Monday, May 04, 2009
Mountains Come Out of the Sky
I love the "Shuffle" feature on the iPod. Mostly I love it on my own Pod because it reminds me that I possess such amazingly excellent and eclectic taste in music. But also, it forces me to explore bits and pieces of my collection that I rarely visit. This morning, on my way to deposit the family's recycling at the town collection center, "Shuffle" upturned what I think might have been the very first music I ever downloaded from the Net: one single huge MP3 file that contained the entire Yes album "Fragile."
I decided to let it play, see what developed. This would be my first listen since approximately 2000, and my second since I was about 20.
I developed an onus against Yes (and pretty much all prog-rock) in my late teens. At the time, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Graham Parker, and post-punk songwriters had inculcated into my head that a "proper" song goes verse/chorus, verse/chorus, middle eight, verse/chorus and get the fuck out. Three minutes, tops. If a guitar solo followed the middle eight, it must be precisely eight bars long, and restate the melody in some coherent way, or you're wanking.
(I still have very little problem with this formula. Worked for Buddy Holly, works for me.)
So this Yes thing was an interesting challenge. Was I going to be able to forgive my slobbering teenaged fan-boy self, who thought that the longer a guitar solo was, the more "meaning" it had? Especially if the guitarist had what Zappa called the "blow-job" look on his face (i.e., the more I look really concerned that this 72-bar solo I'm engaged in will change lives and embetter the world, the more likely I am to receive a grateful blow-job from a willing female audience member after the gig).
I found myself in a state of doubt and fear during the first track, "Roundabout." I was once again, after a spell of many years, quite floored by it. There's so much movement in the accompaniment, so much tension and release, so much drama in the architecture. How had I been so misled? How had my Punk Purity buttons been so badly pushed in my late teens? This stuff rocks hard!
Steve Howe's guitar is so delicious. It actually sounds like a guitar plugged into an amp in a room somewhere. It evinces a quality so badly missing in modern recordings: the actual dynamics of a plectrum hitting a string fingered by a very good musician. There are tiny errors in the playing, eensy-weensie little fluctuations in tone, like he just barely mis-hit a certain note -- but these only serve to emphasize that an actual human being is playing the instrument -- and doing it very, very well. His tone -- a tiny bit of overdrive, allowing for lots and lots of pure chewy guitaristic deliciousness -- is clearly the product of a man gloriously, regally, on top of his instrument. The dude in his heyday could shred, and his playing is so arrestingly precise, every note painstakingly sounded, fretted perfectly, like a fine needlepoint embroidery. Bill Bruford's drumming is nonpareil in its precision, clarity, simplicity. Chris Squire's (admittedly busy) bass, likewise, sounds so completely un-processed, so natural, so organic, that you just want to take it home and frame it and put it up on your wall: This is what reality sounds like.
"Roundabout" ended -- on a Picardy third, no less! I'd forgotten that detail! How yummy is that?
So why the hell did I take such a punky antipathy to these guys? Why? Why?
The second cut cued up.
Now I remember. "Cans and Brahms (Extracts from Brahms' 4th Symphony in E Minor, Third Movement)" (Brahms, arranged Wakeman).
Because Rick Wakeman, that's why.
Afterthought: Jesus, look at me. Hobbits and Yes. I'm thirteen again.