Ty Segall is an album rocker that’s gained a lot of popularity on the internet over the last few years. There’s no surprise why, for he’s a truly versatile musician. If you find yourself disliking his music, just wait until the next track comes up—it will probably bring something completely different. He opens up hot with a more conventional blues romper “Fanny Dog,” then immediately brings “Rain,” a song of such sublime simplicity that it sounds more like Erik Satie than Eric Clapton. Throughout the course of the album, he experiments with the mechanically rhythmic (“Despoiler of Cadaver”) and the wildly frenetic (“When Mommy Kills You”), the sentimental (“Cry Cry Cry”) and the aggressive (“Talkin 3”), the succinct interlude (“Prison”) and the monumental epic (“She”). It seems like he has enough space over the 75 minutes in this lengthy LP to cover just about every musical space imaginable in rock.
When we think about album rock, we typically look back to the heyday of the LP in the 60’s and 70’s, when now-classic artists were first releasing their magnum opuses. As a result, album rock is often conflated with classic rock, a category that’s basically synonymous with the greatest rock albums of all time. Listening to Ty Segall’s album, though, reminds me of the incredible potential that those original album rockers saw in the full-length LP. Suddenly, you could fit an hour or more of musical adventures into a single commercial package, with no need to limit your message to a 4-minute single. Imagine the musical possibilities! Nowadays, where music is consumed digitally one track at a time, I’m afraid that the LP is losing esteem in favor of singles yet again. Luckily, though, people like Ty Segall will rock on—and on, and on, and on, or at least until we run out of room on the disc.
I’m going to ignore the majority of this album and focus on a single song, “She Loves Control.” In fact, I’m going to focus on a single rhythm in that song. It may be the most common rhythm in the history of music. Listen to it yourself and you will recognize it from somewhere (please don’t say “Shape of You”). It’s that classic afro-cuban cadence that seems to permeate every form of pop music all over the world. What is it that makes this rhythm so popular?
Consider your traditional dance meter, with four beats in every bar. This can be divided evenly into many ways, including subdivisions of 2, 4, 8, 12 16, etc. But what if you want to divide the bar into three?
The muted guitar line in the beginning of the song represents music’s best shot at this kind of subdivision in duple meter. In a division of 8 beats, there’s a note on 1, 4, and 7. That’s ONE, two, three, FOUR, five, six, SEVEN, eight. Sure, it’s not quite exact, with the last note shortened by one beat before circling back to the beginning of the meter. This imprecision, though, creates some interesting effects. First, the note on beat four is syncopated, meaning that it doesn’t fall on the beat (odd numbers represent the strong beats). Second, the note on beat seven works as a pickup to the next downbeat, anticipating the completion of the rhythmic cycle and energizing the groove. Dr. Mark Butler, in his analysis of EDM, calls this “diatonic rhythm,” meaning that the rhythms are stretched as evenly across the measure as possible while retaining its subdivisions. By allowing for three beats to fit into a measure of four, music can carry the cognitive advantages of groups of three while still fitting within a binary framework.
I’m sure you’re not as fascinated in this as I am, but I appreciate your indulging me in this mathematical conjecture.
The name BØRNS would seem to belong to some Nordic doom metal band, and certainly not to a singer-songwriter from Grand Haven, Michigan. What’s even less likely is the kind of music he performs, which reverberates with full-on millennial swagger. Like any good pop artist, he covers myriad styles over the course of the album, but they cohere musically under his infectiously androgynous falsetto. The model of the falsetto crooner once belonged exclusively to black singers (with perhaps Eddie Kendricks as the original?). Then the Bee-Gees went and appropriated the sound, and the rest might as well be history. Both cases used falsetto as a display of virile masculinity, which back then was really the only thing you needed to be on top of the world. In the present case, though, I’m not sure if the falsetto voice exudes masculine power or effeminate sensitivity. Can it have both of these qualities?
I mentioned that this album has millennial swagger, and that it includes many styles. I believe that part of the millennial legacy is the abandonment of irrelevant categories. Millennials view categories they way they view systems and institutions, as limiting factors in a world of unlimited possibilities. This might as well apply to concepts of gender, and the various ways it can be expressed. We obviously see this in the rise of LGBT activism in recent decades, and perhaps that is also reflected in musical tastes. Art, after all, is no more than an embellished reflection of society.
I like using the club analogy when listening to EDM. If I were listening to this music in a club, what would that club be like? What time is it, and how many people are there? What are the vibes like—are people dancing along, listening intently, or having a side conversation with their friends? For me, visualizing an environment often helps me understand the music better. I even use this approach for music that was never meant for clubs (take the spacey sounds of EDD-989 for example). After all, every kind of music needs its proper place, and that place is often as much a part of the musical experience as the sounds themselves.
For this album, though, I have no idea what kind of club I’m at. In fact, the walls here keep morphing into staircases, and the bar floats away from me as colors whirl by me at a dizzying pace. Am I too drunk? No, I’m completely sober… but I think I’m losing my mind. Strangely, there’s no one else at the club, if you can even call this a club anymore. At this point I’ve left the grid, grinding past specks of harsh white light that seem to be pulsing to a rhythm.
So time still exists, you think to yourself as you suddenly find yourself in the second person. But if space has no meaning out here, then how can time continue on at such a familiar clip, pulsing along encouragingly as you struggle to hold on to the very fabric of reality? You suppose you may never truly know.
Another awesome band name taken—The Go! Team perfectly wraps up what they do in the name. True feel-good music this is, and after listening to the album I feel great. There’s a smattering of genres here, some of which seem to be at odds with one another. At the surface this seems like innocent bubble-gum pop, but they have the aggressive sound of garage rock over esoteric R&B grooves. The Team presents a heterogenous sound, each member standing alone in a sonic landscape that fits together very loosely. Olly Wilson, in his paper “The Heterogeneous Sound Ideal in African-American music,” points to this textural style as a vestige of African musical practices, in which music making is a community event centered on social interaction. Nowadays people mostly consume music as the polished products that come to us from recording studios and production companies. Even live shows are often mostly canned music, with more and more DJs resorting to simply hitting the play button. I appreciate, then, that this band is taking steps towards this “heterogeneous sound ideal,” even if Wikipedia chooses to label it as blaxploitation.
Tune-Yards (Merrill Garbus + bass) has earned a spot among the most eclectic pop groups I know out there. It’s a peculiar distinction to hold, because it implies some precarious balance between popular sensibility and avant- experimentalism. While these traits seem to represent opposite ends of the musical spectrum, Tune-Yards somehow manage to bring them together under the same groove. How do they accomplish this?
The most prominent case of this paradox at work is in Merrill Garbus’s incredible singing. Not only does she have a powerfully dynamic voice with tremendous range, but she also augments her natural voice digitally using loopers and processors. Thus her female voice—a staple of popular music—is made to sound mechanical and human at the same time.
Those who listen to the words will recognize familiar themes in today’s society: feminist struggles and the power to overcome them. Those like myself who pay more attention to the music will be met with an endless flow of rhythmic and melodic escapades. There’s a happy medium here, in other words, that should make a lot of people happy.
Listening to this music with absolutely no context is a marvelous experience, but it seems limited by my own ignorance. While I enjoyed the sounds as they came to me, I couldn’t help but wonder where these sounds were coming from, and what culture they represented. The category of “world music”, as derided as it is by ethnomusicologists, has the distinction of imparting this kind of curiosity in listeners. People who seek out “world music” are looking for a learning experience, and as such they don’t care much about the musical details—why else would such a vague genre have any identity? Of course, this curiosity usually means that people would like to be able to identify the music more precisely than as “world music.” So what, then, is Xylouris White?
Upon looking further into the group, I found that their music is actually unique in its identity. A duo between Greek laouto player George Xylouris and Australian drummer Jim White, Xylouris White create a unique blend of Greek traditions, post rock, and free jazz. While it certainly represents traditional Greek culture through its use of Cretan instruments, scales, and language, these influences fade in the wake of pounding backbeats such as in “Only Love.” Anyone looking to learn about traditional Greek musical culture, then, may want to go elsewhere. Can this really be considered world music, then? You wouldn’t consider the Beatles world music for their incorporation of Indian traditional music, so why would this be any different? Here you can see the inconsistencies of the category “world music,” and possibly why people hate it so much.