By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Gershwin the maximalist . . .
“Yeah! And it rocked, and he was every bit as direct and great and as talented and as gifted as Hank Williams. And Brian Eno and Howlin’ Wolf are equally great, and look like strange bedfellows, but they’re not. I just see a human being in each case who’s going for it, and entertaining me in the process.”
Of course, the mainstay of traditional rock-music writing has been its dubious apples-and-oranges mode of argument. Such as, say, pitting the Ramones against the Moody Blues, who did indeed perform terrible punk rock.
“When Lester Bangs was writing about music that way, it was dangerous, and people hadn’t written that way before,” says Brion. “In truth, he was not any kind of party-line guy, ’cause the party line didn’t exist then — he was one of the people who drew it. And for anybody to be disputing whether something’s real in rock & roll? Well, rock & roll is another ancient American art form, like jazz or anything else; at this point they’ve been around for a while, and the rules are written. It’s part of an old tradition that’s just one of the jobs in society, no more or less than being a garbage man or anything else.”
The traditions of which this walking 20th-century music-history book speaks are something he knows a lot about, a hugely advantageous thing that informs the substance and sound of his music with a well-honed and evolving philosophy about music’s possibilities and limitations. But the song itself, he says, will always be far more important than its sonic seasoning.
“I would not call what a lot of people do songs; there are a lot of things I would call performance pieces — it’s this guitar part with this drum part equals this performance piece. Led Zeppelin didn’t write songs; those are performance pieces, the lyrics and melody are almost secondary. You don’t wanna hear anybody else do it; you want to hear those particular people playing that arrangement, and you want to hear that recording of it, you don’t even want to hear the live version.
“Whereas with Hank Williams or Gershwin, play the melody over the chord change and you’ve got, ‘Oh well, that’s such and such’ within a few notes. The real art form of song is the marriage of lyrics to something musical that has that much encoded in its DNA. When that marriage is natural, that sound is an endless fascination.”
Brion draws a line between that and arranging. “This weird form, music, is as mathematical as architecture, and it’s as abstract as monkeys throwing paint at the wall,” he says. “While the sound of the record is less important than the chords and melody, I’m completely obsessed with giving a song a sonic quality where it feels like the odd piece of living sculpture that is an outgrowth from that song’s DNA.”
That’s a liberating concept you’d think would be especially appealing to contemporary musicians, yet Brion views the aesthetic choices of rockers as generally conservative.
“I find the attitude of rock musicians over the past 20 years kind of funny,” he says, “the whole I’m-a-rebel stance. The truth of the matter is, most rock bands are classical musicians and they don’t know it. Because it’s ‘This song starts with this drumbeat, at this time; halfway through, the guitar comes in, playing this part, with all down strokes on the fifth, with a clean sound; at this point you turn on your distortion and you play the barre chord, and then it’s muted at this point . . .’ And every time they play the song, it’s the same thing. That’s classical music!”
As a composer and especially as a producer, the mainly self-taught Brion is not a classical musician. He uses a vast and growing array of nonstandard musical instruments to achieve the deeply personal and oddly moving textures and melodies he makes, like his trusty Chamberlin (an early Mellotron-type keyboard that uses prerecorded analog tapes as its sound source), celestes, ethnic percussion instruments, harmoniums, pump organs, ukuleles and xylophones. It’s a distinctively burnished and even weathered sound whose prevailing avoidance of shiny, sharp synths or digital effects often makes his productions sound like a baby-boomer amalgamation of all the pop music we all grew up with and revered or despised.
A deviant instrumental treatment of a strong composition will give the music staying power, Brion believes, and he backs that up with some interesting science.
“Music is a physical property, it’s accepted by the physics of this universe. And as much as you can have that weird exponential chance expressed by playing four tracks of old instruments — and maybe the tuning’s a little weird on them — all the notes will add up differently throughout the whole piece, and 80 listens down the line, you start hearing those differences.
“It’s similar to getting to know a person,” he says. “You meet somebody, you like them, you want to keep them because of an early impression. But it’s all the little nuances you get to know about people as time goes by that makes you want to continue a relationship. My grandiose, great hope is, I just want things that people can integrate with their lives.”
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