Alan Pyke

Certainty is the sickness. Doubt is the analgesic. There is no cure.

Posts tagged strays

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On sheer quality, it’s more than enough to say that “Fancy Clown” is a stand-out sample flip on a record full of insanely good Madlib flips. The songwriting is as clever as MF DOOM fans have learned to expect, too, of course. Beyond his standard high level of lyricism in individual bars, the setup is a lot of fun— Viktor Vaughn writing a furious kiss-off to a lover who cheated on him with one of DOOM’s other characters.

But the verse traffics in a crippled understanding of fidelity. Forgive me for trying to extract a serious point from DOOM’s brilliant, light-hearted comic book world, but Viktor Vaughn is so pissed his girl stepped out on him with Metal Face that he tried to hurt her by boasting of his own infidelities? With her friend, their maid, and her mother? This misapprehension of fidelity as being optional or even unreasonable for men, but mandatory for the women they deem special from the rotating cast of partners they brag about, undermines many of hiphop’s best breakup anthems (Ghostface’s “Back Like That” for example).

But “Fancy Clown” and “Back Like That” and “Song Cry” and a dozen others that pretend separate, gendered standards of fidelity are valid still work in some essential way. By baking that regressive inequality into such magnetic breakup songs, male rappers are guarding their own privilege and validating other men’s refusal to let go of theirs, even as they lower their guard and emote. It’s troubling but it definitely doesn’t stop me listening to and enjoying these cuts. Maybe that’s partly because of the psychology of romantic collapse, where we often need to feel righteous and better-than, and where it’s easiest to succumb to the temptation to wound people we care(d) about. But it’s probably mostly because these songs are so damn effective on a musical, emotional level. That brings us back to the samples.* “Song Cry” has that chorus-of-weeping-angels backdrop taken from Bobby Glenn’s “Sounds Like A Love Song.” “Back Like That” has Neyo in top form, and if you listened to rap when Fishscale came out there’s a 93% chance you walked around humming or singing that hook for months in 2006. And “Fancy Clown” makes brilliant use of ZZ Hill’s “That Ain’t The Way You Make Love,” a spurned-lover anthem that can’t decide if it’s out for reconciliation or well-meaning slut-shaming:

A beatsmiths’ ear for the right emotion freeze-dried into even a single note from someone else’s record, and the fusion of a track to a vocal, is the source of all hiphop’s power. It’s what makes songs affecting. When it’s done well, it makes space for emcees to smuggle ideas into verses, to bury them a bit so that they can germinate with listeners. When it’s done really well, it can almost save painfully on-the-nose rappers from themselves, as with Macklemore’s equality anthem “Same Love.” But that fusion is just a tool. Hiphop’s revolutionary roots are no guarantor of it’s future concerns. It pays to be especially vigilant in moments that seem like progress, like Jigga making a smash hit out of a song that simultaneously highlights and defends a concept of manliness that is increasingly outmoded. Because those moments are progress, and should be celebrated, but never with blindness.

* is an incredible resource for this stuff, though if you’ve googled around to pin down a sample flip before you probably already know that. 

Filed under music strays hiphop feminism masculinity MF DOOM Jay-Z Ghostface sample flips

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Crazy People Make Great Music, Sometimes Get Second Chances

I’m watching You’re Gonna Miss Me this afternoon, the documentary about 13th Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erickson, who is playing in DC tonight. It’s a wild story of drugs and psychological disorder and misdiagnosis and institutionalization and law enforcement example-making. I never picked up the album he did with Okkervil River, titled “True Love Cast Out All Evil,” and I regret that. Not just because I’d enjoy tonight’s show more for being familiar with Erickson’s new material, but because that pair of 13th Floor Elevators records from five decades ago were so surprising and lively and captivating, and he’s been through such extensive internal and external trials in the intervening period, that whatever music he’s making these days is bound to fascinate.

I discovered the Elevators, and Erickson’s nimble, swerving vocals, by way of High Fidelity. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” opens the movie, in that moment where John Cusack rips the headphone cord out of his amplifier and cranks the angry bluesy howl of the song up to help him feign defiance as his girlfriend leaves him. I’m among the millions of romantic self-absorbed music dorks my age who went through an obnoxious phase where we either reenacted High Fidelity or insisted that Rob was Just Like Us, Man. (We need a name for that experience, fellow nerds.)

The upside of that fixation was discovering a bunch of great music I wasn’t already listening to. The 13th Floor Elevators were my big takeaway. The surly kiss-off lyrics, the ringing lost-epoch guitar sound, that what-the-fuck? electric jug that signifies the band’s sound almost as much as Erickson’s voice… “You’re Gonna Miss Me” is a potent musical germ when you’re 14, and the incubation period is very short. I ran out and grabbed all the 13th Floor Elevators I could find pretty much right away, subconsciously expecting that I’d found the band that’d get me through the next few months of the Why Don’t Girls Like Me years. But “You’re Gonna Miss Me” sets the wrong expectations for the band in a lot of ways, and instead of having two records full of palliatives for my angst, I had something bigger and more spiritual to get my arms around. I may have taken the Nick Hornby/John Cusack back door into finding the band, but I think lots of fans got to wrestle with the weird expectations “You’re Gonna Miss Me” sets, since it was their breakout hit.

But they weren’t the ’60s equivalent of The Black Keys, or whatever the hell I was expecting based on “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” They were fathering a new music. They were birthing a sound to go with the tumult their generation was inflicting upon their own minds. They were giving us psychedelia, not lovelorn blues rock. I think my favorite tune of theirs is either “Pictures,” embedded above, or “I Had To Tell You,” even though it’s sonically boring by comparison to most of their stuff.  Just a couple chords recorded in that open-air tape-to-tape studio sound, and those squalls of harmonica, and the lyric about “if you fear I’ll lose my spirit like a drunkard’s wasted wine, don’t you even think about it— I’m feeling fine.” Those favorites stick to my ribs even though they can’t stand up to their “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” cover (a contender for Greatest Dylan Cover Ever) or the spooky invitation of “Kingdom Of Heaven.” But if they’re less innovative in musical terms, they’re still brilliant writing. Erickson’s ability to move between soulful balladeer and half-exalting, half-terrified keening is a huge part of what makes the band so fascinating, and when you watch You’re Gonna Miss Me you can’t help but connect his sound to his schizophrenia. It’s going to be very interesting to see if any one facet of his music identity has prevailed in this second career of his.

Filed under strays music movies Roky Erickson 13th Floor Elevators You're Gonna Miss Me High Fidelity

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On Barbara Kingsolver, Perspective, And Being Wrong

I’m listening to Barbara Kingsolver talking about her new book “Flight Behavior” on Science Friday. She’s saying really smart things about how climate science fails to persuade even those most directly impacted by climate change. The book takes place in southern Appalachia, and revolves around an unusual demonstration of climate change, and how it’s received by locals. It sounds fascinating, but the conversation has me reflecting on a very different intersection of Kingsolver, misperception, and human hardheadedness, this from my own youth.

We read Kingsolver’s “The Bean Trees” in one of my high school English classes, I think during my sophomore year. I hated it. I railed against it. Primarily because the male characters in the book felt like such absurd caricatures— one monstrous and the other angelic, each impossibly extreme and unrecognizable as human men. Men, I felt, were getting a raw deal from Kingsolver. It seemed very important, at 15 years old, to tell everyone in class that. To even question its place in the curriculum. It never occurred to me that women characters in widely taught and even (or especially) canonical literature are treated with that exact same shadow-puppet exaggeration. It never occurred to be that Kingsolver might be combating a long tradition of warped, convenient femininity in fiction.

Why did that never occur to me? Worse, why did I continue to declaim Kingsolver when her name came up through my first couple years of college? I think it was because I was so confident in my own feminism— for years, I’d been fiddling with that label inside my own mind, tracing mental fingertips over it to be assured that it was there, that I was One Of The Good Ones. Some kids in my school kept the tags on their clothes as status symbols. I wore my Feminism tag so it showed. And so I felt indemnified. And that helped me ignore the merit or at least the context of Kingsolver’s treatment of male characters in “Bean Trees,” though it seems so obvious to me now.

From the SciFri interview about Kingsolver’s newest book, it sounds like it’s sort of the same way with the agricultural peoples who resist the science on climate change. An area of expertise, once taken for granted, can become a blind spot— and malicious media forces can prey upon that secret blindness, that unknown unknown, to protect the status quo from those who should be most apt to attack it.

Filed under Barbara Kingsolver Feminism being wrong introspection strays books