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February 2010
 
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Tue, Jan. 20th, 2009 02:53 pm
The Music Genome Project on Coming in a Girl's Mouth

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.

83CommentReplyFlag

eptified
eptified
H. Duck
Tue, Jan. 20th, 2009 10:35 pm (UTC)

Incidentally, I am increasingly of the notion that there should be a music review website written solely by people who actually know something about music, in the academic sense -- somewhere for people like me who respond first to the formalism in a piece to go and not be subjected to some blithering english major humping the leg of the latest Animal Collective album because it is so sparkly (not to disparage AC, whom I like a lot, but christ, have you seen some of these reviews?)

The key thing is to emphasize that a trained viewpoint is not necessarily a legitimate viewpoint - just as the people who are the most virtuosic instrumentalists are, nine times out of ten, worth nothing as composers. I don't think that the people who write for the kind of website I want would agree with my viewpoint much more often than the current musical establishment would, and nor do I think it's right to ignore the cultural content of pop music, which is often cleverer and more meaningful than the arrangement itself. But it would be nice to have a legitimate source for people who hear music as music to sound off (ho ho) about what's good - ignoring, as the crankbox said above, anything they have to say about Genesis -

I think we can probably do that without resorting to mechanical review-bots. (Those fields are filled in by human observers anyway...)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 20th, 2009 10:53 pm (UTC)

Reminds me of the David Buckley book about Bowie, based on a PhD thesis and heavy on the musicology. Or that Eric Tamm book Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Colour of Sound</a> (that's a link to the entire text of the book, by the way).


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jan. 20th, 2009 10:53 pm (UTC)

Firstly, you are my very favorite singer songwriter period, as much as I also love Robyn Hitchcock, Stephin Merritt, The Fall, Leonard Cohen, Chris Knox, Jetc, but I also think your music is incredibly good, I'm not an expert on music when it comes to understanding notes or being able to play myself, but I would attest that I have excellent taste and an "ear" for good music nonetheless. Noel Coward is quoted with saying that the only criticism he couldn't stand was unqualified praise, so not to make you feel akward, but I think your music is amazing and that you are probably jesus


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 20th, 2009 10:55 pm (UTC)

Well, we all have our cross to bear, and being probably Jesus is mine.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jan. 20th, 2009 11:26 pm (UTC)

Jings momus, you're like all my favorite musicians, artists, writers, poets and critics rolled into one. You contain multitudes.

I was thinking last week that Click Opera is like CS Lewis's Wood Between The Worlds (and yes, now that I've googled it, I see you have beaten me to it once again). Each day a different universe, a different world to explore, different possibilities and outcomes, with the ever-loving-always-amazing-one-eyed virgil, errr momus as my guide. What's not to love? Lead on gentle spirit.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 20th, 2009 11:52 pm (UTC)

Wow, Virgil and Jesus! A lamp in one hand, a cross in the other!


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 12:32 am (UTC)
through composition

trying to think of other 'pop songs' that employ through composition the only things that come to mind as being close are White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane and many of Roy Orbison's songs (It's Over and In Dreams are examples), although these are both songs that have repetition in the 'verse' and reach the climax/chorus at the end, hmmm


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 03:40 am (UTC)
Re: through composition

Kurt Heasley, sole constant and songwriter with Lilys, sometimes through-composes songs: "The Tennis System and its Stars" (from the same album with that song in the ad, "Nanny in Manhattan": Better Can't Make Your Life Better is an example. Actually, given that he's one of Heasley's strong influences, some of Brian Wilson's stuff is through-composed...or nearly so.

--2fs


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 02:09 am (UTC)
musicallity

ive always loved your songs for their euphonious qualities .at times i feel your lyrics good though they are detract(mostly compliment) from the tune.as i suffer from a strange phenomenon of always wanting to play your albums when pissed" momissed" i call it. when momissed i generally cant be bothered engaging my higher brain so the concepts, jokes and general highbrow lyrical craftsmanship gets by passes.anyway if push comes to shove i think this visceral appreciation is best ehhm thats all really.


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stretchling
stretchling
Stretchling
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 03:21 am (UTC)
aww.

Please don't feed the trolls.


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suenoverde
suenoverde
suenoverde
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 04:17 am (UTC)

well argued and agreed.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 04:19 am (UTC)

Maybe it's just that through-composed and otherwise high-concept songs of yours sound awfully tinny to plebian ears.

There is so much mystery and wit in your Creation-era albums, and then at some point it seems you stopped giving a shit (about fame (?)). But of course every now and then you make something like "Life of the Fields" or "Dracula" and everything is forgiven.

Less Internet drama, more beautiful pop please!

-Alexei M


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correlatednoise.blogspot.com
correlatednoise.blogspot.com
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 06:23 am (UTC)

Momus, I don't necessarily see a problem with human analysis itself. I think the problem lies more in the kind of analysis we get in pop/rock reviews, which is oddly not very music centered in the "formal" sense. I can hardly remember reading anything about time signatures, tonality and even chord changes in a pop-rock review. instead, non-rigid concepts like feeling, power, expressiveness, etc. seem to much more prevalent... I agree with you though.

On the other hand, you know that all that stuff about using innovative song-structures, coming-up with your own styles, chords, etc. doesn't really prove you are a great musician, does it? If anything, it proves you are adventurous, technically skilled and knowledgeable. Just like many poor musicians.

BTW I do think you are a great musician! I just don't think there's really a convincing argument to prove it other than something along the line of "his songs mean more to me than any other".


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correlatednoise.blogspot.com
correlatednoise.blogspot.com
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 06:35 am (UTC)

Momus, I don't necessarily see a problem with human analysis itself. I think the problem lies more in the kind of analysis we get in pop/rock reviews, which is oddly not very music centered in the "formal" sense. I can hardly remember reading anything about time signatures, tonality and even chord changes in a pop-rock review. instead, non-rigid concepts like feeling, power, expressiveness, etc. seem to much more prevalent... I agree with you though.

On the other hand, you know that all that stuff about using innovative song-structures, coming-up with your own styles, chords, etc. doesn't really prove you are a great musician, does it? If anything, it proves you are adventurous, technically skilled and knowledgeable. Just like many poor musicians.

BTW I do think you are a great musician! I just don't think there's really a convincing argument to prove it other than something along the line of "his songs mean more to me than any other".


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 08:52 am (UTC)

Yeah yeah OK, I think we all get your point by now: you're a great musician, fabulous composer, witty lyricist, interesting conceptual performance artist, journalist with his finger on the pulse, prolific blogger, soon-to-be published novelist of sorts, have a beautiful girlfriend, live in splendid thrifty righteousness in an interesting part of a fashionable artistic city, mix with the most interesting of contemporary artists and musicians, always win the argument and never pass over an opportunity to big yourself up.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 08:51 am (UTC)
Bollocks

Are you so desperate for praise...it'll be celebrity big brother for you next. Some supplicant obliges with....

can think of few people who can write melodies that equal yours (really, Louis Philippe, Brian Wilson... then who?) and none who arrange them so wonderfully oddly. You songs are masterpieces of formal sophistication and intelligence; their lyrics would be very much diminished with less subtle and sublime settings.

What melodies; most of them are anodyne pastiches of Bowie, Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg etc indeed that is their strong point but originality forget it.




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qscrisp
qscrisp
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 10:35 am (UTC)

I'm late reading this one. I don't understand why anyone would think you're a poor musician. That's ridiculous. I suppose everyone thinks that they're an expert on music these days, but such opinions clearly show otherwise. Presumably they're fans of Yngwie Malmsteen or something, and nothing else will do.

I don't know if I should mention I'm currently attempting a review of Joemus (my blog endurance ability is not as great as yours and I often stop, exhausted, before completing a post), but, alas, I'm unlikely to focus on your musicianship and do it justice, because I don't consider myself an expert on music from a technical point of view, and would probably just embarrass myself in the attempt. In fact, it's a Jazz musician friend's pet hate - reviews where the write pretends to know more than they do about the technicalities of the music.

But I have dabbled in the making of music myself, and I know a good thing when I hear it.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 11:27 am (UTC)
Pandora

I'm rather amused that Pandora recommends five "similar songs" by Wesley Willis to the casual "Coming..." listener - two more disparate artists I think you'd be hard pushed to find...


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 12:40 pm (UTC)

Hmm, offensive lyrics? I thought they where more close to some sort of meditation on a topic that can't be taken very subtle by many. Look at Zappa's lyrics, some of them are meant to be funny and offensive.

Not to talk about my own lyrics. A rock critic would possibly say that "they have no debt".

I'd never be able to make a song like you do them, though.


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chef_shouty
chef_shouty
Controlling Sour-Tongue'd Bitter Crank
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 01:18 pm (UTC)

A while back Matthew approached us about contributing a song to his Valentine's Day comp. The first thought through my mind was an instrumental version of "Coming in a Girl's Mouth". He was lukewarm on the idea and after a bit of back and forth we did "My Funny Valentine" instead. Oh, well...


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jan. 23rd, 2009 04:22 am (UTC)

Och, you should have compromised and done "My Funny Penis"!


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