THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT :: Installment 7.1

6 Nov


November 6, 2009 :: BLACK/BIRD

Forecast: thunderstorms, acid rain




1. Laundry

Besides being Nick Hornby’s newest film adaptation, an education is an important part of growing up.

Concerning music, mine was haphazard. My parents exposed me to a few of the classics: Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair.” Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.” Such poetry! Such grit!

But then there was Steppenwolf. The Dirty Dancing soundtrack. Neil Diamond.

It was obvious by then. My parents had given up.

I finished out my childhood musically malnourished. Now I’m part of a group who, oddly, becomes aware of some of the century’s most iconic music through the work of some passionate filmmakers. The soundtracks to Across the Universe and I’m Not There both exposed me to music I’d never heard before. For some, this might seem like the opposite way one should hear The Beatles or Bob Dylan. But I’m grateful to Julie Taymor and Todd Haynes. Without them, my musical education might’ve stopped with Tap Root Manuscript.

If you’ve read other installments of The Built Environment, you know I’m fascinated by what one can learn through studying music. And like many anthropologists, I most often turn the microscope to my own culture’s offerings.

I’m sitting in Bubbleland, the coin laundry down the street from our apartment. It’s a bright, happy place, with multi-colored polka dots on the walls, and it is, I suppose, about as good a place as any for discovering the reason, if it exists, that a readily combustible brownish-black sedimentary rock and winged, bipedal, warm-blooded, oviparous, vertebrate animals have become increasingly ubiquitous in contemporary musical imagery.

That’s a pretentious way of asking, “Why are so many recent songs about coal or birds?”

It’s a pointless question, I know. Who knows? Who cares? But these types of investigations always fascinate me. I find joy in pitting myself against metaphysical forces and qualitating them.

Like Charles McNair in his essay on Where the Wild Things Are. Instead of simply reviewing the new movie, this guy chose instead to explain why Sendak’s book became so beloved. Granted, his final conclusion was a bit lacking. He argued that it was neither the story nor the illustrations, but the fact that is was not a children’s book. It was an everyone book.

Which is true.

But every good children’s book is an everyone book. The pivotal books of my childhood still appeal to adults today, and I think it is the mark of great children’s literature that it remains perpetually relevant.

So here I go. Attempting perhaps the impossible. But needing something to do while my clothes dry.

2. How This All Came to Be

It was Paste’s 55th Sampler CD.

The most recent of the mix-tape-like albums included in each issue, I studied #55’s tracklist and noticed two songs back to back: Southeast Engine’s “Black Gold,” and Joshua James’ “Coal War.” Interesting that coal and a popular euphemism for coal would be referenced in two song titles on the same CD.

I went a few Samplers back. Another one: Track 13 of #51. A band called Black Gold. A song called “Detroit.”

Coal. Black Gold. Detroit. Engine.

Why all these related terms? Especially now, when cars are on the decline, Detroit is a jobless city, and coal mining is practically a bygone practice?

Additionally, I’ve become aware that birds are the subject of a number of new bands, their albums and the songs contained therein.

Andrew Bird, for starters. Patrick Watson, oft compared to Bird, and his “Big Bird in a Small Cage” phenomenon. Holly Conlan’s Bird. A favorite of my brother’s, Gregory and the Hawk (note: bird) and their album The Boats and Birds. What Bird, the band. “The Bird and the Blanket,” by The Fifteenth.

Sam Beam—aka Iron & Wine—likes birds. “Bird Stealing Bread.” “Flightless Bird, American Mouth.” “Lovesong of the Buzzard.”

Derek Webb and Allison Moorer separately wrote songs called “Mockingbird.” The Golden Shoulders and Langhorne Slim have both sung about hummingbirds.

And then local guys I know.

Royal Osprey.

Bird Money.

One of my favorites: N. Asher Istas’ “Little Bluebird.”

Why these recent obsessions?

The discussion of that question and where it led me coming soon.


2 Responses to “THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT :: Installment 7.1”


  1. THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT :: Installment 7.2 « Re(a)dZebra - November 19, 2009

    […] Re(a)dZebra don’t light a signal fire, wiggle your toes… « THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT :: Installment 7.1 […]

  2. Micro-Installment :: THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT « Re(a)dZebra - December 6, 2009

    […] over the recent influx of winged animals and combustible rock in contemporary lyrical imagery for Installment 7—the topic surfaces and resurfaces until it paves over my then-thoughts with a new eye, equipped […]

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