The “Rock Lobster” experiment got me thinking about the shape of songs, and how I perceive them. Applying the Paulstretch effect to the legendary B52s track, we revealed a wealth of shades and dimensions that were hidden away in the compact, compressed nature of the song. In its ungodly mutated form, it became a malformed, nearly unrecognizable, profoundly disturbing thing. But, compositionally, its basic structure was intact: the chord changes were still discernible, the verses and choruses (does that song really have a chorus?) were holding firm, exactly where they needed to be, albeit stretched out beyond recognition. And yet the song didn’t really feel like a song anymore. It was stretched out beyond the limits of our natural human ability to comprehend patterns and understand a “song” as such.
For a long time I thought exclusively in terms of structure– what part goes where, you know, the engineering of pop music. But in recent years I’ve started approaching songs more like three-dimensional objects, with physical properties like texture and color and weight. I don’t claim to have synesthesia, but I find that approaching songs in that way is helpful when trying to articulate what I like or dislike about a piece of music, and why.
I’ve been listening to Boston musician Sean Eldon’s new EP, ¡Pulmones!. It’s a good album to reference when talking about this because it’s made up of five very brief, very oddly-shaped tracks. And though some of the songs conform to a (slightly askew version of) compositional standards of pop music, there’s still this strange slant to it; melodies twist and turns in directions I can’t exactly explain, and often don’t exactly make sense until they resolve in the final line of the final chorus. This results in a somewhat disconcerting effect where you only really start enjoying the song on your second listen, as much of your first is spent trying to make sense of the journey you’re being taken on. In my experience, this is a trait of many truly memorable songs; they burrow into your brain after an initial period of stunned confusion.
It’s not just that the songwriting is adventurous. Pulmones is also one of the most peculiar-sounding albums I’ve heard, spilling with colors and textures that sound simultaneously serendipitous and deliberate; a collection of sounds that feel like they would go so completely wrong together in a more traditional configuration, but through either dumb luck or meticulous design fell perfectly into place here. The brittle crunch of discordant guitars atop the stuttering, propulsive drum sound and a bass that rumbles way down deep, pushing frequencies upward. All of this heightens (and in turn is heightened by) Sean Eldon’s voice, a soulful and strange timbre in of itself, double-tracked to otherworldliness, spitting out fragmented lines of alliteration and scattered imagery. The whole thing sounds like you’ve accidentally stumbled upon some secret radio frequency transmitting messages from another dimension, and you’re frozen in the terrible knowledge that if you shift your dial even slightly in either direction it’ll be lost forever.
It’s noisy, and it’s messy, but it’s not an abrasive, overcooked mess. This may contribute to the overall strangeness of its sound– while some of the compositions and performances are quite aggressive, the sound is remarkably dynamic. There’s room noise in these tracks– none of that hyper-compressed nonsense– so the songs are allowed some space to breathe. The sound of the album could be attributed to the unusual way it was recorded: the electric instruments were recorded direct, then played through individual amps arranged in a “live band” configuration in the studio. It was all then played back simultaneously, with Sean Eldon playing the drums at the center of it all. So the album is, essentially, a live album. Except it’s made up of mostly pre-recorded tracks. It’s pretty ingenious.
This here is probably the quietest track in an otherwise-pretty-chaotic album, but I feel it’s a good one to illustrate what I’ve been talking about. Listen to “Look Out! For Outlook!” by clicking on the embedded player below, and be sure to check out the rest of the album (as well as many others well worth your time) on Sean Eldon’s bandcamp page.