Monday, April 14, 2008

The Shock of the Old

Now that we can rely on search engines, external hard-drives and entirely digitized texts to access all the information that we used to house in our pathetic little brains, you’ll routinely hear people talk about the importance of synthesis. It’s no longer a matter of remembering shit, it’s now about making connections. But I had one of those iPod-shuffle-enabled epiphanies this afternoon on the way home from work. The kind that suggests that even our synthesis can be digitally aided. I had just finished soaking up Karl Blau’s autistic white dub of “Are You Done,” with its lolly-pop guild vocals, sea-anemone-meets-Congolese-guitar lines, and stretch-taffy ricochet reverb beats. Then, seamlessly, came on “When I Grow Up” from The Beach Boys Today! I guess I’d never listened to this track before. Or at least not with much focus, because I found myself “nearly” devastated. This is a dangerously weird recording, made even more subversive by the Brill Creme lyrics about growing up – will I love my wife, will I dig the stuff I dig now, will my kids think I’m a square? But what are we to make of the Rubiks Cube harpsichord part, the near suffocating layers of vocal harmonies, that anti-groove snare roll and snap? In just about 2 minutes the song thoroughly creeps me out, over and over. It made me think of the Gary Giddens piece on Ornette Coleman from the New Yorker the other week. He quotes someone on the subject of Ornette’s quarter-tone intonation, meaning that he’s playing notes that technically fall outside the zone of Western scales but that he does it in a regular, in-tune, fashion. I’d never heard it put quite like that before. I mean, you can tell that Ornette’s intonation and the crying slips are not exactly by the book, but they always sound right in more important ways.

Not to overstate the connection, but there’s something equally not-right about the harmonies toward the end of the Beach Boys tune. The voices sound like they’re being Hoovered up, or like the tape is being messed-with, sped-up just a bit. It all gets wobbly.

“Are You Done” - Karl Blau

“When I Grow Up” - The Beach Boys

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