6 Mar 11 | Re: Wantaway climax
You might divide songs into three categories. Some are immediate, and grab you by the lapels and breathe in your face from the first listen. Some take several goes to ensnare you, rewarding the listener’s patience eventually. And the third group is perhaps the most misunderstood: songs that are never going to be fully appreciated in isolation, and can only work their magic immediately after you’ve already listened to a certain amount of the right kind of other music.
Here in the iPod generation, group one, the immediate face-breathers, is king. Group two, the bait-danglers, is still going, but slightly niche (as it’s always been, really). But with a generation of people growing up in the habit of, if they buy albums at all, harvesting the tracks they like for their shuffle machine and discarding the rest, group three finds itself in dire peril.
If a song only works in the context of other songs, and no one wants to listen to a full album, what is its purpose? Clearly its purpose is to be a rewarding live experience. But bands generally play live the songs they’ve recorded, and with no incentive to record tricky group three-ers, they might not have them when they need them for their live set. Since most wig-outs are group three-ers, I fear a coming world wig-out shortage. In the meantime, though, let’s take a look at a very album-centric example of the idiom.
Looking Glass by the La’s Listen to this, la.
This is the final track on the album The La’s, by the band The La’s (arguably the only band ever to adopt a greengrocer’s apostrophe as standard). It starts with a bit of jaunty folky picking, but this is a bit deceptive, since it’s a prelude of only a few seconds and once the real song starts, it is many miles away from jaunty. Instead we are treated to around half a minute of leadenly slow, spartan picking, and this is part of what I mean about working in the context of the album. In isolation, leadenly slow picking is not very good; but as the considered build-up to what we begin to realise is the grand finale of a whole work, it has an important role to play.
As the first verse begins, the drums are still nowhere to be seen, and the singing is as slow as the guitar playing. “Tell me where I’m going,” requests Lee Mavers. At the end of the verse there is no chorus, but instead the drums come in and the guitars are turned up, without quickening the pace, in a somewhat portentous instrumental. The simple tune of this bit turns out to be the tune of the chorus, which comes next (already two minutes into the track). The backing gets increasingly discordant throughout, ratcheting up the portentous feel.
Next there’s some tense strumming, another verse (with some echoing effects), another solo bit and another chorus. In true La’s style the tune is economical, even basic, and seems more so because of the plodding pace, but the vocals and arrangement combine to increase the tension and drama bit by bit.
Until the second chorus ends with the fateful line “The Change is Cast.”
Does this prophesy the formation of the under-appreciated Britpop band Cast by the La’s’ bass player? I’ve heard he denied it, but calling their debut album All Change suggests otherwise. Either way, it’s nice for a track as portentous as this one to contain an actual, true-life prophecy, whether anyone intended it or not. A good bit of music mythology.
This line is the wig-out watershed, signalling, as we’ve seen multiple times in previous weeks, the abandonment of proper song structure and a veer into weirdness.
The first weird thing is some echoed-out “la la la” singing - given the band’s name, this helps the self-mythologising along nicely. The pace stays slow, but the pounding and eeriness rise and rise, as the key line “The Change is Cast” is repeated. And then comes the really clever bit: lines from other songs on the album start to get mixed in, all on the theme of sailing away, or escaping, or leaving for somewhere else. “Tell me where I’m going,” he said early on, but now it seems not to matter - the only imperative is to leave, whether that’s to find the promised land or to wander forever in the desert. The drums now start to speed up, too, finally leaving the leaden pace behind - like the singer, the band shakes itself out of its torpor and struggles to break free. But in this case, after just a minute of accelerating din, they collapse into noise and feedback. That’s how it ends.
More than any other track I can think of, this one makes the most of its place not only on its album but in the context of its band’s career. The La’s never made another album. So Looking Glass holds up a mirror to the group: by revisiting those lines about wanting away, it defines the album’s theme as being about escape, about making a change, about dissatisfaction with one’s current situation (even the sweetness of a song like There She Goes conveys this - setting aside the drug theories, it’s the object of affection that goes, and the bad feelings that remain). An attempt to escape (or transcend) can succeed or fail; the collapse at the end of this song suggests a failure, and so it turned out for the future of the group. So once you’ve listened to this, you want to go back to the rest of the album and pick out all the bits about wanting to leave, and feel sad because the characters’ hopes are still intact, but you know they will be dashed.
What’s happening after three and a half minutes, the limit of the pop fan’s patience? We’re still in verse 2.
Time to rate this wig-out:
Total wig-out points: 17
Pretty good for a wig-out that doesn’t have very much soloing at all. (Sorry about the brief lapse into prac crit earlier.)
Posted by VIRGINIA WATER at 12:22