Friday, November 11, 2005

Head Games

So there I was, a few days ago, raking leaves and listening on my Walkman to Gal Costa's 1969 album (one of two eponymous releases from that year, confusingly enough). Now, if you're not familiar with Ms. Costa, you need to know that she was one of the major forces in the Tropicalia movement (and has continued to release music of varying styles and quality ever since--as always, Joe Sixpack's Slipcue site has a great intro/discography). I've heard her described as the Janis Joplin of Brazil, which is only useful, as far as I can tell, as an indicator of her energy level and perhaps her standing in her home country during the sixties. But trust me, Janis never recorded anything anywhere near as wild as this album. I doubt that many people on any continent have: the songs shift from pop-py Burt Bacharach-style arrangements to ear-shattering screaming, guitar feedback, distortion, reverb, you name it, usually in midsong. I'd say the album art does a fairly good job of conveying the general atmosphere:

Take Zeppelin, Hendrix, and Yoko Ono, lock them in a room with a large amount of hallucinogens, and then soak the resulting master tapes in acid, and you've got the basic idea. You sort of have to be in the right mood to listen to this thing (and when you are, it's the perfect thing). Needless to say, I haven't been in that mood very often lately, but leaf-raking--a task I hate--felt like a good time to listen again. Plus I've been on a real Brazilian psychedelia kick, spurred on by my recent discovery of Secos & Molhados (more on them later), which also led to a closer listen to Os Mutantes (ditto), and Gal seemed like just the ticket.

I got to song three on the album, "Meu Nome É Gal" ("My Name is Gal"), and witnessed the moment where she starts wailing in this totally gutteral, Diamandas Galas-style voice over a fairly accessible pop-funk string and horn section; from there, it was on to track four, "Com Médo, Com Pedro," which brings in the echo chamber and more crazy shrieks. Then things started to get really bizarre--even farther out there than I remembered. Dear lord, I thought, she's doing all this amazing stuff with dub effects and changing the speed of the tape, even slowing it down to total inaudibility--it's incredible! And it just kept going and going and going, getting more metallic, almost painful even, as time went on.

After about fifteen minutes of this, it dawned on me that maybe there was something wrong with the Walkman. Lo and behold, that was exactly the case; even a Debbie Boone album would have sounded like Lee "Scratch" Perry had gotten his corrosive mitts on it under these conditions.

The scenario reminded me of the night I played a new Radiohead 45 (a bonus with my copy of Hail to the Thief) for the first time and marvelled at the utterly outrageous experimentation those boys were up to: the melody buried under layers of sonic fuzz, the pitch distorted wildly, and so on. A brilliant assault on bourgeois convention! It took me at least five minutes to realize that
a) there really was a layer of actual fuzz on the needle, and
b) I was playing the 45 at 33 rpm.
When I heard it the way it was recorded, it was a real letdown. I mean, how conventional can you get?

On another occasion, I walked into a hipster coworker's office to find out what cool underground noise band he was playing, only to find out he was vacuuming the carpet. (Even so, I would love to have a copy of that sound--it was fantastic!)

So, yes, it is possible that I have been ever so slightly damaged by art, and maybe I take John Cage just a wee bit too literally with that whole anything-goes aesthetic. If it's any consolation, I get misty when I think about Seals & Crofts and Loggins & Messina, and even though we all know John was the best Beatle, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Wings. So please, please, do not write me off as a total avant-garde aesthete. I just appreciate a well-tuned vacuum cleaner and/or broken tape player every now and then; what right-thinking person doesn't?

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