11 episodes

Reflections on the joys of discovering new music

The Year of Magical Listening Willie Costello

    • Music
    • 5.0 • 3 Ratings

Reflections on the joys of discovering new music

    011 :: IGNOTA

    011 :: IGNOTA

    FEATURING

    SINNER GET READY by Lingua Ignota, released by Sargent House in 2021.

    Listen: https://songwhip.com/lingua-ignota/sinner-get-ready
    Buy direct: https://linguaignota.bandcamp.com/album/sinner-get-ready

    TRANSCRIPT

    Music, in its best moments, feels otherworldly. It speaks to us as if from another plane of existence. It's hard to say what exactly it is that gives music this ethereal quality, but you know it when you hear it, because of how it makes you feel: captivated, awestruck, and humbled.

    It's natural, I believe, to describe this than as a religious experience, for listening to such music feels like an act of communion with a higher power, a revelation of a world beyond this one. And it's also no surprise that we should find such music being used for explicitly religious ends. For what better way to bring us to God than to bring God to us, in sound?

    But there's something that generally doesn't get acknowledged about such music, which is that, as inspiring and moving as it may be, it is also always terrifying. For such music overwhelms us, and towers above us. We find ourselves at its mercy, and powerless in its face. The music will take us wherever it wants us to go, and even if that's for the moment a place of beauty and benediction, it could always in the next moment turn into a place of devastation and despair.

    Which brings us to what I love most about this music, which is how it embraces this duality, juxtaposing moments of grace with moments of terror and, in many instances, weaving the two together into one. An angelic vocal melody is surrounded by a chorus of demonic howls. A piano's soft chord progression is laid on top of a harsh pulsating drone off in the infernal depths of the low end. Lyrics meant to inspire faith are placed alongside lyrics meant to induce fear. It's deeply unsettling, and utterly transfixing. It fills us with wonder at the same time it fills us with dread.

    This is what the otherworldly truly feels like, simultaneously drawing us in and driving us away. It's the sound of the Lord who giveth and also taketh away. It's the sound of so much organized religion, which traffics in equal parts redemption and condemnation. It's the sound of any greater power, which offers the promise of salvation with one hand and, thereby, threatens annihilation with the other.

    It's also the experience of beauty, which is never straightforwardly pleasant, but also always somewhat unnerving, a complicated flood of emotions, pregnant with possibility and brimming with anticipation. We never quite know all that awaits us, and so we find ourselves vulnerable, hoping for deliverance but bracing for the unknown. As Stendhal said, "beauty is only a promise of happiness", which is another way of saying, as Rilke did, that "beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror."

    What I love about this music is how it holds us here, in this state of ambivalent captivation. We are but its subjects, here to behold its awesome power. The only thing left for us to do – the only thing we can do – is submit.

    • 10 min
    010 :: WILLIE

    010 :: WILLIE

    FEATURING

    Songs by Willie Dunn, originally recorded and released in 1971 and reissued in 2021 on Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies from Light in the Attic Records.

    Listen: https://songwhip.com/williedunn/creation-never-sleeps-creation-never-dies-the-willie-dunn-anthology
    Buy direct: https://williedunn.bandcamp.com/album/creation-never-sleeps-creation-never-dies-the-willie-dunn-anthology

    TRANSCRIPT

    This is not my story to tell. The story is the singer's, and it's right there in these songs. It's a story of colonization, and a story of resistance. It's the story of an Indigenous Canadian folk singer, singing to the nation and never being heard.

    I'd prefer not to speak over this song. I'd prefer just to let you listen, to this singer and their words. But seeing as this is a show built upon the premise of me speaking over music, I will proceed, and tell you that what I love most about this song is how unsparing, and yet matter-of-fact, it is. Lyrically, the song is a catalogue of the sins and hypocrisies of the settler state: its lies, its greed, its acts of violence. But musically, the song is an unassuming folk ballad: soft spoken, slow moving, lightly plucked, pleasant, even, and most of all, calm. It's not the accompaniment you'd expect for a text so full of righteous condemnation. But as I've listened to this song over and over again, it has come to seem perfectly fitting. For the views it expresses are not just the singer's personal opinion or subjective experience. They are fact – the facts of settler colonialism, the facts of what it means to be Indigenous in this country. And facts don't need an emotional presentation; they just need to be said. And that's precisely what this song does. If the singer sounds dispassionate, that's because they're telling the truth.

    Still, you might think that some anger would do some good for the message – make it more apparent, less easy to disregard. But why see this as the song's problem and not, rather, the listener's? As if the burden were always on the oppressed to catch the oppressor's attention, and never on the oppressor to pay attention in the first place. And so I hear in this song's delivery also an act of protest, the singer's refusal to sing on the other side's terms. The facts are laid bare, for all to see. If some do not listen, that is on them.

    Most, of course, did not listen. We know because these songs were written and recorded five decades ago, and yet their singer remains in relative obscurity, and the political realities they describe remain sadly and remarkably unchanged – which gives these songs a tragic timelessness, even when they couldn't be more historically specific.

    Take, for instance, this song, which tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, a twelve-year-old Ojibwe boy who ran away from the school he was forced to attend, only to die one week later of exposure on the long walk home. In the most direct and obvious sense, this song is an elegy for this cruel and needless death. Yet in its quiet and measured sorrow, the song also keeps vigil for all the other lives lost and shattered by the residential school system, and also, to my ears, somehow reaches into the future and expresses grief for all the tragedies yet to come. For the fact that it would be another twenty-five years until the country's last residential school shut its doors. For the fact that this year, twenty-five years after that, the discovery of 1,397 residential school gravesites was met by this country with shock and, then, inaction. For the fact that to this day we still speak of "Seven Fallen Feathers" and the "Missing and...

    • 8 min
    009 :: SUNSHOWER

    009 :: SUNSHOWER

    FEATURING

    "Kusuri o Takusan" (くすりをたくさん) by Taeko Onuki (大貫 妙子), from Sunshower, released by PANAM in 1977.

    Listen: https://songwhip.com/taeko-onuki/kusuri-o-takusan

    TRANSCRIPT

    The wonderful thing about pop music is that, when it works, it just works. You don't have to think about it. It just makes you feel good. Like a warm summer breeze, or soft ocean waves, you just let the sound wash over you and take that feeling in.

    I can't say what it is about this song. All I know is that every time I hear it I feel an immediate pleasure, as if the song has cast a spell and worked some soothing magic over me. Everything about it is just so carefree: the buoyancy of the singer's vocals, the ease with which the melody floats over the harmonic landscape, the punchy electric piano and funky jazz guitar, and oh, those flutes.

    And sure, there's a commercial slickness here. Sure, this song sort of sounds like it was written for a department store sound system. But there's also all these little uncanny touches, like the cowbell here rattling off in the background. Nothing's ever quite what you'd expect. And that's what's so refreshing about it.

    If this is easy listening, then I say, let me ease into it and let everything else fall away.

    Music so often moves us by making us feel an emotion vicariously: the love or anger or heartbreak expressed by the singer. But this music moves us by making us feel an emotion directly: not reminding us of joy, but filling us up with it. It almost feels like that's the point of this song: just to be pleasant, and to make us feel pleasure. And while this may not seem particularly deep, it does make me wonder, what more do I really ever want out of music?

    At this point, unless you speak Japanese, you might be wondering what this singer could possibly be singing about. From how it sounds, you might expect to find lyrics about sunshine, or happiness, or hope. But as it turns out, this is actually a song about prescription drugs, and not subtly so: Its refrain is "Kusuri o takusan" (薬をたくさん), or "lots of medicine", and its lyrics are an ode to the piles of pills that doctors push and patients pop, in our societal obsession with medicating all our anxieties away.

    And so, uncannily enough, this song is lyrically about the very thing it sonically represents: our attraction, and even addiction, to easy euphoric feelings. And maybe that should make us think twice about its breezy groove, but for my part, I just want to keep taking it in. The singer says it best: "Tonikaku kusuri ga ichiban yo" (とにかく薬が一番よ) / "Anyway, medicine is the best".

    • 6 min
    008 :: IGNORANCE

    008 :: IGNORANCE

    FEATURING

    "Robber" by The Weather Station, from Ignorance, released by Next Door Records in 2021.

    Listen: https://songwhip.com/the-weather-station/robber2021
    Buy direct: https://theweatherstation.bandcamp.com/album/ignorance

    TRANSCRIPT

    A folk singer is a singer with something to say. And although this singer hasn't yet spoken a word, the music is already saying so much. We can hear it in the halting rhythm of the drums, the aimless harmony of the saxophone, the punctuated melody of the strings, and the occasional accompaniment of the piano. It's the sound of hesitancy, of tentative exploration, a fitting soundtrack for what's to come — for this song, and indeed this entire record, is a folk singer confronting how little they know, how little we all know, and how difficult it is to communicate anything to anyone.

    Not that any of this is obvious on a first listen. The song's refrain – "I never believed in the robber" — is an enigmatic phrase, which might be heard as defensive or boastful or insistent or exculpatory. Yet as the song goes on, it becomes clear that the singer is in fact recapitulating their own past ignorance, documenting how they were able to delude themselves and deny what was always in front of their eyes. And as the song goes on further, it becomes clear that the singer is recounting not just their past ignorance but ours too, which is why in the second verse they switch from the first to the second person, the refrain now becoming "You never believed in the robber".

    But the point of this song is not to chronicle some cheery epistemic conversion and to celebrate how we all know better now. Rather, the song persists in its retrospective mode, only ever looking back on the past, only ever reporting what wasn't believed, and why and how it wasn't believed. The song holds us here because it wants us to see ignorance not simply as an absence of knowledge but as a refusal of it, an active state of resistance to the truth which requires the construction and maintenance of an entire mental and social edifice to buttress our false beliefs. This is how ignorance works, how it perpetuates itself, and how it becomes the default and the norm.

    At this point you might be wondering, So who is this "robber", anyway? It is, admittedly, a capacious metaphor, which might be taken to refer to the rapacious forces of settler colonialism or late-stage capitalism or hegemonic masculinity or environmental extractivism. But at bottom, the robber is a stand-in for all the oppressive forces in our world, which as part of their oppression hide themselves from view and give us ways to not see their effects or believe in their very existence. To never believe in the robber is precisely what the robber wants us to do.

    This, at any rate, is what I hear in the singer's words. But it is to the singer's credit that they never actually say any of this. They are not here to tell us the truth about the robber; after all, if they did, how could they ever expect to be believed? The singer knows how the robber gets in your head and distorts your beliefs and makes you refuse all evidence to the contrary. The singer knows that if you don't already believe in the robber, then this song is not going to be what changes your mind. The singer knows that just because you have something to say doesn't mean that anyone else will hear it. Because that is the robber's ultimate theft: to make the ignorant deaf and the soothsayers unintelligible and the truth a glancing melody drowned out amidst a sea of noise.

    • 7 min
    007 :: SOUND

    007 :: SOUND

    FEATURING

    Sound Ancestors by Madlib, arranged by Four Tet, released by Madlib Invazion in 2021.

    Listen: https://songwhip.com/madlib/sound-ancestors
    Buy direct: https://madlib.bandcamp.com/album/sound-ancestors

    TRANSCRIPT

    What's the point of music? What's a musician striving to do? The simplest answer, which holds true much of the time, is that music is about the expression and conveyance of emotion, the translation of private, ineffable feelings into a public, sonic medium where others can feel them too. But this is not all that music can be. Sometimes, music is just about revelling in the joy of sound. Sometimes, the medium is not a means but an end. Sometimes, all the musician wants is for us to listen, to hear what they hear, and to be, like them, enthralled.

    Listen to the crunchiness of that bassline, the crispness of those snare hits, the tenacity of this groove. And now listen to something completely different: the steady jingle of the bells, the syncopation of the bass and the kick drum, the soulful crooning in the background, that funky harp-like arpeggio. There's just so much to love here on a purely sonic level, and that's precisely the point.

    Now is probably a good time to point out, for those who don't realize, that the musician behind this record is a DJ, and that this music is an assemblage of samples — bits of sound that caught the artist's attention, fitted together so as to catch ours. In other words, before this music could exist it had to be discovered, and much of its excitement lies in simply hearing everything the artist has found. Because the artist here is a master listener, and what we're being treated to is a performance by someone who hears the world better than we do — who looks where we wouldn't think to look, notices what might escape our notice, and can bring all these sounds into focus so that we can perceive them too.

    In this way, the DJ reminds me of a photographer, walking the streets, camera slung around their neck, ever on the lookout for that decisive moment, where there is, however briefly, something uncommon and marvelous to see. A photograph, if it's a good one, brings the world into view, capturing, yes, what was already there, but in such a way that it becomes more potent, more pregnant, more visible. In photography we are able to glimpse the world through the photographer's discerning eye, and thus learn better how to look, just as in this music we are able to hear the world through the DJ's discerning ear, and thus learn better how to listen.

    But actually, it is not only the DJ's discerning ear that is here on display. For this record is in fact the work of two musicians, one acting as DJ and the other as producer, or, as I prefer to think of it, one acting as artist and the other as curator. What we're hearing, more precisely, is one DJ listening to another and honing the other's vision, magnifying what's best and intensifying what's most powerful in their music. Through this, what might've been a mere collection of first-rate photographs is transformed into an first-rate exhibition, which shows us not only how to listen to the world but also how to listen to this music.

    And like any good exhibition, this record is more than the sum of its parts. As gemlike as each track is on its own, there's a special brilliance that appears when we hear them all together, as we notice the eclectic range of soundscapes and the ecumenical use of genre across the record. We start to see that behind this music is an expansive and capacious sensibility, so devoted to sound itself that it recognizes none of our conventional boundaries. And we begin to appreciate that this music is asking us to share its vision: to broaden our own sensibilities,...

    • 11 min
    006 :: WUDDAJI

    006 :: WUDDAJI

    FEATURING

    Wuddaji by Theo Parrish, released by Sound Signature in 2020.

    Listen: https://songwhip.com/theo-parrish/wuddaji
    Buy direct: https://soundsignature.net/product/theo-parrish-wuddaji

    TRANSCRIPT

    Nothing about this should work. At any given moment it feels like the whole thing could fall to pieces. So let's start by just appreciating the fact that this music not only does manage to hang together, but that it grooves.

    Take, for example, this song's main loop, a jazzy, jittering melody played on electric piano. The phrase has a clear enough hook, but surrounding this hook is a tempest of other notes that set the phrase off kilter, destabilizing it both harmonically and rhythmically, to the point that it almost sounds like it's glitching, on the verge of breaking down, before it recovers and returns to its recognizable refrain.

    And that's just what's happening within the main loop. For surrounding it is a tempest of other sounds that further destabilize this loop yet somehow also simultaneously ground it. Undulating synths shimmer in and out of existence; a kick drum periodically pounds its way to a downbeat; a slap bass meanders across the low-end; and a layer of buzzy static sits on top of it all. Like a crackling fire, the song continuously bursts with energy while also always seeming on the brink of collapse.

    Nothing about this should work. And yet, we groove along all the same. Naturally and automatically, our minds start to hum the glancing melody, our bodies start to move in step with the throbbing beat. It's uncanny, how easily we resonate with this music, though perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it's uncommon to hear dance music that possesses so much soul. The song breathes, heaves, pants, and wheezes. It's dancing with itself, as we dance along with it.

    It's not just this one song, either. The entire record exists in this liminal state, standing right on the edge of harmonic and rhythmic cohesion, ever on the verge of toppling over but always just barely maintaining its balance. Each song is like a spiderweb or a ship in a bottle, an object that seems like it shouldn't be able to exist in this world, an intricate and delicate construction that appears to defy the natural laws to which we all are subject. To listen to this music is to marvel at all the different pieces suspended in time, moving together in an unlikely choreography to create something that feels utterly grounded and yet also seems to float on air.

    I can only think to describe this music as magic. And like magic, its aim is to entrance — to command our entire attention, and yet ever elude its grasp. But like magic, the point is not to figure out how it works its trick, but simply to go along with its sleight of hand, to exist for a moment in this state of wonder, to immerse ourselves in this impossible world, and to temporarily feel as weightless as this music itself.

    • 8 min

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