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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.


Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 11:58 pm (UTC)
Remember that kit kat commercial?

In the music execs office:

You can't sing,
You can't play,
You look awful...

You'll go a long way.

That's you that is.

Thu, Jan. 22nd, 2009 01:21 pm (UTC)

I've come to this post a bit late - looks like the party's over.

But I want to keep praising you. As a harpsichordist, samplist, chord person, melodist, deejay and guitarist. Look, I think you're a great lyricist too. But it's obvious you realized a long time ago that the whole "singer-songwriter" thing is just so, so dull. So you've plotted a fascinating alternative course. Thank you!

Certain artists get critically lauded for their lyrics. Critics write reviews based purely on the lyric sheet. No listening is actually required. Reading is enough. I've come to the conclusion that fetishizing lyrics like this is musical philistinism.

And anyway, what makes a lyric good? I don't think it's just what the words actually mean. I listen a lot to songs sung in languages I don't understand. The ones I like best are the ones that put interesting noises into the singer's mouth. It's this sonic sensuality, much more than semantic intent, that matters - at least for me. I love that cheezy Moldovan song Dragostea Din Tei far more than the collected works of Ron Sexsmith.

So yes - you're totally under-appreciated as a musician. Summerisle is actually one of my favourite albums, BTW.

Mon, Jan. 26th, 2009 02:54 am (UTC)

This defensiveness about appreciation of your music versus your lyrics has given me a burning question to ask you: It seems to me that the mix of many of some recent albums (particularly Oskar-Otto-Ocky but also Folktronic in places) tends to render the vocals unintelligible, in marked contrast to pre-Folktronic albums. Could this be because you are trying to draw fans' attention away from your lyrical talent to encourage us to better appreciate your musical talent? And it also seems to me that, despite all the vocal distortions, effects, and bizarre phase shifts, the lyrics on Joemus are much easier to understand than the previous 3 or 4 albums. Could this be a sign that at the time you were mixing Joemus you'd changed your mind about how you wanted your songwriting to be perceived?

Or am I just reading too much into all of this?

Mon, Jan. 26th, 2009 03:07 am (UTC)

The vocal mixing style on older Momus albums is a direct emulation of the voice-to-music ratios heard in french pop (Gainsbourg, Brassens). I think you're right that this decade has seen more of a focus on the music, or the voice being one texture amongst many, and the songwriting has been less linear and less narrative, as well, so clarity isn't the concern it once was. I hadn't noticed the vocals being louder on Joemus, actually. Some of the electronic effects this time (particularly those which pitched them up) enhanced clarity by taking the voice out of the muddy middleground. Also, half the songs on Joemus are ballads, and that style tends to foreground the voice. That probably explains it.

ReplyThread Parent

Sat, Jan. 31st, 2009 12:07 am (UTC)
you've changed

"you've changed" seems to be pretty clearly in 4 (or 8/4, if you hear it that way) - the drums maybe be kind of doing there own thing somewhat randomly... but all of the melodic phrases seem to start and stop in 4 beat measure... you can hear/count it quite clearly in the keyboard solo at around 2:30... its an 8th note phrase, with 8 beats and the chord change happens after the 8th beat.

this doesn't make it compositionally inferior or anything - the off-kilter phrasing inside of those 4/4 bars is interesting and somewhat unconventional...

I like your music, just saying...


Sat, Jan. 31st, 2009 12:25 am (UTC)
Re: you've changed

OK, and now I listened to the other one you linked "Old Friend New Flame"... this one does seem to have a fucked up time signature.. at least in the few second clip i could hear on amazon.. from that clip, I counted (from the part where the Horn-like instrument comes in - the measure before that was not played in its entirety on this amazon clip) one bar of 6/4 followed by a 4/4 (or 8/4) which ends the melody rather nicely - i really like that

that changing time signature right in the middle of the melody thing reminds me of the arpeggiated guitar part of the Faust song "Läuft... Heisst Das Es Läuft Oder Es Kommt Bald... Läuft"

ReplyThread Parent
Sat, Jan. 31st, 2009 12:38 am (UTC)
Re: you've changed

Thanks for counting, this stuff is rocket science for me!

ReplyThread Parent