Pop Apocalypse

Through the thoughtfulness of dotdotdotmusic and the people at New Amsterdam, I have two worthwhile recordings to listen to, and write about. But first, a question; how do you prepare for the apocalypse?

This is not the idle speculation of a dilettante or a crazy person. The last seven years have seen the might of this country turned towards the purpose of creating creating and spreading chaos and insanity around the globe, down to the level of the individual – and for no other comprehensive reason (as in a demonstrated connection between means and ends) because it can. And those who approve of this direction most fervently see the upcoming election as one in which there is only one right outcome, and anything else would be the result of the (almost literally) dark forces of supernatural conspiracy. Why would people be in favor of such chaos, such violence? I can only think the answer is that they seek the apocalypse, assured as they are that paradise awaits them. I’m not so sure. I think it will be more like” Southland Tales.” After all, California is the future.

This chaos and violence, seeking it, promoting it, approving of it, the whole is completely immoral, unethical, without values, despite the smug self-assurance of many people. While entropy is the inevitable final state of existence, how does anyone with ethics and morals work towards order in the midst of this chaos over the short-term? By creating something – music, perhaps.

There has been a particular style of music coalescing these past few years – it has no name, it’s not an identifiable genre or subgenre . . . at least not yet. It’s very much a new flavor, but is built on some goals of the past that never quite succeeded. It’s a synthesis of pop/rock and classical music, but not like the Third Stream jazz of the 1950s, or more recent Art Rock groups; it’s contemporary in every respect, in that contemporary classical music is often heavily tinged with the legacy of rock music, including an emphasis on the audible beat, pattern-based forms and an interest in a little thrashing. The driving force behind this has been the Bang on A Can organization, and their label has a recording that, although unlike the style of David Lang, Michael Gordon or Julia Wolfe, exemplifies the particular style I’m exploring in this post: the astonishing, magnificent “Zippo Songs,” from Phil Kline. The cool, beautiful surface of the music encapsulates a particular madness within, the direct words of war and chaos, including Three Rumsfeld Songs, a set of unselfconscious absurdist ravings taken directly from press conferences. This is not insane music, it is actually involving, powerful, masterful music that disarms chaos by seeing and reflecting it clearly.

Add to that Corey Dargel’s “Other People’s Love Songs” and William Brittelle’s “Mohair Time Warp.” The latter is most explicitly a representation of chaos and insanity, and I mean this in a good way. Lyrics as abstract as Cecil Taylor’s poetry:

hey panda hey panda oh
the falcon and the sunbeam
she was my girlfriend
now it’s all over town
where is my field of fire the hum of
fluorescent lights
joseph beuys who is this guy
the atrium looms I’m in a chartreuse jungle
where cigarettes taste like nightmares
dem jeans dem jeans

Abstract, but with enough pop culture signifiers to keep the listener grounded in some sense of reality. The music is scored for chamber ensemble and is tightly set both to the lyrics and to extremely quick juxtapositions of style and quality; it owes a debt to Carl Stalling and Frank Zappa, and is more coherently organized than John Zorn’s hyperkinetic game systems – it’s all about the songs. The effect is not as extreme as this description may imply, it’s actually an exhilarating blend of absurdity, exuberance and musicianship. Take a look:

Brittelle is smiling through the apocalypse – the smile that comes from taking it’s measure and knowing he has nothing to fear. The music has that same confidence in the face of absurdity, it faces chaos and demolishes it on its own turf, by making it friendly, charming, sociable, cutting it down to size. It is smart without being just clever, good humored and invigorating. It’s also a nicely compact disc, not overly long, which is ideal, because as fascinating and enjoyable as the music is, there is something a little exhausting about trying to follow the twists and turns of the lyrics, like the fun of being on a roller-coaster.

Corey Dargel’s disc is as welcome in dealing with the absurd, and is something special. It’s completely self-made and produced – Dargel makes use of technology to handle all the chores, in his own way like The The. He sings with a sweetly nasal tenor voice in satisfying, logical four-square musical phrases, reminiscent of Morrissey’s style, but more confident and tuneful. And what he sings are the most transparently personal, elusive, charming songs this side of The Magnetic Fields. Every song seems to capture a different facet of a complex, adult, human emotion, that particular combination of regret for how things could have been yet satisfaction with how they came to be that is so much like the stimulating, comforting pain of pressing against a loose tooth with your tongue, something that for most adults is itself a lost memory of regret and satisfaction at the same time. He sings:

berkeley, california
is really only in your head
it’s only berkeley, california as you imagine it
so don’t say i didn’t warn you
when you lie awake in bed
wondering why i’m not a little more compassionate

. . . because it’s not how you imagined it would be, but there will be a way to make it better:

don’t spend any time
thinking of me love
it’s really only best that i’m no longer perceived
please find someone else
or something else to think of
i’ll be thoroughly grateful and relieved

There’s a lot of pop music about love and loss and regret, very little about people being decent to each other even as things don’t work out. Dargel’s songs are about that. And he’s funny too:

no harmonic progression
leaves as lasting an impression
as looking into his brown eyes
all other saxophone solos
are woefully lacking in mojo
those other guys can’t really improvise

(all other sounds)

The premise of the disc is that he is singing love songs meant to be from one third party to another, they are not really his. Rather than making it some artificial exercise, it adds to the sincerity and gentle absurdity. This reaches it’s height on “summer of love:”

it was nineteen sixty seven
the summer of love was upon us
the doors and jefferson airplane
excellent sex and decent marijuana . . .

they say you can no longer find
any romantic men
at stanford law school
falling in love is not recommended
and they’ve even stopped bussing the mills girls in
it’s a good thing we left when we did
’cause our summer of love never ended

The homemade aspect of the record adds to its pleasure. Dargel lays down electronic tracks, and they are quirky and off-kilter, eccentric accompaniments that give an experimental and interior aspect to the songs – there’s the sensation that we are listening to Dargel listening to himself in his own head. It draws us in. The music is not pop per se, the combination of pop sensibility in the vocals makes this a record of pop art songs. “other people’s love songs” is a refuge from from chaos. Rather than reaping chaos like Brittelle, Dargel shows that with the simplest of tools, essentially sincerity and gentleness, we can inoculate ourselves against that stain; knowing what works, what is good and what we value means that nonsense and ugliness in thought and feeling can’t influence us. This is a record that gives more pleasure with each listen.

But what do we call this music? It doesn’t matter and it matters – calling it something, anything, doesn’t change the quality of the music, but giving it a label makes it easier to share it with others. The more I listen to and think about it, the more I think of the great soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, who pioneered a successful synthesis of jazz and the classical Art Song. Klein, Brittelle and Dargel are doing the same thing, I think, but instead of jazz they are bring different flavors of rock and pop music together with the techniques and sensibilities of contemporary classical music. There’s a growing and fruitful point where these two paths are meeting and produce stuff that is truly new. Listen to these records, all of them, and think about what they are. What would I call them? Songs for the apocalypse is good enough for me.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.


Comments are closed.