Temple of the Song (2008 forum)

What are the greatest songs? WHY?

Answers from the 9/19/08 Millsaps Forum


“Parchman Farm” by Cactus, says Ted Ammon, because: “With noted exceptions in the jazz/blues world, the dominant instrument of the blues is the guitar. It is rare therefore to encounter a blues song that is driven by the bass and drums, with the electric guitar playing a secondary role. But such is the case with Cactus’ version of the Mose Allison song ‘Parchman Farm.’ They heat it up and drive it home with a boogie bass line, overbearing drums and harmonica solo. The guitarist gets to do his thing, but his riffs are canned and clearly subordinate to the other instruments. The proper appellation for the Cactus version is ‘SMOKIN’!! The other noteworthy aspect of the Cactus version is the sneer in the singer’s voice. All he did was shoot his arm, pull his razor knife out; this is not the blues of a person resigned to the status quo; this is the blues of a person utterly contemptuous of the power structures. (P.S. Cactus frequently got into trouble back in the day [early 70s] and tended to whip crowds into frenzied denunciations of various laws. They were the hottest act on the road for about 8 months.)

Roy Orbison’s “Running Scared,” says Blake Couey, “as close to a perfect rock narrative as they come, particularly because of the combination of different instruments (especially the violins) and the use of volume to create a sense of drama.”

Annie Blakeney-Glazer thinks 1960s girl-group music is a great genre “because it is extremely accessible. The simplicity of the lyrical themes (love) and the predictability of the melodies (pop) make the songs seem universal.” The specimen she chooses is “That’s How It Goes” by the Breakaways, “in many ways indicative of the style and sound of 1960s girl groups, but with a few exceptions. Here are some defining features of the genre: (1) composed of girl vocalists, (2) lyrics mainly addressing young love, (3) recorded in a style popularized by Phil Spector called ‘Wall of Sound’ that relies on the use of multiple instruments (drums, guitar, bass guitar, keyboard, and often more exotic instruments like a xylophone) to create a rich and textured sound, (4) usually one lead singer and several back-up singers (not true of The Breakaways, though–all three singers sing lead), and (5) use of vocal harmony (again, not true of The Breakaways–they sing in unison.). Since The Breakaways spent most of their career as back-up singers, they became adept at using one microphone for all three of their voices. It is unclear whether ‘That’s How It Goes’ was recorded with one vocal track, but certainly The Breakaways demonstrate an ability to blend their three voices into one strong vocal line.”

Lloyd Bourne chooses “Cassandra Gemini” by the Mars Volta, because “they capture me with their complete lack of care about song conventions or the listener.”

Behind the snail secretion, leaves a dry heave that absorbs
A limbless procreation, let the infant crawled deformed
A bag replaced the breath of these suffocating sheets
And now when the craving calls
I’ll scratch my itchy teeth

That is a quote from “Cassandra Gemini,” a 32-minute-long song by the Mars Volta.

The Mars Volta came from the breakup of the post punk band At the Drive-In. The singer and one of the guitarists were becoming increasingly unhappy with how boxed in the music was, with no room for improvisation. Subseqently the singer, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, and the guitarist, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, left At the Drive-In and formed the Mars Volta. The name comes from the Greek god and from director Federico Fellini’s term volta which means a scene change. This is important because other than live improvisation, the Mars Volta draw most of their influence from movies that they like.

And when I say the Mars Volta I mean only Cedric and Omar. The liner notes of every album credit all the music to Omar and all the lyrics to Cedric, and Omar teaches his parts to the other band members before they record them. (There are six other members: a drummer, keyboardist, bassist, percussionist, flute/saxophone player, and sound manipulater who puts effects on Cedric’s vocals.)

This first clip is one of the first places my attention was piqued. The vocal effect is used not only for dramatic effect but also for character change. I love modernist music, and music that pushes my ideas of what music is, and this particular section changed many ideas I had about vocals, singer’s point of view, and what music is. Also I liked how creepy it sounded.

[Clip 1]

There was a frail syrup dripping off
His lap danced lapel, punctuated by her
Decrepit prowl she washed down the hatching
Gizzard soft as a mane of needles
His orifice icicles hemorrhaged
By combing her torso to a pile
Perspired the trophy shelves made room for his collapse
She was a mink handjob in sarcophagus heels

The Mars Volta is a band that writes concept albums and this one, Frances the Mute, has a very interesting story. The story stems from two events. One of the band members found a diary in the back of an old car in a junk yard and he showed it to the band. But the story is not directly taken from the diary; it is also taken from the death of the same band mate. His name was Jeremy Ward, and he died of a heroin overdose. So this album’s concept comes from the diary and the death of the two members’ longtime friend. (By the way: after he died, Cedric and Omar got clean, which is hard to tell after you hear some of the song samples.)

Here is the explication of the story that makes the most sense to me:
A woman is raped by a Catholic priest and she becomes pregnant. The act is witnessed by 24 other priests and the woman’s sister. To cover up the scandal the 25 priests blackmail them to not tell anyone. Soon she is nearing the end of the pregnancy and one of the priests cuts her open to kill the baby and her, but the she and child live. (The lyric from “Cygnus. . . Vismund Cygnus” is “an abortion that survived.”) The baby is eventually put up for adoption and later in life tries to find his roots. All the people he meets are the names of the songs on the album other than the first song named after him.

The widow
L’via l’viaquez
Miranda that ghost just isn’t holy anymore
Cassandra Gemini

For this clip keep in mind the lyrics; also notice the improvisation by the guitar and the keyboard; also notice the constant foundation made by the drums and bass. This is key to the Mars Volta in both their live show and their CDs. Omar wrote these parts with improvisation in mind so they could do whatever they want live. (By the way, some of their live shows have lasted 2 ½ hours with only three or four songs played.)

[2nd clip]

Some lyrics attest to this interpretation:

That night tore a river, in her baron womb mirror
And his multiple sons with their mandible tongues
Set crucified fires to petrified homes…let it burn

“The night” may refer to when he was cut out of his mother, and her womb is empty; the multiple sons may be the priests;
and the crucifixion may be an allusion to the Catholic church.

In this next clip the improvisation is even more prevalent in the second half. Some of the intrusiveness of the guitar solo can be seen as showing the guitarist’s anger; or he may be trying to create an atmosphere like in a movie; or he is just pretentious.

[3rd clip]

And the owls they were watching
And the owls didn’t care
Then the owls came a knocking, placenta in their stares
They will feed on all the carnage, leftover from the flood
And in the corner of their eyes, fled sister L’ Via

The imagery of birds is used throughout the album to symbolize the priests. “The owls came knocking with the placenta in their stares” is when they cut the baby out.

Eventually the main character Vismund Cygnus finds out that 25 priests knew his mother was raped and did nothing about it. So he becomes a transvestite prostitute and gives all of the 25 AIDS so they can die. This is suggested in the lyrics in the first clip I showed.

Perspired the trophy shelves made room for his collapse
She was a mink handjob in sarcophagus heels

This is obviously a sexual encounter between the main character and another person; according to the interpretation I think is most true, the “she” is the main character and the “he” is a priest.

The opening lyrics to the song are “I think I’ve become one of the others” which may be Vismund Cygnus realizing he has committed a crime just as bad as the priests and now he is one of them.

More evidence for the prostitution comes from the lyrics

Twenty five snakes pour out your eye
Yeah the icepicks cumming on the marble shrine
Twenty five snakes are drowning

The ice pick is a phallic symbol, the snakes are the disease, and the marble shrine may represent the priests or Catholicism in that many symbols of the church were cut into marble.

You may be thinking, That’s not at all what it’s about. The singer would agree with you. He admits he really doesn’t know if his lyrics make sense. When he is writing for any album he uses automatic writing, which is a stream-of-consciousness process where the writer doesn’t really process what he is saying, he is just saying it. Sometimes he puts twenty or so TVs in front of the microphone with some of his favorite movies playing and he tries to transcribe the feelings from the movies into his lyrics.

I really like the idea that the lyrics can be explicated for a greater meaning. Even though some of the lyrics are convoluted in having been improvised, I like how they are random and I love how most of the meaning is left up to the lisener. This is a very modernist idea.

All the musical parts are written by the guitarist Omar Rodriguez. As a listener and musician I find the improvisation inspiring. It is a great departure from everything else I had listened to. Not every thing was planned; the mistakes were kept and the things that were “in the moment” were captured.

The most improvised part of this song is the middle section. And in this section you might notice odd guitar sounds. For better or worse, these are the moments that are captured.

[4th clip]

Most bands use the studio to create a perfect picture of the band, and the Mars Volta use it to document one of their jam sessions with great recording. It was perfected, of course, but not to the point that most bands get to. Another thing specific to this song that changed me again as a listener and musician was the length. I think most bands either subconsciously or consciously worry about the attention span of the listener. The Mars Volta completely disregard this and make the music that they like and give the story they are trying to tell what it needs. I think that is something many modern bands miss. Art is best when it is direct and self-centered. By direct I mean there is no democratic process between the creator of the music and the final product. Omar writes everything and the CD version is as close to what he envisioned as as it can be.

The quality of being self-centered is really evident in this next clip. The Mars Volta is not afraid of creating disgusting and abrasive parts for long periods, which is another thing most bands try to avoid. This part is in the last five minutes of “Cassandra Gemini.” In terms of the story I think it most likely signifies the main character discovering who he is and more importantly who he has become. He has become one of the others.

A major influence you may notice on these past two clips is Miles Davis’ Bitches’ Brew. Avant-garde jazz and free jazz were a huge influence on the Mars Volta, and the improvisation in both of those clips is very evident.

[5th clip]

To sum up, the Mars Volta are a band that make music for themselves. For better or worse, their art is pretty pure. They captured me with their complete lack of care about song conventions or the listener. Although they can be incredibly irritating at times, their music has changed me as an artist and person who enjoys music.

“Cassandra Gemini” single-handedly changed my view on song length. Before I got into this album and specifically this song, I was stuck in the mindset that a five-minute song verges on being too long. The Mars Volta as a band started me doubting that, but it wasn’t until I heard this song, a song that held my attention for 32 minutes, that I was a changed music listener.

The Mars Volta is a band that I love to hate. I love them because, whether I want to admit it or not, they opened up many different musical ideas in me. But I hate them because they are pretty much the most pretentious band in the history of rock.

The Mars Volta are a band that do one of two things to the first-time listener: they either (1) open up a whole new world of what is music by creating songs that are 32 minutes long, that weave between being beautiful and improvised noise music; or (2) create atrocious self-centered rock that completely disregards any ears other than the four that make the music. I on the other hand believe both and love to hate them.