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October 31, 2007


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"Zach Condon has nailed his sound, but he’s yet to fully nail his song."

I think that single sentence sums up the album far better than any of the other reviews I've read. Nice work. :)

one thing of note, though - a well refined sound sure can make for a great concert. beirut was amazing live, and some of the songs (most of which i had never heard before) were hugely better in person than on the record, thanks to the bravado and bombast of his "sound".

I like your axis with sound on one end and song on the other (though I might replace "song" with "structure"). I quibble with the example of Dylan, though, because while I dislike his sound, I could deal with that: it's his songs I find clunky and irritating, so full of flaws of craft that they overwhelm his overrated (to me) inspiration. I acknowledge that what he does just doesn't speak to me (though I stand behind my assessment of his sloppy craft -- "poet" my ass), and that he is obviously a (middlebrow) genius, whatever I think of him.

I skew heavily to the song end of things. Which is why -- for example -- while I love Graceland, it is certainly not (for me) above his flawless song masterpiece, Paul Simon. (Also, Graceland is far from the first time Simon borrowed from non-American sounds; it's just the first time he did so for a whole album.)

Brilliant. love the distinction between sound and song and the use of Graceland as an example was great. It's way too early to go any deeper (small children up way too early) but I know I'll be thinking about this a lot. Brilliant.

P.S.: Seven Swans is my favorites Stevens album. But I love his songwriting; his beautiful sound is just a bonus. The only problem I have with Stevens is his prolificity is somewhat overwhelming; it's hard for me to absorb him at such length. I've found it worth the effort to learn the albums, but Seven Swans does not sprawl, and feels more like a finished piece of art, if you prefer albums that way. (I do.)

I think this is a useful distinction as well. I think I come down on the "sound" side, but I'm not altogether happy about it. It's kind of lazy. There are exceptions, though, where I zero in on the songs--but if the sound repels me in any way, it's harder for me to do so.

Dylan is an interesting example. For me, part of loving Dylan is embracing his sound. His (early) sound is amazing. Scraps calls his songwriting "sloppy". I think that has been true on too many occasions (for which he's undoubtedly gotten a free pass because he's a "genius"), but is not at all true for his best work (obviously, a matter of taste and opinion). His wordplay and melodies are enough songcraft for me.

Anyway, my problem is I often have a hard time hearing the songs beneath a production I don't like. And song fragments can carry a whole record if I like the sound/production enough, if those fragments are at all interesting. This is why, for example, I've struggled with some of the early Throwing Muses albums (not the first one, though), and why I've always preferred Surfer Rosa to Doolittle. On some level, I've always suspected that it stems from a superficial engagement with the music, but that could just be me being uncharitable to myself.

brilliant wife - yes! Beirut was great live. So was Sigur Ros when we saw them years ago. The danger there though is that you really have to pull it off - hence you and I have been mostly disappointed every time we saw Sufjan. He always sounded like he and his friends were imitating a great sound rather than making one.

Scraps - I'm no real defender of Dylan, but still I think you get my point, in terms of how he is popularly accepted. Also your point about Sufjan's prolificity is precisely why I've limited my purchases.

I wouldn't use "structure" in place of "song"; structure, for me, is only part it. Aside from wordplay and wit, there is also the less tangible emotional payoff in delivery - hence why one singer can make a song a classic and another makes the same song lifeless. There are a million examples of this and I can't think of one because it's still too early in the morning for me.

Richard - I think I used to come down pretty firmly on the sound side of things, and over the years I've been moving steadily in the other direction. And for whatever it's worth I've always had greater attachment to Surfer Rosa myself.

Wordplay and wit are part of structure for me. "Sound" is the materials: words and sounds. "Structure" is how you put them together: lyrics and riffs and songforms.

I think that structure is the grounds upon which we can make criticisms that are more than subjective (which is not to see that reactions to lyrics and songforms isn't subjective, just that there are grounds on which we can legitimately call things bad), while sound is (on the whole) the area that is entirely personal reaction. (An idea that underlies much of the anti-rockist sentiment: rocking out is not an objective virtue, nor is wimpiness or mellowness a flaw [unless one is trying to rock out].)

Writing about dance music Simon Reynolds made the distinction between records that were "songs" - could stand by themselves, with recognisable hooks etc. - and those that were "tracks" - made most sense as part of a DJ set, a component in a wider aesthetic that the dancer/listener is responding too.

I dunno if that has much relevance to your point - it struck me as a parallel, though, from a music where "songwriting" in the traditional sense isn't so important.

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