of a "good part" to make me love this song and yet it leads immediately to:

1:05 to 1:19: ["Fall away and leave forever..."] Corkscrewing downhill in broad loops as colorful autumn leaves cascade down, not buffeted but caressed by air so sweet that breathing it is like gulping down supremely delicious juice... that probably sounds pretty dumb but it's the only way I can think of to describe it that seems even close to right. Again, ten years ago I probably would have just called this "the amazingly good part" and thought of it as an isolated fourteen seconds of music that could have been transplanted anywhere, but no — the structure is important. Without that fifty seconds of climbing, adding potential energy with each elevation marker ("shoot, shoot"); without the percussive prechorus compacting that energy into a pressurized capsule to puncture and use for propulsion; without that initial structure in place, the gorgeous arc of the chorus would only have worked a fraction as well. We'd amble down it rather than flying.

1:19: The same quick drum fill that signaled the beginning of the plunge serves as a smooth curve at the bottom to get us seamlessly back onto flat ground-level track, racing forward with all the momentum collected during the drop...

1:19 to 1:33: ["Can, can..."] Staying at ground level, but following a twisting path — the curves are sometimes pretty tight, but no impossibly abrupt turns like in "Help I'm Alive." There are also a number of straightaways, and though it's blackest night, on both sides of the track the ground is erupting with fireworks in green, orange, and magenta. They stay close to the ground, and sometimes are just showers of sparks spraying into the air rather than exploding in spherical bursts. Also, at 1:28 Care (whose vocal pyrotechnics on some of the other songs on the album are truly remarkable) breaks the word "better" in half with a precisely engineered shriek that, for me at least, is like jabbing a syringe full of pleasure directly into my spine. I've heard this song over a hundred times and that shriek still makes me physically squirm at how good it sounds.

1:33 to 1:41: ["Hold on..."] Frictionlessly forward to the next ascent, with another one of those shrieks to cap the first act.

1:41 to 1:55: ["Hunting season..."] Back to the ascent, but because we've now been through the basic sequence, the anticipation of the thrills to come make the elevation markers pleasurable in and of themselves... but unlike in "Help I'm Alive," these aren't exactly the same words as the first time around, so there's a sense of having reached a different set of dips and turns...

1:55 to 2:08: ["Hold my arms breaking..."] See, that's a different delivery of the prechorus, more urgent — we're taking the high curve with a lurch this time...

2:08 to 2:23: ["Fall away and leave forever..."] And so what the downhill plunge of the chorus loses in thrilling surprise the second time around is more than made up for by the comfort of reliable fun...

2:23 to 2:37: ["Can, can..."] Yep, I know these fireworks... but wait, what's that—

2:37: —the track stops, the ground stops, it's the edge of the world—

2:37 to 2:59: ["Right on me, running through me..."] —and our car flies out into open space. In free fall, but with forward momentum beyond terminal velocity, just unimaginable freedom and joy—

2:59 to 3:00: —and with nary a bump we rejoin the track on the other side of the chasm, however many miles below where we started.

3:00 to 4:17: ["Fall away and leave forever..."] Down the last hill, and then the fireworks multiply into overwhelming beauty... though at the end the car does slow to a stop and you have to just sort of sit and watch them burn themselves out.

I guess I'll wrap this up by pointing out that I wrote this article mainly because I (a) wanted to discuss my change of opinion regarding the importance of song structure and (b) thought people might be interested in some of the synesthetic feelings I get from music — I'm guessing that people might relate to them better than to, say, my experiencing numbers as colors. But do note that while I only really talked about "Open Season" as a thrill ride, that's certainly not the only level on which I experience it. I could go on and talk about the lyrics, or the way that the war between determination and despair evident in them is reflected in Care's voice... I could also talk about the places that Care Failure as a musician and Die Mannequin as a band have taken in my personal pantheon of artists, or speculate some more about the differences between people who, like Matthew, find enjoyable music easy to come by, and people like me who buy one record a year. But I have a tradition to uphold, so I will end this article about music in the usual manner by pleading with Care Failure, née Caroline Kawa, not to shoot herself in the head.

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