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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2008/02/24
by Jesse Jarnow

Three Thoughts on Love & Hate

BRAIN TUBA: Three Thoughts on Love & Hate
The second-to-last time Spupes was here, I gave him a copy of Why?‘s Elephant Eyelash. There’d been a lot of Yoni Wolf in the shuffle that week, and Spupes freaked out, picking up on the avant-indie/hip-hop/post-yourmom confessionals that Wolf was throwing down. When he came back from Johnstown a few weeks later, another Why? track came up. ‘Ugh,’ he groaned. ‘This stuff started coming on after I got home, and I just couldn’t take it. It was weird. I really liked it before. I don’t know what happened.’
Around that time, I ran into another friend outside a show at Webster Hall. "You going to Vampire Weekend on Tuesday?" I asked.
He made a sour face. "I hate them,’ he kvetched.
"That’s funny," I said. "You were the one who convinced me to give them another chance. I used to hate them, too."
"Oh, yeah," he said, his cheeks softening into some state of dreaminess. "I sort of remember that." His mouth snapped back to a sneer. "No, I’m not going," he said.
"Words, words, they’re all we have to go on," Tom Stoppard wrote, echoing Samuel Beckett, in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, and that can sometimes be dangerous. The standard clichgainst music criticism is that it’s like dancing about architecture or some such batshit. But the problem isn’t that writing about music is meaningless, it’s that it’s too meaningful.
That is, besides the rate of the notes’ vibrations, there is rarely a literal value to music, be it strongly picked adjectives or a 1-10 rating system (with or without decimal points). But in writing or even talking about music, one forces meaning into place, jacking it from the eternal now, if only for a second. Which is, of course, language’s exact function. In fact, over several thousand years, English has become quite efficient at this.
One of the frightening realizations of professional record reviewing is how easy it is to use this fact to arbitrarily take one side or the other and really mean it. Sometimes, one small flicker of pleasure — a glorious chorus up front, or a quiet song for a nighttime playlist — grows magnified in the rethinking. Each record transforms into a system of signs one must interpret consistently: guitar sounds, production values, narrative perspective, hipness quotient, social/political self-awareness. It is rather like a crossword with clues about quasi—synaesthethic emotional states instead of the Gabor sisters. And the real answers (which could be entirely different from what seems obvious) don’t come until much later, when one has actually spent real time with the music.

"How long should an artist struggle before it isn’t worth the hassle?" Jeffrey Lewis wonders in "Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror," as — in the video — a beat-up old man with a goatee beams knowingly at the camera. It is Tuli Kupferberg, co-founder of the Lower East Side proto-art-punkers the Fugs, still looking beatific some 40 years later, if probably just as broke. It is a fine and valid question.
The fact is, there is — at this very second — a musician toiling in obscurity who is not getting the credit he deserves. Furthermore, he might not get it for another 20 years, or ever, even if the music he is making in 20 years is better than the amazing albums currently sitting unheard on his harddrive.
Despite the impossibly broad access contemporary listeners have to new music, there is never any telling what’s really going on out there, never any knowing what artists are fermenting in unassuming suburbs or tenement apartments, making recordings that will turn from butterfly flaps to typhoons in the sands of time. Somewhere, right now, there is a band that will still be making amazing music in a quarter-century, like Sonic Youth or Yo La Tengo or the Bishop brothers or Ornette Coleman, but is — right now — just getting their act and heads together.
Music and taste are volatile. More, they are rarely what they seem at first. Just as language fixes meaning, music fixes ambiguity. It is sensory, and will always sound different, despite being frozen in its recording. But that’s exactly it: it doesn’t really mean anything, either, at least until you hit play again.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at

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