“Working on a Building” (Cowboy Junkies)

Permanent housing. Gospel traditional reworked through Xanax-like vocals and behind the beat accompaniment. Singer plays with possible performances (as a drunkard and liar) and then denies she’s a singer; if she were, though, she’d sing and work on the building for “my Lord. “Religious subjectivities, surely, are always structured by denials, but also by somnambulant identity politics: the bondsman forced to produce/build self without own signature.


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“dt 3.1415926535897952384” (Pimmon)

Computer macro introduces the electronic into the analog. Pi, to be representable, must always be rounded (off); same goes for “music” in general: sound always bound by technology’s inevitable failures in producing verisimilitude. Clicks become the ends of the diameter—touching the skipping, incomplete arcs of ringing noise at the supposed circle’s edge; identity, always incomplete, can only hope to touch its own laborious borders.  The digital is pitiless, but it’s still a system.


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“Good Guys & Bad Guys” (Camper Van Beethoven)

Slacker cosmopolitanism that places false contingency at the core of identity production: “[I]f you didn’t live here in America/You’d probably live somewhere else.” Kick back, “be yourself,” and sing (y)our song—since you’re living under Old Glory. But “folks like you and me” don’t seem to make any decisions whatsoever. Professionals do, be they licit or illicit. Countries do, too, but they’re entirely repressive. Even Randolph Bourne believed in the potential of positive law (dual citizenship and migration without restrictions)—despite the WASPy chauvinism. Life as a case of premature withdrawal.


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“Behemoth” (Tad)

As with any bloodsport, ideas concerning representation and authenticity are both solidified and dislodged. Tad’s ascendance came with the attendant Sub Pop marketing, firming up the label’s reputation while playing up an image of the band, as Kim Thayil contends, that deviates too far from their “smart[ness].” This radio-unfriendly trax insists, however, on the “strange new sound” that emerges from such forms of violence. Rather than “stay[ing] to hear” what’s been produced for “no reason,” those subject to the “behemoth” of institutionalized sound—or the vice-like “leather straps” cinching the cranium—will ideally live to see it “fall down.” This isn’t an undressing and it’s certainly not a recovery narrative. Occasional fuzz bass, solid-state distortion, and tightly controlled distortion erupt from within. Anticipating the birth of grunge, we witness its birth and evisceration. The necessary joy of quixotic, preemptive sonic battles.

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“War” (Henry Cow)

War is a product of the “partial mind,” clouded by “dark obscurity.” One could read this Hegel’s way, since he argues that the State “is most supremely its own” (has a truly self-sufficient and complete identity) only at the moment of War. But instead of critiquing identity, which cannot be closed without adopting a warlike posture toward the other, the Cow’s disciplinary Marxism maliciously heckles all patriotic persons as dumb lemmings (“people get what they deserve”) who should have been able to make themselves whole without all the drum beating, trumpet playing, and gore. A project both impossible and endlessly, potentially murderous; or, ranting become its own object.

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“Stone Crazy” (Buddy Guy)

Presently positioned as the object of Jimi Hendrix’s affection, it’s also become common knowledge that Leonard Chess initially constrained Guy to sideman status and fairly tame guitar tones. But the beginnings of Guy’s (amplified) overdrive can be heard here in 1962. Restrained initially, the lines/runs slowly become more direct and shrill; in the solos, the distortion emanates from the note’s floor/base and occupies the majority of registers. The narrator’s main complaint: he’s betrayed by a lover who thinks his “little heart is made of iron.” Even his daughter knows this isn’t true, so it’s willful abuse. But this leads to a complaint about labor and location: slinging guitar in the North isn’t compatible with the clothes he’s accustomed to wearing. So, he’s going “back down South.” (But that’s not gonna happen; he’s just started ripping the top off of blues amplification, and the song goes on to be released in different forms on almost 50 different albums/compilations.) Devastated, overwhelmed, and speaking from a contractual/obligatory positioning, seeking an appropriate climate is a luxury. After the plaint: a throbbing, throttling identity whose work—levied at the point of a finger—begins.


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“Volunteered Slavery” (Rahsaan Roland Kirk)

Nothing is solved by acts of congress/Congress. Gendered (and racial) performativity experimented with, demonstrating how, for example, singer’s claim that women “be free” “by spending all day in bed with me” eventually leads to his plea of “don’t take it away”: supposed volitional freedom creates distraction, indicating failure of the performative without clear direction. “We all know” this, and double-instrument solo, at its end, produces screeching white noise underpinned by spaced-out, staccato jabs. Single-ness and identity will always know its place.


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“Killing an Arab” (The Cure)

Robert Smith says: a condensed moment from Camus. It works this way: singer is the political “stranger,” and the man at his feet is “Arab.” Singer “alive” and “dead” at same time, at a moment of decision which turns the whole world and decisionism itself into “absolutely nothing.” Eliminating the other decimates the self because, in the realm of identities, there are two (at least), or there are none at all.


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“Soily” (Wings)

At the height of Wings’ fame as a live act in the mid-70s, Paul McCartney would end stadium shows with this unreleased “Live and Let Die”-style, brassed-up rocker from 1972. It’s a call to the audience to look at everyone around them, left and right, and figure out what sort of a makeshift group they might constitute. McCartney calls out some ostensible social identities: doctor, lawyer, artist, farmer, priest. There are different national and geographic identities, too: Italian, Indian, and “jungle chief.” And then a parade of oddballs: “Hitler’s son,” a “commie with a Tommy Gun,” and a “plumber with a fattened hog,” for example. Their commonality, according to the singer, is that they’re all “soily” and “oily.” Soily: dirty, no-account, or crusty. Oily: parasitic, drunk, smoking, and sweaty. Yup, that about covers it. We’re in the muck up to our necks. All of us “born deceased.” Weak, violent, untrustworthy, and utterly soiled. It’s a mortal storm out there in the cheap seats, and not nearly as posh as one might expect for a concert involving rock royalty. As for the “cat in satin trousers” who chimes in, it’s no doubt a nod to glam and the satin togs of Bowie, Bolan, Roxy, the Sweet, and Slade. But it’s also McCartney himself, who’s wearing black satin pants in the video clip and clearly wants to position himself nearby this community of mud without ground.


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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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