An English Literature Professor Reviews Tunes From Songlab 


In the year 2017 AD, the waning popularity of album reviews can be viewed as a sad commentary on our times. That could have a lot to do with the waning popularity of albums in the download era. People have become accustomed to cherry picking a song here, a song there. The idea of listening to 12 or so songs in an order someone else selected has become kind of a quaint notion, like placing doilies under glasses of ice water at fancy restaurants. 

Currently, even the latest Beyonce album won't rate more than 2 paragraphs from People magazine. Rolling Stone—formerly the last word in music reviews—has shrunk its review section down to virtually nothing. While longish film reviews have survived in literary magazines like The New Yorker,  album reviews seem to be headed inexorably down the path to certain extinction. 

But music reviews live on here at! 

The precise yet passionately wrought milk matter, "Smart but not too smart," in the words of guest milkmate Mark Muller, cries out for intelligent review. Toward that end, this site has solicited the talents of a bona fide English Literature professor who teaches for a renowned West Coast university. Alas, the professor's identity must remain anonymous; her academic employers might look askance at her moonlighting for the likes of  Placing reviews on our cosy place in cyberspace may not be exactly what the same aesthetes had in mind for "publish or perish."

The aforementioned highly sophisticated critic normally expounds upon the virtues of Romantic writers from the Victorian era. Names like Oscar Wilde, D.H. Lawrence, and the Bronte sisters might or might not ring a bell. The Milkmen's work has maintained a certain timeless quality over the decades; thus the current Songlab material is particularly ripe for academic analysis from a historical perspective. 

Let's find out how the Eng Lit Prof's first foray into "pop" reviews turned out ...

On The Dunes 

I have been seduced into a sort of silence about “On the Dunes,” finding it hard to bring a critical perspective to it in the same way I would struggle with a new novel that I instantly love or a wonderful movie—you just know that you are intoxicated and it does not seem to require any further explanation because, at least for a while, it is enough just to know how pleasurable it feels to have it washing over you. 

In this regard, though, it is easy to appreciate the reference to Edgar Allan Poe {"we loved with a love that was more than love, Pamela and me"} and the way that the song’s sexiness derives some of its pleasure from a dark and mysterious undertone. And in Poe’s case the artwork is always about the artwork, and in poems such as “Annabel Lee” or a short story like “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe defies attempts at trying to explain it or give concrete meaning to it, encouraging the reader to simply enjoy the experience, once again reinforcing (and affirming) my own reticence on some level. 

Not only in its reference to Poe but in the rest of its rich lyrics and perfect instrumentation it creates wonderful imagery—producing another world both sonically and visually, taking the listener out of themselves and the limits of their own world to briefly experience something else (or not so briefly if you have it on repeat as I do). 

At the same time, however, it has the quality of feeling familiar on some level, like it is so perfectly put together that you just cannot imagine it to be any other way, and when you have heard it once it immediately starts to seep into your unconscious. Part of its beauty, then, is that it both transports you to another world, while making that world feel as if it is a memory. 

Dickheads and Fuckfaces 

I feel very lucky to be the recipient of "Dickheads and Fuckfaces," which was perfect to listen to for the first time in a car with an amazing stereo, and slightly concerned about the children passing by on the sidewalk, but not concerned enough to detract from my enjoyment. 

I am again very impressed by the diversity of the music and how skilled the lyricist is at writing for multiple very different genres. This song has that classic rock feel, and I can definitely see it as a sort of anthem in an angsty film; it yields itself to that with its straightforward refrain, and the delivery of the verses as statements rather than melodic lines. 

When I am listening to the song I can see images as if they are from a movie during a montage using this song, involving college kids in a classic (sports?) car, and using some of the scenarios from the song, especially the smoking of weed. While the chorus might be taken as pretty straightforward, as I mentioned, the song actually makes some pretty creative use of words, such as the deployment of "wastin" in two of its forms, and again "dealer" and "dealt." It also uses the poetic strategy of reversing the syntactical order of sentences, such as the opening "straight into traffic, you called me to taste it." Such a strategy puts an emphasis on different words, and engages the listener in a more collaborative process (although of course mostly sub-consciously) of making meaning of the song. The speaker/singer also manages to demonstrate a self-awareness that shows that he is not just a disgruntled guy who is pissed off for no reason, but has some sort of critical/ analytical perspective of the world, making the song more appealing for a more sophisticated audience, while still being attractive to the listener who will simply appreciate its raw lament of the human condition. 

The Whippoorwill 

"The Whippoorwill" is seemingly simple; there are minimal instruments playing simultaneously, and the verses and choruses are fairly short. The fact that it comes across sounding simple and effortless is thanks, I think, to how fluidly all of the elements work together and are carefully thought out. I think part of the reason the vocals sound fairly simple, for example, has to do with the fact that the instrumentation is just as good as the vocals; throughout the song the instrument playing the melody changes, keeping the song interesting and engaging, even if the same phrase is being repeated. The instruments also play creative melodies that are just as catchy as the ones that are sung. One of these instruments, sounding like a warm flute, represents the voice of the whippoorwill, which is a clever touch since the whippoorwill's words are the subject of the song. 

The song reflects the happy aspect of the fact that the singer has eventually listened to the Whippoorwill, so the song has that kind of happy, dancey, light-heartedness throughout—in that way, even though we only learn of the happy outcome at the very end of the song and we want to know more details about it, the music is actually itself an indication of how things have turned out since that mood colors the whole thing, even looking backward to having a broken heart. 

This is the kind of song that feels like it's over too soon so I just have it on repeat so that I can get more of it since I'm always disappointed when it's over. It also very quickly got stuck in my head and I found myself humming it without even knowing it. Also, I always want the Jimi Hendrix guitar tone part to be longer! 

The Only Game in Town 

I am once again impressed by the range of Lory's ability both as a songwriter and a vocalist. I must confess that I am not usually very drawn to country music, but I genuinely enjoy this song. For one thing the lyrics are once again fresh, unexpected, and also absolutely perfect. There even seem to be a couple of words that I am not familiar with. I can't tell whether in a cocktail dress she is "diaphanous" {yep} or if it is something else. I have just used this word in my dissertation chapter, so I think I am hearing that because I want you to be singing that word, but it might be something equally intriguing that I can't decipher. The song is catchy and I found myself being able to sing it after only a few listens, which I think might be true of the country genre in general, but while it is catchy it also has a complexity that is compelling, rather than redundant (which is how I feel about most country music—the redundancy, that is). The song paints a very vivid picture—I can see the characters and the town. 

Light and Stars

"Light and Stars"  is maybe the "happiest" of the songs that you have sent me so far. I like that it has a "space" sound to it, but without that being over-bearing or distracting from the beauty of the music. I like all of the images that are provoked by this song, from the stars "joining hands" to the thrilling words of the chorus that have a happiness embedded in them: "we are made of light and stars." It made me think about one of the many wonderful things that we discussed when standing at the overlook in Santa Monica. You said how being able to see the night sky and all of the stars can help to put things into perspective, and it seems similarly that to feel connected to them in this very intimate way that is expressed in the song is also to experience a certain "rightness" or "fitness" about the world. I like the multiple layers of instrumentation that really compel the song forward and seem to be the proper musical embodiment of the light and stars being "choreographed" and holding hands; I will probably have to explain this more in person as I am not sure how to properly refer to all of the individual parts. 

"Close to home a single sun is shining on us, all is one" is a beautiful, poetic line. I love it every time I hear it. This song takes some pretty heady concepts and makes them accessible and exciting, but the headiness of it is a key part of what helps to lift my spirits as I am listening to it. 

Marian From Kazistan 

So, I have listened to your song about seven times in a row now. I believed you when you said you were good, so I had fairly high expectations, but I also left room to be impressed: and that remaining space has been completely filled and has in fact been exceeded. I don't want this to sound fake by coming across as hyperbolic, but I am sincere. I was first struck by the melody, which is creative, unpredictable, and holds the interest. Then, your voice is wonderful! I think you sound very sexy on the phone, and hearing you sing (even though you sang a bit for me in person) it is not surprising that your voice is so well-suited to the music. I hope this won't be offensive, but it reminds a bit of Neil Young if he could sing better (haha) —there is a certain quality in your voice that is intriguing and distinct. I also love the concept and origin of the song—the music somehow perfectly suits the lyrics, which are wistful and project an idealized picture that it seems the speakers also know will not be a reality, but they dream of it nonetheless. Or maybe it's just that your music reveals that side of it—yes, I think it is the music that uncovers and makes manifest those layers. I am thoroughly enjoying this stress reduction treatment. These words do not do the song justice, but I hope they will give you a sense of how your song is making me feel. 

Head and Heart 

So, I am already obsessively listening to this new song on repeat: wow! I REALLY like it! And it is cool to get to hear it while it is a work in progress. It already sounds incredible to me, so I'd love to hear what things still need fine tuning. The lyrics are wonderful in this song! So much music has such vapid lyrics, but in this song and the other one there is a creativity and poetic lyricism that is beautiful. This was the perfect thing to come home to, make myself a cup of tea and just sit on the bed and enjoy. 

River and Trains  When I took a break to fold laundry and make lunch I listened to the new song for the first time and have listened to it several times since. I love how it shows the versatility of your musical skills. I think it especially showcases your range as a vocalist with this more melodic, softer piece. I like the harmonizations. There are also some really lovely lyrics, like the "plump ripe pear"! I like how it starts softer and more sparse and builds a little instrumentally as it goes. It definitely has the Americana sound but it's subtle enough that someone like me who wouldn't normally go out of my way to listen to that kind of music can enjoy it. I really just love listening to you sing! 

Making The Rounds 

So, I am going to need to think about this a little longer, but I my initial response to the call of Milk Nation is that I like the song opening with the sound of the truck and the milk bottles jostling to start the song: it is suggestive and creates intrigue and anticipation. It is also a pleasant sound. I find the ending with the cows mooing to be amusing, but it strikes me as the kind of thing that if you were driving in your car with the sound turned up high because you're really getting into the song when the cows start mooing it sort of shatters the mood and would maybe make you want to turn it down, or even, possibly, to skip to the next track. It reminds me of songs (I don't remember them specifically) that I would really enjoy, but feel kind of jolted at the end when the music stopped and it was followed by unexpected sounds that weren't necessarily annoying, but did not feel like they followed smoothly: with those songs I would turn it off or switch to the next one because the sounds at the end sort of "ruined" the mood of what came before. Like I said, this is just my initial reaction, but I experienced it pretty vividly, as you may deduce from this probably redundant explanation. Maybe it will still prove to be helpful somehow. 

And oh yes: I am really enjoying this song! Cow moos and all, but especially the creative lyrics and interesting melodic transitions. 

Long For You 

As with the other songs, the lyrics of this song are perfectly matched to the music. The music evokes images of dancers, which is of course reflected in the lyrics themselves, including one of my favorite images from the song: "In a narrow passageway, our spirits dance paso doble." This line so perfectly encapsulates the fantasy aspect of the song—it is only their spirits that dance, but it also gives it a concreteness that is felt in the reality of the speaker's desire. Of course the lyrics of the chorus are also about wishing rather than having, and I can feel that longing in the insistence of the percussion, but also in the melody itself, especially in the lines where the melody lifts in correspondence with the lyrics: "I'm sure you're one of a kind" and "when I couldn't make up my mind"; I think this is because the melody here is somewhat unexpected but also very satisfying in the way that it navigates the unexpected pattern of notes. As with all good poetry about desire, there is a sense that although the speaker does not actually possess the desired object, the act of writing the song and expressing the desire as well as capturing the "spirit" of the gipsy in the song (her beauty as a dancer is replicated by the music and captured in the descriptions) are all ways that the speaker DOES achieve some degree of possession. 

I do not know what the music for dancing paso doble would sound like, although I would guess that it might be the kind of music in the song, but I also think you could do the cha cha to the song, which is a dance I really enjoy, so it makes me want to dance to it . . . with you.