“Nomads” (The High Llamas)

Superstar satire, with character comparing his life to the nomadic wanderers of old. Tribal identity secures internalized, romantic-anthropological slumming that occludes political economy, actual stateless persons, and the whole bother of encounter. Brass band and banjo pump up the (oxy)moronic, T.J. Jackson Lears factor: elite antimodernist jetsetting.


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“Different Trains” (Kronos Quartet)

Steve Reich’s setting of three groups of voices (“America—Before the War,” “Europe—During the War,” and “After the War”) amid repeated figures representing “different” trains implies a certain technocratic base: triumphally major and mobile in “America” as the trains race between the oceans and unite the land; clashing and discordant in “Europe,” as the Holocaust comes into view. “We” are superstructural/epiphenomenal, it appears, cut into (musical) phrases as the State-machines track our similarities and differences. So why are the genders made instrument-specific (woman = viola; man = cello)? Where do these particular differences emanate from, if not a certain technics? The error in (any form of) social constructionism is, of course, that it leaves no room for a true and legitimate point of view, even though it insists it has one. Here, it’s smuggled in, manwise.




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“Brazil” (Esquivel)

Concrete/ambient tour of the city street, and of the many bar bands which each play a variant of the self-tropicalization standard, “Brazil.” This is, then, Esquivel’s take on the figure of the flâneur, or walker in the city. Baudelaire, for example: “His passion and profession are to become one flesh with the crowd.” Esquivel charts the stakes of this desire to fuse into community and registers its necessarily violence in the club fight which erupts at the end of the track. Which doesn’t have to amount to the retrograde Benajamian position on the crowd or the mob: “Brazil,” it’s clear, is each time different (musically multiple and variegated, “within” itself).


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“March On” (The Awakening)

Evacuation but not a fleeing. Bass figure, regardless of the multiple variations, starts and ends with same note, incessantly. Episodic sax overblown, exploring furthermost regions until sinking back so that another instrument can solo. During drum solo, muted cowbell presses eighth notes, then half notes, then nothing; no “whole” to be attained or to move towards, only the difference of the unlike same.


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“New World in the Morning” (Roger Whittaker)

Here, it’s preferable to speak of a “new world coming on” rather than a “new world in the morning,” and the difference seems to stop just short of an ideological edict. After all, it seems to be lexical and not conceptual. Things, as they do, get thorny. The narrator’s arrogance—why even sing a song about something so self-evident?—seconded by the testimony of an old man with a decades-old dream: we will banish the diurnal in the name of the cataclysmic. The latter “comes,” and you can sense it. Shed your dreams of change within your serial existence and enter the realm of “thought,” which is divorced from the quotidian and assumes immanence. A possible response could begin with a worry: if yesterday and tomorrow are banished, how could one be mindful of (and ethical toward) difference?


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“That’s Me” (Theo Beckford)

One can easily conjure the scene. It involves one of the inventors of the ska rhythm—the man whom Skatalite Tommy McCook called “Skavoovie”—a pianist who hasn’t been paid for his last record date and subsequently confronts his producer and draws a line in the studio’s dirt floor. “That’s me,” on this side, and “that’s you,” on the other. We’re not the same, and therefore you owe me: “I want my money” and, when you’re ready, “call me about it.” One might call this trax crass and materialistic (and perhaps it’s no more than a studio afterthought, since it ended up as a b-side), but there’s also something about this crude form of spacing that cannot be wished away. If we could replace “me” and “you” with just “us” or “one,” we might be able to eliminate the daily dilemmas of communication, obligation, and economy. But “we” remain differently-related: even as “I” try to indebt “you,” “I” remain fatally dependent upon “you” to hear my call. Our mortal differences, no matter how slight they seem, are not expungeable, and even when “me” and “you” converts to “I and I” a decade later in rasta-talk, attempting a drastic and equalitarian pronominal reduction, each speaker still necessarily leaves some space open for the conjunction and the second iteration of “I.”


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“Dark Was the Night—Cold Was the Ground” (Blind Willie Johnson)

On September 12, 2013, Voyager 1 became the first Earth-made object to enter interstellar space. Perhaps more importantly, the “Golden Record,” curated by a Carl Sagan-led group, is affixed on its outside, offering what has been deemed a “global anthology” of Earth life as conceived in the early 1970s. Containing images, sounds, music, and “spoken greetings” in fifty-five languages, the LP was also meant to serve as a document of our shared “cosmic loneliness.” And the contents of the disc (folk-ed trax, especially) parallel the problem the record was to solve: how to bring people together by transcending difference that redeploys difference in order to communicate our “diversity.” Along with “Melancholy Blues” by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven, Blind Willie Johnson’s piece represents the blues on the disc. Marked by forlorn humming and at the edge of speech, Johnson’s trax resists what Jeffrey Carroll deems the “directly expressive [and ‘wordless’] . . . rhetoric of the interjection” (When Your Way Gets Dark: A Rhetoric of the Blues). If one invests in the “emotion” of sound, what’s abandoned is the articulation of abandonment that emerges from a homeless wanderer. And this isn’t Simmel’s “stranger,” who serves as a marker of and diagnostic for group belonging, but a manifestation of isolation articulated toward the other. “Meaning” isn’t present as such. What is: the disturbance of being at home in this world. Or: the alien-ness that comes from (punishing) relation.


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“Turtle Song” (Hugo Largo)

Two-bass attacks are uncommon, what with the risks of a muddy low end or bottom line. Plying the upper (chordal) registers, a combination of four- and eight string basses wend along, sometimes meeting for unison voicings. Our pitiable narrator is the murky base. Sequestered in a “well” (or shell), her head pops up and out every now and again, but only in projection. Professing whiteness (“Indians . . . [are] so smart”) and desiring animality (“that excites me”), it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that she’s merely sheltered and listening to the “echo” of the small world around her. But don’t forget the power of a “wish”: beginning to imagine “someone else’s thoughts” and inviting strangers into one’s life. Sonically and politically committed to mingling without overdetermination and difference with spite for location. An excitation.


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“Refrain” (Lys Assia)

Is the “refrain” in the repetition, the singularity of the melody, or the repression of impatience? A bit of all, to tell the truth. As the first Eurovision Song Contest winner (1956), it’s a way to understand Europe’s sense of being at a particular moment. But it’s not a European song inasmuch as a Swiss song in French, which beat out the German Swiss song. This descent down the location ladder is challenged by the inversely proportional desire to sing particularly (here, of an experience), setting up the trax’s loop: the proper way of being and comportment writ large must be miniaturized in order to be magnified. The chanteuse sings in the present to the love of her youth, noting a sense of mutual maturity while lamenting what’s been lost. Instead of melancholy in which what has been lost must eventually disappear into a generalized longing, this could be taken as a desire to differ from one’s self—a need to retain previous identities to register one’s difference from them. What matters is a promise to decide, continually, on the promise of such difference.


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“The Awakening (Pt. 1)” (The Reddings)

In some ways, The Reddings continue The Brothers Johnson’s investment in funk as inborn, released/expended, and premised on dance floor experiences. Not so with this trax, as we move toward an advent of sorts. Who/what arrives? From the album cover, it’s the revelation of lonesomeness conveyed by the single used pillow and the broken office clock lying on the bed (as probable frustration with a world devoid of funk). Moving between slapping and fingerstyle tendencies, the bass pyrotechnics are relentless. The difference appears in the accompanying overdubs that appear near the end; consisting of both harmonics and slaps/pops played backwards and layered within the forward momentum of the primary narrative, they emphasize causality in a distorted mirror. Reflected back to us, the other is different yet comparable, related but not an amplification. The layers, the bottom end, the sustained open E string throbbing throughout: arrival has happened and will have to happen, recursive in its movement forward, outward, and downward.

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