Monday, April 25, 2005

I've gone as pale as Doris Day

MONICA: Can we talk about Doris Day for a moment?
STEPHIN: I’ll talk about Doris Day for as long as you like. I would say she’s probably my favorite singer.
MONICA: Why Doris Day? Why "Dodo?"
STEPHIN: Well, her voice fascinated me. I would sing along with her, trying to catch the subtle way she sang the words. In turn, Doris Day’s favorite singer is Ella Fitzgerald. I tend to like a more conversational tone.

(from an interview by Monica Lynch, Index Magazine)

At first, I didn't know what to make of Merritt's admiration for Doris Day, whom he namechecked in his songs "Is This What They Used To Call Love?" and, obviously, "Doris Daytheearthstoodstill." Doris Day: that wholesome, bright-eyed singer and actress, seemingly cemented in the Leave It To Beaver era in our minds. After all, she doesn't really have a shtick, unless "squeaky-clean" is a shtick. But after listening to her, I realized that she has an absolute command of her voice - an extremely clear and pretty voice - and can control her modulations in ways that we can't entirely comprehend. I'm serious.

Doris Day started out in big band swing outfits, winning audiences in the wartime era, and then branched out into film, where she found further success throughout the 50s and 60s. Conveniently, several of her films had prominent hit songs, sung by Day, naturally. The first selection is one of Day's biggest hits, "Secret Love," from the film Calamity Jane ("...and I was Wild Bill.") It's a song that Stephin said made him fall in love, although he admitted, "I'm not sure I wasn't in love beforehand." The second track this week is "Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)" which was featured in a climactic moment of the Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much, with Day passionately belting out the tune. This song was covered by the Three Terrors (Merritt, Dudley Klute, and ld beghtol) in 2001 for their special Hollywood-themed live performance.

Monday, April 18, 2005

We are programmed just to do anything you want us to

Without Kraftwerk, we would have no hip-hop beats, no dance music as we know it, no electronica; rock and country and jazz and even folk would have withered and died with nothing to react against. We'd probably all be listening to bad gospel, Irish acoustic guitarists and increasingly overplayed soggy orchestral pomp. Possibly we'd be living in caves.

You read that correctly. Caves. This is certainly high praise from Stephin, in an article written for Time Out New York, and he is only slightly exaggerating. Kraftwerk's influence on pop and dance music (among other genres) is immense, and Stephin enthusiastically shares their musical philosophy: to embrace artificiality.

In this dialogue between Stephin and Claudia, they discuss "false realism":

Stephin: When I scroll through the seems that everything is recorded in the same way, what I call "false realism," where all the instruments, real or synthesized, are trying to sound like real instruments. Then, in rebellion, there are bands like Kraftwerk who make the music that is self-consciously synthetic.
Claudia: But modern-day disco isn't trying to be real. It all sounds canned.
Stephin: That's not the point. Those instruments are still designed to imitate the usual instruments. The point is not whether it's real, but that it shouldn't be an issue if it's real. An acoustic guitar shouldn't have to sound like an acoustic guitar; it can, but it shouldn't have to.

And in this interview with Elisabeth Vincentelli, he says:

I am proud of the fact that my records have nothing to do with the sounds instruments happen to make. The guitars aren't guitars, the synthesizers aren't synthesizers, the drum machines and drums aren't drums. In general, you are unable to tell with conviction what anything is. This I can do because I have about 70 instruments and a room full of electronics, but so do a lot of studios.

False realism is like Cinema Verité. As Cinema Verité should be left to academic documentary filmmakers, false realism in music should be left to those making demonstration recordings of historical instruments.

The members of Kraftwerk claim to be robots, and they have disowned their first three albums from the early 70s which feature (*gasp!*) non-electronic musical instruments. A backing band composed of robots seems to be exactly what Stephin is looking for. In this Salon interview, Merritt says:

Robotics would be great. If we could have an easily used robot guitar, for example, we could do lots of nifty things that have not been done. Computer-assisted songwriting would also be great.

Then, when asked by the interviewer, "Would you want a world in which everyone played perfectly metronomical drumbeats all the time?", Merritt replied "Yes! Yes, I would!"

And in an article by Randy Silver, Stephin discusses replacing human voices:

So what piece of technology would Merritt's dream studio come equipped with? "A really accurate voice synthesizer," he ruminates, "One that would sing lyrics you typed into it according to notes that you played into it. Something that would allow you to control the singing style and the inflections from a computer. That would be very useful to me."

Possibly, the song that sums up the Kraftwerk aesthetic and manifesto best is "The Robots," with its catchy Vocoder chorus, strict rhythms, and synthesized beeps and bloops. The second selection is the irresistibly upbeat "Airwaves," from the album Radio-activity, which was Stephin's favorite recording of 1975. I should also point out that the band will be touring Europe and the U.S.A. in late May through July (tour dates are on the official site), and they will also be releasing a two-disc live album called Minimum-Maximum in June.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Some of us can only live in songs of love and trouble

In an interview printed in Chickfactor #10, Stephin said:

Most of my dream vocalists are imaginary. I like to think up new vocalists who have never lived before and imagine their characteristics. This is of course how I make friends as well.

In the non-fictional world, one of Merritt's favorite vocalists is Billie Holiday, whom you may remember was beckoned to be his "only friend."

Referring again to the 69 Love Songs booklet, Stephin was questioned about singers:

Daniel Handler: Billie Holiday, a.k.a. Lady Day, joins what other vocalists in the pantheon for you? [...] What about Ella Fitzgerald?
Stephin: She doesn't have much shtick.

I hesitate to call Billie Holiday's life a shtick (and I don't want to imply that that is what Stephin is doing), but for sure, she is the person who first comes to mind when you think "tragic jazz singer." Holiday's insanely turbulent life, marked with enough troubles to fuel two dozen Lifetime movies, undoubtedly provided an extra layer of emotion to her performances, and she would be certainly at home in Merritt's lyrical world of alcoholics and sad lovers.

The chilling "Strange Fruit," mentioned in the Magnetic Fields' "Love Is Like Jazz," was Holiday's signature piece - a powerful and disquieting song about lynched African-Americans, who were the "strange fruit hanging from poplar trees." The line "Hanging in the willow trees like the dead," from "Summer Lies," brings up similar disturbing imagery. The second selection this week is "God Bless the Child," a song co-written by Holiday and cited as Merritt's favorite recording of 1941.

By request, "Le Tourbillon" is back up:

Monday, April 04, 2005

She said her life was like a motorway: dull, grey, and long, 'til he came along

Stephin's favorite recording of 1994, a song which he said moved him to tears when he first heard it, is Saint Etienne's "Like a Motorway," one of the band's finest and saddest moments and a fan favorite. Saint Etienne represents all that is right about full-on, unabashed dancey pop music. Although they are a bit more popular over the ocean than in the States, most American Stephinfans probably know lead singer Sarah Cracknell's silky vocals from the 6ths' track "Kissing Things."

One notable thing about "Like a Motorway" is that it lifts, note for note, the melody of the traditional song "Silver Dagger," which has been covered by many, including Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Dolly Parton. (Another tip of the hat is the line "In her right hand, she clasps a letter" which shadows the latter's line "In her right hand is a silver dagger.") This practice of borrowing elements from public domain songs is not uncommon, and even our own favorite songwriter does it. In a conversation between Stephin and Claudia, documented in 1994 in Chickfactor #6, Stephin said:

...I used to write songs by going through Alan Lomax's Folk Songs of North America and lifting the best parts of these folk songs [which are in the public domain], and I use samples. Welcome to 1994, darlings, originality is passé.

"Like a Motorway" is from the nearly-flawless album Tiger Bay, and I recommend obtaining the fifteen-track European version (which has bonus songs that are actually great, has superior sequencing, and doesn't tack on unnecessary remixes like the U.S. version.)

In the 69 Love Songs booklet, Stephin says:

There's an incredible Aphex Twin song, on the new Experimental Musical Instruments album, where he explores the sounds of bouncing [...] It's beautiful on speakers, but on headphones it's one of the major achievements of the 20th Century. Amazing. It's the best piece of electronic music I've ever heard.

Actually, the Experimental Musical Instruments album to which Merritt is referring is the Orbitones, Spoon Harps, & Bellowphones compilation, named by Merritt in TimeOut New York as one of the best releases of 1998. It's full of strange tracks performed on unusual musical inventions, and I recommend it to just about everyone including the most jaded listeners.

Just listen to Merritt's instrumental piece "Tea Party" from the Eban & Charley soundtrack album and tell me that it wasn't inspired by that Aphex Twin track - in particular, the sound of plastic cups succumbing to gravity.