Sunday, January 22, 2012


Mark Richardson's latest Resonant Frequency column is his usual mix of self-reflection and cultural insight. His description of "Flim,"* which I have to agree is a pretty fantastic song, is particularly nice:
[E]ach little pause, hesitation, and stutter is so perfectly placed, and . . . the drums plant ideas in my head about innocence, awkwardness, burgeoning confidence, and growth. . . . I picture myself sitting across from Richard James in his bedroom as he works over this material on his computer. It's an illusion, of course, but I like to imagine that I'm hearing what James was hearing at that moment, that the glass between us is completely transparent.
Part of what makes Richardson's columns such pleasures, though, is his talent as a writer for scenes that are so evocative of his subject matter--the relationship between memory, perception, music, and everyday life (his invisible music project is a really fascinating attempt to put those themes into practice). He has a doozy of a line to finish the second section of his most recent column: "All of these feelings are carried to me through the bass, so strong it's uncanny, like how the smell of a certain shampoo can instantly bring to mind a face you'd completely forgotten." The evanescent face that a smell conjures, the fleeting emotions that that note (right or wrong) calls forth, Richardson's one of the best at writing about those moments.

During his discussion of "Flim," Richardson linked to an earlier Resonant Frequency column in which he talked about "perfect songs." I'd thought about this idea for a long time, even before I read that column, how some songs that aren't my favourite songs are what I would consider to be perfect: nothing can be done to improve on these songs/performances of these songs. As Richardson puts it, "They cannot be improved; each has fulfilled its destiny and become everything it could hope to be." He lists a dozen such songs in his article, and I agree with several of them--"I Want You Back," "Crimson and Clover," "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough"--though I'm not sure if I'd put "Flim" down as my choice of a perfect song from the Aphex Twin. Reading these columns this morning (re)inspired me to surf through some videos on YouTube and poke around my music collection to consider what some of my perfect songs might be.

Aphex Twin - "Avril 14th," from Drukqs (2001)
It's simple and direct (sort of), without any of the flashy drum programming of "Flim," but Richard D. James found one of those magic chord progressions that makes your chest ache and that's more than enough in his hands. The final section is pure joy, the high notes leaping out and shining. The little details are what really make this special, though: the way the melody line in the first section gets doubled an octave higher, the surprisingly tricky syncopations in the middle that manage to avoid disturbing the elegance and grace of piece. I played it at a wedding once during the ceremony (long story) and it went over surprisingly well.

Bark Psychosis - "Eyes & Smiles," from Hex (1994)
The peak of one of the few albums I'm tempted to call perfect. Graham Sutton and co. absolutely nail the feel of three in the morning throughout the album (that one song opens with the line "It's 3 am..." can't be a coincidence), and there are several stretches that I just can't imagine anyone equaling, ever.  In eight and a half minutes, "Eyes & Smiles" piles all of the conflicting emotions of being awake and alone when surrounded by people on top of each other and shepherds them to a point of ecstatic desolation.

Boards of Canada - "Kid for Today," from the In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country EP (2000)
I remember finding the percussion on this song absolutely mystifying when I first heard it. What was the source of that click? Now that I know it's a slide projector--what could be more in line with their ethic, really?--some of the mystery is gone, but that only allows me to appreciate the combination of joy, innocence, melancholy, and menace all the more. Complex psychological portraits of childhood are tough--how can you avoid idealizing or overdetermining any aspect?--and I think that's why Boards of Canada's music is so enthralling: they get it all in their music, the good and the bad, somehow. 

Four Tet - "My Angel Rocks Back and Forth," from Rounds (2003)
Kieran Hebden has a knack for making beautiful music. He also has a striking ability to match sound with title (cf. "Circling" and "This Unfolds" from There is Love in You and "Ribbons" from the Ringer EP for more examples), as here the music does feel like it's gently rocking you back and forth. What's more, he's wise enough to get out of his own way when he has a good thing going, as he does here, letting the prettiest melody he's ever written spool and unspool itself for five minutes with minimal accompaniment. Some dusty percussion to give the track a little forward momentum and an unobtrusive background wash for added colour are all he needs to make something that could go on for years and ends at just the right time.

Kevin Shields - "Are You Awake?," from the Lost in Translation soundtrack (2003)
As rudimentary as the beat is on this piece, it works quite well as a kind of driving background that the bouncing, echo-drenched melody can play off of. Richardson actually reviewed this soundtrack for Pitchfork and faulted "Are You Awake?" for its brevity: "it's painfully short at a minute and a half. I get the sense that Shields is on the verge of tapping into something deeper here . . . but 'Are You Awake?' doesn't give much to go on." I think it's the perfect length; "Are You Awake?" gains much of its charm from seeming like a sketch that turned out to be the finished product. Shields has produced at least one other masterpiece post-Loveless (his "MBV Arkestra" remix of Primal Scream's "If They Move, Kill 'Em"), but "Are You Awake?" is what gives me hope that he really can top Loveless someday.

Stereolab - "Three Women," from Chemical Chords (2008)
I'm not unconvinced that this song won't make the sun spontaneously appear, and I would put it on this list even if it were just the horn chart. The added bonus of one of Laetitia Sadier's typically bouncing, playful melodies and a rhythm section that drives harder on this than on almost anything else they've recorded makes it almost unbearably great. I have had to forcibly stop myself from dancing down the street if this comes on my iPod while I'm walking somewhere on more than one occasion.

Tim Hecker - "Harmony in Blue III," from Harmony in Ultraviolet (2006)
Really, I could put the whole "Harmony in Blue" suite here, but there's something about those gentle clusters of notes that just cuts right through me (Fripp and Eno's The Equatorial Stars tried to do much the same thing on songs like "Meissa," I think, though they didn't accomplish it anywhere near as well). Like much of Hecker's music, this piece is profoundly ambiguous, it's emotional content straddling so many borders that you can't help but be drawn back in. I think even the least synaesthetic person when it comes to music can hear the blue in this.

So, those are seven of my perfect songs. What are some of yours?

*The disadvantage of YouTube videos (and I guess music videos generally, though that's a conversation for another day...): with the admittedly quite pretty and bucolic scenes that are included there, something of the grace and beauty of "Flim" is cheapened. The images are too direct and obvious, grasping at the feelings that emerge so naturally from the music (just like all the videos of Boards of Canada songs cut to footage from Planet Earth).

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