Musical Makeover | MUSIC: Rock & Roll Quarterly | Indy Week
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Musical Makeover 

Interesting, yet illogical: Duke professor of philosophy David Sanford's takes on an eclectic selection of current releases

A longtime philosopher of logic at Duke University, David Sanford is a deep thinker and a music lover, mostly of classical and jazz (when asked his favorite classical composer, he demures: "If I had to say, Brahms"). Every morning on his way to the office, Sanford tunes into local jazz station WNCU, continuing a love for jazz started back in his New York City days where, as a student, he did enough time in smoky jazz clubs to catch Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, Charlie Mingus and Miles perform in the flesh. Lucky devil.

His first musical memory (around 1940) is listening to "a fruity tenor" sing "Now We Are Six," and "When We Were Very Young," the poems of A. A. Milne (of Winnie the Pooh fame) set to music; he later relived this moment when he bought the LP in 1973, the year his youngest daughter Kate was born. He has passed on his love of music: Both daughters are musicians, and Kate is a professional cellist. (Sanford reveals that he joined the children's church choir as a youth, until he was "asked to not sing.") He goes on to reminisce about hearing Cesar Frank's "Violin Sonata" several years ago, a tune familiar from his childhood. While listening to its gentle strains, he was taken on a mental tour of his parents' old Detroit house, its high ceilings and long hallways encoded within the sonata he first heard and loved there.

Sanford's musical history roughly follows the technological revolutions of the latter half of the past century. In the '50s he bought 78s for 50 cents apiece: Bach concertos and--rare then and now--Stravinsky songs. One Christmas in the '60s, he gave his mom a 45 rpm record player; this was at a time when he leaned toward Turk Murphy, who covered the songs of Dixieland bands. Later still, he collected and still owns "five feet of LPs," including some jazz in mono, such as Coltrane doing his inimitable "A Love Supreme." More recently, he's been listening to Etta James on CD. It's plain to see that music has shaped David Sanford's life, even as it helped rescue him from the cloister of academia. Below, find his impromptu reactions to eight new songs.

Tenacious D, "Rock Your Socks Off" (Epic)

Our Indy critic says: Jack Black and Kyle Gass' acoustic arena-rock duo, aka "the best band in the world." Beavis and Butthead, 'nuff said.(Staring out the window while he listens) "I didn't get much excitement from the tune. It sounds derivative without the energy of genuine rock 'n' roll. I found the lyrics to be amusing, sort of, but these guys are wannabes, interspersing words like 'shit' and 'fuck' with Bach riffs. They're just showing off." Grade: C

Slipknot, "People = Shit" (Roadrunner)

Scary, Ed Gein-esque Iowa dudes with clown make-up (where "clown" equals John Wayne Gacy). Spit-up rap metal from beneath Hell (a phrase I stole from my brother, who should know).(While listening to this song, Sanford wrestles with the complexities of the inner sleeve, as if he were struggling to unfold and refold a recalcitrant roadmap.)

"It works. The music keeps driving. The singer, if he's not really nuts, does a good job of portraying extreme disturbed psychosis. 'People = shit' is an original sentence, unlike the adolescent posturing of Tenacious D. This is not the kind of music I would come home from work and listen to, but it's a successful expression of psychosis of the paranoid schizophrenic variety." Grade: "Too intrinsically unpleasant" for a straight A, so A-

Bubba Sparxxx, "Ugly" (Beat Club/Interscope)If the trailer's a rockin', don't come a knockin'. Unrepentant redneck Georgia cracker does straight-up rap--and pulls it off big time.(Sanford borrows my magnifying glass to peruse the near-microscopic lyrics, obviously unsettled.) "This song reminds me too much of music I turn off whenever it comes on the radio. The lyrics are limited by a very strict meter. There seems to be a lot going on, but the background is just a loop of mindless repetition. Unlike with some of the other music here, I have had some exposure to this, but I have not developed a taste for it. So I hope you'll understand if I do not give it a grade." Grade: ?!

The Strokes, "Soma" (RCA)These New York 20-somethings are the most heavily hyped, fashion-conscious American band in ages (in England, scalpers were making a killing on their concert tickets). They're supposedly a composite of the Velvets, Television, The Stooges and any other hip '70s band you can name check. Oh, and the singer's dad is John Casablancas, longtime owner of the Elite Modeling Agency. (Looking rather nonplussed) "Unfortunately, I couldn't make out the lyrics through the 'thicker' accompaniment; the vocals are buried under the music. It was obvious that things were meant to get a little more important when the music grew more intense--the only structure I could make out--but there was pretty much little variety.

"I wished for a lyric sheet, so that I might have made more sense of things."

Grade: C+

Portastatic featuring Ken Vandermark & Tim Mulvenna, "Hey Salty" (Merge)Superchunker Mac Macaughan's side project/alter ego goes jazz. The track features neo-beatnik lyrics, bongos and strummy guitar.Sanford says: "This song is pleasant, but sounds more like music from behind the potted palm at a wedding reception, in place of chamber music. The singer's falsetto has a rather restricted range. The sound is laid back--not boring, but not restrained like the Modern Jazz Quintet."

Grade: B

The Faint, "Ballad of a Paralyzed Citizen" (Saddle Creek)Melodic, melancholic post-modern music from Omaha (courtesy the Saddle Creek folks). Think '80s synth-pop with a now attitude. Haunting, yet über-danceable.(This track elicits a smile from Sanford.) "The singer per se is not very distinctive, but the scoring of the piece, the relation of the singing to the music, is more complex and interesting: They showed respect for one another. The classical orchestration, from cello to synthesized noises, gives the song variety and makes it more listenable. I especially liked that the voice is scored like another instrument." Grade: A-

The Shins, "Your Algebra" (Sub Pop)Indie pop critical faves whose ethereal debut disc referenced everyone from Brian Wilson to Elliot Smith. "I'm not very much impressed by this song. It sounds rather precious, like Creative Writing 101, but not the best writing in the class. It does have a promising but not accomplished lyric. It strikes me as tasteful but somewhat pretentious."

Grade: C+

The Howling Diablos featuring Kid Rock, "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" (Sire)The Sun catalog goes supernova in your face, courtesy of Kid Rock and crew.(Foot tapping throughout) "Well, um, I like that. I was surprised to hear this music jump ahead 40 years. I'm in more familiar territory. The people seem to be enthusiastic and having fun. I like that kind of music, and would be interested in hearing more. It's an unusual combination, but it works. It's not labored like some of these other songs."

Grade: A

The Independent gives props to Freddy Jenkins at Schoolkids Records for hooking us up with the tunage. EndBlock

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