too much typing—since 2003


Stumbling white elephants, or nonpareil elegance?

Last Sunday, we drove to Madison to celebrate my sister's and brother's birthdays (they were born six years and one day apart), and as we usually do, loaded up a couple of CDs to make the utterly boring (but short) stretch of I-94 a bit more interesting. Jenny Toomey's CD of Franklin Bruno's songs (Tempting) was directly followed by the first installment of the Robert Pollard/Tobin Sprout collaboration Airport 5 (Tower in the Fountain of Sparks), and the juxtaposition revealed the artists' very different approach to pop song construction, and how those approaches affect the way listeners react to those songs.

Bruno, of course, is a classicist in terms of popular song construction, and the joy of his work is largely the way he rings changes on the sort of pop-song structure that's nearly encoded in our DNA. In his case, much of that pleasure arises from the cleverness of his lyric-writing - in that field, he's almost without parallel: I'd pay to see a rhyme-off between him and Stephen Sondheim - including his play with the plasticity of word-endings when heard as opposed to read. Take the title of Bruno's most recent album, A Cat May Look at a Queen. Hear the rhyme in it? You will when you hear Bruno sing it. Or (back to the Toomey set), consider the way "diamond" is rhymed with "time and time again" on one song here: not obvious on the page, but out loud, particularly when sung, it's a perfect fit.

Contrasting with Bruno's sense of song structure, the Airport 5 CD, for which Sprout wrote the music and Pollard the lyrics, finds Sprout altering his usual pop-song habits in deference to or anticipation of Pollard's more elliptical approach. As is the case with any number of Guided by Voices songs, these tracks do not necessarily proceed in orderly parade from verse to chorus to verse then over the bridge to verse and chorus again.

Here, the pleasure (or, for some listeners, no doubt the frustration) lies in the unexpected: the songs are close enough to the pop-song template to arouse its expectations, but their deferral and sometimes outright thwarting gives them a very different affect compared to the satisfaction brought forth by Bruno's classic structures. What's most fascinating is how potent a mode of time alteration Airport 5's more fanciful structures can be. One song distends the present, forestalling the expected forward motion, by presenting verse after verse after verse, while another fades unexpectedly in the first chorus, rocketing us forward. Still another suspends us, with two different passages competing as to which is the chorus and which a repeated bridge. For me, these time alterations are a key to the emotional character of Pollard's songwriting (as I said, even though Tobin Sprout wrote and performed the music here, he's writing in more of a Robert Pollard-like vein than his solo work or even his songs with GBV), since different emotional states also alter our sense of time. The songs reproduce or at least approximate that plasticity of experienced time, and so evoke the emotional experiences associted with that plasticity.

For some listeners, I suppose, emotional frustration arises from a lack of felt wholeness - and in conventional terms, many of these songs aren't whole (some of them are more than whole, actually, in that they contain more parts than a typical pop song structure can accommodate). It's Pollard's tendency to play games with song structure that causes so many critics to describe his songs as "fragmented": they're fragmented only if one assumes songs must have a particular structure. And of course, if you alter that structure, your song might seem fragmented, less than whole...even if it's four minutes long - whereas a traditionally structured song that says its piece in a mere minute feels complete, unified, and not fragmented (I'm thinking of many of the songs on The Residents' Commercial Album)...despite being one-fourth the size of the oddly proportioned track.

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