by Sean
Please note: MP3s are only kept online for a short time, and if this entry is from more than a couple of weeks ago, the music probably won't be available to download any more.


Here in Krakow, there's no internet at home. Though last fall I spent several months waiting for broadband to be hooked up, forced onto the patio (in the rain) to leech wifi from upstairs, this is the first time in years where I've been living somewhere that there's simply no access. I know, I know: what a difficult life I lead! The reason I bring this up is not to talk of personal fortune or mis-, but rather to reflect on how it's changed some things.

I have a laptop and so often download my emails at an internet cafe, then answer them (leaving them queued and unsent) when at home. These days someone mentions an unfamiliar name - "Ira Glass", say, - and I can't just google them to find out who they are. No, I sit here trying to figure it out. Wasn't he the bad guy in Unbreakable?, I wonder. Or: He sounds like the kind of dude who would be involved with Mad About You, with Paul Reiser. The one thing I'm certain: He's a radio guy. Or a writer. Or maybe a psychiatrist. He's definitely got a good sense of humour. Ira Glass. I wonder for a moment if he's one of the siblings in a Salinger story.

Similarly, when I'm writing something, I sometimes lack a fact. What's the name of the Budapest airport? Sometimes it's something I should know, but I've just forgotten. What's the name of that hat that flappers wear? My memory's soft from years of Wikipedia and search-engines. I don't retain anything. Who needs to remember Ferihegy Airport or cloche hats? Well writers do, apparently. So sometimes I'm stuck for something, unable to google it - "What's a city on the Black Sea?!!" - and since I can't answer I get frustrated. I'm unable to just let it lie, unable to leave it blank to fill in later, and I just throw the whole thing out the window. Fuck that idea! Whatever I'm writing - email, story, novel! - takes an abrupt swerve. No longer are they visiting Bulgaria. Screw that! Now it's to Croatia, where I know there's a coastline.

So not-having-internet is affecting things more deeply than I would have expected.

And then there's the matter of music. I have some stuff I've only recently got. Or only recently am revisiting. And I don't know much about it. Normally I would just look the bands up on Wikipedia, speak eloquently, and appear knowledgeable. But here, right now in my apartment on ulica Wielopole, I can't. There's no pulling a fast one on you guys. I have no idea what I'm listening to. Or in other words: I have no idea what I'm talking about.

How, I wonder, does that affect the music? Is it a purer listening? Is it a truer one, to be without any truths? What do I hear?

Fóstbræður - "Swing Low". In Rejkyavik I bought a three-CD set by Fóstbræður. They are an Icelandic mens' choir: this much is clear from the booklet art, where they're tuxedo'd to the hilt. And this is some sort of anthology, tracks from 1916-2006. "Swing Low" is from 1960. On a set of 73 songs, all but this and one more cut are sung in Icelandic. It's 2 minutes 39 seconds long. And that's it. That's all I know. Everything else is made up.

"Swing Low" is sung by a men's choir not accustomed to singing jazz. Not accustomed to lightness and sunshine. It starts plausibly: a high male voice, balanced on a rafter. But the first wobble comes with the tenor that answers it - a tremor in the pronunciation, a dip toward sadness. Soon the whole choir's there and we're at least somewhere familiar - a chapel, a concert-hall. This ain't jazz: it's a hymn, melodious and fluid. But just past the minute mark, things get kind of crazy. The choir BELLOWS. They turn into bellowing men with hands in fists. (I can't even make out the lyrics and don't actually know them, and can't google them, so -) "...swing low, sweeeET CHERRY ROSE, COMING FORWARD TO CARRY ME home". This isn't some pansy bunch of Austrians or Canadians. No, kids. These are Icelanders. These are fishermen's sons. And they have SEEN THE SUBLIME. They've seen it in seas and icebergs and whales' breath. And so when Fóstbræður sing of that "sweet cherry rose", they sing it like it's the great fucking SUBLIME, beautiful and terrible, heavy as volcano spit. [info]

Lost in Hildurness - "Floods". Another purchase from Iceland. This one I forgot the liner-notes with my luggage in London. So what do I have: recollections. Lost in Hildurness is the work of one woman, responsible for all the droning gambas, basses, cellos; the dulcimer and percussion; the gusts of vocals. The cover art is an expressionist painting, naive, almost psyhedelic. And every song is like this ione: thick as sea-water, live as sea, beautiful as sky. There's something you can mistake for dread, for loneliness, but after enough listens you recognise it as a different feeling: that same "sweet cherry rose" as Fóstbræður, found, hard and terrible and so utterly splendid. [buy / myspace]

The Gongs - "The Dinosaur". This is probably not Icelandic. It was sent to me months back as a submission to our Best Songs of 2006 contest. I can't even double-check who submitted it! (Thanks!) And it's great. It's a minute and twenty-two seconds long and it's so lo-fi that you hear the vocals feeding back, the drum-sound scraping.

So who are these people? Who are The Gongs? Let's make it up: they're three linguistics majors and a physics major. They're all taking a class on dinosaurs, because they like them. And they all have to do a presentation before the class on the subject of dinosaurs. And as they're meeting at the library one day the physics dude - who is a music-head, a dandelion, a wannabe indiepop star, - he convinces the linguistics girls to do a song. He writes the tune and plays the glockenspiel. They write the lyrics, sing, play drums and piano. And they gather round his computer, the iMac's built-in mic, and they sing a song of boundless optimism. Meredith's imagining her shitty ex-boyfriend, Claire's remembering piano class with Miss Levine, Suzi's wishing she had a friend as kind as the protagonist of this song, and Pete - Pete's reflecting on how awesome 'twould be to be pals with a dinosaur! [myspace]

Posted by Sean at March 8, 2007 7:36 AM

The Swing Low tune's main lyric is 'Swing low sweet chariot, coming forth to carry me home' - it's pretty much the anthem of the England rugby team... as much as I dislike the sport and, in my experience, those who play it, it's certainly a stirring song

Posted by Euan at March 8, 2007 8:51 AM

so what is the damn hat called anyways?

Posted by courtney at March 8, 2007 9:43 AM

The lack of internet is one of the most frustrating things. I've been known to text my brother with "do female elephants have tusks?" and other random questions just because I need to know.

Oh, and linguistics majors are the coolest people ever. And the glockenspiel is the coolest instrument ever. Which makes this post the coolest post ever, because it brings the two together in the happy marriage that they are.

Posted by Linka at March 8, 2007 9:44 AM

Good post, Sean. I often think that periods without the internet are good for the mental health... it's so distracting. Last year I wrote a book entirely in longhand to stop me reading websites and googling in pretence of 'research' - it was a worthwhile experience. But then, of course, I had to type it up.

Current listening: Spaceport Orkestra of Benares - check them out!

Posted by David B at March 8, 2007 10:39 AM

Great work, Sean! Insightful, personal, just the right deployment of vocabulary...This is good stuff.

Posted by Joel Taylor at March 8, 2007 3:31 PM

Like you, I also am without the internet in the place I call home. Usually I log on while in a library or other public place (Headphones hurt my ears) and so am unable to listen until I return to the seclusion and safety of home. Sometimes I'll leave the page open on my laptop and reread your words while listening to the songs, but you all post so frequently (every day!) and I'm not the most diligent audience member. But I do try, and I thank you for trying and tying together such lovely notes and noises.

Posted by r. at March 8, 2007 5:12 PM

Lovely post! Aaaah, so so good to see someone showing Fóstbræður some deserved respect. :)

Also: for a contender for the most beautiful music in the world, check out Jóhann Jóhannsson's work. He is a member of Apparat Organ Quartet, a founding member of Kitchen Motors and more, but his personal work is out of this world. His latest release, ´1401, a User's Manual' is unbelievable.

(tought I'd also be a bore and point out that it's spelled 'Reykjavík', not that I'm a know-it-all, it's just my hometown...village..whatever...)


Posted by Halli at March 9, 2007 3:35 AM

"they sing it like it's the great fucking SUBLIME, beautiful and terrible, heavy as volcano spit."

That's a beautiful thing.

I suppose it might be politically incorrect these days to call the song a "negro spiritual", but that's what it was when it was first sung. Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.

Posted by Insomnius at March 9, 2007 4:49 AM

courtney - cloche hat!

Euan, Joel, Insomnius - thank you.

Halli - Hallo to Icelanders! I THOUGHT that after visiting the place I'd have the Reykjavík spelling nailed. But nooooo, I just can't seem to hang on to the order of y and j. It kills me every time. I know Johann Johannson's work - and we picked up both solo and Apparat stuff while we were there, listening to it as we drove. I think ultimately I find it a little disappointing, at least that IBM album and the one before that. (And the Apparat record is... cheesier?... than i expected?) But he's definitely a talent and has done really great things on other peoples' albums.

r. - You can do as I do and save whole webpages to disc to read later... (!) But it's so nice to know you keep persisting and coming by.

David Belbin - Yes, well lack of internet has certainly helped me (mostly) be more productive. I remember in Edinburgh I used to leave home and go work in a cafe on Nicholson Street, precisely because it -didn't- have internet. And then they went and got wireless and I was scuppered.

I just need to say: the revelation that this song is a HYMN is very funny to me, a case in point of what I was getting at. I had been assuming it was a jazz standard, and that's why I recognised it. (The only other english song on the set is 'It Ain't Necessarily So'.) And so I heard the thing as a loose american thing, a song about a GIRL, performed by the Icelanders like it was a monumental praise-the-lord. And, well, now it seems it wasn't a jazz song after all. It was a hymn. And the Icelanders were singing it properly. And yet in my own defence (and to toot my own horn), i think it's cool i picked up on that even when i thought it was lyrically about some pretty girl's lips. er. right! that's enough commenting on my own blog!

Posted by Sean at March 9, 2007 10:29 AM

it's "sweet chariot," not "sweet cherry rose"

nice post though

Posted by ben at March 9, 2007 8:31 PM

hi there. what a great surprise it was to find my silly little song ["the dinosaur"] on your blog yesterday! thanks very much!

sometimes i forget that i am 3/4 linguistics majors.

Posted by brandi at March 9, 2007 9:51 PM

That's a nice version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot.

I never have understood the song, in spite of my religious upbringing: I'd remembered it being something rather unusual in the Bible that Elijah ascended to Heaven in a Chariot of Fire; I don't remember anyone else mentioned ascending to Heaven in a chariot (flaming or otherwise).

But there's a long list of things about religion I don't understand, so....

Posted by Tuwa at March 10, 2007 1:39 AM

Goddam, I love this blog, this music, your writing, you.

Posted by Jenna at March 11, 2007 10:33 PM

Ira Glass eh? Did someone tell you that you sound like him? I thought a little bit of the same thing.

Posted by dave at March 16, 2007 9:39 PM

Funny - a friend told me, and I've read on a couple sites, that it was a slave *trader* that wrote the song on the way home, realizing his wrongs.
I've learned to question everything. Or maybe not believe anything. I hope it's the former.

Further, it's not a purer listen if you fill in your blanks blindly. Deafly? Er... whatever. Regardless, delighted to have come upon this site again, and again.

Posted by gidespeach at March 20, 2007 3:11 AM

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This is a daily sampler of really good songs. All tracks are posted out of love. Please go out and buy the records.

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about the authors
Sean Michaels is the founder of Said the Gramophone. He is a writer, critic and author of the theremin novel Us Conductors. Follow him on Twitter or reach him by email here. Click here to browse his posts.

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