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
but when I returned to the Bay Area in 2005 and eagerly added
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
in general I'd much rather listen to female voices than to
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
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"
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.