Fleet Foxes “Helplessness Blues”

by John Holbo on May 5, 2011

The new Fleet Foxes album, Helplessness Blues [amazon], is just great! Pitchfork gives it 8.8. I give it three bus stops up. That’s how many bus stops I went past mine, giving it a first listen. Favorite track at this stage is “Lorelai”, and someone has already made a YouTube video for it, using old San Francisco footage. Which works quite nicely. (Guess it’s the ‘old news’ theme.) It looks like NPR has a full stream of the whole album. The mp3 album is only $3.99 at the moment, so I’d snatch it up, were I you. [UPDATE: sorry, you missed the sale.]

Somehow there’s this review meme that Fleet Foxes is coolly uncool. Pitchfork: “Their bright folk-rock sound wasn’t exactly “cool,” but that was sort of the point—it’s familiar in the most pleasing way, lacking conceit or affectation. Their expression of their love for music (and making music) was refreshing three years ago, and that sort of thing never gets old.” Stereogum: “Helplessness Blues is a deeply uncool album. If you played it for your dad he’d either say, “Finally,” or he’d laugh and put on some Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Simon & Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, maybe even America if you stuck around. Robin Pecknold, Fleet Foxes’ singer and songwriter knows how unhip this music is.”

That doesn’t seem right to me at all. Fleet Foxes sounds to me like growing up on Radiohead transmogrified into a kind of flat, plainsong-y folk choral style. Radiohead is vocally flat/affectless and instrumentally droney and tick-tock yet also emotionally soaring; so is a lot of folk music. So you can map Radiohead-y forms and stylings onto folk-y or country-ish patterns and get something that sounds quite contemporary. If you don’t play it for laughs (seriously, click that link) you can play it for sheer beauty, which gets you Fleet Foxes, sounding quite contemporary. If you held a gun to Vampire Weekend’s head and told them to play folk music, they might sound like some of the brighter, warmer Fleet Foxes tracks. Like “Sim Sala Bim”. Which, come to think of it, sort of reminds me of the Beatles, “Two of Us”. And could be construed as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young-ish.

If you wanted to compare Fleet Foxes to something 70’s, I guess the smooth and flat but strong and soaring vocal style of Roberta Flack would seem less inapt, comparison-wise, than Simon and Garfunkel or America. But I don’t think Fleet Foxes sounds much like Roberta Flack. The Pitchfork review also compares them to the Zombies, which I could buy. I love the Zombies.

UPDATE: OK, I take it back. All that “Apples in the summer” stuff in “The Shrine/An Argument” sounds like Crosby, Still, Nash and Young.

{ 90 comments }

1

David 05.05.11 at 3:13 am

America?!!!

2

John Holbo 05.05.11 at 3:35 am

Go figure.

3

Vance Maverick 05.05.11 at 4:14 am

That’s quite an impressionistic use of the word “plainsong” there.

I don’t know from hip, but FF definitely strikes me as bland. (Ditto Radiohead, so I suppose I’m outside the demographic.)

4

John Holbo 05.05.11 at 4:18 am

“That’s quite an impressionistic use of the word “plainsong” there.”

Yes, but there is actually a church-y choral quality toit, in the strict plainsong sense. But I’m blanking on the word for that sort of flat singing, in a folk context. That thing. It’s not plainsong. What word am I forgetting? It covers American stuff, but also … oh, Steeleye Span, for example.

5

Vance Maverick 05.05.11 at 4:26 am

There’s a sober or chaste character to the singing, I agree, comparable to the “straight”, “pure” or indeed “plain” character of some folk-revival music. Not sure where that comes from, as a singing style. Perhaps something that’s perpetually rediscovered.

6

dsquared 05.05.11 at 5:42 am

If you held a gun to Vampire Weekend’s head and told them to play folk music, they might sound like some of the brighter, warmer Fleet Foxes tracks

If I performed that experiment, the sound would be “tweedle tweedle BANG!”, followed by silence.

7

John Holbo 05.05.11 at 5:44 am

Yes another reason not to publish negative results.

8

Salient 05.05.11 at 5:49 am

lacking conceit or affectation

Such a weird thing to say about a young man singing “guess I got old”

It looks like NPR has a full stream of the whole album.

They also have a song-by-song stream of Okkervil River’s I Am Very Far until mid-May or so, an album which is to Pulp what Fleet Foxes is to Radiohead, maybe? Except I have this nagging feeling it’s not Pulp I ought to be thinking of. (Regardless I superlatively highly recommend the thing, if only because [a] it’s free, [b] it’s clearly vying for album of the year, [c] I love noisy raucous psuedo-waltzes like Wake and Be Fine.)

someone has already made a YouTube video for it, using old San Francisco footage. Which works quite nicely.

Eh, I dunno, such a highly repetitive song deserves a more repetitive video.

If you held a gun to Vampire Weekend’s head

…they’d tell you to give it up, and then you’d be right back where you started from.

9

john c. halasz 05.05.11 at 7:14 am

“Helpless Blues”- Isn’t that an oxymoron, more-than-slightly missing the point?

10

John Holbo 05.05.11 at 8:33 am

Actually, it’s “Helplessness Blues”, and I confess I don’t see the oxymoronicness. Why shouldn’t you be both helpless and suffering from the blues? Quite possibly, the former state might induce the latter. Or the latter the former?

11

Phil 05.05.11 at 8:55 am

Not that this is necessarily of any interest to anyone but me, but… I was into folk (and ‘folk-rock’) in my teens, went off it when punk hit & got back into it a few years ago, with the result that I’m now a huge retrospective fan of Tony Rose, Shirley Collins, Tony Capstick and the great Peter Bellamy. I’m also a bit of a fan of Radiohead and the Phantom Band and the Earlies and whatever you’re having, edgy indie-wise. I just can’t stand “folk”, if by folk we mean quiet songs with nice tunes, with vocal harmonies and acoustic guitars (and we usually do).

The idea seems to be that it’s called “folk” because it sounds “folky”, or in other words that the sound of folk is an easy, chilled-out, wispy sound. Not so: the sound of Crosby, Stills and Nash is an easy, chilled-out, wispy sound. Traditional music done well isn’t pretty – Tony Rose backed by concertina or Shirley Collins over pipe organ can be just as disquieting as Thom Yorke over god knows what in 5/4, with the added bonus that the old songs are actually about something, and mostly they’re about death.

So I’ve reacted to this Fleet of Foxes combo in much the same way I’ve reacted to the Decemberisgts or Trembling Bells, or Espers since “The Weed Tree” (shame, the first album was ace) – i.e. with gritted teeth. But people do seem to think they’re quite good, so maybe this time round I’ll manage to listen to them properly.

12

dave heasman 05.05.11 at 9:44 am

“that sort of flat singing, in a folk context..” “Shape(d)-note”?

13

Niamh 05.05.11 at 10:12 am

14

Bloix 05.05.11 at 7:53 pm

#4 & #12 – yes, shape-note. More specifically, Sacred Harp. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacred_Harp

15

eilis 05.05.11 at 8:50 pm

John, I think ‘Lorelai’ is actually the perfect example of how Fleet Foxes just about escapes being bland, but by doing so, becomes unbelievably fresh and innovative. It’s all in the rhythms. The vocal on its own would be like a thousand others, but all the separate parts, that base drum rhythm, the harmonies, the strange plucked chords, they’re all very normal but put together at a sort of a disjointed angle that might at some stage start to fall apart, but doesn’t, quite… if that makes sense!

16

john c. halasz 05.05.11 at 8:58 pm

@10:
Ya. The dropped “ness” was a typo. But I listened to the title track, and while it wasn’t at all bad,- (yeah, sacred harp singing is what came to my mind)-, it had nothing to do with the blues, not even in some derivative sense, a la Dylan, Hank Williams Sr., etc.

And the blues has nothing to do with helplessness or impotence, exactly. Rather it’s “about” standing out in one’s existence in the world and telling it (or singing it) straight out like it is, come hell or high water, even if you can’t do a damn thing about it. With an Africa pentatonic, and rudimentary harmony added, and an “aesthetic” of subtle variations within basic repetitious sameness. Calling that simply “helplessness” is literalistic and tone-deaf.

(There used to be an NPR show in Chicago called “Blues Before Sunrise” that ran from midnight to whenever on weekends, hosted by a nerdy record collector from the College of DuPage. There were or are an amazing number of different styles or kinds of blues. And some of the lyrics are just hair-raising.)

17

John Holbo 05.06.11 at 1:50 am

John, I think it’s pretty normal to form blues titles on the model “[thing that is bothering me] blues”. But also pretty normal to make it a bit of a joke by sticking something silly in the variable slot. And it’s even more of a joke if it isn’t even a blues song.

Later I’ll put ‘blues’ into my iTunes and test this hypothesis, but The Incredible String Band, “Dandelion Blues” comes to mind as another example.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpN1jv0ElPA

Anyway, “Unhappiness Blues” seems closer to being redundant than an oxymoron.

18

John Holbo 05.06.11 at 1:57 am

Come to think of it, “The Thing That Is Bothering Me Blues” is a pretty good song title. Now I just have to write it.

19

John Holbo 05.06.11 at 2:11 am

I think I’ll make it a polka.

20

john c. halasz 05.06.11 at 4:18 am

@17:

Nah. “I’m lonely and bored and stuck in a dead end job, just a cog in the machine” ain’t a blues song. Nor is “I’m helpless, dear me”. That’s constant repetition, no variation. And it misses the element of strength, of resistance-reparation, with respect to one’s condition. Expressed pain is always better than unexpressed/repressed pain, and with the moment of expression comes releasement and even an obverse joy in pain. (One doesn’t need to be into S&M or read Foucault to understand that). And once one gets to that level of semi-symbolic expression, there’s plenty of room for humor to be found in the blues, often in the form of dreadful over-statement combined with lacerating irony. It’s not necessarily “in earnest”. But it’s still the blues. The “blues” is academically etymologized as “blue devils”, implying a state of possession. But I think, (pulling it out of my ass), that the idea is rather that of being “struck” by something, compelling one to call or sing it out. Thereby putting it “into play”. Which individuates that variation within repetitive sameness. (Of course, I’m not suggesting that the blues is the only folk-music tradition that focuses on pain and mournful loss within the harshness of life. Far from it. But that just another level of variation within sameness.) But there are some sort of implicit constraints on the elements that “makes” something “blues” or not.

(Having just re-listened to the title track, it strikes me as kind of attempting to “reverse engineer” the blues, using entirely different harmonic means, being “about”, not entrapped commitment, but the very absence of and perverse desire for such entrapment).

But, to give just one example, it puzzles me why the standard versions of “St. James Infirmary”, (Armstrong, Calloway, and the like), tend to play up the comic element. Admittedly, it’s a NOLA jazz or marching blues, but the “traditional” lyrics make plain that it’s about delirious mourning. What repressions, other than a distaste for melodrama or histrionics, are involved in that choice?

21

John Holbo 05.06.11 at 4:48 am

“Having just re-listened to the title track, it strikes me as kind of attempting to “reverse engineer” the blues, using entirely different harmonic means, being “about”, not entrapped commitment, but the very absence of and perverse desire for such entrapment”

What’s wrong with the simpler hypothesis? It isn’t a blues album.

22

John Holbo 05.06.11 at 4:51 am

““I’m lonely and bored and stuck in a dead end job, just a cog in the machine” ain’t a blues song. Nor is “I’m helpless, dear me”. That’s constant repetition, no variation.”

Do you really think it’s just impossible to write a blues song about being stuck in a dead end job, or feeling helpless in the face of misfortune – there is some basic conceptual impossibility here? What is it? (If I can find examples of blues songs about having an unsatisfying employment situation, will you count yourself refuted?) Also, why is it a priori impossible to handle these particular themes – bad job, helplessness – in a varied way, in your view?

23

John Holbo 05.06.11 at 5:06 am

OK, here’s a sharper version of the same argument. Take David Bromberg, “Helpless Blues” (no typo this time.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8FpJGsg-zI

It seems to me that, on formal rounds, and in terms of lyrical content, this song should be classified as blues. What remains to be seen then is that the addition of ‘ness’, in “Helplessness Blues”, adds some crucial disqualifying factor. Is there some special reason why you couldn’t have a blues song about “Helplessness”, even though you can (per above) suffer from the ‘helpless blues’? It is difficult for me to conceive an argument that would support this conclusion.

24

rfriel 05.06.11 at 5:48 am

I’m with John H. here. In particular, it seems relevant that the song “Helplessness Blues” includes the line “what good is it to sing helplessness blues?” — suggesting that the song is about a (literal or figurative) blues song, rather than being that song itself. (I feel like there are other songs-about-songs out there which are distinct from their subject matter but which take their names from their subject matter in an intentionally confusing way. But none come to mind at the moment.)

If this interpretation is correct, then we don’t actually know anything about the “helplessness blues” in question, besides the name. And (as John H.’s last post suggests) there is nothing about the definition of “blues” that makes a “helplessness blues” necessarily impossible.

Of course it’s still possible to question the way the phrase “sing helplessness blues” is being used in the song. It’s not at all clear that it refers to any actual song — rather, it just seems like a fancy way of saying “talk about my problems rather than doing anything about them.” And it may be worth pointing out that the concept of the blues does not work as well for this purpose as conventional wisdom might suggest.

25

rfriel 05.06.11 at 5:51 am

Okay, it just occurred to me that both of the commenters in the above discussion are named “John H.” I guess I should have just said “John Holbo” (which is whom I meant), but referring to someone by their full name in conversation feels really weird.

26

john c. halasz 05.06.11 at 6:11 am

@21:

Er, the song is called “Helplessness Blues”. It lends it’s name to the album. And, hey, you’re right neither the song, nor the album qualifies as “blues”. Which I’ve been sayin’. In fact, it seems to rather draw on completely different Southern folk roots, along the lines of “sacred harp” harmonies, which have nothing in common with the elements of the blues, (though other southern white styles or traditions do have cross-connections). There’s no argument here.

@22:

If one wrote something called “Sad Song”, would it thereby be a sad song? Bad job, mean boss, no respect, uncaring woman spending yo pay, these are blues staples. No surprise there. It’s all very redundant. But it ain’t the facts that make the song, but their inflections, how they handle the strickenness. It’s not a matter of “a priori conceptual impossibility”, but of implicit criteria and judgment, which emerge from and differentiate the cases.

@23:

O.K. That’s a candidate case, but how good is it? Didn’t catch all the lyrics, but it sounded like he was kvetching about his ex-wife. And “count the days til I’m gone” is lifted from Jimmy Rushing. The point was how good is the notion of “helplessness” in titling and singing the blues and catching its drift? And how appropriate the attitude of po-po-mo post-ironical irony in articulating its criteria? Or doesn’t that obliterate its very notion?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_g78VXusH4

That’s how it’s done!

27

John Holbo 05.06.11 at 7:00 am

“Er, the song is called “Helplessness Blues”. It lends it’s name to the album. And, hey, you’re right neither the song, nor the album qualifies as “blues”. Which I’ve been sayin’.”

In related news, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” album totally useless as a device for effectively partitioning rooms.

“The point was how good is the notion of “helplessness” in titling and singing the blues and catching its drift.”

But surely the fact that “St. James Infirmary”, on its own, does not effectively title, characterize or catch the drift of the the blues – rather, it designates a medical establishment – is no reason to suppose that “St. James Infirmary Blues” is oxymoronic or otherwise tainted with confusion or error.

You seem actually to be suggesting that blues song titles should be redundant. “[synonym for the blues] blues.” The first term should ‘catch the drift’ of the second. And on that basis you are objecting to a particular title that, unusually as blues titles go, actually almost meets your surely too-high standard. Is that about right?

28

John Holbo 05.06.11 at 7:07 am

“O.K. That’s a candidate case, but how good is it?”

Ah, suddenly I feel like singing the old “Moving Goalpost Blues”. Sung to the tune of Blind Willie McTell’s “Travelin’ Blues”:

“I’m trying to Holbo my way, and you leave me standing here!”

29

john c. halasz 05.06.11 at 7:49 am

Er, this is a fine example of why one shouldn’t ever try to argue with an Analytic “philosopher”. Because they always shift the issue from whatever is actually at hand to their own absurd, delusional idea of “logical semantics”. And thereby misread everything, including the tunes in question.

There are plenty of “good” blues tunes that include the word “blues” in their title and fall within the relevant ambit, say, “The Mule Skinner Blues”, and plenty that equally don’t. Obversely, including “blues” in the ostensible title don’t make it so, any more than amplified electric guitars make walls. Surprise, surprise!

But I obviously wasn’t “suggesting” that blues should be redundant, but, to the contrary, “mean” and “economical”. Which is why it’s the “St. James Infirmary”, without any “blues”. I thought it a good example because it is usually labeled “traditional”, i.e. without known author, and because it’s a good tune with fine, sharp, clear lyrics, which stand up on their own, and because it’s never quite done “justice”, despite it’s exemplary character, – ( its frankness, its Liebestod). It’s a counter-example, a kind of modus tolens, to the sort of indiscriminate BS you’re trying to peddle.

30

John Holbo 05.06.11 at 8:03 am

“Because they always shift the issue from whatever is actually at hand to their own absurd, delusional idea of “logical semantics”.”

Look, John, perhaps we can go back to the beginning. You think there is something wrong with Fleet Foxes calling their album “Helplessness Blues”. It ‘misses the point’ or is otherwise an unacceptable or objectionable title. My point has been that this seems to presuppose a hilariously strict and rather dogmatic theory of the blues, and attendant etiquette for employment of the word ‘blues’. I am not sure why you now want to veer off into absurd, delusional ideas of logical semantics. But we all must follow our muse, I suppose.

31

john c. halasz 05.06.11 at 8:14 am

“She may search this wide world over/She’ll never find a sweet man like me”. Yeah, dude, she’s dead: “So sweet, so cold, so fair”.

32

john c. halasz 05.06.11 at 8:45 am

@30:

Nope. It’s not my “strict and dogmatic theory” that’s at issue, (as if I haven’t empirically heard the rough range of what I’m talking about, and as if I haven’t encountered that cheap pseudo-Wittgensteinian move/excuse before). It’s your hollow, indiscriminate, self-indulgent, but ever combative nominalism. This really isn’t an argument or tiff about taste, musical or other, since mine are as perverse as any other, but rather about your own presumption of “authority” or preogative, based on no criteria or constraints whatsoever. It’s a matter of words (and their referents) meaning roughly what they “mean” and not something else.

So, yes, “Helplessness Blues”, given both words and actual musical content, is a species of non-sense, other than the blues kind, whatever Holbo might say.

33

John Holbo 05.06.11 at 9:32 am

“It’s your hollow, indiscriminate, self-indulgent, but ever combative nominalism.”

I prefer to refer to it as my “Mindlessnesslessness Blues”. Take it way, Hot Panda!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GrtQ0f6jjc&feature=related

john c, you are and remain are a hoot and half to ‘argue’ with!

But seriously, I am curious to hear why “Helplessness Blues”, in both sound and sense, is a species of non-sense. I am quite sure that this conclusion cannot follow from my character flaws alone, however extensive they should prove to be. So your most recent comment cannot be the last word. And I do not see that any of your earlier comments provide the first word. I am, as so often, at a loss.

34

rfriel 05.06.11 at 9:39 am

john c. halasz, I’ve read your posts in this thread, but I still don’t understand exactly what your claims are. I think we all agree that “Helplessness Blues” (the Fleet Foxes song) is not a Blues song. When you say the song is “nonsense,” is this because you believe

1) a song shouldn’t have a name that suggests it’s in a musical genre it’s not?
2) no blues song would ever be named “Helplessness Blues,” and thus it’s bad to use such a name?
3) a blues song could be named “Helplessness Blues,” but if it were, it wouldn’t be representative of what the blues is about, and thus one shouldn’t use it as a song name?
4) in the song “Helplessness Blues,” the phrase “helplessness blues” is being used as if it’s the sort of name that a typical, representative blues song might have, but this is actually false?
5) some other reason?

I’m probably just reading you very badly, but it’s not clear to me which of these claims you would and wouldn’t endorse. 4 makes sense to me, 1-3 not so much.

35

David Roden 05.06.11 at 11:01 am

I loved the first Fleet Foxes album, but the harmonies and melodies of Helplessness Blues seem anodyne and predictable by comparison, while the lyrical content is banally direct. It seems as if they have forgotten their Ravel and their Poe.

36

Torquil Macneil 05.06.11 at 12:41 pm

Is it ‘fleet foxes’ as in ‘swift-footed quadrupeds’ or as in ‘sexy sailors’?

37

John Holbo 05.06.11 at 12:55 pm

I think that it has to be swift-footed quadrupeds, because they seem much more like Grizzly Bear, Wolf Mother, Wolf Parade, Deer Tick, etc. (it’s an animal-named indy band era we are in) than they are like British Sea Power, for example.

38

J. Fisher 05.06.11 at 4:45 pm

A day late and a dollar short to this thread, but here goes:

Cocteau Twins did “Lorelai” better when they titled it “Lorelei”.

And, ugh, Pitchfork, ugh, Radiohead.

Ugh, Fleet Foxes, too.

And while I’m at it, Animal Collective gets a double ugh, because it’s only a matter of time until they get tossed around in this conversation.

39

Martin Bento 05.06.11 at 5:55 pm

The fact that the blues is so various and has been used in so many different ways and bleeds into so many other styles is one reason it is preposterous to suppose that there is only one attitude it can express. Poor black southern people pick up guitars and employ this standard form and style to say whatever they feel at the moment, working it into a rhyme, thousands of times for decades. Never once did any of those people feel helpless when they were making that music. Just not possible. Even though, their life were pretty helpless in many ways, even though they may be playing the music only for their own enjoyment, not for any social effect, it was at every moment pure self-assertion and not at all helplessness. Not even mixed feelings. Just defiance. Because John C. Halasz has declared it so. And anyone who uses the word “blues” in a song title has to be expressing this same attitude, even if the song is not formally or stylistically a blues, but instead refers to “blues” in its lyrics, or it is missing its own point. Which has to be the point of the blues if you use that word. And there is only one possible point to the blues.

rfriel, 4 is weak too. Saying that any reference to a. possibly fictitious, blues song in a song lyric is an assertion of the nature of a “typical” blues song is like saying every statement about any woman is an assertion about the general nature of women. And they don’t even seem to mean “singing the blues” in that literal a sense.

40

BGinCHI 05.06.11 at 8:12 pm

Wait, back up.

“Put a gun to Vampire Weekend’s head.” OK, I’m listening.

When do we off them?

Seriously, the new FF is very good. But the only way to get that slow taste out of your mouth is to listen to Harlem’s “Hippies” right after.

Rocks.

41

rm 05.07.11 at 2:34 am

I’m stuck in a dead end job

Or in other words, I got those steadily depressin’, lowdown, mind-messin’ workin’ in the car wash blues.

Back on topic, Fleet Foxes remind me of the Beach Boys. They do not remind me at all of CSNY. I can see the Sacred Harp connection once it’s pointed out, but it sounds to me like their roots are more in choral glee club type music, old college groups in matching sweaters. The Warblers. They are a slow boy band.

And though I like them, I would not call Fleet Foxes “folk.” I hate it when anything acoustic is called “folk.” I think it’s folk music only if the artist does traditional material or new songs that draw upon that traditional material. Dylan does folk in both those senses, but has done quite a lot of not-folk (rock, gospel, pop) too.

A lot of actual folk music is being done now, by, for instance, Sam Amidon, Crooked Still, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, OCMS, Abigail Washburn, and everyone that you would get to by following the links or search engine results from those people.

Then there are the indie bands already mentioned, that are doing new music that bears the traces of having listened to folky stuff. Maybe Fleet Foxes goes in that category.

Then there are all of yesterday’s rock stars getting into the trend of folksy or traditional music, like Robert Plant, Springsteen (who has always done that, of course), John Mellencamp, Natalie Merchant. Led Zep guy John Paul Jones producing and playing with folk/bluegrass group Uncle Earl.

42

rm 05.07.11 at 2:40 am

I forgot the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

(Is anything “indie” any more, or is basically all real music produced independently of big labels? Do the legacy “record companies” make any music anymore?)

43

john c. halasz 05.07.11 at 3:46 am

I’m out in the boondocks without a reliable internet connection. But the basic point, any pissing contest aside, was this. Here is a song deploying as elements hymnal high harmonies and Anglo-Saxon folk melodies, – nothing wrong per se with that,- that then is titled “Helplessness Blues”, when it has nothing to do with the blues, however delimited, neither in it’s musical elements, nor it’s lyrical content or attitude, nor in its specific “economy”. And “Helplessness Blues” as a title is so generic and banal that it amounts to something between a tautology and an oxymoron. (Blues generally references a level of unavoidable distress, “trouble”, whatever attitude is taken toward it, that renders “helplessness” the least of it, an almost comically abstract and irrelevant description). Hence something is “off” here, amiss; a category mistake has been made, misconceiving and misapplying the musical “stakes”. Which is a fault, a flaw, which goes to the “artistic” quality of the tune, at whatever level one wishes to attribute it, – though there is clearly some musical skill and talent evident there, however misconceived. But there is a touch of bad faith in the expression attempted. Which Holbo, who recommended the tune(s), magnifies with his usual argumentative duplicity and his desire to “win”, while obtusely missing the point.

Martin Bento @ 39:

You can basically just stuff it. I never said or implied anything that you attributed. In fact, I explicitly argued that there is wide variety of blues styles and attitudes, and that the blues bleeds over into other cognate and implicated styles or modes, -(in fact, is itself a “product” of such “bleeding”). And I never said it was a Black Thang, to which whites weren’t amenable. Nor obviously that it involved guitars. (As an aside, one of the oddities of the recorded tradition is the relative absence of violins and banjos). The only point I made is that within that family network of “the blues”, there are implicit criteria to be educed that demarcated what IS the blues and what definitely is NOT.

44

rm 05.07.11 at 4:00 am

John C. Halasz, you may be right about everything, but it’s hard for anyone to tell because you do not write clearly. Writing clearly requires a level of audience awareness that I think you either don’t have or don’t value. I think the issue is that some people are blase about the prospect of a song that is not blues having “Blues” in the title, while to you that is objectionable. I think the issue is that some don’t see any “claim” being made by the artists in such a title, while to you a criterion of good art has been violated. Instead of showing us how and why you see this criterion as important or consequential, you assume your interlocutors are too dense to value it as you do. But I’m not sure, and I’m not going to work any more on figuring it out.

45

John Holbo 05.07.11 at 7:23 am

“Hence something is “off” here, amiss; a category mistake has been made, misconceiving and misapplying the musical “stakes”. Which is a fault, a flaw”

But why is committing a category mistake of this sort an actual mistake, hence flaw? After all, it’s normal to commit category mistakes intentionally for effect. You seem to be just assuming that the oddity of the title is some sort of accident, or reflection of ignorance, which seems terribly unlikely (right?). I appreciate that your desire to exhibit your superior appreciation of the blues is very high, but are you quite sure you have chosen the very most appropriate public occasion for doing so? If so: how are you so sure?

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Martin Bento 05.09.11 at 10:40 am

Halasz (I’m using surnames because we have too many Johns in this discussion otherwise), if you had limited your claim to the assertion that the song in question was not blues, there would be no dispute. No one here has said it is blues, some have explicitly said otherwise, and I’m sure the FF themselves are aware that it is not blues: it’s obvious. What you did was call it “non-sense” on the basis of its title and its not being blues. What you also did, as is standard for you, is heap pretentiously-expressed abuse on Holbo for daring to question you (Halasz on Holbo: “absurd, delusional idea of “’logical semantics’”, ”misreads everything”, “sort of indiscriminate BS you’re trying to peddle.”, “hollow, indiscriminate, self-indulgent, but ever combative nominalism”, “presumption of “authority” or preogative[sic], based on no criteria or constraints whatsoever”, “his usual argumentative duplicity ” etc.). Holbo seems to have a magnanimous attitude towards this, finding it a hoot, but it is also possible to find it annoying and juvenile.

Holbo has no presumption of authority here, you do. All Holbo said is that he liked the record. You’re the one that decided that, since it used blues in the title and was not a blues, and since the notion of a “helplessness blues” was contrary to your theory of how blues should work, that the song was nonsense. What is at issue is most certainly your theory of the blues. You stated:

”And the blues has nothing to do with helplessness or impotence, exactly. Rather it’s “about” standing out in one’s existence in the world and telling it (or singing it) straight out like it is, come hell or high water, even if you can’t do a damn thing about it.”

and

“And it misses the element of strength, of resistance-reparation, with respect to one’s condition. Expressed pain is always better than unexpressed/repressed pain, and with the moment of expression comes releasement and even an obverse joy in pain.”

That is a theory of the blues, and it is, so far as I know, specific to you. Regardless of the theory’s merits, you are relying on a theory of the blues to attack this piece, which makes this comment dishonest:

“It’s not my “strict and dogmatic theory” that’s at issue, (as if I haven’t empirically heard the rough range of what I’m talking about, and as if I haven’t encountered that cheap pseudo-Wittgensteinian move/excuse before). It’s your hollow, indiscriminate, self-indulgent, but ever combative nominalism.”

And here you have reached the point of self-parody. Wittgenstein, Schmittgenstein. Holbo called you dogmatic because you are being dogmatic, and no one needs Wittgenstein to determine that. You have a particular theory of the blues and are condemning the song for not supporting it, even though the song is not blues, and, if it were, it would be the duty of your theory to account for it, not the reverse. Demanding that the creative output of others must conform to your theories to be valid is dogmatism.

When I said that thousands of black people played blues on guitar, that was a fact: thousands did, on guitars. That does not imply a categorical definition of blues that it must exclusively involve blacks and guitars. If you do not understand not every reference to something is a categorical assertion about its necessary elements, well, that might go some way to explaining why you’re so ridiculously condemning a song title for somehow mischaracterizing the blues. If your model as you have stated it is too inflexible to account for all blues created by black people on guitars, it is obviously too inflexible to account for any superset of that group, so I needn’t examine the other cases. Besides which, the purpose of a song title using the word “blues” is not to characterize the blues as a whole and certainly not to do so definitively. “Crossroads Blues” is not an assertion that blues songs necessarily involve crossroads. The purpose of a title is imply to identify and perhaps arouse interest in the song. You characterize blues thus:

“Expressed pain is always better than unexpressed/repressed pain, and with the moment of expression comes releasement and even an obverse joy in pain.”

But all of that is not simply achieved in the title , and the title is the only aspect of this tune which even emulates blues. I see no support for the notion that, simply because the song uses the word “blues”, that it is bound to either be a blues or be a commentary on the essence of the blues. In fact, the lyric in question is clearly using “singing the blues” as a metaphor for lamenting a state rather than taking action to change it. While singing the blues does not preclude taking action, it also does not constitute effective action, unless you’re singing the “Nobody Don’t Let Me Sing the Blues Blues”, which is one I don’t hear much. Treating “Helplessness Blues” as an actual tune that the author is referring to and contemplating singing is extremely obtuse, but if you are not doing that, then you must be extending your theory of the blues as a standard for all possible metaphorical uses of the word “blues”, which is beyond absurd.

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john c. halasz 05.09.11 at 3:12 pm

@45:

O.K. That’s actually better. Though this doesn’t come down to some desire on my part to display a “superior” knowledge of the blues. Though I must have hard hundreds of such songs over the years, I’m not an aficionado of blues “purist”; it’s just background knowledge, fairly typical for an American. But if you must think and attribute in bourgeois categories, go on right ahead. (Being bourgeois is itself a category mistake, no doubt genetically determined).

But the point is that there is a fact of the matter, however elusive. The implicit criteria for “the blues” are no less objective, i.e. independent and supra-personal, as the implicit criteria for “science”. It’s not the case that there is a scientifically determined reality, after which everything is left to the subjective volition of individuals. There are “real” constraints that make for actual differences. (The subjective volition of individuals is itself largely a product of such constraints).

So you made some bad, irrelevant, incompetent argumentative moves. You searched YouTube to find an empirical instance called “Helpless Blues”, which was clearly in blues musical style, though by some white, probably Jewish guy from the ’80’s. (“My woman done me wrong” is a blues perennial; “my wife is a castrating bitch”, not so much). But that wasn’t any “refutation” of my point. You do recognized the difference between a subsumptive judgment and a reflective judgment, eh?

And then there was this: “In related news, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” album totally useless as a device for effectively partitioning rooms.” Of course not. We’re talking about songs here and songs don’t somehow materialize into independent physical effects, ( as opposed to maybe responding to them). That would be the sort of category mistake only perhaps to be found in extreme forms of magical or psychotic thinking. So what was the point of your attribution? That I don’t understand the distinction between mention and use?

No, the “correct” relevant way to counter my objection or criticism is to offer a countering reflective judgment of your own, showing how the reference to “the blues” is inferentially warranted and appropriate to the expressive complex and context. (Rather than irrelevantly arguing the issue in terms of mere semantics and performative nomination, as if this were always the “universal” means and criteria). So placid literalness is deadpan! Earnestness is the new irony!

@46:

Nah. Holbo isn’t being “magnanimous”. He just indulging in his usual duplicitious, argumentative two-stepping gamesmanship, evasively shifting the burden of “proof”, ( as if “certainty” were the issue, rather than an irrelevant philosophical vice). I’ll refrain from going through all the rest of your mis-attributions, just remark that the opposite of “nominalism” isn’t necessarily “essentialism”.

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nick 05.09.11 at 4:32 pm

Neil Young’s _On The Beach_ contains “Revolution Blues” and “Ambulance Blues,” two of his greatest songs, which sound nothing like the blues (the former featuring members of the Band, the latter in fact famously ripps off Bert Jansch; it also contains “Vampire Blues,” which, quite incontrovertibly, IS a blues, and, equally incontrovertibly, like every effort at blues by Neil, utterly sucks.

Rock and roll feeds on itself; using “blues” as a trope has been around since at least the 60s.

I would be more than amenable to arguments of the type “this Fleet Foxes song sucks!”, but trying to demonstrate said aesthetic fact on a firmer basis, and trying to do so in an argument against Holbo??–the very thought gives me the “Arid Desert of Scholastic Argumentation Blues”….

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Martin Bento 05.09.11 at 7:51 pm

On “Helpless Blues”, John Lee Hooker also has such a song. I don’t know if it’s the same one Bromberg recorded, but it sort of does away with the “white, probably Jewish” objection, though I thought you didn’t subscribe to the “Black Thang” theory of the blues anyway.

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john c. halasz 05.09.11 at 8:44 pm

@49:

Good find. But it’s not the same song. That’s straight up Mississippi blues, stereotypically the “rawest” and most “African” kind. But note the apparent lyrics: “??God knows, it’s so bad, I just couldn’t help myself” and “when my baby left me, she didn’t have no lead to go on”. That’s not quite the “helplessness blues”, in the relevant sense, is it? (Er, there’s a recognition of mutual helplessness).

But no doubt Nick is right, except that it could perhaps be pulled off, provided in the right ecclesiastical mode.

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John Holbo 05.10.11 at 12:51 am

What Martin and Nick said.

52

rm 05.10.11 at 5:15 am

Also, dismissing Dave Bromberg as a blues artist because he is “white, probably Jewish” is . . . unspeakable.

JCS, this is not submitted for your approval. This is my thought directed at anyone but you who might still check on this thread. That you imagine you are giving lessons in valid argumentation is sad. I hope to God you don’t teach for a living, or at least don’t teach writing.

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Martin Bento 05.10.11 at 7:27 am

Halasz, you’re avoiding the issue. When you misconstrued through a failure of logic that I was attributing to you a belief in racial essentialism regarding the blues, you responded:

“And I never said it[the blues – M] was a Black Thang, to which whites weren’t amenable.”

But in response to Holbo’s example of Bromberg, you objected that he’s:

“white, probably Jewish”

You then contrasted my Lee Hooker example, citing it as an example of a style “rawer and more ”African’”.

You can’t have it both ways. And scare quotes don’t protect you. If it ain’t a “black thang”, then it doesn’t matter that Bromberg is white or, for that matter, Jewish (unless you think Jews specifically are disqualified from blues for some reason). Now, you can try to paper this over with grad student jargonese, or you can pretend you were saying something other than what you clearly were saying (“I didn’t object that Bromberg was white. I just mentioned it for no reason.”), but when you are finished, the contradiction will remain.

And stop going on about “mis-attributions”? I’m quoting you, man. Those comments were made by you earlier in the thread. You may be a dummy, but I’m no ventriloquist.

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john c. halasz 05.10.11 at 6:54 pm

The only point of the “African” side-remark is that Mississippi-style blues is often considered somehow it’s quintessential form. It’s not and there is no such thing. There is a wide variety and dispersion within the “economy” of the blues. (Try Texas style: up-tempo with horns. You can dance to it!) The content of song itself was “Love and Marriage”, blues style, and the gap between it and that sort of confection perhaps goes to the point. The fact that both instances of “Helpless Blues” were about marriage actually support my original point: that blues is never “about” helplessness, which goes without saying, but rather about (a way of dealing with) the unavoidable, the Hobson’s choice.

(Blues first became “popular” in the 1920’s when it met up with recording technology: Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, etc. The reason that so many old sides survive is that many of them were actually “bestsellers”, back before the technology became consolidated into an “industry”. The economics of that implies a fairly wide white audience. Not many guitars though. Lotsa piano boogies.)

Bromberg wasn’t being dismissed or disqualified because he’s white and probably Jewish. The point is that he’s a “’60’s person”, a blues revivalist. Here’s his bio: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Bromberg . Which counts in presenting his song as a refuting counter-example. Obviously, lotsa white guys (and gals) have sung, played or referenced the blues, and some of them might even have been Jewish! What I was dismissing or disqualifying was the conceptual move: here is a empirical, contingent particular, I refute the thus! Rather than: here is a counter-example and these are the relevant features that render it exemplary.

My point here hasn’t to “dogmatically” dictate what the blues “must” be: it must be dire, mournfully bemoaning and contain no jokes. That obviously not the case. The point was that “The Helplessness Blues”, both the title and the song, evinced a clueless literalness that it had lost the thread of its own reference and amounted to a mish-mosh. (Though perhaps mish-moshes are all that’s left to us nowadays). (Just in case y’all missed Hegel’s missive about the “end of art”, modern art of whatever form or level is no longer something “organic” or spontaneous, but necessarily abstract, amounts to a deliberate reification. So I’m just criticizing an instance of something badly abstracted. Criticism of bad abstraction being just about the only legitimate function left to philosophy).

Holbo can like whatever he likes. I’ve no desire to interfere with his utility preference function. I could care less. But if he (re)commends something, he can be asked for a reason. I.e. he’s entered into the “space” of reasons, rather than contingent, empirical history, (though the former might be just as contingent, empirical and historical, if in a different way).

@52:

If you teach, I can only hope that it’s not in accordance with a logic that renders things unspeakable. (Though Weininger assured us that logic and morality are one).

@51:

I thought Nick was condemning us both. My only disagreement with what he said is that “that sucks eggs” doesn’t amount to a reason. (Though no doubt dorm room competitions over whose brand/band is hipper or cooler take just such a form).

But I’m sorry I messed with this. Though if I’ve offended piety, maybe it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

55

john c. halasz 05.10.11 at 6:56 pm

Well, for what it’s worth:

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Substance McGravitas 05.10.11 at 7:05 pm

Bromberg wasn’t being dismissed or disqualified because he’s white and probably Jewish. The point is that he’s a “’60’s person”, a blues revivalist.

That is not what you wrote. You wrote this:

You searched YouTube to find an empirical instance called “Helpless Blues”, which was clearly in blues musical style, though by some white, probably Jewish guy from the ‘80’s.

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Martin Bento 05.10.11 at 8:19 pm

Indeed, I speculated that Halasz might say the following:

“I didn’t object that Bromberg was white. I just mentioned it for no reason.”

which is pretty much what he just did say. He has changed his tone, though, which is good.

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john c. halasz 05.10.11 at 11:29 pm

Laissez les bon tons rouler!

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John Holbo 05.11.11 at 5:07 am

The prospect of john c halasz entering the space of reason-giving has such an air of Nixon-goes-to China-paradoxicality that I cannot refrain from jumping back in. Very well: give us your reasons. Why do you think Fleet Foxes are clueless? You seem to have shifted to a completely different line than anything you defended above. You have some Hegel ‘end of art’ story to tell about how the title (or the title plus song) is ‘too abstract’. I must say: if this is what it is all about, you might have spared us ‘FF is clueless because Holbo is a duplicitous nominalist’ and ‘FF is clueless because Bromberg is Jewish’ and ‘no non-blues song can be called ‘blues” and all that nonstarter jazz. But better late than never. Lay your Hegelian wisdom on us.

You hint above that really the onus is on me to respond, first, with my own positive defense of FF’s non-cluelessness. But, to be honest, I have none. I just like the song, and I don’t know why anyone would think it is conspicuously clueless or especially ‘badly abstracted’. I haven’t a clue.

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bill wilkie 05.12.11 at 12:42 am

It’s amusing to watch the reviewer bend over backwards to locate the Fleet Foxes in a hip space, as if to be something other than a child of Radiohead, or the Clash decades ago (both great by the way) is somehow verboten. This record is great because the notes are great. Nothing else matters. And yes, it sounds like the lost first Crosby and Nash record. Get over it, drop the pose, man up, and dig it.

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Helen 05.12.11 at 1:26 am

If you played it for your dad he’d either say, “Finally,” or he’d laugh and put on some Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Simon & Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, maybe even America if you stuck around. Robin Pecknold, Fleet Foxes’ singer and songwriter knows how unhip this music is.”

Joe Pug also gives me this impression, but I mean that in a good way.

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john c. halasz 05.12.11 at 3:17 am

@59:

JFC! I dunno if that is more supercilious or more deranged, or vice versa. Let’s just call it a dead heat. And the idea that I can’t enter into the “space of reasons” according to yo’ fat ass,- (oow, when you’re completely non-responsive to the issues raised),- is just a further indication of the sorts of bad faith at issue,- (whereby I’ve been ridiculously accused of all sorts of defaults, mean prejudices, when, actually, I was just pointing out how off-center your counter was, compared to the example and the rough sketch I offered, though you and your acolytes completely missed the “argumentative” terms and relevance involved). I have no objection to your “getting your groove on”. I’ve said that. But I do have an objection, Perfesser Holbo, to how you react when you’re deprived of your toys. And how others might have quite different estimations of such toys or quite different toys altogether.

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john c. halasz 05.12.11 at 3:28 am

@60:

From the song I sampled, I found Joe Pug overly verbose, but otherwise quite sharp and clever, whether in the British or American sense. Still, obviously, I prefer a better matching of an economy of means, to let the music soar.

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Substance McGravitas 05.12.11 at 3:29 am

I found Joe Pug overly verbose

Awesome.

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John Holbo 05.12.11 at 5:40 am

“And the idea that I can’t enter into the “space of reasons” according to yo’ fat ass,- (oow, when you’re completely non-responsive to the issues raised)”

I take this to be a polite way of saying that, on reflection, you are going to drop the hot potato of Hegel and the ‘end of art’, rather than making of it some means to the end of showing ‘Fleet Foxes too abstracted’. Probably for the best, all things considered. And, for the record, I never said that you can’t enter the ‘space of reasons’. But my suspicion is that you will choose not to. We will see whether the rest of this thread proves me right or wrong about that.

I promise responsive responses to issues raised if and when issues are raised. But not before. I think this is a reasonable policy. If you think you have already raised any issues, in a cogent way, perhaps you could just briefly state what you think they are.

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Martin Bento 05.12.11 at 6:39 pm

So after all the vituperation, after having his logical flaws exposed, after seeming for a moment to have found his way to reason, this is how Halasz responds to a simple offer to make the case he keeps hinting he can make. Up the arrogance to 11. Misuse “vice versa”. Say people who pointed out his logical inconsistencies were accusing him of mean prejudice. It’s Pierre Menard argumentation – just pretend you already made the argument you are called on to make and what you’re providing now are just the footnotes.

And call Holbo a fatty. It’s like his native language is Elementary School Taunter, but he found a setting in Google Translate for Pompous Graduate Student.

May I suggest that in the future whenever someone is tempted to take Halasz seriously that they be pointed to this thread.

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john c. halasz 05.13.11 at 1:18 am

O.K. This thread has been just mistaken and a waste of time and attention. It turns on a small, rather trivial matter and some obscure compulsion to defend meaningless reputation effects. (Meanwhile, corpses pile up elsewhere).

But… Martin Bento. once again you can just stuff it. You can cut-and-paste all you want, but, given the absence of tags, if you can’t tell small side ironies and bad jokes from points of argument, then there’s no helping you. (Just try construing @58). Though I have limited patience with your bourgeois-liberal self-righteousnness. IIRC may last encounter with you,- (slight change in topic, but maybe not so irrelevant),- involved explaining that, once a division of labor takes hold, especially as augmented by machine technology and energy flows, however skilled or unskilled the labor power, the increase in productive surpluses within and between economic sectors suffices to account for trade or market exchange, without any appeal to individual preferences or voluntary transactions, or “Pareto optimality”. A structural explanation, which, er, then allows for an explanation of the distribution of individual agents, with their positions, contexts and conditionings, in similarly structural terms. (The classical metaphor of “natural prices” as centers of “gravitational attraction” actually works even better in the Einsteinian rather than Newtonian frame, with the curvature of space and all). There was no need for you to give the old collegiate try and regugitate the mostly non-explanatory and ideological clap-trap that had been drilled into your head. I’m not lacking somehow in conceptual grasp, ofa sense of the way the real world works, or a victim of elementary mistakes in logic or semantics. And there’s no need here for you to convert your own mis-readings into accusations of non-venal sins. Whereby there’s no need for me to exculpate myself to accord with your satisfactions.

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john c. halasz 05.13.11 at 2:18 am

Holbo:

You didn’t respond to the issue of the subsumptive/reflective judgment, which was a prior to anything I said. I’d guess, that based on residually Humean assumptions, you thought that there could be no issue here. (That Hume is a bad, mistaken conceptual account of human agency is a topic for another thread). So I don’t think I was wrong in detecting that your response was just hammer-and-nail “logical semantics”, when the issue wasn’t the meaning of the word “blues”, but rather songs. And, of course, the lyrics of songs are loose. Notoriously, they don’t read well; they’re not poetry, but serve musical purposes. But there nonetheless has to be some sort of expressive fit, (which again, is not a semantic issue).

I chose “SJI” as an example, because, aside from the good tune, the lyrics were sharply chiseled. I’d guess it actually derives from the NOLA funeral march tradition, so it’s a mixed case, not just because of the minor key, which is not rare, but not usual, but because it’s as much a dirge as a blues. But it’s not “about” a “medical establishment”; it’s a mortuary and it’s about the death of a beloved (and what an exquisite corpse one will be when one rejoins her). The point was to show how “the blues” works and thus what one is referring to as a rough “gravitational center of attraction”. (I let Jimmy Rushing do the rest of the talk). And that set up the contrast case of the fit or lack thereof. Argument-by-example. The here relevant kind. So then you raised the question as to whether the mis-fit hadn’t involved a deliberate intention, as if I hadn’t already taken that into account. So Hegel and how the intention fades into the thing itself. All art is deliberate reification, so it’s a question of whether it’s well or badly reified.

So I think it’s you who’s made several category mistakes and argued badly. And if you treat your students with such high-handedness, Herr Honorable Perfesser, I can only pity them.

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John Holbo 05.13.11 at 2:56 am

“You didn’t respond to the issue of the subsumptive/reflective judgment.”

I think I understand the distinction. What is the issue?

Also, now you are saying the issue is: songs. I regard that as rather an indefinite characterization. Can you be any more specific? Just: songs?

“I don’t think I was wrong in detecting that your response was just hammer-and-nail “logical semantics”

I really don’t see this at all. Several people have pointed out in this thread that you aren’t talking a damn bit of sense. But that’s not hammer-and-nails ‘logical semantics’, I take it. Even if we are wrong and secretly you are making a ton of sense, it’s still not hammer-and-nails ‘logical semantics’. What does that mean? Formal logic? What does that have to do with this thread?

“The point was to show how “the blues” works and thus what one is referring to as a rough “gravitational center of attraction”.”

But what does this have to do with Fleet Foxes? Their song has ‘blues’ in the title but, as you yourself admit, it isn’t a blues song and presumably isn’t trying to be one. So what is the relevance of how the blues works? Suppose, for the sake of your argument – whose arrival we await in a Didi and Gogo sort of spirit – your account of the blues is fabulously insightful and exactly right, and the Fleet Foxes song doesn’t work anything like the blues. What’s the problem? How does it follow that they are clueless or too abstracted, or exemplifying the Hegelian end of art or any of that? Where is any of this coming from?

“And if you treat your students with such high-handedness, Herr Honorable Perfesser, I can only pity them.”

John, I think I have been really very patient with you in this thread and others. Of course I am having my high-handed fun. But, under the circumstances, what is wrong with that? Of course I wouldn’t teach this way. Presumably if you were in my class you wouldn’t just shout personal abuse at me either, when I asked you what your reasons were for the things you claimed. Right?

Not that there’s anything wrong with calling me a fatty! (This is a blog, after all.) But I think it’s a bit weird to shout at people that they have fat asses and then get all hurt that the response to this sort of thing is high-handed rather than duly respectful. Respect has to be earned, John. It isn’t something you are entitled to, regardless of your own behavior.

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john c. halasz 05.13.11 at 3:08 am

BTW Pierre Menard was the founding Lt. Gov. of Illinois. There’s a max prison in S. Illinois named after him.

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rm 05.13.11 at 3:22 am

Perhaps JCH is making an argument that we all might agree with if it were applied to “Heart of Rock & Roll” by Huey Lewis & the News: who is this joker to be defining a genre he has no authority over? I struggle to construct a comprehensible argument out of JCH’s high-concept trolling. I dunno.

Why am I adding one more comment to a trainwreck thread? Well, he sounds sincere. This blogging thing seems to expose how one’s mind works sometimes, and so the trainwrecks can be interesting for the psychological states on display.

It’s like we’re all at fault for not being able to hear all of his internal monologues even though he can’t lay them out clearly enough in words for anyone to follow. It’s like he operates on numerous complex assumptions that he thinks are so self-evident that we must all be stupid and/or malicious if we don’t share them. It’s like he has a very tenuous grasp on the concept of a self/other boundary.

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john c. halasz 05.13.11 at 6:14 am

Huey Lewis? Really?

The problem is that arguments over taste and tact occur over the fault line between saying and showing. And obviously, such issues can be much better and more importantly directed than here. But if one attempts to articulate the issues, one gets accused of being overly verbose and “complex”, but if one doesn’t sufficiently articulate, one gets accused of failing to make a sufficient argument. I took objection to the “Fleet Foxes” tune, because it wasn’t so fleet and foxy. And I offered as a ground bass examples and rough sketches of ” the blues” and made the point that the FF’s had lost their own referential thread. They’re not awful or unskilled, but they missed their mark. You can agree or disagree, but it’s really not that “complex” or obscurely presuppositioned.

There are limits to the effectiveness of arguments. My problem with Holbo is that he’d much rather “win” an argument than, ya know, entendre.

But I like it dirty anyway.

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John Holbo 05.13.11 at 7:51 am

“the FF’s had lost their own referential thread … they missed their mark.”

What was their mark, according to you? And what makes you think they missed it? (Sorry, we’ve come so far. It seems a shame to stop short without at least getting some hint – some saying and/or showing of the argument.)

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Martin Bento 05.13.11 at 10:14 am

rm, now you’re getting to it. Halasz has repeatedly explicitly refused to respond to my comments in this thread, limiting himself to that brilliant argument: stuff it! Now, he hides from his own words by claiming he did not mean them (ironies and bad jokes), and changes the subject by attempting to re-litigate an old argument about Marx. And look how he reacts to criticism when he doesn’t ignore it. Holbo accused Halasz of having “a hilariously strict and overly dogmatic theory of the blues” (#30). Halasz responded (#32):

“as if I haven’t empirically heard the rough range of what I’m talking about, and as if I haven’t encountered that cheap pseudo-Wittgensteinian move/excuse before”

Does calling Halasz dogmatic assert anything about what he has “empirically” heard? What does it mean to say that Holbo is arguing “as if” these things are not true? Does Holbo have any way to know whether they are true? I very much doubt it. Did he claim to? No. The truth is that he made his comment without any reference to or subtext regarding Halasz’s personal experience, about which he presumably knows approximately nothing. Yet Halasz is reading his comment against a background of such knowledge. Halasz doesn’t literally attribute such knowledge to him, but his comment is only meaningful as a attack on Holbo if Holbo has such knowledge and nonetheless writes “as if” it is not true. Only if Holbo knows that Halasz has heard such a tremendous variety of blues can there be any objection to the fact that this is not acknowledged in Holbo’s statement (nor is it denied, or course). And Halasz was clearly objecting, though he may try to deny it retrospectively as with other statements he can’t defend. Halasz’s interlocutor is not actually Holbo; it is a demon in his head. A random stranger on the Internet is not privy to the secrets of your soul, but a homunculus ambling and muttering in the back of your skull – he can have read all the files.

Hence an accusation of dogmatism is both an assertion about what Halasz has “empirically” heard, and a “pseudo-Wittgensteinain move”. What Holbo said has nothing to do with either of these things, of course, but they are associations called up for Halasz, and, since he is arguing with a demon from his mind, he reflexively attributes his own associations to the demon.

And this stuff is all over the place. When I wrote that thousands of black people played blues on guitars (#39), I, of course, was not making a categorical statement that blues could only be made by black people and only on guitars, as Halasz interpreted it. But he also interpreted that I was attributing that view to him. In that paragraph, I was, indeed, restating his views plainly to make their absurdity more plain, but not in that particular line. That was just setting the scene, and I think any reasonable reader would see that. But somehow Halasz hears these words referring to him, quite like a stereotypical paranoid thinking television commercials are directed at him personally. When your interlocutors are in your own skull, everything they say has to be in reference to you, because your mind is the entirety of their universe.

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John Holbo 05.13.11 at 10:31 am

Just for the record – and not that anyone else is still reading at this point: I would like to say that, in addition to having an unduly dogmatic theory of the blues, John Halasz also has an unduly dogmatic and, presumably, a priori – or at least non-a posteriori – theory of the adiposity of my posterior. Really I have quite a small butt. But I’m sure if I pointed out that John Holbo, qua Exhibit A, is quite a decisive counter-example to Halasz’ general theory of John Holbo, I would be told that I am neglecting the distinction between subsumptive judgment and reflective judgment. Or am a low-down Humean. Or something.

Which is not to deny John’s right to say I have a fat ass, and perhaps there is some higher plane of Absolute Spirit, Coming To Know Itself As Itself, on which my butt is so fat I beep when I back up. This being a blog and all.

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Martin Bento 05.13.11 at 8:01 pm

BTW, the Pierre Menard comment was a reference to Borges, not to some obscure politician. I do not think it an obscure reference. I was specifically commenting not on the reconstructed authorship of the Quixote per se, but on what Borges has said he discovered as a technique in writing this piece: pretending some body of work exists and commenting on it.

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Salient 05.13.11 at 9:19 pm

John Halasz also has an unduly dogmatic and, presumably, a priori – or at least non-a posteriori – theory of the adiposity of my posterior.

Dude, count your blessings, consider: this has gone so far ’round the bend, he could have equally coherently referred to yo’ ass as “the sublime and funky love that I crave.” Or… yo’ arguments. Or something.

Still, obviously, I prefer a better matching of an economy of means, to let the music soar.

No doubt this is meant to be inspirational. It is at any rate exemplary.

But I like it dirty anyway.

…here we are just reminded every so often that he likes to think of himself as a performer. This is not enlightening.

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Martin Bento 05.13.11 at 10:09 pm

in #76, “I do not think it an obscure reference.”, I meant to say “I did not think it an obscure reference.” I’m not trying to bash people for missing references. Everyone here knows some things no one else here does. Even Halasz.

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Martin Bento 05.14.11 at 12:58 am

re: the Holbovian butt.

Sure, Holbo, but that’s you. You should see the butt on that homunculus. Looks like he’s getting sodomized by a pumpkin.

Nice to see salient chime in.

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John Holbo 05.14.11 at 2:52 am

The whole transcendental/empirical divide can really put the ‘Grunde’ back in ‘dazu muß die Vorstellung des Raumes schon zum Grunde liegen’. As the glossy Kantian lady’s magazines are always asking, in those ’12 things every girl should know about space and time’ pieces: ‘does this necessary condition of the very possibility of experience make my butt look fat?’

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john c. halasz 05.14.11 at 3:01 am

Jeez! This thread is still goin’ on? Let’s just bust a cap in its fat ass. eh? I made what ever point I had to make @43. If I choose a low, mean tone, then that is because it fits the topic, “taste and tact”, matching means to ends, tools to tasks.

Martin:

If I responded to the arbitrary charge of “dogmatism” with a claim to fairly broad acquaintance, why is that response not apposite or “correct”? (And I offered actual examples, assuming they’d be generally known). But why you tryin’ so obsessively to prove my sins, (which might be. empirically, a bit beyond yo’ ken)? Unlike others here, I just don’t assume I’m “clean”. But, yes, I did catch the Borges allusion. I was just bring it back on topic, to the penitentiary you’d want to confine me in.

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John Holbo 05.14.11 at 3:24 am

“I made what ever point I had to make @43.”

This won’t do, John, because back at 43 you were still pushing the ‘songs with the word ‘blues’ in the title have to be blues songs’ line, which you have since come to realize is no good.

“Here is a song deploying as elements hymnal high harmonies and Anglo-Saxon folk melodies, – nothing wrong per se with that,- that then is titled “Helplessness Blues”, when it has nothing to do with the blues, however delimited, neither in it’s musical elements, nor it’s lyrical content or attitude, nor in its specific “economy”. And “Helplessness Blues” as a title is so generic and banal that it amounts to something between a tautology and an oxymoron.”

The tautology and oxymoron stuff was also a bit off, but let that pass. (You have a dictionary, so you can correct those problems yourself.)

You have said that you have a relatively simple – not complex, not obscurely presuppositioned argument that Fleet Foxes were trying to do [insert something here] but, due to a failure to [inset something here], they instead only [insert something here]. Now: what goes between the brackets? Originally your idea was that FF were trying and failing to write an authentic blues song. But you are no longer defending this line. So what is your new line? You are reluctant to state your position because you say it is quite simple and clear. But, if so, that seems to me more an argument in favor of stating it, at least briefly. Or at least dropping a hint as to what it might be.

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john c. halasz 05.14.11 at 4:14 am

You just a hound dog, Holbo. Always sniffing and barking up the wrong trail. You think you can endlessly argue, when you actually have to hear/understand what you’re arguing about. Professional deformation. There are no X’s and Y’s here to be inserted. There are actual musical/lyrical “ideas” involved, which signify in ways different from concepts or propositions.

“Originally your idea was that FF were trying and failing to write an authentic blues song.”

No, that wasn’t the point. The “original” point was that, given a thumb-nail sketch of “the blues”, as a) involving certain spare musical elements and b) amounting to a kind of native and unlearned existentialism, the FF’s had just lost the thread of reference, with hymnal harmonies and banal complaints. That’s what I called a “category mistake”, though apparently you don’t think that can occur in songs rather than propositions. The FF’s were collegiate, bourgie, and rather too complacent in their “sound”. “False sublation”. Though I can see why it might be to your taste.

But this whole business hasn’t been worth over-egging.

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John Holbo 05.14.11 at 6:50 am

“But this whole business hasn’t been worth over-egging.”

I think it’s been kind of incredible, actually. Let’s keep it up! I don’t see why you say FF ‘had lost the thread of reference’. Because, after all, you correctly inferred that by ‘blues’ they meant blues. Which, I take it, they did. Of course, ‘helplessness blues’ is an incongruous phrase. But actually it’s pretty common to use words in incongruous ways in poetry – even in ordinary language. (Do you disagree?) Poetry is full of category mistakes, if you want to call them that. Creatively nonstandard uses of language. In this case the song is, in part, about overthinking authenticity (I think) so the language of the lyrics enacts a certain discomfort with its own linguistic skin, you might say. It’s overcontemplative yet anthemic. Which is, of course, an incongruous way to play it.

“The FF’s were collegiate, bourgie, and rather too complacent in their “sound”.”

Ah, you see this is perfectly clear, although I don’t agree with it. You think FF is an annoying college band. (I love the absent-minded faux-shrewdness of putting ‘sound’ in quotes like that, by the way.) But then it turns out that your side of the thread has been one long exercise in false sublation – since that rather apt term is handy, we may as well lay hands on it. You made the fact that FF bugs you sound so lofty, yet weighty. When there was really nothing to it. The whole time. This sort of thing is, as you suspect, very much to my taste.

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peter ramus 05.14.11 at 6:56 pm

Nevertheless, as many of its YouTube commenters note, “Lorelai'”s melody is a recognizable permutation of Dylan’s “4th Time Around,” which for reasons of Dylan’s own is in turn a musical and thematic parsing of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” Lennon’s famous early appropriation of a “Dylanesque” theme set to a simple but striking melody, one of Lennon’s best early tries at going orthogonal to the received melodies of genre rock ‘n roll, capped by the wickedly off-kilter accompaniment of Harrison’s sitar nestled in George Martin’s meticulously constructed instrumentation. An artful little piece of pop music if ever there was one.

“4th time Around” should be folk music, what with only the plain old harmonica and guitar and maybe–earnest voice going for it, no exotic instrumentation at all, but Dylan’s melody actually mangages to artfully extend and complicate the resolution of that simple but arresting opening line originally taken by Lennon’s melody, just as the loopy witness Dylan gives to an absurd relationship in his lyrics manages to revise and extend the more coyly allusive remarks of the member from Liverpool as well. It doesn’t sound so much like folk music at all, unless it falls in there now, because, well, Dylan.

So we have an elaborately constructed recording of popular music rechristened as what some would call folk music, transformed again by “Lorelai’s” apparent resolution of “4th Time Around'”s melodic line into an even more refined elaboration of the original, though perhaps Fleet Foxes never in fact heard what use Dylan put to “Norwegian Wood,” contrary to what YouTube folks are saying, but riffed directly off the original, which, surely, being of a certain age, they’d be familiar with (we are still teaching our children Beatles, I trust) and came up with their own good clean college try.

Occasionally a catchy idea will crop up in music and players will take it up and work out all of its nice consequences. Lennon’s musical phrase gained a little attention of this sort, as did rocking the sitar for that matter. With “Lorelai,” the not precisely folk material of Dylan responding to the refined sound of the Beatles gets studiously re-refined by Fleet Foxes.

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john c. halasz 05.14.11 at 7:07 pm

@84, etc.:
Mpalamo.

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john c. halasz 05.14.11 at 7:10 pm

@85:

And I get accused of being too verbose when force to “defend” myself?

But, yes, there are musical (and lyrical) lines of descent and inference… and disintegration.

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Martin Bento 05.14.11 at 9:13 pm

Halasz said:

“If I responded to the arbitrary charge of “dogmatism” with a claim to fairly broad acquaintance, why is that response not apposite or “correct”?”

Wow. An actual counterargument. Congratulations. See, guys, he can do it. About this, 2 things:

1) Expertise does not preclude dogmatism, far from it. Jesuits, Biblical Pharisees, and Communist Culture Ministers are famously expert and famously dogmatic (note: a generalization, not a categorical statement). Expertise can make you more effectively dogmatic.
2) The objection was to you attacking Holbo for writing “as if” you were not well-acquainted with the blues. He wasn’t, of course. What he said did not rely on assertions regarding your expertise on this, about which he presumably knows nothing and did not claim to know anything. Same applies to writing “as if” you were not well acquainted with “pseudo-Wittgensteinian moves”. He has no way of knowing if you are or not, and his argument does not rely on such knowledge. Is Holbo supposed to write with reference to knowledge you believe you have, but have not yet claimed, much less proven, as a premise?

“I was just bring it back on topic, to the penitentiary you’d want to confine me in.”

Did anyone think I was exaggerating to speak of paranoia? In this thread, I have attacked your statements and I have ridiculed you, but I have said nothing to suggest that I would imprison you. That was the homunculus muttering again. I suppose you’re going to claim this, too, is a joke, since it is impossible for me to see how you can defend it as a serious statement. So what is the joke? Should I ask the homunculus?

I’ll explain my joke, since you don’t seem to have gotten it, or you wouldn’t see the Borges reference as off-topic. You speak as though you have argued things you have not argued and established things you have not established, and even as though others should accept these things as a premise. Borges’ story Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote is written in the form of a review of the work of a non-existent author, covering non-existent works and reconstructed authorship of part of Don Quixote. So I was suggesting your presumption was similar to the conceit Borges deployed in that story and elsewhere. Since this habit is not unique to you, I nominate “Pierre Menard argumentation” as a term for people who speak or argue as if they have established things that they have not.

On your question of why I am picking on you, oddly phrased as “proving your sins”: has it occurred to you what you are? I come to this thread to discover some new music I might like and perhaps discuss it and detect stenchous farts like the following: “absurd, delusional idea of “logical semantics””, “hollow, indiscriminate, self-indulgent, but ever combative nominalism” etc. This is over disagreeing about the merits of a song. When you detect farts, you know from what kind of orifice they emerged. So I chimed in, initially just illustrating how you were indeed pushing a “hilariously strict and dogmatic theory of the blues”, just as Holbo had said. And you responded by telling me to “stuff it!”. So I decided to have some fun at your expense. The insults I levied at you are no worse than those you levied, but are put forth lightly and, I hope, with humor. I think they also have a core of truth.

Now you say you chose this “low, mean tone” because it suits the subject. The subject is the FF record, actually, but I take it you mean the blues. This tone suits the blues? Which blues? The “Absurd, Delusional Idea of Logical Semantics Blues”? The “Duplicitous, Argumentative Two-stepping Gamesmanship Blues”? If this is the tone of the blues you listen to, you must have some strange creatures on your Ipod. Besides which, you are usually like this. Quiggan has explicitly told you to drop the attitude, and you said no, but have actually cooled it on his threads. Otherwise, this thread is classic Halasz.

Holbo.

He didn’t just make his objections to FF sound lofty, yet weighty, he explicitly said this was not an argument about musical taste. Let’s roll the tape (# 32):

“This really isn’t an argument or tiff about taste, musical or other, since mine are as perverse as any other, but rather about your [Holbo’s – M] own presumption of “authority” or preogative [sic], based on no criteria or constraints whatsoever.”

Of course, John Holbo made no such presumption, nor asserted such a prerogative. But “John Holbo” did. It’s that damed homunculus again. He was always the actual topic of discussion. Halasz said so himself.

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Martin Bento 05.14.11 at 9:42 pm

Peter Romus, I would like to apologize on behalf of the Crooked Timber community for the fact that, as soon as you popped up here, Halasz insulted you. It’s normal for Halasz, but not for the rest of us. You probably thought you were entering into a thread about a Fleet Foxes record. It was originally such, but has become a thread, basically about John Halasz and those of us who have lost patience with him. And, Halasz, it’s not the number of words you use, but the pretentious way you use them, that makes you verbose.

On the record itself, I too hear echoes of 60’s and 70’s music, but think Holbo has a point nonetheless. For example, the melody of “The Shrine” reminds me of “John Barleycorn Must Die”. But it’s just an echo. This record doesn’t actually sound much like Traffic, CSN(Y), (even less) Dylan, etc. There is an influence from outside the pop/rock music spectrum. Perhaps it is Sacred Harp, although I think that’s jumping out at people because it’s more different from what they usually listen to than either 60’s or contemporary rock. The melodies here are mostly not buried in the texture, for example, but set out in separate lines from the harmony, as in pop (especially), rock, and soul. I do think there is something to this Radiohead parallel as well. Perhaps partly that the focus seems more on creating a characteristic sound than highly unique melodies. But I would have to listen more before I was actually prepared to argue that.

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John Holbo 05.15.11 at 1:51 am

Peter Ramus: “Nevertheless, as many of its YouTube commenters note, “Lorelai’”s melody is a recognizable permutation of Dylan’s “4th Time Around,” which for reasons of Dylan’s own is in turn a musical and thematic parsing of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,””

Belle pointed this out to me. I hadn’t noticed, but you’re quite right.

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