sounds like this

15 Dec

What does a man being turned inside-out by a lawn mower sound like exactly? According to Philip Montoro, a music critic for the Chicago Reader, it’s not as bad as you’d think. Mainly a lot like fuzzed-out guitars, distorted howls, and furious drumming. The music has elements of industrial metal in it, but there’s no sign of a Dixon chewing up a guy’s body. No bone clippings to rake up and bag. And that makes sense; other than that CD someone brought to school for the junior high haunted house, most recordings tend to stay away from the sounds of grisly death scenes. So why did Montoro write, for the Reader on October 27, 2011, that Anaal Nathrakh’s music “sounds like a man being turned inside-out by a lawn mower”?

Anaal Nathrakh, In the Constellation of the Black Widow

:: :: ::

I don’t know the first time I heard music. It was probably my mom playing the piano and singing. Maybe at my first Christmas. I would’ve been eight months old. There might’ve been tapes before that, or kid’s videos. I guess I overheard commercial jingles pretty much immediately and the opening songs of mid-’80s sitcoms. And my family being a churchgoing one, I would’ve been exposed early on to hymns and choirs and the pipe organ.

My musical education was sparse at best. Rarely did music play in our house. Listening to records on our old, dusty turntable was a whole-evening affair. My mom, brother, and I gathered around the dining room table while Dad dropped the needle into the groove of the vinyl. It was comedy as often as it was music. George Carlin and Bill Cosby. My dad looking embarrassed when Carlin used profanity or got too sexual. The music was a bizarre collection. Neil Diamond, the Bee Gees, the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. There was a lot missing.

“We need specificity as much as we need hyperbole. But there’s a certain attractiveness to our ability to say that a piece of music could fight against, or at least  distract us from desperate loneliness.”

Since music first was made—it’s an odd picture, imagining a human discovering how to make its voice sing—there’s been a temptation to describe it grandly, with lofty words, florid descriptions, and abstract ideas that usually have nothing to do with the music’s style, composition, or instrumentation. Why? Where does that temptation come from?

Because music connects emotionally as well as aurally, and because instrumental works are sufficiently capable of conjuring imagery without the use of lyrics, to simply describe a song by discussing its sound—which instrument is playing what type of line for how long, etc.—would fail at capturing what that piece of music is doing. Instead, we require the elements of figurative language—the metaphor, simile, general hyperbole. We require language that paints a scene, which becomes the kernel from which our imagination can grow an understanding of a song’s extramusical components. This is why we really don’t find it odd when someone writes that a black metal band from Birmingham sounds like a man being turned inside-out by a lawn mower.

:: :: ::

In the current music scene, we read, there is a vocalist who earns his living “grunting like a possessed lumberjack.” A mixtape-maker who’s been “something of a spirit animal” for a fellow hip-hop artist. A dubstep EP that “shrouds its cycling arpeggios in reverb so they sound like they’re off in the distance, lost in a fog.” We find a critic claiming that “a lifetime on a desert island would get awfully lonely” and that Dan Deacon’s Spiderman of the Rings “seemed like a solution to that problem.”

Dan Deacon, Spiderman of the Rings

An album as company—as an interactive entity that can provide that which is usually provided by another human soul. It doesn’t get much more hyperbolic than that. And yet, doesn’t Nitsuh Abebe’s statement tell you something about Deacon’s record that other language just misses?

Here’s another bit from Abebe: “As Bromst rushes steadily by, mostly avoiding the big crowd-pleasing breakdowns and exclamations of its predecessor, the clearer production lets you sink into the minutae of it—say, the Steve Reich-style rhythms of different mallet or drum patterns overlapping one another.” That tells me a lot. But it’s a very specific kind of a lot. And it certainly doesn’t give me any clue how to feel about this music. Which is okay—we need specificity as much as we need hyperbole. But there’s a certain attractiveness to our ability to say that a piece of music could fight against, or at least  distract us from desperate loneliness. Whether or not anyone agrees with the statement, to make it is, I think, a valuable exercise of the mind.

If I didn’t have a day job, I’d spend my hours combing music sites for the best and weirdest analogies ever used to describe music. Even the past few months’ archives are rich vaults of hyperbole as gruesome as Montoro’s lawn-mower line. “If men are indeed pigs, then Greg Dulli’s body of work amounts to a veritable slaughterhouse.” That’s Stuart Berman, writing about Dulli’s project Twilight Singers for Pitchfork a week ago. A Stereogum writer reviewing pop-country princess Miranda Lambert’s Four the Record is assisted by a beautiful, stinging simile: “And there are some diamond-hard snarlers on here: ‘Fastest Girl In Town’ and ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’ in particular. Those are the ones that linger like a slap to the face.”

“If I didn’t have a day job, I’d spend my hours combing music sites for the best and weirdest analogies ever used to describe music. Even the past few months’ archives are rich vaults of hyperbole as gruesome as Montoro’s lawn-mower line.”

An album that doesn’t sound like anything I want to hear is described this way: “It’s not barren trees and howling winds so much as ostentatious Christmas light fixtures in the pure, driven snow.” And then Martin Douglas gets carried away in his adjective-prone review of Thee Oh Sees’s Carrion Crawler/The Dream. “Thee Oh Sees are like the house band for a runaway train.” “You can practically hear Dwyer swallowing microphones and spitting upwards to the rafters.” “The last remnants of Castlemania‘s woodwind-centered psychedelia sputtering out like smoke from a 1920s automobile that ran out of gas.” “Dwyer’s guitar playing is best described in terms usually reserved for feral cats.”

Thee Oh Sees, Carrion Crawler/The Dream

:: :: ::

It’s especially interesting to note the differences in brand. Stereogum isn’t nearly as reliant on abstract analogies as Pitchfork, and I know from working with Scott at ALARM that he prefers as little of that stuff as possible. Given Pitchfork‘s derision by other, smaller music channels, are analogies seen as cheap tricks when it comes to music criticism? The grabbed-at lifelines of under-educated bloggers who get gigs writing for music sites but don’t know pitch from timbre?

I don’t think so. A major fault of music media is that it always seems to be talking to itself. Its reviews are for other critics, rather than the public. There are exceptions, but if music criticism is to be read by anyone other than its own propagators, figurative language will be at least one tool we have at our disposal.

“Given Pitchfork‘s derision by other, smaller music channels, are analogies seen as cheap tricks when it comes to music criticism?”

There’s an enjoyment that comes from reading a well-constructed analogy that doesn’t register when reading a technical description. Figurative language gives writing life and so imbues music with that life as well, albeit a subjective kind. Perhaps more knowledgeable music writers don’t care for metaphors because in a certain way they spoil the music. The way a film forever destroys a reader’s imagined characters, so perhaps an analogy can destroy a music connoisseur’s first, untainted listen. If I’m told to hear “distraction” or “fog” or “desert,” then I probably will. It’s the reason coffee tastings are done completely in silence. Just the mention of “walnut” overpowers the signals my own tongue is sending to my brain.

And yet, if metaphors, similes, and other hyperbolic descriptors were stripped from music criticism, what would be left? It would be a barren landscape from a literary standpoint. It wouldn’t be any fun to read. And assuming that people are looking for more than a catalog that evaluates and reports technical details—a Consumer Reports for music—then the enjoyment that comes from good writing is at least one thing music writers should keep striving for.

But I think the main reason to maintain a landscape that allows for both literal and figurative language is that analogies connect music to something beside itself. It doesn’t require a knowledge of history or theory or a band’s earlier work. All you have to do is be able to imagine what it might sound like for a lawn mower to tear a human being to bits.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: