Scraping It Down: Let’s Active, “Talking To Myself” (1986)

The sensations, perceptions, thoughts, and social interactions of human life are confusingly layered.  We wish sometimes we could tell what is most basically going on—so there are theories and models of what’s at the bottom of everything.  The language of the Vedas, for example, is the very pulsation of ultimate reality according to some theologians, a meaning more basic and trustworthy than the dictionary meanings of the Sanskrit words.  This is advantageous, since whenever you want to get to the bottom of everything you can put yourself right there by chanting mantras; and you can study your life from this position.

Another great model for the layering of your experience is a rock music track, because it has in fact been layered in a very legible way:  drums, bass, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, maybe a keyboard, lead vocal, background vocals, horns and such, each layer easily added or subtracted in the mix.  One of the defining differences between rock and pop is that pop doesn’t scruple to keep the layers so clear.  A pop producer will throw in the kitchen sink and will be just as happy to let it murmur subliminally in a big sound stew.  Rock, in contrast, is committed to the counterpointing voices of those who rock, the members of the band.

Even during the 99% of the time when it’s not happening, you can see in principle how a rock band could scrape its song down to a most-basic layer as a gut check.  It could be the singer singing without accompaniment.  It could be a guitar or bass figure.  It could be just the most basic drum pattern, which usually evokes the pulse of our blood.  In an awesome display of creative power, the band can subtract parts until its music is hanging by a thread, and then build the song up again as big as before but now feeling bigger.

At the time of making Big Plans for Everybody in 1986, Let’s Active wasn’t really a band anymore.  It was the auteur Mitch Easter creating tracks mostly by himself, deeply tapping the best possibilities of rock and pop both.  Whatever its ostensible subject matter, the song “Talking to Myself” references his solitary situation at this point.  Like the other tracks it is built up of gorgeous layers, one of which is Rob Ladd’s drum part.  Then at 2:32 there’s a tremendous scrapedown.  It’s as though Easter wants to take stock of his music-making and, praise God or Brahman, at the bottom of everything and in spite of all the failures of communication he’s been singing about he finds himself with another real person.  He and Ladd play a very basic, tenacious, gird-your-loins kind of bass-and-drum phrase for six measures.  In the sixth measure a lead guitar joins back in, similarly a stripped-down part that speaks of pure Purpose.  That’s what I hear, anyway, the purpose of the rockers, together with the cosmic pulse.

The scrapedown of “Talking to Myself” is variously foreshadowed.  At 0:28 and 1:58, there’s a sort of clear-out measure, the drums stopped, followed by a fade-in re-entry of the drums.

“Talking To Myself” 1

At 0:41 and 2:06 there’s a bridge section with a much sparser drum part than the verse norm—almost a scrapedown to the vocal.

“Talking To Myself” 2

At 1:02 there’s a normally multilayered instrumental break that is due to be repeated at 2:32—

“Talking To Myself” 3

—but when the event at 2:32 turns out to be a scrapedown, we know in retrospect that the earlier break was an inverted rehearsal, thick for thin.  For all these reasons this particular scrapedown feels ripe and climactic, offered in just the right way for us to hear everything in it, including the question that is probably always the most basic thing of all:  what is there to get down to?

“Talking To Myself” scrapedown

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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