Friday, October 8, 2010

Don Caballero - "Haven't Lived Afro-Pop"

Haven't Lived Afro Pop

The first post here can't not be a Don Caballero song.  I guess that's mostly because the blog itself is named for a (not quite as good) track from a (not quite as good) album.  It's also because Don Cab has consistently been my favorite band that's not already other people's favorite band, and the album this track is from seems to me to be their best.  

I first heard Don Caballero at a friend's house the night I graduated from high school.  It took a few months to fully come around to how different it was from what a high school kid thinks rock music is supposed to be (just not having vocals seemed experimental at the time), but by my first couple years of college I was obsessed with 2 and What Burns Never Returns (their first one, For Respect, is pretty forgettable, directly attributable, I've always assumed, to Ian Williams not having yet dominated the songwriting).  The music seemed impossibly dense for a standard line-up rock band, and it was repetitive just up to the point of ridiculousness, but also constantly in motion.  I hadn't yet heard Steve Reich et al, and so the classical minimalist move of mechanical repetition with subtle variation was brand new to me.  Nor had I started liking the drumming of Bill Bruford or the various other prog drummers Damon Che draws on so heavily.  What I had heard was a lot of other late '90s math rock bands, and the music of Don Cab seemed so much more purposeful than its contemporaries.  It's complexity was confident, and the dense patterns created by the guitar and bass were playful and fun in a way, say, June of 44 could never be.  The opening beat of "Slice Where You Live Like Pie" sounds like you could rap over it, while the guitar entrance sounds like an arpeggiator malfunctioning.

And, then, there I was, nineteen, having seen Don Cab a couple times that year, thinking this is pretty much my favorite band that's not the Beatles or Fugazi and these dudes drop American Don.  At this point Ian Williams had muscled the other guitar player out of the band and had taken over all composing with the help of his various looping pedals and a new bass player who was happy to assert no personality on his instrument.  He has also somehow managed to talk Damon Che into chilling out and submitting his drumming to the music more than ever before.  (After a hostile break up, Che would start a Don Cab cover band with him as the drummer and go tour for several years claiming to still be the band.  I saw it.  It was okay).  On this track, Williams's loop-generated compositional style is realized more fully than anywhere else.   For the first four minutes it's all short tight melodic phrases layered on top of each other, coming fairly evenly, every four or eight bars.  The guitar and bass are clean-toned (as throughout the album) and we're mostly in a joyful D-major.  The song title, which I've always assumed should be seen vis-a-vis the idea of "living the blues,"* refers to the afropop guitar lines that Williams draws on so heavily here, not as homage or pastiche, but as faithless inspiration -- though I would only more fully hear that years later when I started listening to highlife and soukous, etc.  Then at 4:02 that ass-kicking bass line comes in, the tangle of guitar patterns has its last minute of glory, and at 5:24 we get a demonstration of how a such a tangle is constructed.  At 6:53, Che is cut loose to drum like he did back in the day.  His crazy long fills rule, of course, but in a way that can't touch the beauty of the rock-minimalist masterpiece that they conclude.

*My high school music teacher said to the jazz band when we complained about having to be at school at 7am to practice: "You've gotta live the blues to play the blues."