too much typing—since 2003


Who's the DJ for MC Escher?

Normally I have no problem hearing various instances of rhythmic trickiness. Do your whole song in 13/8, and I'll get it. Toss in a bar of 3/4, and I won't be sitting there clapping on the wrong beats like a Republican for three and half measures. This is probably a product of my prog-rock teens, such that even the truly devilish metrical tricks going on in, say, the middle section of Yes' "Gates of Delirium" (the repeating riff is one bar of a very fast 11/8, alternating with a bar of 10/8; the staggery bit that goes bam-bam, bam-bam, bam-bam-bam is a bar each of 5/8, 6/8, and 9/8) give me little pause.

However, every once in a while a song comes along that, although simple on the surface, I just plain get confused by. Basically, it seems that I hear the "one" in the wrong place in the verses, and then get set straight by the chorus. I can think of three songs I hear this way: Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love," XTC's "That Is the Way," and Dali's Car's "Dali's Car" (speaking of songs with the same names as bands). It's possible, I suppose, that in fact the songs drop in a bar of 7/8 before the chorus and one of 9/8 afterwards - but pretty unlikely.

It's like one of those Necker cubes, although in this case I have a hard time switching back and forth, probably because I've heard these songs "wrong" for so long. The XTC track, for instance, sounds rather square and four-to-the-floor putting the one on the last note of the bass riff - a rhythmic scheme suggested both by the disco thump of the chorus and the variation on the dum-dum-dummmm rhythm in the bits between the choruses and verses. In that arrangement, Terry Chambers' drum accent provides about the only rhythmic variety, falling in between beats two and three. But damned if I hear it that way: I hear it falling squarely on two, with the one falling on the blank space immediately after that dum-dum-dummmm - as if it's some sort of mutant reggae rhythm (something XTC were no strangers to, of course), or a distant cousin of the push-pull feel of Led Zeppelin's "Dancing Days." I suppose one could argue that the square, plodding feel generated by putting heavy accents on one and three would fit the song's lyrics about stultifying conformity - but my ears just can't hear it.

Dalis Car (they spell it sans apostrophe, although I suspect that's more graphic design than some secret, occult preference) is a bit trickier, if only because the whole shape of the arrangement seems designed to throw off cozy assumptions, both rhythmically and texturally. Mick Karn's bass is made entirely of rubber, I'm sure, and he madly bounces between octaves - while the instrumental texture presents duelling bass clarinets, one per stereo channel, and a synth flute line that builds in a microtonal dip at the end as key melodic information. So yeah, these guys may well have written it with odd-metered bars bracing the chorus. Or I just have weird ears.

Perhaps some day medical science will find a cure for this debilitating illness. Until then, I simply won't be receiving any job offers from James Brown.

XTC "That Is the Way"
Dalis Car "Dalis Car"

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