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January 20th, 2009 - click opera — LiveJournal
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January 20th, 2009
Tue, Jan. 20th, 2009 02:53 pm

Okay, it's Defensiveness Week here at Click Opera, whatever. But my honour is at stake. I want to pick up something an anon commenter said yesterday: "Momus is anything but a great musician". Another anon then chimed in, kindly, with "Yet his songs mean more to me than any other". That "yet" -- from someone who's clearly a big fan -- seemed to confirm the original thesis. Not just that I'm not Ornette Coleman, but that I'm anything but Ornette Coleman, in other words a very poor musician indeed.

I will not let this lie lie! The time has come -- as Ornette would no doubt put it -- to blow my own trumpet. I believe my musical and compositional skills have been tragically underrated. I've filled twenty or so albums with inventive and innovative pop music in a dizzyingly diverse array of styles. Never content just to adopt someone else's genre, I've come up with my own, from Analog Baroque to Folktonica. Never content to use standard textbook guitar chords, I've found strange new ones in undiscovered parts of the fretboard. My textures, especially over the last ten years or so, have been laboratory-honed. My time signatures can be more complex than just about anyone's -- just count along with You've Changed or Old Friend, New Flame and tell me what time signatures they're in! I've taken the formal structuring of pop songs much further than the huge majority of pop musicians. Where others have been content to use verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus-chorus and ABACAB, I've used things like through-composition. Almost nobody in pop uses through-composition!

Through composition is what you hear in songs like Coming In A Girl's Mouth (link to instrumental version). However, I don't think I've ever heard a rock review talking about through composition, and certainly no reviews of this song. Because it has a controversial sexual subject, this song was only ever discussed in terms of its taboo content. But the whole point of the song was to juxtapose this subject matter with a refined compositional style associated with the art song tradition of Schubert lieder. Compositional style, lyrical content and concept are all tied up here, but the only thing people notice -- if comments and reviews are anything to go by, anyway -- is the lyrical content. This is because they're human beings.



What we need is more machine-reviewing. What you see above is an analysis of Coming in a Girl's Mouth by -- if not a machine, at least a rigid labeling system which gives a more objective overview of the song's features. Instead of just noting the offensive lyrics (as humans tend to do), this "mechanical analysis" by Pandora's Music Genome Project notes: "thru composed melodic style, major key tonality, synthetic sonority, a prominent harpsichord part, subtle use of strings, offensive lyrics".

One problem with human reviewers -- and one reason I welcome a future of machine-reviewing -- is that humans are so blinded by content that the moment they hear a song is "about" something, they stop paying attention to its formal machinery. Formal properties are only examined when subject-matter and content are removed. I touched on this in a spoof review I wrote of my Stars Forever album in 1999, in the guise of one Brian Grey, writing in a magazine called The Mire:

"The eradication of song structures and lyrics has been almost completely successful... We are getting closer daily to the triumph of ground over figure. Thanks to Tortoise, Kreidler and Stereolab, millions now living will never hear a pop lyric. Nothing, now, sounds more anachronistic and less intelligent than narrative. In this climate, Momus arrives like a holy fool with thirty songs crammed with words, stories and semi-fictitious identities purloined from the subjects of these musical portraits. He calls this Analog Baroque. In fact it's closer to the wretched British tradition of variety music hall, which jazz and electronica artists have always correctly scorned for its cheap wise-cracking, crass populism and the excessive decoration of its music.... The tragedy is that, had Momus erased the story-telling tropes and released this record as thirty instrumentals, it would have been one of the best albums Warp never released, sitting alongside Autechre, Plaid and Boards Of Canada for sonic inventiveness and textural interest."

It's fair to say that the Music Genome Project would have managed to analyze the DNA structure of this album based on just one wriggling sperm. Its all-hearing machines wouldn't have been distracted by subject matter or the presence of lyrics. What's more, it would have made some great jokes, like the one in its review of The Penis Song, in which it notes: "prominent organ".

In case all this sounds too vain, I'll add a note of self-criticism: my Spanish is abysmal.

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