Saturday, January 29, 2011

Aloft On a Wire

(see my note at the end on the player gadgets you'll see...)
In my endless catchup on New Yorker issues, I got to an article on one Marnie Stern, who is one of the later in the line of guitar "finger tappers" that begins somewhere in the vicinity of Eddie van Halen. I got partway through the article, hit YouTube for a a couple of samples of her sound, and concluded anew that I'm just not likely to be excited about it. An age thing? Maybe; I started thinking about the whole guitar-obsessed period around 1970, and what I suspect is related frequent eye-rolling among the younger set, the eyerolling accompanied by a comment like "not another guitar lead..."

But then I thought about the lineage of what was a particular fascination of that time, glissandos and vibratos, and specifically those related to string tension changes, or string pulls. Those elements were (and remain) a delightful part of that music, and part of the reason is the signature nature of the particular style elements, as distinctive as the Bono wail or the Waits growl.

Back near the beginning, most of the movers and shakers in question obsessed at some point or another on Robert Johnson, who in just a few notes
upped the stock on self-pity for generations. For those whose musical world view was altered by "Come On In My Kitchen", or "Preachin' Blues", or something else by Johnson, the need to get that feeling was paramount. No matter that it mostly didn't involve pitch changes by tension changes, but rather bottlenecking - it was the groove of choice.

The tension change begins to come of age with the advent of B.B. King and his choked string pull, instantly recognizable then and now - it was as supple as Johnson - but electric, that would rate a wow in context. And that wow was what engendered, inevitably, the Clapton Wail, only slightly less recognizable. By Clapton, everyone wanted a trademark, it seems, something that would make a casual listener to, say, a somewhat forgettable Delaney and Bonnie album say, oh yeah, he's on that track too.

And then there's the Thompson bagpipe wiggle, and the Cipollina vibrato, check out the Ravel-tinged "Calvary" segment from Happy Trails, uh,oh, sorry about that drool...

But certainly one of my favorites is the Kaukonen drop glissando, which sprung full-formed into life a few months after Surrealistic Pillow, where it was not in evidence at all, to become one of the many interesting facets of the landmark After Bathing At Baxter's release. In the matter of the appearance of this ornament, it's only a small piece of what makes the instrumental "Spare Chaynge" a much more businesslike musical acid trip - it knows where it wants to go, and the percussive bass, ridiculously extended feedback, and interesting picking patterns add just enough to that ornament - and the battered biplane seems to make a perfect three-point landing over forty years after first leaving the hangar.

Note on player gadgets in the text: My apologies if they don't do what you'd like, which is open a translucent popup and just start playing - which is what they might do if you happen to run Firefox, for instance. But on Win7 IE or Chrome or who knows what other combinations, you're as likely to see that beige bar appear asking for approval, or the translucent player will say "buffering" and eventually play something else on the site (like maybe our first FAWM song "Wasting") ... well, I can only say this technology is still coming of age. You can try right clicking on the gadget and selecting Open in New Tab, which will throw it to whatever you have as your default player (Winamp for me on one machine), or if you're really disgusted, just Save Link. - sk

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